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Ellen Foley, No Stupid Girl

In her disco-punk memoir The Importance of Music to Girls, Lavinia Greenlawfrequently dwells on a disconnect, an existential fracture that shapes and even constitutes her self-image; the book maps out her negotiations – some deliberate, some instinctive – among a conflicted mix of adolescent identities, of identifications, that seem to circulate around what it means to be a girl, to be called a girl, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I’m not being tentative when I say seem to: the work of seeming, as both pretending and appearing, is at the crux of her methodical self-fashioning. The book consistently returns to a vocabulary of wanting, of want. Greenlaw depicts herself as a teenaged wannabe, trading costumes, styles and surfaces: always trying, always coming up a bit short. For instance, she articulates her admiration for “Tina,” role-model for nascent disco queens, by collating a wilting deference to peer-pressure with an ersatz Amazonian fierceness:

I was becoming a girl as instructed by girls but I knew I wasn’t a real girl, at least not of this kind. I wanted to be a disco girl like Tina whose every aspect conformed to some golden section of girldom: her height relative to her shape, her prettiness relative to her smartness, her niceness relative to her toughness. Tina offered certainties. She issued instructions on how to dance, who to like and what to wear. . . . Each morning, her face would be retuned – the brightness turned down, the colour turned up – and she would stride into school, her hips and breasts armoured, her hair a winged blonde helmet. I wanted this shell, which she used to attract or deflect at will. To me she was wise and ruthless, a goddess of war.
Those certainties soon become illusory, their surfaces shivered. Greenlaw’s leave-taking from disco (to take up another set of surfaces, another glamour, in punk) involves an accidental collision – a moment of casual violence – with her friend on the dance floor; as she waits for help with her cut face, she catches a glimpse of herself in a washroom mirror: “the face I saw was mine but this was not a reflection. It was too far away, more like some inner self that had slipped free and looked back at me now with my own fundamental sadness.” Mimesis is belied by its own bad promises. What’s fundamental for her, as a girl, what’s essential to who she wants to be, can never be more than pathos in lack: a likeness – “more like some inner self” – that sadly never can or will make herself whole.
         Lavinia Greenlaw’s about my age. My own leap wasn’t from disco but from some sort of sci-fi soft rock – I liked Styx a lot – to punk and after, but the dynamics were roughly the same as hers. Except, of course, for the girl part. I was enabled by the same dynamic as Greenlaw, and I understand her preoccupation with want and fracture, with that fundamental sadness, but I came at it as more of an insider, as a boy. I didn’t seem to need my own version of that armour, and I could choose to identify more directly, though still at some remove, with Joe Strummer or (like Greenlaw) Ian Curtis or with any other self-styled punk frontman.  I perceived the homoeroticism in Pete Townshend’s 1980 song “Rough Boys” as emblematic of a transgressive effeminacy in punk ‘s – particularly the Sex Pistols’ – preoccupation with image, although I am not sure how far I was ever able to follow through on its gender trouble.
Still, I was reminded of this version of the girl problem with the release in November of About Time, Ellen Foley’s first album in about thirty years. (I haven’t listened to the record well enough yet, but it sounds to me so far like the power, the tough richness of her voice has remained undiminished, and I’m so glad to be able to hear her belt out some raw, driving rock and roll again.) Ellen Foley’s return to recording recalls how important her first two albums were to teenaged me – Nightout (1979) and Spirit of St Louis (1981) – as well as her vocal presence on Sandanista! by The Clash (who are essentially her backing band on the second record, which was made while she was dating Mick Jones, billed in the liners as “my boyfriend”). She was the girl, as far as I could see and hear then. Her sound, her image and her sensibility yoked together a seemingly fey prettiness – what Greenlaw says she wanted simultaneously to embrace and to throw off – and a powerfully resilient, gutsy resistance to bullshit effeminacy. Despite appearances, she was nobody’s girl, nobody’s fool.
         There is plenty to say about what Ellen Foley’s music comes to embody, but I want to concentrate on her take on the iconography of the girl. She first made her presence known in pop music as the female interlocutrix on Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and she recorded duets with Ian Hunter (who had produced, and performed on, her debut album, Nightout) and others that extend her role as respondent, as the girl you serenaded but who could out-sing and even out-swagger you back. She performed a version of “We Gotta Get Out of Here” with Hunter on “Fridays,” ABC’s short-lived answer to Saturday Night Live, on May 5, 1980, a performance that suggests much about how Ellen Foley takes on a male-dominated stage.

