ESSAY: This Knife of Sheffield Steel

We exist as a people through our stories and through our songs, and for this reason I will always regret siding with Joe Strummer against Mick Jones in the Clash break-up of 1982.

The charges were as follows. People said, or actually Joe said that Mick was behaving in unClashlike ways, bringing in songs and tapes that sounded nothing like the Clash. His political commitment was said to be flagging. We all loved Mick, just as we loved Topper and Paul, but there could be no doubt that Joe Strummer was the ideological center of the band, the one that Columbia Records promoted, infamously, as "the only band that matters." If you had to choose, choosing against Joe was inconceivable. Anyway, Mick always did look too much like the rock star, and his rock star leaps and rock star good looks sometimes made you wonder that if punk had never happened Mick might have enjoyed life just fine as lead guitarist for Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Rod Stewart. Also, he dated an American television starlet. But as quick as that thought came you banished it, because you really couldn't think of the Clash without Mick either. After all, Joe and Mick had met standing in line for the dole. They wrote together, and the principle author sang it on the record, just like Lennon and McCartney. And Joe, for all of his determined political vision, did come from the middle class, whatever that was in England in the 1970s, and his father had some job in the Foreign Service. Mick was the working class hero, not Joe.

So Joe fired Mick, and people like me who adored the Clash took sides, and a year later pretty much everyone, even Joe Strummer, agreed that Joe Strummer had basically gone nuts and destroyed the only band that mattered for no good reason.

Mick formed his own band, called Big Audio Dynamite, and even though it sounded awfully slick I bought their record and played it often. By now it was the middle of the 1980s and music, like everything else, had to change. At least Mick was making records, whereas Joe had started wearing a Mohawk and wandering the streets of Paris like a madman. Or at least, so the stories went.

Mick took BAD on the road, and played his new songs, along with some Prince covers, and ignored shouted requests for his Clash masterpieces "Stay Free" or "Lost in the Supermarket." The Clash faithful attended his shows and prayed for a magical reunion of Joe and Mick, a burying of the hatchet through a blistering set of "London Calling" and "Death or Glory" and "Garageland" and "White Man in Hammersmith Palais." Those prayers were unanswered.

Finally Joe emerged from his lost year with a new band, a band he insisted on naming the Clash. It had five people, and the new guys looked really young. "It took two guitarists to replace Mick," Joe said, in a kind of peace offering.

They issued a record in 1986, "Cut the Crap." I bought it the day it came out, hoping for the best, but also, after reading the song titles on the A train, especially one called "We Are the Clash," fearing the worst.

That song and most of the others were terrible. A bunch of random, stupid noise, dim lyrics and it all made you miss Mick Jones and his guitar very, very much. But somehow, buried amid the rubble of that disastrous, ill-conceived project was the stunning "This is England." It's a miracle of a song, one of the best Joe Strummer ever wrote.

On a catwalk jungle,
Somebody grabbed my arm
A voice spoke so cold it matched the
Weapon in the palm
This is England
This knife of Sheffield steel
This is England
This is how we feel

Strummer's voice-resigned but still somehow defiant-convey what the lyrics can only suggest: the pain and defeat of the endless Thatcher years that followed the burst of hope that punk represented for a brief moment in the late 1970s.

In "This is England" you hear the music of failed revolution. The song captures the grief and sadness of living amid the ruins of that defeat, of community torn asunder, of dreams turning into nightmares, of hope mocked and finally destroyed.

In a verse that Strummer mangles even more than usual-he's got quintessentially bad English teeth that led one writer to compare his mouth to a bottle opener-this leaps out of the song: "I got my motorcycle jacket but I'm walking all the time."

Dig that.

I think about Joe's motorcycle jacket a lot these days. I think about it when I watch the tedious, mediocre hours of Ted Turner's "The Native Americans" or when I see yet another coffee table book on the Wisdom of the Elders.

The Indian movement of the 1970s had a lot in common with punk. They both came out of nowhere, taking the experts by surprise. They both celebrated democracy. A central message of punk was that anyone could form a band. And during the free for all demonstrations at Alcatraz, Wounded Knee and a hundred other protests, any Indian who cared to join was welcome. The Sex Pistols put "God Save the Queen" (the rest of the chorus went "and the fascist regime") in the British Top Ten during the Queen's Silver Jubilee. The American Indian Movement, in the wake of Wounded Knee, promised to "blow the candles out on America's Bicentennial."

