The Future is Unwritten

Jessie Lynn McMains
Dec 22, 2018 · 25 min read
[The following was written in December 2015; it was going to be published in What We Talk About When We Talk About Punk, but since that book has been tabled, I'm publishing it here and in my Tinyletter. You can listen to the accompanying soundtrack here.]

The Future is Unwritten

I tell the same stories, write about the same things, over and over. I’m always saying that telling our stories is revolutionary, that it can change the world, and I believe that. But the reason I write is more selfish than that. I write to explain things to myself. Memories, ideas, feelings, topics, people and places and songs that haunt me — I write about them again and again, in different ways, to try and make sense of them. To try and figure out why an event happened, why a thought won’t leave me alone, why a person or place or song meant so much to me. So here I am, writing about The Clash and Joe Strummer for the hundredth time, hoping maybe this time I’ll get it right. Maybe this time I can explain to myself why The Clash — a band that broke up long before I got into them — is still the only band that really matters to me; why Joe Strummer is still more important to me than a thousand other singers. But this isn’t only, or even mostly, about The Clash or Joe Strummer. Music has long been linked to almost every one of my memories, to every period of my life. When I write about music I am using it as a lens through which to write about myself — and about the things that obsess me. So, here I am, writing about youth, and friendship, and personal mythology, and loss, for the hundred thousandth time. And almost certainly not the last.

Why did I fall so in love with The Clash? They broke up when I was two, and I didn’t get into them until I was fifteen. They were an English band from the late ’70s and early ’80s who sang songs about political issues that didn’t affect me, or that I wasn’t yet aware of. How in the world could a song written in London in 1977 speak to the soul of a teenage girl in the Midwestern United States in 1997? Maybe it was the power of the music — no matter what they were singing about, I had a visceral reaction to the guitar chords, the bass lines, the drumbeats. Or maybe it was the timing. I’ve long tried to pinpoint when and why I Turned Out a Punk (to borrow a phrase from Mick Jones’ post-Clash band, Big Audio Dynamite). Sometimes I think it was because I had a crush on Billy Idol at age five. Sometimes I think it was when I heard Operation Ivy at age nine. Other times I say it was when I became a zine-writing riot grrrl at age twelve, or when I discovered Ballistic Biscuit at age fourteen, or when I went to my first Kenosha punk show at age fifteen. Whatever the reason, I got into The Clash during the time when being Punk became a huge part of my identity. And that clinched it. The Clash didn’t make me a punk, but they ensured I’d be punk for life. Also, there was Filia. We’d been best friends since the age of eight, when we both lived in a suburb of Philadelphia. At age ten, my family moved to Wisconsin, but Filia and I maintained a long-distance friendship and were lucky enough to get to see each other once or twice a year. Often, we got into the same things at the same time — and then we’d see each other and be amazed that we had such a psychic connection despite the distance and the time spent apart. The summer we were fifteen, she stepped off the plane wearing a denim vest with pins and patches on it — and I was wearing one, too. Back at my house, she said: “I brought some music you need to hear.”

“There’s music I want you to hear!” I said. “But let’s start with something you brought.” She put on a dubbed cassette copy of Combat Rock, and I doubled over laughing.

“That’s one of the things I was going to play for you!”

During her visit, we went to Value Village. We bought button-down shirts, then took stencils and fabric paint and put words on the back. Hers read “Ghetto Defendant,” mine said “Combat Rock.” We wore our shirts and loitered in downtown alleyways, smoked cigarettes bought from the cigarette machine in the greasy spoon. We pretended we were cool like Joe and Mick and Paul and Topper, instead of the awkward teenage girls we were.

The other question here is: why did I fall so in love with Joe Strummer? It was inevitable that I’d have a crush on one of them — as a teenager, it was impossible for me not to have a crush on at least one member of any band I was into — but why Joe? Paul Simonon was, by far, the most attractive member of the band. Joe had those funny-looking pointy ears and the filthiest, most fucked-up teeth. And many of my favorite Clash songs are Mick Jones songs; when I got tired of being political, I could count on Mick Jones’ sweet, wistful tunes about love and friendship and loneliness to be there for me. Despite all that, Joe was, is, and always will be my main man. Maybe because he was the frontman. Maybe because it wasn’t so much that I wanted to be with him as that I wanted to be like him. Maybe because, at that time in my life, I was more into the political songs.