She comes in half-way through the song – you can catch glimpses of her, back to the audience, waiting to pounce. Most importantly, for me, is her refusal to be subdued, even by Hunter’s obvious recalcitrance. (And it’s important to note that these are rock-and-roll theatrics: Ellen Foley has stressed in a number of interviews how grateful she was to Hunter and to Mick Ronson, and how happy she was with their musical relationship.) At the close of the song, she declares into the mike she’s going to have a dance contest with Hunter, and he turns to face her, but does nothing. Undaunted, she goes ahead and has a dance contest all by herself.
         She seems here in one sense to have donned the blonde armour, the make-up of girlish deference that Greenlaw describes around disco girls, but – strident in her flashy white pantsuit – she also becomes something more in this clip: unshaken, energized, assured. She owns the last minute of that song. This playful, ironic  doubling emerges most tangibly in one of the most memorable covers on Nightout (a song she still performs in concert), the Jagger-Richards penned “Stupid Girl”:
I’m not talking about the kind of clothes she wears 

Look at that stupid girl 

I’m not talking about the way she combs her hair 

Look at that stupid girl
You see the way she powders her nose 

Her vanity shows and it shows 

She’s the worst thing in this whole damn world 
Well, look at that stupid girl
The song first appeared on the Rolling Stones 1966 lp Aftermath, occasioned as both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have separately admitted by their frustration with female fans and with their failed relationships. Prima facie, as the lyrics make obvious, it’s a misogynist rant. Girls are sick and stupid, Keith and Mick tell us, because they’re so shallow, so vain, because of their obsession with image. (Not at all like Mick and Keith. Not at all.) So why would Ellen Foley choose to sing this particular song? Because the thing is, if you listen to her version, backed by snarling guitars and thumping four-on-the-floor kick drums, you get no sense of anything but absolute commitment, of anything but digging in and digging deep. There is nothing vain, nothing insincere about Ellen Foley’s voice. It sounds completely like she means it.
But what exactly can she mean? Because, despite the venomous lyric, what we hear from her isn’t a woman calling others out, sniping at all the Tinas she can’t ever be. She’s singing the admixture of desire and loathing that the Stones song articulates, sure, but she’s also shoving it back in their faces, in their ears, our ears. I remember hearing this song as an adolescent listener, blasting it out of my stereo, and feeling that mixture of toughness and allure that few singers beyond Ellen Foley, in those transitional years, ever managed to catch. In a lip-synched video of “Stupid Girl” made for the Kenny Everett television show in1980, that catches a little of this pushback in its campy staging around body builders and beauty contestants.
When Ellen Foley sings into the beefcake armpit of some muscleman or into the plasticized coiffure of a pretty second runner up that “She purrs like a pussycat / Then she turns ’round and hisses back,” it’s not at all certain whose image – boy, girl or her own – is being confronted and undone. Rather than self-pity, the fundamental sadness that Greenlaw highlights, Ellen Foley offers her audience a means to uncover another certainty, a centredness that the unshakable timbre her voice enacts.
         Mick Jones wrote “Should I Stay or Should I Go” for Ellen Foley. As a provocation, it seems to offer a bitter critique of indecision, of a girlfriend unable to make up her mind and of a boyfriend in thrall to her waffling. I’m assuming the song comes at the end of their relationship, and the recording by The Clash does appear to offer a sort of vindicating, and maybe even vindictive, catharsis for Jones. The thrashing guitars and double time chorus enact a release, a letting go that the lyrics themselves never allow.

