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The Editor's Spin: Death or Glory
Posted Feb 1, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Sometime in 1981, historian Jon Wiener stopped toiling in anonymity as an author of academic books on slavery and reconstruction in Alabama to "write about something fun." Signs of a world turning sour were everywhere: the Klan was marching in Greensboro; Republicans were reclaiming the White House; and John Lennon had been shot in cold blood outside his apartment in New York. Which didn't make Wiener's new book topic, Lennon's career in radical politics, entirely "fun," but it certainly gave him a break from retelling the unlearned lessons of the past.

I met Wiener in 1984, shortly after the publication of Come Together: John Lennon in His Time. Although he was in town for a Duke-sponsored symposium on rock ‘n' roll's musical roots and political impact (or something like that), Wiener hinted to me that the Lennon book was a busman's holiday for him, and that he'd be back in the mud and murk of Southern history before long. But he's stuck with pop and politics, and it suits him.

Though only 14 at the time, I handled myself pretty well in the presence of a man whose book had transformed my view of rock ‘n' roll and personal responsibility in a political world, which is to say, awakened me to politics in the way, say, the Klan marching in Greensboro should have. For me, the road to Malcolm X, Leonard Peltier, and the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign started with John Lennon in His Time. What's even stranger is that the book spoke so clearly to me even though I misunderstood its opening line: "Is rock revolutionary? A burning issue not so long ago, today this question seems absurd."

How could rock not be revolutionary, I wondered, somehow separating the question from the hairspray, synthesized vocals, and two-finger keyboards passing for "rock" at the time. Certainly, the best rock of Lennon's heyday was revolutionary—"Street Fighting Man," "Volunteers," and his own "Power to the People"—or was Wiener suggesting that even those songs weren't as seditious as they seemed? And if Lennon's generation had produced truly revolutionary work, why had the generation between his and mine, in producing punk rock, chosen to rebel against those so-called revolutionaries as stodgy, delusional sellouts?

Because I admired Lennon and his contemporaries, I found punk hard to swallow, particularly the nihilism and the noise. I don't think I'd ever paid much attention to punk until a blustery March day in 1990, when I found myself crammed into the back seat of a Euro-sized Fiat, whipping around the winding roads of West Clare, Ireland with five spotty Irish punk rockers, bellowing what seemed an ingenious variation on "Rock the Casbah." And between songs on the endless-looped Story of the Clash CD, for one of the few times in my life, I was asked a truly significant question—do ya fancy the Clash—for which there was only one right answer. And I actually got it right: Only band that matters, man.

Even though I knew this was what I was supposed to say, for the first time I believed it, and have rarely doubted it since. I still believe it today, as I write this, some nine hours after learning of the too-early death of legendary Clash frontman Joe Strummer. There's something about the Clash, and Strummer in particular, that inspires conviction, that makes conviction cool, yet insists that answering the band's call-to-arms for fashion's sake alone is nowhere near enough.

Punk rock styled itself rebellious from the get-go. And while a core principle of punk (for all its aspirations to anarchy, punk was rife with rules) was obliterating the line between audience and performer (the idea being that there's no qualitative difference), and effectively removing the stage from rock ‘n' roll, too much punk was little more than staged rebellion. But the Clash offered more than a pose, and demanded real commitment from themselves and their fans. In the midst of a movement whose ethic was inchoate, apolitical rage, yet at times seemed indistinguishable from England's neo-Nazi youth movements, the Clash refused to let such distinctions blur, using their songs and fame to fight discrimination in the U.K., initiating "Rock Against Racism," and taking hardline stances on topics as seemingly remote as U.S. covert action in Latin America.

What's more, anyone who was surprised when some rock bands rallied behind Napster—which the music industry insisted was ripping them off—needed only to look to the Clash to understand that bands even inches outside the mainstream had long been robbed blind by the very industry that now claimed to be protecting them. Two decades earlier, the Clash released "Complete Control," and said all anybody needed to say about the criminality of an "industry" claiming control of an artist's work:

They said we'd be artistically free once we signed that bit of paper

They meant, let's make a-lotsa money, and worry about it later

But what's most convincing about "Complete Control" is not the words so much as how bitterly Strummer spits them out, and the jet-propulsive rock behind him, which renders absurd the idea that any stuffed-shirt record exec or even Hilary Rosen of the RIAA could control these guys, or have any business trying. Maybe the Napster free-for-all didn't offer quite the ideal alternative to industry control the Clash demanded; the Napster Nation was no more in it to save their favorite bands from the RIAA than the RIAA was in it to save the bands from their fans. At least the Napsterites were in it for the music.

But the fact that P2P technology exists—independent of whatever compromised pay-per-play service Roxio develops with the detritus of Napster—enabling the potentially unfettered exchange of potentially untainted music, means it might someday unlock doors the Clash kicked open that have since been summarily slammed shut. And maybe the regrouped Napster Nation will go on to apply its passion and conviction to a world beyond rock ‘n' roll, to something truly revolutionary.

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