I’ve said that The Clash politicized me. That’s not true at all. By the age of nine, I was already involved in both environmental and anti-war issues, and by the age of twelve my political scope had broadened to include feminism and reproductive rights, as well as campaigns to fight poverty and homelessness. The Clash didn’t politicize me, but I appreciated that they were political. Punk didn’t start out as a political thing. Creating art and culture is, in and of itself, political, but what I mean is — the earliest punk bands in, say, New York, did not sing about politics at all. And even the Sex Pistols were more reactionary and nihilistic than they were political. The Clash were an antidote to that. They were angry, and they didn’t provide solutions for the problems they sang about, but they offered some shred of hope. Johnny Rotten sneered “No Future,” but Joe Strummer sang: Let fury have the hour, anger can be power — d’ya know that you can use it?

Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Joe Strummer’s first album with The Mescaleros, came out in October 1999. There was no way I was going to mail-order it and wait a month to get it, I needed it the day it came out. I convinced a friend of mine to drive to Greenfield — a suburb of Milwaukee — with me. We hit the record store first. I jumped up and down and squealed when I saw Rock Art front and center on the New Releases shelf.

“Wow, you’re really excited about that album,” one of the clerks said.

“Damn right I am.”

The rest of the night was diner coffee and menthol cigarettes. My fingernails were painted silver, the polish was all chipped; I clutched my coffee mug in one hand and a cigarette in the other, watched the smoke and the steam mix together. I told my friend about something I was going through, a situation I was distraught about, and rather than offer comfort or advice, she said: “I can’t believe you’d be in that situation, because you’re not like that.” I realized we’d never be close again after that night. We drove the backroads back to her house, the stars popped out one by one in the crisp October night sky. I put my new CD in the car’s CD player. My friend and I didn’t talk at all; I listened to Joe sing about techno d-days and diggin’ the new, imagined he was riding by my side, blowing cigarette smoke out the car window.

A couple months later was my eighteenth birthday. The guy I was dating at the time gave me a book called New Wave Explosion: How Punk Rock Became New Wave Became the Eighties, by Myles Palmer. I hated the book, because Mr. Palmer found every opportunity to trash-talk The Clash and Joe. It seemed like he must have had some kind of personal vendetta against Joe Strummer, and used publishing a book as a way to air his grievances.

“Didn’t you read through the book before you gave it to me?” I asked my boyfriend. “You know The Clash is my all-time favorite band, and that Joe is my main man.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but I thought it was kind of funny.”

He didn’t get it. The boys never did.

The next guy I dated, I thought, at first, that he got it. He had a poster of The Clash in his dorm room, one of those great black and white pictures where the four of them look so impossibly tough and cool. I had recorded a cover of “Lost in the Supermarket,” just me and my acoustic guitar, and when I played it for him he said: “It’s so raw and tenderhearted and sad. I think they’d approve.” But that boy barely even drank, so he couldn’t hear the true sorrow behind me singing I empty a bottle and I feel a bit free.

During the autumn of 2000, I wasted most of my days at the Kokomo Caffe, a coffeeshop on Belmont Avenue in Chicago. I say wasted, because I should have been attending my college classes, but to be honest I wouldn’t go back and live those days differently even if I could. I was going through a bad time in my life, depressed, self-destructive, drinking too much and doing too many drugs, and the Kokomo was one of the few places I felt somewhat okay. I felt safe there, the baristas and the other regulars were my family. Goths and punks and ravers and hippies and skinheads, artists and queers, we were a family, and the dimly-lit, smoky cafe was our home. Most of us were fuck-ups in some way or another, but we took care of each other. If one of us hadn’t eaten all day, the others would feed them. If someone ran out of cigarettes, we all shared. When Nazi skinheads or shitty yuppies wandered in, we all banded together and made them so uncomfortable that they didn’t stay long. The baristas had a habit of letting the patrons take turns deciding what music to play on the stereo, so that even if someone didn’t like a particular kind of music, they’d get a chance to play their favorite soon enough. One day, when it was my turn, I handed Seamus — the skinhead barista of my dreams — a Clash mix tape. A penpal of mine, from England, had made it, and it was pretty much the perfect Clash mix, with all their best songs as well as a bunch of b-sides and rarities. Everyone danced and sang along to most of the songs, and we went wild when “Cheat” came on, pogoed in the coffeeshop to I get violent when I’m fucked-up. I get silent when I’m drugged-up.

