My friend and I were truly desperate, trying to find something of value on the satellites come Saturday late night. Infomercials, heavy metal's most metallic moments with the bat blood drained from them, surely a documentary on the Clash was what we needed to feel re-invigorated. Yet the documentary on the band produced for the Documentary Channel makes the band about as boring and pasty as they could possibly be, totally PBS'd, as Frank Kogan might call it.
Okay, so when I was coming up, I kept the Rolling Stone 100 Best Albums of the 80s issue beside me at all times, trying to make my 15-year-old punk self choke down The Indestructible Beat of Soweto and Shoot Out the Lights like healthy heaping helpings of broccoli and spinach. Yet despite the hamburger 'n fries at Number One, I never gobbled down and enjoyed London Calling as much as I was told I would. (If anything, the only Clash record I find to be a guilty pleasure is Combat Rock. To this day, "Straight to Hell" gives me chills, while I randomly find myself screaming out loud, "Hey fellas, Lauren Bacall!" Still not sure what that's supposed to mean, but...)
This doc would make anyone hate the Clash though, and it only exacerbates the ridiculous notion of how important it is for white men to grip guitars and "change the world" via playing loud rock in a divebar; is there a more inane sort of legend in music? From the 'scratchy and raw' fonts to the live footage that makes them really indistinguishable from The Who to Def Leppard to Jacob's Mouse to The Arctic Monkeys to (insert angry white UK band here) or... to an outsider, it would prove impossible to explain "the revolution." Not to mention the Clash's attempts at regurgitating their love of reggae so that it clangs out as ham-fisted. Joe Strummer croaks about the brass balls it took for them to do "Police and Thieves"; lord only knows that their youthful metabolism and inability to relax (much less tighten up) make their version border on the intolerable.
It's a shame really, because the story could be important. Just that going into the details of going into the studio on such and such date and playing on a plywood stage is decidedly not. Playing gigs is not what's crucial; it's the culture and community that nurtures such fever dreams and realms of possibilities for a moment that is of interest and importance. What makes ordinary people get up on stage and explode in front of both friends and strangers? (Not sure that it has the answer, but Lipstick Traces does ponder what makes a man start fires.) Bollocks to the story of how the Clash got their drummer; it's the footage of legions of untold folks lost to time mingling and meandering about in torn clothes and jagged black eye-liner that holds our eyes this night. The story of punks interacting with Jamaican culture could be a documentary unto itself; the only titillating bit of the whole program is when the blokes talk about the graphics and iconography of these old Joe Gibbs, Mikey Dread, and Big Youth records.
We switch instead to one of those Time-Life half-hour ads, hoping to find a couple of polyester clips of Harry Chapin, Little River Band, or Billy Paul. Instead, it's the sound of soul, and while watching a clip of Otis Redding, my friend suddenly shrieks: "HOLY SHIT! Did you just see that?" Since she's got the DVR in effect, we rewind back to the footage of Otis Redding going at it with the Bar-Keys behind him. Bent forward, belting in that way of his So. That. Every. Word. Sounds. Capitalized., she pauses it so that we can see it: more than halfway down his thigh, Otis's giant manhood distends his shiny seersucker suit. We laugh uncontrollably, knowing that we'll never hear soul classics like "I've Been Loving You Two Foot Long" and "That's How Strong My Love Muscle Is" in quite the same way again.