A review of Danny Garcia’s The Rise and Fall of The Clash (2012), shown at The Brass Monkey during the Hastings Trash Cannes Film Festival, Saturday evening 26 October 2013.
“I am already eating from this trash can, all the time. The name of this
trash can is ideology”. Slavoj Žižek on the film They Live (1988) in his film
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012)
As the blogosphere heated up with the clash of the comedians (the spat over how to mobilise radical change to save planet earth from zombie neoliberalism: revolution, anybody?), the showing of Danny Garcia’s The Rise and Fall of The Clash (2012) provided plentiful insights into how the front men of a previous generation of rebel rousin’ politicised performers had gone into melt down.
And it was a depressing, but somehow inevitable tale.
Three days before the Hastings Trash Cannes Film Festival’s showing, Russell Brand’s loquacious (logorrheic?) call to the barricades in a Paxman interview on Newsnight, on the eve of the publication of his Comedianist Manifesto (his guest edit of an edition of the New Statesman) certainly gave rise to its antithesis (no thanks, I’ll have a democratic vote with mine).
But the dialectic has yet to be reconciled in a truly history-withering synthesis… or, as Charlie Marx would have put it, in the outcome of “the clash of opposing forces”.
Of course Joe, Mick, Paul and Topper had already been there, and come back, with not only the t-shirt but a full range of radical chic outfits and accessories. And whilst Brand’s brand of foppish couture might not be the most suitable attire for engaging in the guerrilla warfare he plans to lead, even Joe and the Combat Rockers (with their altogether more engagé dress sense) had not only failed to overthrow capitalism, but had ended up going off in a massive sulk with each other.
Which was a great pity, but I suspect chiefly on a personal level: at least it meant that professionally the band would pass away with their musical integrity intact, rather than roll on forever like some other bands that shall remain nameless. They could have become just another spectacular stadium act: pro bono ad infinitum.
At any rate, as long as you ignore the rather desperate attempts so minutely detailed in Garcia’s film to keep going after Joe had so foolishly got Mick sacked (having already, only marginally less foolishly got rid of Topper), the Clash survives and thrives as a mostly embarrassment-free body of truly inspirational music and imagery for generations to come.
And that includes their radical credentials… which USP, I must confess, has always rather bemused me.
Not, of course, that they weren’t in their own way radical, inspiring many young people of disparate backgrounds and from all over the world to at the very least loosen their chains, and some might even have thrown them off. But I was there when Joe ‘got politics’ and although on multiple levels he was a very sincere and well-meaning sort of guy, he was also very ambitious.
So that the day after we’d first witnessed the Sex Pistols in full throttle, early in the morning as I made my way to work (or maybe it was to sign on at the labour exchange, I can’t remember now) having chased me down a West London street he pleaded with me to return to my house to pick up a book on anarchy that had somehow found a mooring on my bookshelf, and that he needed, now. And when a few weeks later, having disbanded his pub rock outfit the 101ers he informed me that he was forming a band called the Clash , and I remarked on the Marxist meaning of the word, he wanted a quick rundown on what Marx was all about.
Hopefully he didn’t listen to my account too closely, because it would likely have been pretty shoddy, although in those days in Squat City only the spaced out hippies, the complete layabouts and the rock n roll musicians knew absolutely nothing about the historically determined and imminent overthrow of the bourgeoisie, and the equally inevitable rise of the proletariat etc. Indeed, had he taken my word for gospel (well, you know what I mean) it might lay the responsibility on me that because of my ideological misrepresentation he and the Clash would then fail to realise some determinist destiny as the praxis of History…
I had a few months later walked down from Bayswater to Notting Hill Carnival with Joe and the new band’s first two members, Mick and Paul, and witnessed the genesis of the song White Riot, as the black youth took on the blue piggies. But I had been embarrassed by the sight of the over excited wannabe rock stars running around with their zippo lighters ineffectually trying to set cars alight…
I’d related such tales to Chris Salewicz, the author of Redemption Song, the Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer (2006) when, following Joe’s sudden death he travelled the world interviewing anyone who would agree to talk to him. There were then and are now a number of people in and around Hastings with strong Joe connections. My two ‘interviews’ with Chris had progressed through the town centre pubs and bars, and on both occasions come to a pissed and stoned conclusion on the beach, a pebble’s throw from the pier at the end of which just a few months earlier Joe had performed one of his last gigs with local resident (and our fellow one time West Londoner) Tymon Dogg, in their band The Mescaleros.
I’d arranged to meet up with Joe after the gig in Harvey’s Guitar Bar in Claremont but he’d been waylaid by fans in the Smugglers round the corner and didn’t make it. I hadn’t been bothered. We hadn’t met up for years, but had chatted back stage and he said he was planning to come down to stay with Tymon in the New Year… I have a strong feeling that had he lived he would have become a regular feature locally; Hastings was very definitely his kind of place.
