the critic's role
does charlie surf?

i'm history

Just received my copy of Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer, an anthology of writings about the late punk rocker that includes an essay by my friend Charlie Bertsch. I just skimmed the book when it arrived, so I can't make any definitive comments yet, but a couple of things have already crossed my mind.

Of course, I went directly to Charlie's piece, just to see what it's about, and I read this at random: "the Clash, far and away the most successful first-generation punk band from a commercial standpoint, have never received their full due from music historians." I know what Charlie's saying here ... the Sex Pistols make a better story, as Charlie says, it's a story that's easy to tell, "a transcendental 'No' screamed at the powers that be." I've been guilty of similar comments myself ... if I was famous enough, Charlie could be talking about me, although he's really talking about Greil Marcus and Lipstick Traces. (Again, I shouldn't already be talking about this stuff, since I haven't actually read it through yet.)

Thing is, I don't think the Clash have been underestimated by music historians. Cultural historians, yes ... for them, Johnny Rotten is the story. But music critics tend to dismiss the Sex Pistols as a few monumental singles, and handful of crap, and nothing more, while the Clash are understood to be the great artists who gave us The Clash, London Calling, and "Complete Control."

Anyway, I can't wait to really read Charlie's article, and the others in the book, which boasts an impressive array of authors, including Chuck D, who does the preface.

But I said that a couple of things crossed my mind. Pauline Kael wrote that "everyone's 'golden age of movies' is the period of his first moviegoing and just before -- what he just missed or wasn't allowed to see." I think this holds true for more than just movies. My first major academic project, the honors thesis for my B.A., was on teenage popular culture in 1950s America ... and I was born in the 50s but don't have many concrete memories of it. And I have an Elvis obsession as well. Perhaps my interest in that decade is driven in part by what Kael refers to: the 50s happened before I was "allowed to see."

Well, Let Fury Have the Hour is full of writing by people who weren't actually old enough to "see" punk in its original milieu. Antonino D'Ambrosio, the book's editor who also wrote eight of the essays, says in the intro, "When punk first became a social and cultural phenomenom in 1976-77, I was five years old and too young to be part of the scene or understand the music that would become an important part of my life only a few years later." I'm always getting Charlie's age wrong by a year, but I think he was nine years old in the crucial year of 1977. Anthony Roman writes of hearing the Clash for the first  time when he was 12. Looking at the bios of the contributors, it would appear that most of the other writers were "of age" in '77, but just between Charlie and D'Ambrosio you've got 1/3 of the pieces in the book.

Of course, this does not negate the value of their criticism, anymore than my thoughts on Elvis would be tainted by the fact I was only three years old in 1956. What it does mean is that some of these people ... and Charlie's working on a book on punk which, if it's as good as the rest of his writing, is going to be a terrific and important text, i.e. he will become an "expert" on punk ... some of these people are writing about punk as an historical moment, at least mid-70s punk.

And that means I'm history. I've written enough about that period ... google "steven rubio punk" and I imagine it'll turn up a few of those pieces ... I don't have to rehash it here. I'll just note that I was a punk wannabe, barely even a marginal outsider, really just a steelworker with a wife and kids who saw the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Avengers and the Ramones and the Dead Kennedys and Patti Smith and Talking Heads and Flipper. But marginal wannabe or not, I was there, I lived through stuff that gets talked about in this book. I'm history.

When someone writes about the Clash making their first trip to America, I was there ... in fact, I was at the very first concert the Clash ever played in the USA. When Greil Marcus, even older than me, writes in the book about the last Clash band (the one after Joe and Paul fired Mick) playing a show in San Francisco in early 1984, I was at that show, too. (I went with someone named Lindsey Humphrey ... I don't suppose anyone reading this remembers her, knows whatever happened to her?)

I'm history.

And while it's cool to be able to say "I was there," it also forces me to confront my biggest fear: you can't be history until you get old. History is what happened back in the day ... if you were alive during history, you are by definition a geezer.

Not to mention the alternate meaning of "I'm history" ... as Prop Joe of The Wire would say, you're a cadaverous motherfucker.

So I'm thrilled to read Charlie's piece, excited to read a book about the great Joe Strummer, but man, I do not like being history.