Saturday, December 15, 2007

Poets: Joe Strummer

This morning I put on a compilation CD of The Clash for the morning soundtrack. While it played I listened to the lyrics of "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" and it suddenly occured to me that it was poetry. The poet who wrote most of the lyrics for The Clash was John Graham Mellor (August 21, 1952 – December 22, 2002) better known as Joe Strummer. Just take a look at this:

"(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais"

Midnight to six man
For the first time from Jamaica
Dillinger and leroy smart
Delroy wilson, your cool operator

Ken boothe for UK pop reggae
With backing bands sound systems
And if they’ve got anything to say
There's many black ears here to listen

But it was four tops all night with encores from stage right
Charging from the bass knives to the treble
But onstage they ain’t got no roots rock rebel
Onstage they ain’t got no...roots rock rebel

Dress back jump back this is a bluebeat attack
cos it wont get you anywhere
Fooling with your guns
The British army is waiting out there
An it weighs fifteen hundred tons

White youth, black youth
Better find another solution
Why not phone up Robin Hood
And ask him for some wealth distribution

Punk rockers in the UK
They wont notice anyway
They’re all too busy fighting
For a good place under the lighting

The new groups are not concerned
With what there is to be learned
They got burton suits, ha you think its funny
Turning rebellion into money

All over people changing their votes
Along with their overcoats
If adolf hitler flew in today
Theyd send a limousine anyway

Im the all night drug-prowling wolf
Who looks so sick in the sun
Im the white man in the palais
Just lookin for fun

Im only
Looking for fun

Strummer wrote these words in 1976 after attending a "reggae all-nighter at the Palais" but was disappointed that the roots rock rebel music he had hoped for was actually pop music. 'So what is the path of the urban white rebel?' is taken up by the verse. Resistance could be as violence but "The British army is waiting out there / And it weighs fifteen hundred tons", so that does not look so promising. Further there is myth; "Why not phone up robin hood / And ask him for some wealth distribution." Each alternative seems as hopeless as the other.
Fashion had taken hold of punk shortly after it began to become popular in London and New York (see Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century) and Strummer was well aware of this, he quips about the general situation:

Punk rockers in the UK
They wont notice anyway
They’re all too busy fighting
For a good place under the lighting

For a man whose bread and butter was supplied by his fans, the so-called punk rockers, to critique them as superficial spectators was to risk his own public image. But that was a part of Joe Strummer I believe, he was not only in it for the money (although he did make a decent living from it), he wanted change. Witness the young Strummer of the Maida Vale 1970's squat movement:

Strummer's lyric is a consistently political and therefore ideological one. The ideology is nowhere clearer than in

Lost in the Supermarket

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality

I wasn’t born so much as I fell out
Nobody seemed to notice me
We had a hedge back home in the suburbs
Over which I never could see

I heard the people who lived on the ceiling
Scream and fight most scarily
Hearing that noise was my first ever feeling
That’s how its been all around me

I’m all tuned in, I see all the programs
I save coupons from packets of tea
I’ve got my giant hit discothèque album
I empty a bottle and I feel a bit free

The kids in the halls and the pipes in the walls
Make me noises for company
Long distance callers make long distance calls
And the silence makes me lonely

And it’s not near
It disappears
I’m all lost

"Lost in the Supermarket" addresses the same isolation and alienation that the punks are performing against/as part of in "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais". But in "Lost in the Supermarket" it does not end in a hopeful reference to 'fun'. Rather the hopelessness is complete and is just being buried deeper daily under more products and empty bottles.

Strummer was involved in numerous causes during his life (and after). Carbon sinks, fighting poverty and fascism, and anti-racist actions:

The Clash - White Riot Live (1978 Victoria Park London)
Taken from the film Rude Boy.

Seeing the lyrics set to music and performed it is easy to assign the title of Bard to Strummer. The bard is the musical voice of folk culture discussing the issues of the day, setting the news to music and spreading it throughout the realm. "This is a public service announcement...with guitars!" (Know Your Rights)

Finally, The Clash performed one song with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the spoken word tribute to Arthur Rimbaud and anti-heroin piece, "Ghetto Defendant". The lyric was written by Ginsberg but it perfectly reflects the general aesthetic of Strummers verse;

Ghetto defendant
It is heroin pity
Not tear gas nor baton charge
That stops you taking the city

Here is "Ghetto Defendant" in a video produced by the Maoist International Movement:

Deep Dread Dub from Joe Strummer and words from Allen Ginsberg sung by Strummer:

Soap floods oil in water
All churn in the wake
On the great ship of progress
The crew can't find the brake
Klaxons are blaring
The admiral snores command
Submarines boil in oceans
While the armies fight with suns

Throughout Strummer's vast body of work we see a continual return to the themes of isolation, alienation, revolution, human rights, de-commodification and freedom. To quote a line from Radio Clash (1977):

Hands of law have sorted through
My identity
But now this sound is brave
And wants to be free - anyway to be free


Sånger från nedre botten said...

"White man"... was released 17 june 1978. So I guess Joe wrote the lyrics that year as well...

One Love!

((((((((ö)))))))) said...

Yes, you right "White Man..." was released on 17 june 1978 in the UK as a single. It was released in 1979 (on the debut LP 'The Clash') in the USA, but apparently the lyrics where written in 1976 (I added the link in the blog entry). I took the year 1979 from the story "White man's blues" on the BBC website:
It's just a bloody great piece of art I reakon....Long Live The Clash.

Sånger från nedre botten said...

I'm afraid 1976 might be wrong as well. According to Chris Salevicz biography 'Redemption Song' Joe went to the famous concert on 5 june 1977 together with Don Letts and Leo Williams. In his notebook he wrote up his experience in verse form. A couple of months later they started playing the song live.

Great song anyhow.

((((((((ö)))))))) said...

Ok..1977 it is- and a great song.
Thanks for the imput and when I get the time I think Ill read the Salevicz biography.