On Listening To The Clash

A lot of the music made in the U.K. in the late 1970s and early 1980s is more important to me today, looking back, than the friends I had then – David Treacher and Neil Saint and Martin Robinson and Zoe Thomas. I remember their names, and a good few stories (I sport more than a couple of scars from those days), but the names just don’t have much of an emotional pull now. The friendships petered out not long after I arrived in Canada; the music has stayed with me.

The Clash, and The Jam, The Psychedelic Furs, The Cure, The Undertones, and The Stranglers, Magazine, Ian Dury, and Gang of Four. Those names peg me as a punk, I suppose, though that’s not how I felt, and if my passport photo from back then is anything to go by, not how I looked. I was a nervous, solitary kid, more likely to hop the back fence and wander farmers’ fields than I was to dive into a mosh pit.

I should mention that I liked Genesis too (still do, anything they wrote through about 1976). And Queen. And Wings (I was a bit late for The Beatles), and Supertramp. And even Abba.

I remember being 16. I knew I was leaving England. I arrived at my grandparents’ house one Saturday morning with a copy of Breakfast in Americatucked under my arm. Which, it strikes me now, is about as insensitive a title to parade before one's grandparents as I can imagine, given how they surely didn’t want us to leave England. I remember listening with them to The Logical Song, which they were good enough to give a quick spin on their teak-wrapped turntable, and my grandmother, with her dodgy heart and her perfect skin, positively swooned at the depth of the bass sound.

A few months later I flew with my family to Toronto via New York, and the last hour of that journey was through a storm the likes of which I’ve never experienced again. The plane bucked and tipped and drilled my family into a new dimension. That’s how it felt. The next day someone picked us up in a lime-green boat about a mile long and, after a breakfast of pancakes and milkshakes, we car-shopped and house-shopped.

In the next few months I bought (re-bought) albums by The Clash (at the Frontenac Mall for $8.99) and by The Undertones (at the Bay in Mississauga). I listened more closely to The Cure’s Faiththan I ever had, and developed a serious crush on Howard Devoto, and David Bowie (of course).

The abiding attachment has more than a bit to do with the move abroad itself – I couldn’t bring my friends with me, the subconscious argument must have run, but I could at least spin the same 45s and the same thirty-three-and-a-thirds. I was protecting myself, looking for cover, an experience to hide inside. And the extent to which these old (now) punks helped me through those early months in a strange land is evidenced by the fact that I still turn to them when the deals are hard to come by, and the world looms too large.

I listened to Combat Rocktonight, the last real album The Clash put out. I had a scotch on the armrest, and the kids were asleep, or getting there. When it was first released I thought it too soft, not what I expected from the angry young men I’d fallen for. But tonight it arrived all worldly and sophisticated. Joe Strummer is dead, of course, and so I’m going to approach the old stuff more respectfully than I might have if he was still out there, maybe cultivating hops and brewing organic IPA somewhere in Sussex. But it’s got to be about me softening too, and having more understanding of what it means to evolve as an artist. And it’s also about having less of the angry young man in me. Or maybe just less of the “young”.

Last week at the Kingston antique market (how’s that for a segue) one of the vendors took mighty offence at how my six-year-old daughter was picking up his bits and pieces. He thought she’d break something, he said, knowing nothing of just how respectfully she moves through the world. And then, almost out of nowhere, he worked himself into a lather and up went the volume and there he was, right in my face. I’m ashamed to admit (and this surely won’t bring me a lot of new business) but I wanted nothing more than to pop him in the nose. Instead, I leaned in close, and offered a choice word or three into his ear before we left. There is, it seems, a little of the punk left in me after all.


I have a client and friend who listens to the same sort of music. We still introduce each other to artists. We share albums via Dropbox. But now the backdrop chat for us is kids, and jobs, and breakups, and (for christ’s sake, how is it possible?) middle age. We turn forlornly these days to bands like The Nationalto hear our concerns writ large.

My children have planted a few pumpkin seeds in Dixie Cups and lined them up on a kitchen windowsill. And as I wind up this reverie, and shut up the house, I note that those seedlings crane desperately for the outside light. It shapes them, literally. They ache for that which sustains them. And I’m no different.