Seamus teased me. That was the kind of relationship we had, we couldn’t act on our feelings for each other so we teased each other like schoolkids. He said: “I can’t believe The Clash are your favorite band. Everyone likes The Clash, but they aren’t anyone’s favorite band.”

“They’re mine,” I replied, “my best friend’s, too. They’re The Only Band That Really Matters.”

He rolled his eyes and smirked — and then asked if he could borrow the tape and dub a copy for himself. I never did get that tape back.

You’d think The Clash would remind me of London. I went to London once, in the summer of 1999, and I listened to London Calling on the plane, and I thought of The Clash often while I wandered the city. Snippets of their songs looped around in my head, and I smiled anytime I passed through a place that was part of their mythology. But mostly, The Clash and Joe Strummer remind me of Chicago and Philadelphia. Because they are the sister cities of my heart, and since The Clash and Joe’s other music has been the soundtrack to my life, well, the soundtrack to my life reminds me of the places where many of the scenes have played out. And because The Clash makes me think of Filia, and those are the cities where she and I spent the most time together. I bought the 7” single of Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros’ “Johnny Appleseed” (the b-side was “At the Border, Guy”) in a record shop in South Philly, in the summer of 2001. Filia bought a copy, too, and that song became part of our soundtrack that summer. We made a mix tape, that sweet and terrible final summer of being teenagers; drove around the mid-Atlantic in her car with the windows down, listening to the tape. It was always sunset, the sky bleeding shades of pink and redgold and tangerine, and Joe was always there, singing: Lord, there goes a Buick forty-nine. Black sheep of the angels riding, riding down the line. We think there is a soul, we don’t know. That soul is hard to find. That song, that song is a bunch of joyous noise. In parts, it almost has a gospel sound; in others, there is a hint of rockabilly. And it mentions so much American iconography — American cars, American heroes like Johnny Appleseed and Martin Luther King. The way Joe sang about those people and topics, the way he used American musical styles…I often feel that he understood the US better than a lot of Americans do.

I saw Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros live at Metro Chicago, in October 2001. I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep for days beforehand. My boyfriend — the one who’d had the Clash poster in his dorm room, the one who loved my cover of “Lost in the Supermarket” — did not understand why I was so excited.

“It’s just a show,” he said.

“It is not just a show,” I replied. “It’s Joe fucking Strummer.”

“You loooove him,” he said.

“Duh. He’s my true love forever and ever, and I want you to know if he asks me to run away with him I am going to.”

I’d thought we were just joking around, that if he could tease me I could tease him right back, but he turned sullen.

“Why would you want to run away with him? He’s old enough to be your dad, and his teeth are gross.”

Oh, right, it threatened him every time I loved something that had nothing to do with him.

“Your point being? Age and teeth do not matter. He’s Joe fucking Strummer.”

I didn’t want to get into an argument about something so ridiculous, so I attempted to placate him: “Of course I’m not really going to run away with him. Like you said, he’s old enough to be my dad. Besides, he’s married, so the chances of him wanting to run away with me are slim to none.”

Still, on the night of the show, I dressed up. I wore a short, tight leopard print dress, and fishnet stockings, and red faux-suede Creepers. My usual punk show attire was old black jeans, Doc Martens, tank top, and hoodie, so my boyfriend noticed the difference.

“Why are you getting so dressed up?” he asked.

The fact that he even had to ask made me angry. Why was I getting so dressed up? Because I was young and alive and about to go see my favorite member of my favorite band with his new band, because I felt like I’d been waiting forever for that night (four years can feel like forever when you’re a teenager) and it was finally there and I was fucking celebrating. How did he not get that? He didn’t get it, he didn’t get it, so I said: “Because I’m hoping Joe will notice me in the crowd, and ask me to run away with him.”

