It had to be in early 1984 when I saw The Clash for the first and only time. They had already split into Joe Strummer’s Clash (the band I saw) and Mick Jones’ Big Audio Dynamite by then, and in this in-between stage, the last record, Cut the Crap, was likely in the works. It might sound strange that a band as well known and controversial as The Clash (check out Rude Boy for some of that political controversy) would play a small hall in Knoxville, Tennessee, but it happened. I was there, much to my joy and to my shame.
The shame will come soon, but just for a minute, please share my joy, my glee, my absolute anticipatory ecstasy at the first mentioning of “The Only Band That Matters” playing only five minutes away from where I lived.
I write this on International Clash Day (thanks Rob Janicke).
International Clash Day — Why It Matters
KEXP and radio stations around the world keep the message and influence of The Clash alive
I didn’t know there was such a day until this morning, and since I have been wanting to write about this show for a few weeks, it felt right and serendipitous to do so today.
Tickets to the show came in at something like $12. The show was held at UT’s Alumni Gym, which might now sound like a right venue for the working class Clash ideological stance. This old brick building, where the men’s basketball team played until the mid-1960’s, could have been condemned. Maybe it was condemned, but not for another few months, until I also had the shot at seeing The B-52s there, and then Husker Du.
Of course, The Clash had hit big with Combat Rock’s “Rock the Casbah” and had even appeared on Saturday Night Live, performing “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Straight to Hell.” Strummer wore a form of Mohawk then, and middle/mainstream America surely wondered what alien life form had invaded supposedly satirical TV land. “Straight to Hell” will always be a favorite Clash tune for me, those “Amerasian kids” haunting my sleep.
But it’s London Calling and the title song that originally did it for me. I needed the longing rage, the lonely lament to “the faraway towns,” to those who “live by the river.”
Alumni Gym, in fact the entire UT campus and Knoxville itself was bordered on the south end by the Tennessee river, a picturesque sight, unless you were one of the homeless living under various bridges; unless you ventured into certain bars or dens along the riverside at unfortunate hours in the darkness.
Back in those days, many of us styled ourselves as revolutionaries — sure get a grad degree in English or American lit, or go to Art school and presto, a revolutionary is born. So I shaved the sides of my head, wore sleeveless t-shirts and combat boots. I even read The Communist Manifesto. So there. I had Marxist-Leninist friends, Maoist buddies, and Trotskyite comrades. One of these was a guy named Steve, like me, a southerner born. We both grew up in the Racist South and were radicalized, at least in our attempts at being anti-racist. And in our own ways, we succeeded.
I know we were kindred souls. He ended up marrying a Middle Eastern woman and so did I. Again, so what? After a stint abroad, he returned to Mississippi to teach, and I migrated east to South Carolina. Each has third world elements, though each had its privileges for us. We white guys.
By the time of The Clash concert, Steve was living somewhere out of town, maybe Birmingham, my home area. But when I told him about the show, he said as soon as the words left my mouth,
I promised to get us tickets, and in that part, I certainly did.
Please understand. I was a grad student living on a teaching assistantship at $484 a month. I’m not trying to rationalize, or at least not too hard. But I was poor. I overdrew my checking account as regularly as I wrote checks. Once, I had seven dollars in my account and still ordered a pizza for five dollars, but didn’t tip the driver. Don’t worry, I overdrew anyway, and so the tip that should have been the driver’s went to the bank in penalty fees.
I’m not a bad guy, I swear. You have to believe that. And I’m not a revolutionary, but I guess you already figured that one out.
I knew a guy back then who worked in the student activities office, a guy named Jack. Jack was a friend, and he knew I loved The Clash.
And Jack offered me free tickets to the show.
And I accepted.
I didn’t tell Steve.
When he arrived, he wrote me a check for $12, and off we went to the show.
I don’t have to write this, do I?
We ran into Jack.
“So, this is the lucky guy who got the free ticket!”
Here’s what else I remember:
Steve looked at me and said something like…
And I…I’m not sure what I said. I surely did not explain, and I surely did not own anything. I must have stammered something like,
“Oh yeah, my ticket was free….”
Steve looked confused, justifiably so. Fortunately for everyone — including Jack who may or may not have realized what he had said — the lights went low then and The Clash appeared.
So, sadly, the show went on for me and while I’m sure they played most of the songs I loved, I was too racked with shame, guilt, and embarrassment to have taken much of the music in.
Except the first song.
Everyone began fist pumping including Steve and me. It might still be the single best song I’ve ever heard live.
And after that song, my hearing has never been the same.
You know when a decibel hits you deep in your sonic wave and not only your head, but your entire body shifts a bit — yep, that’s your range of hearing being compromised, which for me fit the compromise to my ethical soul that I had just bet $12 against.
Still, we had a good time, though my ears rang for three days after.
Steve left for home the following day, and our friendship seemed solid, though after another couple of years, we lost track of each other.
I never said another word to him or anyone else about the money, his check to me, and what I had done.
And though this next step only barely mitigates the shameful mistake I made in the throes of my desire, greed, and need for a measly $12, what I’m about to tell you is the truth.
I never cashed or deposited Steve’s check. I tore it up. Of course I never told him that I tore the check up, but I assume he figured it out when he saw, for months and months, that it had never cleared his account.
I hope he understood then, and I hope he forgave me at some point after we lost touch.
But has he forgotten? How could he? I haven’t.
Last Sunday, as I contemplated the next concert I wanted to write about, I thought about The Clash, and, naturally, of Steve. I sent him a Facebook friend request, and he accepted. I gave him my email, and he’s promised to write. And when he does, I’m sending this story, with a few other words of regret and apology. Among them:
“London calling, yes, I was there, too
And you know what they said? Well, some of it was true
London calling at the top of the dial
And after all this, won’t you give me a smile?”