Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Suburban Voice blog #72


THE CLASH, 2/16/79

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Clash's first appearance in Boston. It was actually Cambridge, if you want to be specific. On February 16, 1979, the Clash played at the Harvard Square Theatre. It was on their first US invasion, dubbed the "Pearl Harbour" tour. There was a genuine air of excitement about this show, to say the least. This was also the first real rock concert I ever attended. I didn’t really get to go to any concerts or shows until I started my freshman year at Boston University in 1978. It wasn’t as though I was forbidden to attend shows but my parents didn’t encourage it and I didn’t have any friends to go with, anyway.

When I got to BU, one of the first things I needed to do was make a pilgrimage to the Boston punk mecca, The Rat, which I did with my high school buddy who was visiting one weekend in the fall. My dorm was only a few blocks from Kenmore Square, where the club was located. But I don't acknowledge that as my first punk show. The headliners were this godawful bar rock band The Stompers. They were more Springsteen than Sex Pistols and appealed to the Boston rock ‘n roll audience who didn’t really embrace the harder-edged punk sounds. The Stompers later ended up on a major label and you can probably find their albums for 99 cents somewhere.

The first punk show I did attend was in January of 1979 at the same venue--The Plasmatics and The Molls. I'd seen posters for the show all over Boston and had just heard (and subsequently got) their first EP, "Butcher Baby." I decided I needed to go to that show and experience honest to goodness live punk rock. It was quite an intimidating experience, even though I'd already been to the Rat. I was by myself, not having really acquainted myself with any of the punk rock locals, except one guy who had lived in my dorm for awhile but moved out. It was a wild show, pairing the avant-garde Molls (who had an electric bassoon player) and then the sonic blast of the Plasmatics. I had never experienced anything like that before and they introduced themselves with all the subtlety of a thunder clap. The climax (no pun intended), of course, was “Butcher Baby.” For that song, a guitar on a rack was brought out, ready for its chainsaw sacrifice. An electric violinist wearing a hood sawed away and Wendy held up her own saw of destruction, then proceeded to cut through it with skillful ease. That was the end of the set. In those days, the bands would play two sets each but I figured I’d seen what I came for and called it a night.

But this is about the Clash. I'd become a fan in the fall of '77, the introduction to the band being the b-side of their "Remote Control" single, a live take of "London's Burning" that I taped off the radio. I remember, soon after hearing it, I woke up from a dream with the song pounding in my head. I told my mom about it, for some reason, and she seemed quite concerned about that sort of musical obsession. I think there are/were a lot worse things with which to be obsessed or inspired by. After that, I stumbled across an import copy of their first album in an unlikely place--the Musicland chain store in the suburban North Shore Shopping Center. $5.99 later (courtesy of my mom--an early Chanukah present), it was mine and rarely left my turntable.

The singles and EP's only solidified my love for the band and, the following Chanukah, "Give ‘Em Enough Rope" was my gift. In fact, my parents and a friend both bought it for me but I exchanged one of them for the first Cars album. Not a bad choice but certainly not garnering nearly as much turntable time as "Rope."

As '78 turned to '79, I was excited to find out they’d be playing the Harvard Square Theatre in February. Tickets went on sale at the Strawberries record store and I purchased one, for the princely sum of $7.50. It’s a good thing I did because the show sold out quickly. Once again, I went solo—I got there really early and, waiting to go in and seeing all the leather-festooned punks, didn’t feel as though I fit in and didn’t attempt a conversation with anyone. Those feelings dissipated once the show began plus I did run into Jim (the punk from BU who I mentioned earlier), so at least there was one person I could talk to. A local art/garage band, The Rentals, opened and pretty much got booed off the stage (they weren’t that bad, though). Bo Diddley followed—yeah, that Bo Diddley, and he had the crowd eating out of his hand by the end of the set, getting asked back for an encore and blowing a kiss to the audience while the shave ‘n a haircut shuffle got cooking again.

Then it was time for the Clash. A multi-nation flag tapestry dropped to the accompaniment of The Coasters' version of "Riot In Cell Block #9” and the band charged the stage and broke into “I’m So Bored With USA.” By the time they got to “Tommy Gun,” I was up from my seat in the balcony, pumping my fist away. I also remember their tour shirts were $6 but I didn’t like the style, so I passed. I did get a cool Clash tour pin, which I still own to this day:

I had to scan it because I couldn't get a good photo of it but I think it came out pretty good. That's a pin that doesn't leave my house.

What an incredible experience even though, as I said, I was by myself and still don't have much of a connection to the original Boston punk scene. Sure, I've met a few people over the years but it's always felt like I've been caught between the '77 era and early 80s hardcore era. Still, it's something I'll never forget and a show that I still consider one of the best I ever saw.