Joe did not ask me to run away with him, but he did thank me for coming to the show. He was standing outside Metro as we all filed in, shaking hands and thanking people for attending. That made me love him even more. He didn’t give a fuck that he’d once been in a famous punk band, he didn’t think he was better than any of his fans — no, he thanked us for giving him our money and our time. He shook my hand and smiled at me and I swooned, just a little, and my boyfriend grumbled. He could be such a killjoy, but I didn’t let him kill my joy that night. I danced until my whole body was aching and covered in sweat, sang along to all the Mescaleros tunes I already knew so well — “Bhindi Bhagee,” “Cool ’n’ Out.” I can’t recall all the songs they played that night. I was too caught up in the moment, in the singing and dancing and the sea of bodies and the stage lights and smoky-close air; caught up in being young and alive and having my hero right there in front of me. I do remember that they played The Specials’ “A Message to You, Rudy,” followed by The Clash’s “Rudie Can’t Fail.” And I remember that they played a Ramones song. “This is for a dear departed,” Joe said, and they blasted into “Blitzkrieg Bop.” I cried a little, Joey Ramone had passed away just six months before and I was still sad about it. Looking back, knowing what I do now — that Joe would die only a little over a year later — it makes me even sadder. Looking back, I also wonder what Joe would think about the times we live in now, now that smoking has been banned pretty much everywhere, being that he was such a passionate smoker. Like he sang in “Mega Bottle Ride”: And when I got there, you know, it had certain similarities. Like, no smoking anywhere.

In the summer of 2002, Filia came to visit me in Chicago. We drank a lot of Fosters, that summer. We had some romanticized idea of it, but the first flecks that hit our lips taught us how wrong we’d been. It tasted like soap and dirty socks. Still, it’s not like we were gonna let the beer go to waste, no matter how gross it tasted. We were young and broke and wanted to be drunk, all the time; we sat out on my filthy stoop in the late-evening heat, singing Clash songs, smoking cigs, chugging cans of Fosters ’til we nearly puked. One morning, after a night of two punk shows, endless beers, exploring the dank darkness near the river, burnt coffee at a greasy spoon, and no sleep, we wound up on the stoop again. Sipping my can of Fosters as the first light of day tinted the smoggy Chicago sky with rose and gold, I smiled at the rotten fucking poetry of our broke-drunk lives, and I said: “Rudie can’t fail.”

“What are you talking about?” Filia asked.

I thumped my can, and said, again: “Rudie can’t fail.”

She gave me a blank look, lit another cigarette.

We been drinkin’ brew for breakfast. Rudie can’t fail.”

I spent a few days in late December 2002 with Filia. We wandered the winter streets of Philadelphia, ate cheap, greasy food, drank too much coffee, spent too much money on records and zines, same as it ever was. We went to a punk show in Arlington, Virginia, where we drank so many beers we had to piss behind a dumpster. Then we got even drunker and stole a lawnmower that was inexplicably stashed next to the dumpster. It wasn’t a ride-on, just a regular gas-powered push-mower, but we took it for a joyride in a nearby field. The two of us, plus a few other kids, took turns standing on it while someone else pushed. Later, the most beautiful punk rock girl I’d ever seen — other than Filia, that is — told me I was gorgeous and I was so dumbfounded I couldn’t even respond.

Oh, that visit was hangovers and hopeless crushes, talking to strangers, fried egg and cheese sandwiches from street vendors, meeting up with penpals, turnpikes and backroads and the lights of New Jersey across the river. And we heard that The Clash were going to be inducted to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, and that there was talk of them doing a few reunion gigs because of that. We talked about how we would do pretty much anything to get ourselves tickets to one of those shows. I flew home on December 23rd, and on the train ride from the airport to my apartment, I listened to The Clash.

One of the first things I did when I got home was check the answering machine. There was a message from Filia; she’d left it while I was en route to Chicago.