Looking back it is hard to imagine how real those threats seemed at the time, and how many lives were changed by Joe Strummer and Russ Means and Johnny Rotten and Clyde Bellecourt. The freedom those chaotic rebellions offered, the sense of adventure and possibility, the chance to reinvent your own life and rewrite your own future, seem now to be so distant, so far away from our present circumstances that those events are almost like some kind of misremembered hallucination.

History records that England survived and the music industry adapted just fine. The verdict on our cultural revolution, however, is elusive. Or maybe not so elusive. As some tell it, we won big. We won the right to be who we want to be (whatever that is), and our culture is viewed with respect. The evidence for all this: the sympathetic movies, the national Indian museum in Washington, casinos and the brisk new step in our walk, strike me as unconvincing.

For me, they are little more than shiny baubles handed out at a treaty signing. The Indian movement that frightened corporations and governments had specific targets and specific goals. That movement sought power, and a change in the material conditions of Indian people. Punk's anger, likewise, was grounded in a social critique of capitalism and the British status quo. After its demise, poseurs like Billy Idol stole from punk and made millions, while a new wave of British glam kids seemed to epitomize everything the Reagan/Thatcher gulag stood for. Punk was about much more than wearing razor blades as jewelry and playing bad guitar. Punk, at its most vibrant peak, was a matter of life and death.

So to has much of the Indian artistic and intellectual world ignored this central question of power, and taken on the trappings of a radical critique without any real substance or targets or objectives, unless you think arguing that the earth should be treated with respect or we got a bad deal from history or our religion is better than your religion keeps government officials and bank presidents up at night.

The most interesting thing about contemporary Indian discourse to me is what's missing. Except on the most local level, there is virtually no Indian journalism being practiced that explores our situation as we live it. (I think we have taken this no written tradition rather too literally, and should get over it.)

For example, credible reports suggest that on some large western reservations, an astounding percentage-perhaps a tenth-of the population suffers from a kind of incurable mental retardation, brought on by heavy drinking of mothers during pregnancy. Poverty, for vast numbers of Indians, is virtually unchanged in the last twenty years. (Pine Ridge in South Dakota ranked in the 1990 census as the poorest county in the United States, the same position it occupied in the 1980 census.)

When asked recently for his views on the debate over political correctness, the African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates said that for the many blacks living in desperate situations, this issue had all the relevance that a dispute over interior decorating would have for a homeless man. It's an answer that should resonate in our community, one full of pedestrians wearing motorcycle jackets, with special force.

I admire most about The Clash their attempt to maintain political and artistic integrity in the ruthless, commercial world of pop music. That they knew the battle was practically hopeless there can be no doubt; listen to Joe sing from the first album a valentine to all the rip-off artists already in line clamoring to make a quick buck: "Ha, you think it's funny/Turning rebellion into money." And you can only imagine what Joe must have thought in the fall of 1990. During the build-up to the Persian Gulf War, the U.S. military opened a radio station in Kuwait for the troops. The first song played every morning was a Strummer/Jones hit from the early 1980s called "Rock the Casbah." In an eerie television war that claimed tens of thousands of lives-no more than a few dozen of them American-U.S. troops rocked off to battle to a song by The Clash. For a radical anti-imperialist like Strummer, that kind of thing could ruin your whole day. (Coincidentally, a certain Indian tribe in Oklahoma, ironically one that briefly in the early part of this century had tremendous oil wealth and whose members were compared to Kuwaitis, made the American General of Operation Desert Storm, Norman Schwartzkopf a tribal member and gave him an Indian name and a headdress.)

Probably, Indian art with some kind of integrity makes Joe's endeavor look like a walk in the park. Indian artists have to create a space for the art to exist and to be received as well as make the art, and how do you do that? But at least the difficulty can be acknowledged. Instead I see too many artists professing to have overcome the challenges and deny their feel-good paintings or guilt-wrenching sculptures or anthropological photographs could ever be decoration. And as far as turning genocide into money, well, perish the thought.

Paul Chaat Smith

A Nation to Nation event in collaboration with Oboro and Circle Vision Arts Corporation