The Clash

A few weeks ago, my six-year old daughter had a rather typical temper tantrum. Something (I don’t remember what it was) didn’t go her way, she stomped her feet on the ground, put her arms akimbo and, red in the face, shouted, “No one understands me in this house!” None of this surprised me until she ran upstairs, slammed her bedroom door and, seconds later, began blaring a Clash cd from the boom box in her room.

Let me just remind you: she’s six, as in six years old.

I first heard the Clash in 1980, when I was 15 years old. Up to that point, I was living off of a steady rock and roll diet of the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Pink Floyd and the Kinks. But one day as I was listening to the college radio station in the stultifying suburb of eastern Pennsylvania where I grew up, the dj played “Clampdown,” the opening track from the Clash’s London Calling and after that I was never the same.

Here is the iconic cover of that album:


“Clampdown” begins with the lead singer, Joe Strummer, half-chanting, half-praying nearly inaudible lyrics about  ransacked kingdoms, descending helicopters and societal chaos.  The drummer lays down a 4/4 beat, a guitar sizzles behind the voice, there is a moment of pause before Strummer, beseechingly and desperately pleads, “What are we gonna do now?” From there, the song lurches into a marching, caterwauling, angry and desperate set of exclamations and musical ideas that challenged everything I knew and understood about music at that time and also confirmed some of my latent but emerging fears of what it meant to be leaving childhood behind and moving into young adulthood.

Here’s a link to “Clampdown”—listen to it for yourself.

I’ll spare you a detailed analysis of the lyrics except say that “Clampdown,” is about the fear that young people have of losing the idealism, joy and freedom of youth to the demands, strictures and ideologies of the adult political world. The beauty of the song, at least for me, was that I could not have articulated that idea until I was much older (like in my twenties), but at the time I first heard “Clampdown,” I knew, or I should say, I felt that that was what the song was about. And, frankly, that’s what good art does—it makes us/helps us feel some our deepest emotions.

Few people understand rock and roll as rebellion as I do. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home where rock and roll was the devil’s music. I was forbidden from listening to it, so I got myself a small transistor radio and every night, I’d lay in bed tuned into AM and then, later, FM rock and roll stations from Philadelphia and New York. What I got from rock and roll then was an opening up to ideas—political, cultural, intellectual—and emotions that I did not have access to, either because they were forbidden or because, developmentally, I just wasn’t quite there. More than any other rock band at that time, the Clash brought possibilities to me–even the Beatles and the Stones couldn’t shake me up, challenge my sensibilities, make me realize that there was a big world out there quite like the Clash.

It’s worth noting that no one in my house at the time understood this. Hell, I barely understood it myself.

Music is a big part of the home that my wife and I have built with out children.We have introduced our children to a lot of different kinds of music. They each play instruments (the boy, guitar, the girl, violin), they can tell the difference between Miles Davis and John Coltrane, a Beethoven sonata and a Chopin Prelude and my son at least can identify just about any Van Morrison tune within the first three measures. So, when my daughter accused me of not understanding her and then tromped up to her room and blasted the Clash on her boom box, in many ways, it made perfect sense. Why wouldn’t she use music in general and, specifically, the Clash, to express, in this case, her frustration with the authority figure in her life? But, it also brought me to a pause. In some ways it felt like a turning of a wheel. In some ways it felt like a coming together. In some ways it felt bewildering to realize that my little girl is beginning to think and feel things that she can’t articulate and that I myself will never understand.

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