When the biography was published the London Times produced a two-page spread on Joe, and picked up on my comment about his early lack of political orientation, concocting a brief feature about me watching “the growing radicalization of Joe Strummer… with an amused eye”. It quoted Chris quoting me as saying “He was frantic to learn what this anarchy stuff was. I do think if it had been Stalinism he’d have signed up to it, and then got shot at the first trials, but he would have signed up. Because he was so into the idea of getting into the Zeitgeist, the moment”.
I wonder if “the Zeitgeist, the moment” is where Russell Brand now thinks he inhabits. After all, comedy has been ‘the new rock n roll’ for some years now. He’s certainly a lot closer to it than me; and probably you, dear reader; but probably not as close as Joe ever got.
Brand would do well to remember that no matter how personal were his obsessions Joe was a team (or is that ‘gang’) player and that he only really ever messed up when he broke up his closely bonded relationships: and the film shows that the sackings were very much his responsibility.
Because of experiences he and I had shared a decade earlier, concerning someone’s drug habit and suicide that (no doubt wrongly) we’d felt at the time that maybe we could have prevented, this when the memory of his own brother taking his life would have remained raw, in the run up to Topper’s exit we’d discussed at length the problems of addiction. And although Joe got that call wrong (I suspect he’d panicked) I had felt some real concern for Joe (and for Topper, for that matter).
Joe was obviously frightened of where the drug taking was going, and we had one moment of complete recognition when he described the main pusher hanging round the band as having some sort of a ‘crease’ running through his face: we’d both seen that before, although until then I’d never realised anybody else but me had… I should also note that he was enthusiastically seeking words for a tune that Topper had written: it was extremely important to him to get it right, which he did. It would become Rock the Casbah.
A fortnight before being handed over to guest editor Brand, the New Statesman had published an interview with the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, entitled “Most of the idiots I know are academics”. With his arrival on the global celebrity scene a few years ago causing philosophy for a brief while to threaten comedy as ‘the new rock n roll’ and with Žižek proclaimed as its Elvis Presley, “the King of thinking”, it is a nice coincidence for the writing of this review that his interviewer Luke Massey had asked him:
“Joseph Stalin or Joe Strummer?” Is there even a choice here?!” laughs
Žižek. As a self-proclaimed Stalinist I say that’s really for him to tell me.
“No, no, no – I would put it in this way. I would love to say Stalin, because
that would be expected from me, you know … he was a nightmare.”
I’m not quite sure what that means (doh) but he went on to describe himself as “Basically, unfortunately I must tell you, I’m a ‘68 generation conservative. I secretly think that everything really interesting in pop music, rock, happened between ‘65 and ‘75. I’m sorry!” then citing only the more recent quasi-fascistic East German hard rock band Rammstein as “my guys”. Of The Clash he remarked: “I like their activity … they were engaged [politically]. So I like everything about them … except their music”.
One of Žižek’s ‘big ideas’ concerns the way in which we conceive of ideology, his telling Massey that “it’s not some ‘big social, political, project’ which ‘died in 1990’ with the fall of the USSR”.
Ideology, he says, is “still well and alive – not as a big system – but precisely in [a] most self-evident, normal everyday form. The way we, everyday people are addressed by social authority, whatever we call it – it’s no longer telling us ‘sacrifice your life’ for British empire, for socialism, whatever. It’s not. It’s some kind of permissive bullshit basically. Society is telling us, like, be true to yourself, authentic, develop your potential, be kind to others. It’s kind of what I ironically call a slightly enlightened Buddhist hedonism”.
A bit how most of the people I know have been trying to live their lives for more than half a century now. But Žižek’s goes on to tell Massey that “Ideology today is unfreedom which you sincerely personally experience as freedom”.
His critique sets out to expose everything that “is false in American everyday ideology of freedom… not only is there not a contradiction between state regulation and freedom, but in order for us to actually be free in our social interactions, there must be an extremely elaborated network of health, law, institutions, moral rules and so on”.
Last December, at the time of the release of his film the Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Žižek was asked what that other great early modern master of the dialectic, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, would have thought of his almost pop star-like popularity, replying that he wouldn’t have had any problems with it. Hegel “even wrote… that if, as a philosopher, you really articulate the spirit of the time, the result is popularity … even if people don’t really understand you. They somehow feel it. It’s a beautiful dialectical question: How do the people feel it?”
Philosophers, then, with comedians have had their moment as the new rock and rollers, although from Hegel’s 1800s perspective rock n roll appears to have been ‘the new philosophy’…. But in truth no one does rock n roll like a rock n roller, and if we are going to wax philosophical and political about the C20th most dynamic musical form, then probably no one has done it quite as well as The Clash.
It’s a hard act to follow, Mr Brand. And about your call to boycott the polling booths: although I haven’t a clue what Žižek is on about a lot of the time, I think he’s right about real freedom needing “an extremely elaborated network of health, law, institutions, moral rules and so on”. And I don’t think for one moment that riots and revolution will produce them. I think we’re going to have to vote on that.
A Permanent Record – Joe Strummer with The 101’ers:Clash:Latino Rockabilly War: The Slits, by Julian Yewdall