“Call me as soon as you get this,” she said. “I have some really bad news.” She sounded like she’d been crying. I called her right away.

“What happened?” I asked when she answered.

“Joe Strummer passed away yesterday.”

“What? No. This has to be some kind of a joke.”

“I wish it was.”

Filia’s boyfriend knew someone in England who was pretty close to Joe, and when he found out, he’d called Fillia’s boyfriend, who then called her. It’s strange to think that I was only two people away from knowing Joe Strummer, but I’ve found that being part of punk makes the whole six degrees of separation thing more like two or three. Filia and I stayed on the phone together for a while, not saying much, just being there for each other despite the fact that we were some 600 miles apart. I looked at all the Clash posters on my wall and wondered how I’d live in a Joe Strummer-less world.

I didn’t cry until a couple hours later. I had a few last-minute holiday shopping things to do, and I was driving the gray streets of Wicker Park, on my way to Quimby’s to pick up some zines for my cousin. The radio in my car was tuned to a local college station, and the DJ cut whatever song was already playing off to break the news: “I just found out Joe Strummer died yesterday.” He went on to give a little history of Joe, and The Clash, and his own connection to the music and the man, and then he said: “I will now play the entirety of London Calling. This is for all of you, who, like me, survived high school because of this man and this band and this album.” And then: London calling to the faraway towns… And that’s when I lost it. I started bawling so hard that the red taillights of the cars in front of me blurred, so hard I could barely see to drive.

When I made it home, my boyfriend (yes, the one who’d been jealous of my crush on Joe) was there; he’d just gotten home from work. He noticed the look on my face and asked: “Is everything okay?”

“Nothing’s okay,” I said. “Joe Strummer is dead.”

“Oh, bummer,” he said, and that was it.

No: “Are you okay?” No: “Shit, that’s fucked up.” No hug, even. I didn’t expect him to be as broken-up about it as I was, but I did expect him to be more sympathetic to my grief. We went out for dinner at Clarke’s, everyone’s favorite hipster diner on Belmont Avenue, and I told him a little about the adventures I’d had out east. Then I fell silent and thought about Joe, again.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I’m finding it hard to get excited about Christmas and my birthday in light of this.”

“But you said you had a great trip,” he said, “and I’m sure you’ll get lots of presents for Christmas, and then it’ll be your birthday and you’ll be twenty-one!”

“I did have a great trip,” I said, “and I know I’ll be twenty-one, but I don’t know if I want to be twenty-one in a world with no Joe Strummer in it.”

“I don’t understand why you’re so upset. It’s not like you knew him personally.”

I wanted to say: “It feels like I did. It feels like I lost one of my best friends.” But I didn’t say anything.

Over the course of the next few days, most of my friends called or emailed me and offered their condolences, asked if I was okay, and said I was the first person they thought of when they heard the news. They treated me as if I had lost one of my best friends. They got it. Even if they didn’t feel the same way about Joe, they understood why I did, or at least understood that I did. My boyfriend didn’t, and neither did this dude who bitched at me online, who ranted about how The Clash were sellouts and the music Joe made post-Clash wasn’t even punk. I’m not interested in defending punk credibility, here, or in talking about selling out. The other thing he said to me was that mourning the loss of someone I didn’t know personally was meaningless. That’s what I’m interested in talking about. How is mourning ever meaningless? And how callous do you have to be — hey ex-boyfriend, hey dude online — to shit all over someone else’s grief and sadness?

When a relationship — whether romantic or platonic — ends, or fades, or changes shape, there’s always the tendency to try and pinpoint exactly when it changed, to figure out the moment that was the beginning of the end. And then, to wonder: “What if?” What if I had said or done something different, would we still be together? Would we still be in each other’s lives? Would things be the same as they were in the old days? You never can know, and the “what if” game will drive you mad if you play it too often, but it’s hard not to fall into.

