Letters

Joe Strummer was a saint! And lots of bands are political, you idiot. Readers respond to John Schacht's "He Fought the Law (and the Law Won)."


Salon Staff
January 10, 2003 1:00AM (UTC)

[Read John Schacht's "He Fought the Law (and the Law Won).]

John Schacht sees Joe Strummer's death as a reminder that rock doesn't matter any more. He's right. Talk to most people under 35 today and you discover that music means far less to them than movies, video games or the latest episode of "American Idol." In the era when the Clash first surfaced, no other form of entertainment inspired the same level of passion as music. Music that entertained and music that inspired serious thought weren't mutually exclusive concepts. Rebelliousness wasn't just a marketing concept. And being rich, pretty, smug and hip weren't the most sought-after virtues of the day. Clear Channel takes some of the blame for limiting our musical choices, but not all of it. As I recall, the Clash didn't get much play on mainstream radio in 1979 either.

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-- Jim Chadwick

If there's anything worse than a boring tribute (and John Schacht's take on Joe Strummer was certainly boring), it's a tribute that misunderstands its subject.

The article frames Strummer's career thus: He fought the system; he and his band were amazingly popular; everything fell apart; years later the hero returns but nothing's as good as it was. Then of course there was the Jaguar ad.

The problem with all of this is that it represents the Clash fan's view of Strummer rather than the man himself. Of course the 50-year-old had mellowed. Piss and vinegar was a product of youth. Music that could be simultaneously elusive and resonant was a product of maturing. Strummer was a rock icon and remained so even to his death because his message didn't change, even if his music and his licensing did.

The Clash couldn't change the industry, and we shouldn't expect any single band to now. Interviews with Strummer in the last year revealed an artist at peace with the past and eager to work in the present. Instead of juxtaposing the anger or naiveté of youth with the compromise of age, we should celebrate that the music and the message will always change with the artist.

Also, the Clash song used in the Levi's ad was "Should I Stay or Should I Go," not "Train in Vain."

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-- Mark Cooper

John Schacht's article "He fought the law (and the law won)" was the silliest thing I've ever read.

This is the type of writing and analysis that comes from someone who has spent one too many days navel gazing over the loss of rock's conscience -- like it ever had a conscience greater than that old, hackneyed, hedonistic saying "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."

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Can't Mr. Schacht understand that what we have today in rock, rap, hip-hop, etc., is the ultimate expression of the rock ethos? Check out the booty, the bling-bling, the seamlessness with which rock permeates all culture. Man, it rocks and rolls and grooves and spins.

Instead, I guess, what Mr. Schacht is looking for in his rock is more a sense of alienation -- that magical phrase that is the jism of baby boomers longing for the lost days of flower power, punk and protest.

Too bad that Mr. Schacht can't (or rather, refuses) to hear what Joe Strummer is saying when he responds to his interviewer's shock at using a Clash song to advertise Jaguar: "Yeah, well, you'll always get that."

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Read: "There is always going to be someone out there -- the rock critic and listener who likes their music 'alienated' -- who is pissed."

Go away, Mr. Schacht. Let people like Joe Strummer mellow with age. (He deserved it). Go away and quit writing your rock reviews, etc., through the lens of '60-'70s nostalgia. Go away and quit foisting this notion that rock is somehow important.

We just want to listen to the music.

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-- Solidarity Chapman

Your inaccurate and vague description of "Rock the Casbah," as a denunciation of "oil-sponsored madness in the Middle East" is off the mark. Strummer himself said the song was inspired by Iranian clerics banning Western music. Doesn't that make the lyrical content satirical denunciation of religious fanaticism? You neglected to mention "Tommy Gun," another timely song, which Strummer wrote concerning the egotism of terrorists; quite different than "John Walker's Blues." "Strummer was more concerned with promoting international brotherhood through music than with tearing down the status quo," perhaps because he'd grown older and wiser? I suppose thinking for yourself is counter-revolutionary. Until his untimely death Strummer refused to toe a party line, and like Dylan, his songs continue to carry resonance far longer than most knee-jerk, one-dimensional "artists."