A 2007 audience video of Ellen Foley performing “Should I Stay or Should I Go” suggests that her vocal power remains undiminished, and goes a long way to reclaiming her agency, again by taking hold of the song and singing it back at the boy or boys who authored it. More than that, it points to the subtle ways in which the indecisiveness of the lyric comes not from the object of its attention – an interlocutrix who doesn’t really answer back within the framework of the song – but from its male persona, who stays bugged by his own irresolution, by the unsatisfied involution of his own desire. When he says that if he stays there will be trouble, but if he goes it will be double, he’s pointing – at least when we hear the song with Ellen Foley’s voice in mind, in our mind’s ear – to the essential conflict, the trouble, around heteronormative desire, around gender and identity, that Greenlaw’s memoir confronts, and into which it sometimes spins and stalls – the difficult importance of music to girls.  And for me, that importance, that insistence, sounds something like the intensity, like the depth and like the ruthless beauty of Ellen Foley’s voice.

Short Take on John Coltrane, Sun Ship: The Complete Sessions

I have it from a reliable source that at one point during his speech at the ACRL conference in Indianapolis this past March, Henry Rollins re-emphasized the significant impact on his life of the music of The Clash and of the music of John Coltrane. The latter might be a bit surprising, although Rollins did record Everythingwith Charles Gayleand Rashied Ali in 1996, so Coltrane has been with him all along. He has said that he first heard Coltrane from records his mother owned, but that what he took from Coltrane’s music wasn’t spiritual or even musical, but a kind of directness, a fierce honesty that models intense communication: “I am not a musician. I have written a lot of songs but it’s just to get the words out. I always admired Coltrane for his truth and his purity. He was really going for something. He is inspiring because you can tell every moment he plays is sincere. I have never heard anything like it.” (The same thing might even be said for Joe Strummer’s gruff, insistent, committed vocals.) As far as my own listening goes, I think I have been struggling (or maybe something less agonistic: aspiring) to reconcile the collisions of Coltrane and The Clash, conflicted aesthetics aimed at what I tend to divide into the transcendent and the world-bound, the excessive and the mundane, contemplative restraint and expressive intensity. One conceptual trajectory that might bridge such bifurcations is the idea, and the practice, of what I’d call commitment. It became a key word in my Embouchureproject, and it makes a kind of sense, for me, to re-invoke it here. One of the reasons I have picked up on what Henry Rollins has to say about Coltrane’s music is that his tastes, his preferences, seem to coincide with my own: he says he is most drawn to late Coltrane, post 1964. And he’s consistently skeptical about any all-too-easy professions of enlightenment or poetic transport: he’s no mystic, but a demystifier. That doesn’t make his work any less searching, any less committed to honest, hard engagement with a will to truth, to truthfulness. But it does depend on how you understand what and when and how that truth might be.

The recent release of the “complete” studio recordings for John Coltrane’s Sun Ship – first issued in edited form posthumously, in 1971 – aims materially toward full disclosure of historical and music fact, to paint a vivid, truthful sound-picture of the improvisatory collective creative process of the Coltrane-Tyner-Garrison-Jones quartet by offering for public issue every listenable scrap of music and studio chatter extant on tape. This is definitely a music of plenitudes: the huge swathes of saxophone, the dense piano, the rolling bass-lines and the surging drums characteristic of the quartet’s last days together, and of the music Coltrane made from 1964 until his death in 1967. The session that produces Sun Ship takes place on 28 August 1965, and, apart from a first pass at the “Meditations” suite on September 2 (issued later as First Meditations), this is the last time the “classic” Coltrane quartet will record together as a unit. (McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones will leave in November, replaced by Alice Coltrane and Rashied Ali: all of this information is well-known, and well-circulated.) So in so many respects, this music has immense historical value and interest, and every detail is worth hearing. Even the fragments and outtakes can be heard as stunning performances unto themselves. The false starts and apparent missteps overflow with powerful, potent music. Everything happens.

         It’s tempting to want to hear what Walter Benjamin might have called a messianic totality in these recordings, a vital archival gathering of historical minutiae – the digital imprint of every essential sonic particle – into an absolute and audible present. We can imagine ourselves there, as we listen – or can imagine the “there” of those searching performances now here, relocated in our own immediate moments. That’s how recording works, sure, but the idea of a “complete” package such as this one is to seem to place us, aurally, in close proximity to the music’s realization. And it works, of course: McCoy Tyner’s solos on both versions of “Sun Ship” are astounding instances of extemporaneous dynamism, but more than that they refuse to settle even on repeated listenings, re-creating the sound of surprise – at each return, they still never sound the same, even though they must be. Historical value collapses into what feels like an exploratory, unsettled present tense. Hearing Jimmy Garrison patiently evolve and re-shape his solo prelude to “Ascent” reaffirms his careful attention to depth of tone, to the rounded resonances of his instrument; in his ensemble work, too, I can hear foreshadows of William Parker’s elastic sense of time and line (in his recordings with David S. Ware or his In Order to Survive quartet). But that influence also seems to dissolve in the palpable immediacy of Garrison’s playing.

