Granted, the punk rockers of the late 1970s and early 1980s have become our heroes and our saints. But would it soften our admiration to know, for instance, that Joe Strummer was born the son of a diplomat, that he went to a posh boarding school in Surrey, that he went to art school to study drawing, that he most certainly never fought the law, much less lost to its omnipotent hand (and additionally, that that song in particular was originally recorded by that notorious voice of the downtrodden, Buddy Holly), that he was not intimately acquainted with running down a railroad track with police on his back? Maybe. But, for my part, I can’t help but feel more sorry for than angry at Joe Strummer.
After Combat Rock was released, and panned by critics, and reviled widely by hardcore punk fans as the ultimate sell out (should you stay or should you go?—you should go, Mr. Strummer), Mick Jones was fired from the band. Supposedly, Joe Strummer just changed the locks on the warehouse they were using as a rehearsal space. Next came Cut the Crap, and Joe Strummer sitting alone, picking morosely at his guitar, bottles of Buckfast littering the concrete floor, telling himself “good riddance,” “bad rubbish,” all that, but secretly missing Mick, who had been his partner for years; they had drank the same pints together, broken windows in the same pubs together, peed in the same public spaces. Can you imagine a Beatles album without John? (Because rock historians who are honest will tell you that Joe Strummer was the Paul of the band, and he knew it. Prep-schooled, sad middle class boy). Like Let it Be, Cut the Crap was overproduced out of the hands of the band. While Joe Strummer wandered the streets of Madrid, unsure of his future, the album’s first single and British democracy’s epitaph, “This is England,” was sonically embellished by handclaps and the kind of “my club team right or wrong” chanting common at football matches (soccer games, to the de-Anglicized North American uninitiate), an addition that ruined the song artistically, but articulated perfectly the imminent degeneration from the politically motivated radicalism of punk rock to the misdirected thuggery of soccer hooliganism that would be the closest thing England would have to a revolutionary movement for years to come. Because Thatcher had been reelected, Thatcher, that rough beast, to prove as null the old axiom that the tighter you hold your grip on a country, the more of its citizenry will slip through your fingers. The Clampdown was come.
I have a bootleg of the unmastered rough demo version of “This is England,” (a song, I should mention, as reviled among Clash fans as Wings’ “Band on the Run” is among devotees of that other, lesser invader from the British isles), and rather than jingoist triumph, it is a dirge; Joe Strummer, with barely the energy to even strum, wondering what he and his countrymen have wrought. Not a football chant, not a shout of defiance, but a surrender. This. This, we have to own up to it, is England. Cut the Crap was not just a surrender, not just a white flag, an admission that yes, we are over and done, we are Mickless and toothless and not what we were. But a plea. A desperate beg on the knees. But They didn’t. They didn’t even take a moment to doze. Thatcher. Reagan. Bush. Clinton. Bush. Tony Fucking Blair.
That was that. From then on, from that moment forward, from Joe Strummer wandering in Madrid wondering what to do with himself, punk rock was over forever. Abject failure. Selling out was all that was left. The choice: A/B; black/white; right/left; sign to a major, help sell sneakers, iPod ads, Yo! MTV Raps, This is Your Brain on Drugs…or end up destroyed. The Sex Pistols self-destruct in the bayous of the deep south, going their separate ways to become murderers, national jokes; pick your poison. Across the pond, The Replacements sign to a major label in 1985, and singer Paul Westerberg dumps the masters for their album Let it Be into the Mississippi river, but by now there is no one left to care. The next year, Westerberg will fire guitar player Bob Stinson for refusing to pluck along morosely to the maudlin ballads that had increasingly replaced the band’s catalog of edgy punk numbers. By 2010, Westerberg is a liner note made flesh, contributing to soundtracks for movies about fuzzy, computer animated squirrels that bomb at the box office. In Minneapolis, Husker Du stop singing about warehouses, the plight of workers, rust belt chaos, increase their focus on girls, the colors of their eyes. On the west coast, The Dead Kennedys dissolve by 1986.
I have made pilgrimage to the place where The Sex Pistols, John the Baptist to The Clash’s Christ, made their notorious American debut at a concert hall inside of a strip mall in Atlanta, Georgia. Showered with spit and beer bottles, the Pistols gave as well as they got, and the near riot that erupted was the first of several shows in a disastrous American tour that would rip the band apart in a few short days. I saw the place in 2005. After moving to Atlanta, a quick Googling revealed that I lived not half a mile away from the site of that storied scene. The old music hall was a dollar store now, next to a K-Mart, next to a Little Caesar’s, next to a Regions Bank, and etc., and etc., into infinity. I have been back since. These days the site of the old venue (as far as I can tell–the entire site has been razed and redeveloped in the few years since) is a shuttered branch of a bankrupted chain of electronics stores, the name of which I already cannot recall. Its maroon corpse rises like a gothic cathedral against the southern sky. The K-Mart is now a Target. It’s where I shop for soap.
 I bought it at a Meijer’s Thrifty Acre with a twenty dollar bill that my grandfather had given me for a birthday present. Opening it at my grandparents’ kitchen table, smelling the heat of the plastic beneath the shrink wrap, reading the liner notes with a magnifying glass (because they had been shrunk down from the LP version, but not resized), thumping on the table too hard so that my Discman skipped, my blood pumping fast from 7-Up and Quality Dairy donuts (the kind with the white frosting and the chocolate chips), splendor. –Ed.