Incidentally, last week (the 9th) was the 30th anniversary of the day I met Ellen. We hung out the following week, a few days before the Clash show. I mentioned to her that I was going and she said she'd seen the name on the marquee but had no idea who they were since she wasn't into punk. Our first "real" date was on March 2. Yes, I remember the exact day. I'd had so few dates up to that point that I promised myself I'd never forget that date or the day we that met, for that matter. After having dinner at Faneuil Hall in Boston and seeing "Harold and Maude" at the Nickelodeon theater near my dorm, we went up to my room and I played her side 2 of "Give 'Em Enough Rope." I figured she might find the more melodic "Stay Free" to her liking. She didn't really let on whether she liked it or not but she did go out with me again so it didn't scare her off, at least. And she did eventually become a Clash fan and says she wished she'd seen that show. She did seem the with me at the Cape Cod Coliseum in 1982 on the "Combat Rock" tour.

Unfortunately, that was the second and last time I saw them with the Jones/Strummer lineup. I tried to see them in 1980 on the "London Calling" tour but had no luck getting tickets. I even had my neighbor, who played drums in Boston (and with whom I had an ill-fated partnership in a record store--but that's another story entirely) try to get me tickets through a radio station contact but he had no luck either. Hell, he was even label-mates with the Clash (Epic Records) but I don't think he tried to contact anyone on the label.

I suppose I should have been grateful for his effort, especially since he loathed punk. I remember being in his car and "Pump It Up" by Elvis Costello came on the radio and he started singing along with it in a mocking fashion and telling me how he couldn't stand Elvis. It might have even been something personal with him but I can't remember exactly what it was. I wasn't a big Elvis fan at that point, either. I'm still not, really, but definitely have a much better appreciation for his early material.

I also saw the Jones-less lineup that played on "Cut The Crap." I thought the latter show was pretty good at the time but maybe I'd feel differently now. I also saw Joe on a couple of his solo tours, one for "Earthquake Weather" and the other with his band the Mescaleros, where he played some revamped versions of Clash songs. Not the same, of course--and it's not fair to expect that.

Thankfully, besides my pin, there are some virtual keepsakes from that tour. I found a page on the Black Market Clash site that has the particulars for that show (and lots of other shows throughout their history), including a set list and a link to photos. And, in the name of full disclosure, the one above (by Catherine Vanaria) is used without permission so don't rat me out, OK? Or sue me... I mean, I'd buy a print for $300 but it's a little out of my price range. Besides, I don't think Joe would have minded. He did sing about "turning rebellion into money" on "White Man In Hammersmith Palais," a jibe at artists cashing in on punk--the reference to mohair suits is supposedly aimed at the Jam. And I promise I won't cash in until I publish my own book, sometime in the next decade hopefully. THEN I can get paid! Mwahahahaha! By the way, I'm being somewhat tongue in cheek. I do believe that artists have the right to be compensated for their work but that's never what it's been about for me. People use my photos all the time, sometimes with permission, sometimes without. All I ask is people credit them.

Of course, there were always contradictions with the Clash, themselves, being signed to a major label for one thing. Still, they insisted on having opening bands with different musical styles and with members who were female and people of color. My old friend George, who was at that Cambridge show (although I wouldn't meet him until a year and a half later when he was next door neighbor in my dorm), saw my "status" post on Facebook, mentioning I'd seen this show. He wrote about how the Clash supported a strike by staff at WBCN (a Boston radio station) in 1979. The action was to protest the firing of 15 station employees after the station was sold and the new owners refused to honor a union contract. Eventually, the workers prevailed.

Speaking of support for union workers, I should also mention that George, who lives in London, is a labor organizer and put together a benefit show for striking firefighters that happened on November 22, 2002 and it featured Joe and the Mescaleros. Mick Jones was there and ended up playing a few Clash songs with them at the end of the set. It was the first time Joe and Mick had played together in nearly 20 years and unfortunately the last, as Joe passed away a little more a month later. He wrote a short book about it, "The Last Night London Burned." If you're interested in getting a copy, you can go to this page on the website for the Fire Brigades Union. George also has some copies himself. Send him an email at George also wrote this piece about the Strummer documentary, "The Future Is Unwritten," for The Weekly Worker in 2007.

Finally, I managed to find an audience recording from the show and the quality is more-than-listenable. Just don't expect high fidelity. Download it here. I have it on right now and it sounds fine to me!

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Joe Strummer (1952-2002)...

*Note--this article also appeared on my MySpace blog but I posted it here for readers who don't use that website. Also, a small part of this blog originally appeared in the book "My First Time," a collection of "first punk show" anecdotes from different writers. It's available through AK Press and features contributions from Jack Rabid of Big Takeover, Rob Fish from 108, Joe King from the Queers, Blake Schwarzenbach from Jawbreaker and others. Check it out. My piece in there is more extensive...