Rockin’ Rebels: These are not frivolous times. The popularity of escapist music by the Bee Gees, Chic, Boston and the rest of the businessmen topping the charts tends to drive that point home. Surrounded on all sides by crisis, be it the smothering conditions of a mindless job, the withering environment or alienated personal/social situations, Americans choose to fill their leisure time with fantasy: home pong games, redundant TV fare, wacky, socially uncritical comedians, back-to-the-Fifties films (Animal House, Superman, Star Wars) and the rhinestone flash of flacid, two-faced rock stars.
But still the terrors persist: cult suicides, nuclear accidents, falling space junk, insane snipers and technological breakdowns (such as the recent BART embarrassment). You can’t shake them by retreat into the corporate created opiates.
That rock and roll has, for the most part, become one of these opiates, a numbing narcotic where it once stood for rebellion, is an outrage. For anyone who ever rallied around Dylan, the Beatles or the Stones: spurred on by the rebel stance to question their own lives, the popularity of groups and singers who reinforce the conservatism of our crumbling political/social structures should be appalling.
Still, there are a few optimistic signs. Like the Beatles and the Stones who came from across the sea to disrupt American culture a decade and a half ago, Elvis Costello and the Clash landed on U.S. shores last week, ready to take on complacency. The Clash call their first U.S. tour "Pearl Harbor Tour/1979," while the new Elvis calls his "Armed Funk Tour." These are sonic warriors trying to shake up and wake up a placid generation.
The Clash are possibly the most politically aware rock and roll band that has ever existed. They direct their attention to critical issues: unemployment, the image of the U.S. as wonderland, that is fostered on the rest of the world, terrorism, oppression, the gaps between cultures, as well as more personal issues such as the gap between who the Clash are and who their fans think they are.
Rooted in a Sixties comradery that is quite apparent in live performance, the Clash offer the possibility of successful collective activism. A ceiling high backdrop made of flags from all over the world hung behind the group at the Berkeley Community Theater last week, a symbol of their positive stand for a world united.
Prior arrangement with Bill Graham’s organization insured that the crowd would be allowed to rush the stage and fill the aisles with out the typical verbal harassment and physical pushing and shoving that Graham’s security force are infamous for.
The aisles were immediately filled with fans and for the duration of the hour-plus performance, the front fourth of the crowd stood and danced to the aggressive, brazen rock and roll.
Because the Clash deliver their lyrics so indecipherably, it is easy to misread songs like "Tommy Gun" and "Guns on the Roof" as anarchistic calls to arms and pro-terrorist rhetoric. But actually, the Clash abhor violence. In "Tommy Gun," a song about terrorism, the Clash sing, "I seen all the innocents, human sacrifice/ If death comes so cheap, then the same goes for life."
Elvis Costello, like the Clash, is passionately concerned with abuses of power. But while the Clash deal in broad social/political commentary, Costello turns his attention to the crucial connections between the political world and it’s impingement on our most personal, intimate moments.
"Green Shirt," on Costello’s brilliant, recent, album, Armed Forces, carries this connection to its extreme. Costello paints a ghastly world where everyone is under observation, a possible candidate for "the torture table." Alone with a possible lover, the narrator of the song constantly mistakes her for an interrogator. "I never said I was a stool pigeon/ I never said I was a diplomat," he says defensively. This 1984-styled world won’t let up; psychically or physically. "Everybody’s under suspicion/ But you don’t want to hear about that." Even the ecstasy of sex can’t eclipse the omnipresent dread. "You can please yourself," sings Costello’s character. "But somebody’s gonna get it."
At the Berkeley Community Theater, wearing his black rimmed librarian glasses, a slightly oversized Fifties styled grey sport coat and black and white striped shirt, Costello resembled a mod, angry Buddy Holly. But if he looks meek, he speaks with an aggressive, vindictive power that few of his contemporaries can match.
Costello and his band, the Attractions, turned in musically compelling versions of most of his new album, two older songs, "Radio, Radio" and "Lipstick Vogue" and an instant classic, "I Stand Accused."
But the razor edged tension that infused Costello’s Winterland appearance last year was missing. Possibly the limitations of the Berkeley Community Theater where performers have difficulty getting energy back from the seated audience, was the problem.
(Graham’s security goons had apparently suffered amnesia concerning their restraint at the Clash concert. For the Costello show they actively pushed and shoved anyone who stepped into the aisles back to their seats.)
The most compelling performance was "Party Girl," a song apparently inspired by Costello’s current affair with model Bebe Beull. This song, in which Costello attempts to exorcise the guilt he feels for having fallen for one of the "party girls" he so bitterly attacks in previous songs, succeeds because it admits to Costello’s (and our) inability to always sync an ideological stance with desires and needs.
Like the Clash, who sing in "Hate and War," "If I close my eyes/ It will not go away," Costello is, ultimately, trying to make his listeners conscious. He admits that we cannot always act morally, but at least we can be aware of when we succeed and when we fail. In "Accidents Will Happen," he sings, "It’s the damage that we do and never know/ It’s the words that we don’t say/ That scare me."