I went to visit Filia again in December 2003. Once again, we wandered the streets of Philadelphia. Once again, we drove the backroads of the mid-Atlantic. There were days spent at cafes and nights spent at bars, because we were twenty-one, finally able to drink legally. We flirted with skinhead bartenders, drank whiskey and rum, hung out at Zipperhead, lost her car keys in a trash can. And we listened to Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros’ final album, Streetcore, which had been released in October — almost exactly two years after I saw them at Metro, and less than a year after Joe Strummer’s death. And even though she and I saw each other many times after that, looking back, I think of those December days as being our last real time together. The time when it all changed. The entirety of that album now reminds me of Filia, and of Philadelphia, but no track more so than “Ramshackle Day Parade.” All your life, you dreamed a dream. Somehow connected with the silver screen. With half closed eyes, you realize — love in the life, that is paradise.

December 2004, Door County — I saw Pat MacDonald live for the first time. (If you’re not familiar with Pat’s solo work, you may know him from his days in Timbuk3, famous for the song “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”) I loved his whole set, all the originals, but then he played a cover of “Love Kills” — one of the songs Joe Strummer wrote for the soundtrack of Sid and Nancy. I hugged Pat after the show, and said: “I know we’ve just met, but you have no idea how much it means to me that you played that song.”

August 2005, Chicago — Maggie and I went to a benefit show at The Hideout. It was around the time of what would have been Joe’s birthday, had he still been alive. All the proceeds were going to be donated to charities Joe had founded before his death. The band that night was London Calling — Chicago’s Clash tribute band, whom I’d see once before. They did a passable imitation of The Clash, so much so that with your eyes closed you could almost pretend you were at a Clash show, but anyway it didn’t matter. It was an excuse for Maggie and I to get drunk and dance to live versions of our favorite Clash songs. Not many people were dancing during the first few songs, but we started dancing when they played “Cheat” — want excitement, don’t get none, I go wild — and most of the crowd joined in. Later, we got called lesbians by a woman who’d been giving us the stink-eye all night. She was wearing a pencil skirt and $400 shoes, and Maggie and I were our scruffy punk selves, in cut-off shorts and t-shirts with the sleeves ripped off, bandanas and boots, yet all the guys at the show wanted to dance near us. Then we were in the bathroom, sharing a stall, and I guess we were taking too long: “Get your lesbian asses out of there,” the woman said. Maggie was pissed — not at being called a lesbian, but at this chick we didn’t even know daring to insult us, and I said: “Whatever. She’s just jealous because she’s all dolled-up and no one gives a shit. She’s jealous because here we are, dressed all scruffy, and all the guys still want to dance with us. Because we have spirit and fire. She’s jealous because she knows that if Joe Strummer were still alive, he’d like us and hate her.” Even later, while the DJ spun Mescaleros tunes, the guy who put the whole event together approached us. “Thank you for making the show awesome,” he said. “You’re the ones who got everyone into it.” Then he introduced us to a guy who’d spent some time hanging out with Joe Strummer, who’d even been in one of The Clash’s music videos. Sure enough: “Joe would have loved the two of you,” he said. “You’re what it’s all about.”

December 2005, Kenosha — I was at one of the bars I spent far too much time at. An older man approached me, and was obviously flirting with me, but I didn’t mind. He was good-looking, tattooed, wearing a damn porkpie hat. (Yes, he looked pretty hot in his porkpie hat.) We compared tattoos and toasted to Joe Strummer. He said: “People like you are carrying on what we started, and that makes me happy.”

August 2006, Philadelphia — I was in Philly visiting someone else, but I tried to get ahold of Filia, to have her join me. I left voicemails: “Where are you? This is our city.” She never called me back, so I wandered South Street all by my lonesome. One afternoon, I stopped into a record shop and flipped through the CDs, looking for something new to listen to on my trek back to West Philly. I used to always check the Clash and Joe Strummer sections at record stores, which I admit was silly. Did I really think I was going to find something new? Except, that time, I did find something new, or at least, new to me — the soundtrack for Walker. I purchased it, popped it into my Discman, and it became my soundtrack for the rest of my stay in Philly. The Latin cowboy sounds made a perfect soundtrack for swaggering down the sleazy summer sidewalks. Especially “The Unknown Immortal.” Oh I was once an immortal… I felt a little like an immortal, myself, but it was a sad thing. It’s not pleasant feeling like you’ve lived beyond your time.