   What strikes me most about this session both works against and strangely reinforces this idea of a reanimated plenitude, of a musical Jetztzeit. A little of the studio banter was included in the original release of Sun Ship, but now most tracks contain extended snippets of “studio conversation”; rather than mar the music in any way – they don’t, of course – and rather than merely let us hear bits of the musicians’ speaking voices, as if they are with us again in our own sound-spaces, the loose fragments of casual chatter present a stark contrast to the intensities of the performances. The quartet can shift on a dime from chuckling about a track title to overwhelmingly powerful improvisation. How is it, I keep asking myself, that a music of such depth and wonder can co-exist so unproblematically with the casual and the mundane? Though maybe, maybe, that seemingly effortless coexistence is exactly what this music can teach us, can let us overhear.

Ear Trumpet

What follows is pretty much the text of a 12-minute presentation I gave on 19 October 2011 at the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference. I thought I was supposed to talk about poetics, but most of the other presenters gave short readings. As if to compensate, I very presciently included two poems in the talk: “Embouchure” and “The Clash Takes Kerrisdale.” An audio file of the presentation can be heard if you’re so inclined on my website, www.kevinmcneilly.ca. And here is the presentation.


So, there is a lot to be said and very little time to say it. Which seems to me, to start with, to be one of the prime virtues of poetry, or at least of the poetry that I think I want to practice: its intensity.

Vertu (not its near-homonym virtu) once meant, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s urbane Middle English, something like strength or intensity, or maybe life-force. (Machiavelli even takes up a latter-day, more cynically urbane sense of the term in The Prince.) April rainshowers, say the famous opening lines of Chaucer’s big prologue, have “bathed every veine in swich licour / of which vertu engendred is the flour.” Closer to us, Dylan Thomas translates and refigures vertu, almost as famously, as “force”: “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower . . . .” When I first heard Thomas reading that exact poem on LP – checked out from the public library in Truro, Nova Scotia, for two weeks when I was fifteen, in the midst of my own green age – I began I am sure now to feel that force, that intensity, not simply as a kind of pubescent, sappy, erotically-charged nature, but as something more essentially verbal, as a particular sort of audible wetness, a mouth music. I liked how he sounded.
I have a story. I was once in a bar with Don McKay. This sounds like a repurposed Al Purdy story, but it isn’t. Don was my teacher, and I was a graduate student at Western; the bar was an ersatz English pub called Chaucer’s, in London, Ontario. This was a while ago, at a point in my life when I know I was consistently trying too hard. I was trying to impress Don by telling him spiffy things about poetry, and he was politely listening to whatever it was I was saying. I somehow got on to Dylan Thomas, about whom I knew Don had written. I thought I might impress him with my newfound graduate student dismissiveness, which I believed he might take for a sign of burgeoning critical acumen. I made some offhand remark about “all that Dylan Thomas shit.” I actually meant it as a kind of complement to Thomas, in a sort of punk-jazz streetwise argot, which for some reason utterly lost on me now I thought seemed appropriate. Now that I reiterate it, though, it’s more or less just plain shameful, but that’s pretty much how I said it. And as soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I had miscalculated. So. Don set his beer down, gently, and, still looking at his glass, said calmly, “Well, I wouldn’t say that.” At that moment, I think I learned two important things. First, you shouldn’t pretend to say things you don’t mean. And, second, the poets I admire take poetry, all poetry, seriously. It’s something like an article of faith to them. (I want to say, to us. But I can`t quite.) Those poets tend to mean what they say.
Jayne Cortez says that saying what you mean, that voice, is a matter of putting your mouth on paper, which is an idea I like plenty. But I also think that voice is a matter of lifting your mouth off the paper again, and of maybe having left a bit of yourself – a little slaver, say – behind: phonic fibrils, a dissolute, salivary ink. Voice is a species of contact or exchange, fleshed out liminally and even awkwardly across the page. Swapped spit, an embouchure. This poem, “Embouchure,” opens a collection of the same name, which is a sequence of historically-minded impersonations of jazz trumpeters from the early twentieth century. For me, the poem lays claim to a kind of embodied poetic.
You get as good lip
service as you give.
Chops will ever out the fake:
                           the put-on
line never cut grace
notes from a sloppy
wad of clams. Trued up,
a well flubbed phrase ought
to betray nothing
more than lacquered horn,
the schwa blat of hand-
polished, open brass.
Style takes care of its own;
chops make the rep.
An off mouthpiece can cut
you like shrapnel.
Know the hard limits
of your instrument,
and work its righteous edges.
Be the pro.
Then come the call,
let rip a proper lick.
Commit.
It seems like this poem might just be about the difficulty of playing a trumpet, which is a notoriously hard instrument from which to get a deliberate, workable sound, and on which to find something like a voice. But this poem is actually more or less about how I think I want to write. It feels to me like, whether or not you can finish it out, the poetic gesture begins, as this poem ends, with a specific commitment. As Charles Wright puts it in his elegy to another trumpet player, Miles Davis, we need to confront “those two dark syllables, begin,” as syllables, and commit to the verbal arc of line, of strophe, of page. Mouth to mouth.
Commitment often has its politics, hazy though they may sometimes be. My other main source of poetic drive, and of its cultural politics, when I was adolescent, was Joe Strummer, was The Clash. I like music. When Jacqueline Turner was convening this panel, over e-mail, she suggested we read new work. Here is an unpublished, narrative piece called “The Clash Takes Kerrisdale,” which is – as you might be able to hear – also a response to some other forebears, whom I try to take seriously, and at their word.

