My Dad, the Clash, and Me

In October of 1979, this guy Mike and I made a pilgrimage to see the Clash at Kezar Pavilion in Golden Gate Park. I had just turned fifteen, and I had thought of myself as “punk,” sort of, for at least a couple of years, though I had rarely left my room during that time. I was always more of a Ramones guy than a Clash guy, but I had followed the Clash’s career from the comfort of my bedroom with considerable interest. They were “the only band that matters,” the “darlings of the punk rock scene” according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the nightly news, and Time Magazine. “The best live band in the history of mankind,” a college radio DJ had said. I had to check this out. Getting to San Francisco would take some doing. But we bought our eight dollar advance tickets at the record store, told our parents some story, and took the bus (a twenty mile, two hour journey) with no plan of how to get back afterwards.

We got off the final bus at the end of Haight and rushed past the McDonalds to the venue. The place was crawling with hippies, a familiar sight. Besides the hippies there were: New York Dolls types with long scarves and make-up. Guys in pin-laden leather jackets, mullet hair-dos, loosely-knotted ties over T-shirts, and bleached blonde girlfriends wearing vinyl or what looked like trash bags. Here, a pocket of people who might have stepped off the set of a John Waters film; there, the cast of The Rocky Horror Show. Lots of thrift-store sports jackets, Beatle boots, wrap-around sunglasses. And a large number of rather similar guys, each of whom appeared to think he was “the Fonz.” Seriously. There was some kind of Gary Marshall/Mel’s Drive-in/Laverne and Shirley trip going on at the Clash show. A punk rock sock hop — this is what we fought the revolution for?

Evidently. The first band, The Rubber City Rebels, was basically two Fonzies, a Potsie, and a Squiggy. You could smell the Brylcreem from across the room. I enjoyed them anyway.

Next up, the Dead Kennedys: no Fonzies there. They had this quite popular song, “California uber Alles,” a zany, Mad Magazine-style satire which used Nazi imagery to portray Governor Jerry Brown as a mellow, crunchy granola Hitler. The crowd got into the spirit of the thing, doing a Hogan’s Heroes salute-‘n’-goosestep sort of dance. The band dropped it down, and the singer, one Jello Biafra, delivered a stern lecture: “you people,” he said bitterly, “are exactly what this song is fighting about.” Hell yeah. Wait, hang on: was he saying there really were a bunch of ominously laid-back Zen fascists at Kezar Pavilion who have come for our uncool niece? Was he serious? (Turns out, he kind of was…) He jumped into the crowd. His clothes were ripped to shreds, and he finished the set naked. An important message, and an unforgettable performance.

The Cramps sounded sludgy and burbling just like their records, but I was getting impatient. They were great, but there was only one band that mattered, and it wasn’t them.

Then, at last, the “darlings of punk” were upon us.

Now, the Mick Jones on the poster in my room looked a lot like Keith Richard. In Creem magazine they had to label pictures of him as Mick Jones (Clash) to distinguish him from Mick Jones (Foreigner/Spooky Tooth) because of their broadly similar hairstyles. Subsequently, though, the Clash had entered their Gene Vincent phase and Mick was suddenly all Sun Studios and greased back, so the first thing I thought when I saw him was: Woah! Sit on it, Malph!

“This ain’t no Lou Reed show,” said Joe Strummer, helpfully. Later on, he announced that he wasn’t Freddy Mercury, either. Well, obviously: Freddy Mercury would have done “Be Bop a Lula” slightly differently I’m sure. Then, he assured us he was also not Paul Anka. Perhaps his true identity would soon be revealed by a simple process of elimination.

The subsequent stage banter was notable for making even less sense than that of Biafra. It was kind of like street poetry. “We just flew in! Gotta make some change! These problems over here — ya hear the knock knock knockin’…” Stuff like that. Hard to follow, but somehow, one felt, it must refer on some level to some unspecified yet vastly important thing.

And what did it sound like when the important talking stopped? It is hard to describe. Imagine around a dozen simultaneous waves of piercing feedback, like sirens, echoing painfully through a high school gymnasium. For about an hour. I’ve read that this particular show was notable for featuring a slew of as yet unreleased London Calling songs, but I can’t fathom how anyone could have grasped that. In fact, the challenge was always to figure out which song they might have been playing underneath all the feedback at any given point. “Guns on the Roof,” or “Clash City Rockers”? Hard to say. Definitely one of the “Can’t Explain” tunes. Hey, I think I just lip-read “the bells of Gary Glitter!” “Clash City Rockers” it is! In other words: it sounded like the greatest band in the history of mankind, the only one that mattered. And I am totally serious about that. Best show ever.

Now it turns out my dad had figured out our Clash plan. He was waiting for us outside in the rain afterward, which was a good thing because the buses had stopped running and, as I’ve mentioned, we hadn’t thought to come up with a getting home plan. Mike and I sheepishly climbed into his pick-up.

Not only had he come to pick us up, but he had actually entered the venue to lurk in the back, taking in the whole show. (A fact he was later to mention frequently when “young people” were around: “ever tell you about the time I saw the Clash and the Cramps at Kezar, must have been, oh, ’79…” Kind of like what I’m doing now, really.)

Anyway, my dad had liked the Clash. “They were like the fifties, when I was a kid,” he said. Tell me about it, Fonz, I thought. “But what,” he asked, “does that angry naked guy have against John and Bobby Kennedy, Jerry Brown, and clothing?” He revered the Kennedys, and had gone to high school with Jerry Brown. And he always wore clothes. Always. “Are they Republicans?”

“Maybe” I said. “They’re on Dr. Demento.”

My dad shook his head. Being on Dr. Demento didn’t cut much ice with him when it came to naked Republican anti-Jerry Brown JFK-haters.

As we got on the highway, he looked at my armful of “concert stuff”: my bootlegged “Give ’em Enough Rope” shirt and poster, DKs pin, a Maoist flier, Baader-Meinhoff handbill, and The Revolutionary Worker. “Communists traditionally have focused their recruitment efforts on young, bright, alienated loners” he said, more to himself than anybody.

The road curved ahead in the rain like a glowing, shiny question mark.

[I am often asked to tell this story, and I don’t always do it well off the cuff, but this essay does it fairly well, so when I stumbled on the .doc file it seemed like posting it was the thing to do, if only so I can link to it when the subject comes up. A much less wordy version of it was published in the August 2006 issue of SPIN.]