November 2007, somewhere near Gettysburg — I was visiting Filia. It was the last time I’d see her for three years, but I didn’t know it. I still regret that, rather than making new memories with her during that visit, I spent my time obsessing over a boy. My first night in town, his band had a show. They played “Straight to Hell,” because he knew I was in the crowd, and he knew that was one of my favorite Clash songs. It is hard for me to find the words to explain why I love that song so much, why it hits me so hard. It’s just that the rat-a-tat-tat of the drums is as familiar to me as my own heartbeat. It’s just that it’s so sad and beautiful. That night, watching the boy up on the tiny stage in that tiny barroom in the middle of nowhere, hearing him sing: Clear as winter ice. This is your paradise, I cried. I cry almost every time I hear it, now.

Punk is supposed to be such a tough thing, such an angry thing, but so much of punk makes me cry. Sometimes it’s because the subject matter of the songs is sad, but most of the time it has nothing to do with that. Most of the time, it has everything to do with what, or who, it reminds me of. There are so many songs I’m not mentioning here, so many moments and places I associate with The Clash and Joe Strummer. I haven’t mentioned my “Know Your Rights” tattoo, or the rocksteady band I played bass in and our cover of “Guns of Brixton.” I haven’t mentioned making a pilgrimage to the Joe Strummer mural in Manhattan, or seeing The Future is Unwritten at the Milwaukee International Film Festival. I haven’t mentioned half the lovers or friends I think of when I listen to these songs, the ones who got it and the ones who didn’t. I haven’t even mentioned all my Clash-related memories that also have to do with Filia. Filia, she’s who this story is really about. She’s who half my stories are really about. She was my psychic punk rock soul sister and my best unbeaten blood brother, and sometimes we were lovers. We both went through some bad times, several years ago. Both of us self-destructed, in different ways. I had an abortion, she almost ended up in jail. We’ve seen each other since then, but it has never been the same. Then she got sick, and didn’t tell me for a long time, and it took even longer for us to reconnect after that. We did, and we’re still friends, I mean we’re friends on Facebook and she sends me a text once a year or so. But I haven’t seen her in five years and even if I did see her, we wouldn’t be wandering the streets of Philadelphia or Chicago, or staying up all night making zines and listening to The Clash. I want younger us, when we were young punks. All the young punks, laugh your life ’cause there ain’t much to cry for. All the young cunts, live it now — ’cause there ain’t much to die for.

I thought a lot about Joe Strummer and The Clash over the few weeks before I wrote this. It was December, and I think of Joe more the closer it gets to the anniversary of his death. But it wasn’t just that; The Clash and The Mescaleros have always been November and December music for me. I listened to The Clash every day for a few weeks, thought of them multiple times a day. All the mass shootings that have been happening in my country made me think of “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” The demo version, where Joe sings: There’s a murder in America about every ten seconds.

During that time, I watched The Future is Unwritten for the first time in seven years. I justified taking time out of my day to watch a film by telling myself I was doing it as research for this piece. The only research aspect of it was finding out how far into the movie I’d make it before I started crying. I made it almost the whole way through without even tearing up. But then at the end, there’s all this footage of people and places important to Joe, with Joe’s voice in the background: “And so now I’d like to say, people can change anything that they want to. And that means everything in the world.” That’s when I cried, and I cried hard.

I feel like, at this particular time in history, we need to remember those words more than ever. We need a band like The Clash, giving us some truth. We need someone like Joe Strummer to be, not a saint, but a person with a big heart who knows that as long as anyone is oppressed, we all are. Joe’s not with us anymore, so I’ll give you my spiel: We can’t go back to a time when things were less fucked-up than they are now, and anyway, things were never less fucked-up, they were just fucked in different ways. We can’t go back — not even to a time in our own lives when we were young punks and our best friends were by our sides. We have to live in this world, diggin’ the new. And no matter how bleak things seem, the future is unwritten. So let’s make it a good one.

Jessie Lynn McMains

Written by

poet, writer, zinester / owner of Bone & Ink Press / 2015–17 Poet Laureate of Racine, WI (more at recklesschants.net)

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