-- Chris Ratliff

Like your writer of the Joe Strummer eulogy, I used to think rock 'n' roll died a long time ago. I'm a 54-year-old unreconstructed hippie, and I just keep on finding new bands that have stuff to say, an ear to play, and thus makes great rock 'n' roll. Quit listening to pop tunes and find the real rock 'n' roll out there. Check out White Stripes, the Vines, David Baerwald, Bright Eyes and Sleater-Kinney. Great stuff. Quit wallowing in the past. The real stuff is still out there, but like always, you've gotta wanta hear the music.

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-- Bruce Berg

Saying the music world is devoid of radical political outrage is just ignorant. I didn't see one mention of Le Tigre, Kathleen Hanna's vitriolic feminist dance punk band that plays to packed clubs all over the world, inspiring entire new generations of riot grrrls and boys. What about Sleater-Kinney? or the Berlin-based label Digital Hardcore, whose sole mission is producing and distributing the most aggressive leftist political music in the world? Bands like Le Tigre, Atari Teenage Riot and Fugazi are around and are surely inheriting the mission of the Clash to do affordable shows for people who identify with the political outrage and DIY punk spirit of the music. Name-checking Steve Earle and Rage Against the Machine as the only recent arbitrators of progressive politics in the music scene is incredibly silly and off base. I suggest you learn about music labels like Digital Hardcore, Dischord and Mr. Lady and then do a story on how brilliant and relevant the artists on those labels are.

-- Sangini Brahmbatt

"While Strummer's reasoning was perfectly sound, there's little doubt that the Strummer of 1977 would have blanched at such rationalizations and probably skewered them in song. Now it just points to the need for a new torch bearer, another young, smart idealist creative enough to revitalize rock 'n' roll and use it as a force for change"

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Of course back in '77 -- nearly a quarter century ago -- Strummer eschewed such offers. Taking such a position today is a luxury that few can afford, save 30-something music critics who probably make more now than the band members made themselves back in the day. If John Schacht expects 50-year-old men, with wives and children, etc., to blow off the first major payday of their lives to retain their puck rock cred, maybe he should start sending his rock heroes part of his salary each month to allow them to survive and continue being the exemplary and principled rockers that he demands them to be.

-- Noah Shube

How did rock matter? Why?

There are plenty of people who "mattered" as much as Strummer ever did ... Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, Sleater-Kinney, Conor Oberst ... if to you mattering means being in a rock band and disliking the mainstream marketplace. Even if you're ignorant about the underground that you're claiming to champion, that's still no excuse for italicizing the word "matters." Why emphasize a tired buzzword you don't even bother to clarify?

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-- Anthony Miccio

It is fun to watch John Schacht go through journalistic gymnastics so that he can make a band he clearly admires fit into his tidy -- and entirely predictable -- little political worldview. How anyone can misinterpret as straightforward a song as "Rock the Casbah" is amazing. The song has nothing to do with a vague and undefined evil Schacht deems "oil sponsored madness" and everything to do with repression and censorship in the Arab Gulf States, it has everything to do with showing up those pathetic despotic, hypocritical, stifling, kingpot dictators who keep evil Western values out of their states so long as they can sneak out and spend a couple of months at that sweet Chateau near Cannes while Sharon Stone is in town for the festival.

As Schacht himself noted when referring to "Midnight Log," the Clash were about exposing hypocrisies, the Clash were not p.c., they ridiculed and exposed all equally and in the case of "Rock the Casbah" it was the Arab leaders' turn. The Clash were about liberty and respect, and in Rock the Casbah they attacked the lack of liberty and respect afforded to the people of the oil-rich Gulf states and mocked their corrupt leaders. In that respect, it was not ironic, as he writes that the song was used in the Gulf War, in fact the it was the perfect to kick off the war that liberated Kuwait from exactly the type of people that Strummer and Jones were criticizing in the song. This is not some timely interpretation for the Bush Jr. era, its what the song is plainly about, as anyone who actually listens to the lyrics will understand. We'll all be waiting to hear about how "Should I Stay or Should I Go" was about spousal abuse and "Safe European Home" about misunderstood Jamaicans. If Schacht wants Clash songs that fit his worldview, there are more that enough to go around ("I'm So Bored with the U.S.A."). What's really ironic is not the way the song was used in the Gulf War, but how despite Schacht's seemingly genuine admiration of the band, he doesn't get what they're about.

-- Rony Zimerman

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