The Clash Takes Kerrisdale – 26 June 1982 
                                                                              Du mußt dein Leben ändern. —Rainer Maria Rilke
                                                                              Will the dead poets notice our lines appearing among them,
                                                                               Or are their ears filled with their own music?
                                                                               —George Bowering, Kerrisdale Elegies, 2
            With Topper sacked, Paul and Mick wouldn’t stop
bickering backstage like a pair of married wanks.
            The whole set pretty much sucked now. When Joe
                        snarled “Career Opportunities”
                                    into his taped-up mike
            nobody in the makeshift mosh pit looked
as if they’d ever get wise to the in-joke: four
                                    self-styled punk rock warlords
                        who’d eviscerate all comers
from naff dandies to mohawked hypocrites, slagging
            the replicant rock stars they couldn’t help
becoming even if they’d wanted to. They talked
            the roadies and stagehands into scrawling
the band’s last will and testament in red spray-paint
            on a backdrop of quilted flags they had
suspended from the arena rafters (beside
            the minor-league pennants and a mock-up
                                    of local hockey jock
                        Cyclone Taylor’s retired jersey):
            a graffiti patchwork of song titles
like “Clash City Rockers,” “Safe European Home,”
            “Jail Guitar Doors” and “Police on My Back” —
                        the greatest hits they never had
                                    and never thought they would.
            When Mick asked, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,”
they all knew the answer. A Kerrisdale skating rink,
            somewhere in white-bread west coast Canada,
was no substitute for the Hammersmith Palais.
            True to form, Joe finished by mouthing off
                        about the art of politics,
                                    the politics of art.
                        Each show like this left them less sure
                                    they’d ever changed the world.

The point, for me, isn’t the despair of quietism, but to confront, poetically, the very possibility of commitment, this time as a poetic article of faith, but of a very particular kind. “Art and the planet tell us,” P. K. Page writes in her Simon Fraser convocation address, “change your life.” She’s translating Rilke’s archaic torso, as he attends to his own artistic imperative, but if you look to the original German Du mußt dein Leben ändern – the poem’s demand is not only that we change, poetically, but also more literally that we live otherwise. You must make yourself other than who you are. And it’s that otherwise, the discomfiting of self and of voice, that haunts me, both as an earful of gentle shame and as a mouthy plenitude. It’s what makes me want to write.