‘Punk rock changed our lives.’ – D. Boone
A couple of years before I went to high school an ad played in heavy rotation on the local rock radio station.
‘Hello America,’ said a woman with a British accent. ‘This is London calling.’ A track played behind her as she kept repeating the catch phrase and then the track took over a few seconds before the spot ended. The track had an attack that sounded like very few of the stadium rock anthems that filled the AOR airwaves in 1979. I hadn’t heard anyone like the vocalist, either. He had rasping delivery that made Bob Dylan sound like Perry Como and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. I wanted that record though but it was my friend Ray who had the money, so he bought it. It was London Calling by The Clash. Some A&R men had decided that punk rock would be the next big thing in music (boy, were they wrong) and The Clash were going be the ones to break it. Well London Calling didn’t sell in America but me and Ray wore that record out. Even with the lyrics printed on the album sleeves every song was a cipher. Who was Jimmy Jazz? What were the guns of Brixton and the Clampdown? It didn’t make sense to us but the music did. It was fresh, it opened a way.
My coming to a (semi) adult consciousness took place in the Reagan years when I was on the wrong side of everything. Reagan America turned the world upside down. A song about the sufferings of a Vietnam vet in his indifferent homeland became the anthem of America triumphant. A film about a Vietnam vet hounded by law enforcement became the story of American resilience defeating the foreign menace. My brother watched Rambo a thousand times and hung an American flag and a cross over his bed. He was an Eagle Scout, then a ROTC frat boy, and then a soldier. I didn’t understand. Didn’t they watch the movie, didn’t they hear the lyrics to Born in the USA? The Official Preppy Handbook became a primer for dress and deportment to my high school peers. Irony had been chased out of the building. Money mattered again in America. The greatest athlete in the world, a man whose physical genius and ferocity on the basketball court left you gawking, was a bland simulacra off it, the perfect corporate shill. I was quick to sneer at this obsession with money but the preppies had connected to something deep in American culture, deeper than I could understand. Money made America’s heart beat, had given the country its biggest sexual charge since Ben Franklin started hopping around his printing press. After a brief interlude of hippie indulgence – and maybe the the wealthiest generation in history anywhere – money had risen again. Yet money meant almost nothing to me (to the dismay of friends who would have appreciated me paying for more of the beer). I was lost in my own country. Yet The Clash gave me something to hold on to, and friends who felt the same way as I did.