W.H. Auden wrote, "Poetry changes nothing." Joe Strummer doesn't buy that.
Last Wednesday, Strummer, wearing a Mohawk haircut and what looked like a yellow flak-jacket, led the Clash through a ragged, wandering set at Pier 86. Looking tired and pissed-off, Strummer stopped playing during a few songs, and sang with hands on the microphone, eyes closed, as if he were trying to pretend he was somewhere else.
For a few months in 1977, the Clash were the punk band (just beneath the Sex Pistols, of course). This was working-class fury, this was teenage rebellion, this was rock and roll. But it didn't take long for the English music press to disown the Clash after they signed a contract with CBS records for what were big bills by punk standards. As the band branched out musically, trying to inject melody of all things into punk, they were reviled at home for heresy. "Train in Vain," a love song from the London Calling album was a hit in America, but English rock fans ignored it.
What had the Clash done wrong? They had strayed from the path of political correctness that they themselves had helped establish. English punk was supposed to be overtly political, meaning openly leftist. By writing songs that were less furious musically and with lyrics that were stories about people instead of political manifestos, the Clash earned the scorn of English fans and critics to whom rock is no mere musical form, but in fact a primary propaganda weapon in the ongoing battle against a nebulous them.
What used to be called "new wave" seems to have taken two paths. The first is the one the Clash have tried to follow through most of their career – angry, alienated youth speaking out against the system. The Clash cultivated an image of themselves as representative of the bored English kid, under-educated, unemployed, the little guy who had been screwed by them, the politicians, the bosses and factory-owners, the rich and the powerful. The other school of new rock that emerged in the late 70s, responded to hard times by ignoring them. The most talented practitioner is probably Elvis Costello. Writing songs that are self-consciously "pop" tunes, Costello will sometimes touch on politics, but usually as a metaphor for personal relations. The Clash concerned themselves with the people, the oppressed masses. Costello is interested in particular people within the mass.
Both Elvis Costello and the Clash have released albums this summer and both played in New York in the last two weeks. The concerts said a lot about what vein of rock music seemed richer and also what Auden said about poetry.
The Clash were listless on stage Wednesday night. Strummer seemed annoyed at the crowd, which had responded to a 10-minute-long set by rapper, Kurtis Blow with boos and shouting. The gesture of having a black act open for the band was lost on the white audience. The Clash should have expected no less. When Grandmaster Flash opened for them last summer at Bond's his reception was something less than warm. The way the audience abused Blow created a sour atmosphere that the Clash seemed unable or unwilling to dispel. The group played their old songs without passion and went into extended jams on some of their newer material. The crowd stood up and cheered (especially for the horrific hit single, "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" – another love song) but, the Clash could have cared less. They hurried through the obligatory encores and left.
Costello, who played Forest Hills two weeks ago and did two nights at Pier 86 last week, was in rare form. While some of the fury of his early years seemed to have faded, Costello was confident on stage and sang with power and subtlety. Almost all of the songs he did at Forest Hills were about love, usually love lost or otherwise gone wrong. While Costello occasionally lets himself get cynical, at Forest Hills, both in song selection and performance, he emphasized the romantic aspect of his work. The guarded optimism of his new songs suited him well and his performance was earnest and to the point.
The Clash would probably be horrified to think of their music as entertainment or even art. In a lot of their songs they bemoan or celebrate a situation with a feeling that singing about it will change it. If anything, political rock like the Clash's encourages inaction and apathy. If you listen to a song about El Salvador that encourages you to feel righteous and superior to them – the evil doers, you're safely rid of a fear of that evil. You don't have to do anything when you can sit by your stereo, knowing that you are morally superior to the Salvadoran security police. Far from being agitprop, the Clash's political songs lend themselves to the kind of self-satisfaction that went with the protest songs of the early 60s. The Clash kid their audience that listening to the music will somehow put them on the front lines. The white kids who booed Kurtis Blow can't be the kind of advance guard the Clash had in mind.
Not that there isn't a place for political rock – it just shouldn't take itself with the leaden seriousness that the Clash are being crushed under. It doesn't matter that much. It can comment on situations, reflect situations, say things that are worth saying. But rock and roll by a band that records for a huge conglomerate licenses it's name out for cheap t-shirts and charges people 10 bucks each to see them is not going to overthrow capitalism anytime in the near future.
The Clash seem to appreciate the contradiction but they haven't been able to think of a way out yet. They probably won't until they reconcile themselves to the fact that they can't change the world with their music. Until then they'll probably make a lot of bad albums and put on a lot of boring shows.
Elvis Costello is not in that bind because unlike the Clash, he has not failed to make an intelligent distinction between art and life. Life is what happens to you. Art is how you react to it. Rock songs, not matter how good they are, can't anticipate life, can't get white teenagers from Long Island to fight in South America. Art changes nothing because while it may be about politics. Costello's songs are about his life, not the other way around.
The real difference between Costello and the Clash is that Elvis Costello didn't perform at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium to change anything. It was a good performance of good songs, a two hour dialogue between a performer and an audience. It wasn't a pep rally. Costello didn't sing about love because he thought anyone would leave the show intending to change the nature of romance. Costello's music is a commentary, a reflection of an aspect of life and Costello is smart enough not to mistake the reflection for the real thing.