“London calling, yes, I was there, too
An' you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!”
--The Clash,“London Calling”
They were days of shock and awe, horror and heartbreak. Yeatsian times; the falcon loosed wild from the falconer, flying stunned and headlong into a broken sky. The shape of things to come.
Carla switched on the hotel room TV, habitually. Our interview day in Milan was supposed to start in a few minutes and she was biding time, surfing channels. She reached CNN. Smoke bellowed from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. She quickly came down the hall and knocked on my door, “You have to come, now.” Together we watched the second plane crash into the second tower. The unreal in real-time. That was the point when all obvious orientation seemed to disappear.
We were in Milan to do interviews for the latest Walkabouts album, but of course those plans were scuttled very quickly, and we huddled in the small hotel lobby with a rag tag group of foreigners watching, hour after hour, of the repetitive, hypnotic news feed, the grisly facts confirmed and re-confirmed.
We were sure our flight the next day was going to be cancelled, but somehow we slipped through the long chaotic lines, and were flagged on--though with some delay--to Barcelona. As we waited to board the flight in the business class lounge (it was an out-of-the-ordinary wrinkle that we were directed there), the ubiquitous CNN news feed droned loudly, giving both shape to the collective confusion and damning our inability to do a blessed thing about it. At some point, I just started crying. Not loudly, but with an unaccustomed fullness. I let the tears fall until there weren’t any more and then I wiped my eyes with my forearm.
The next morning, we left Barcelona for Lisbon. There was a relative calming that could be sensed in the Barcelona airport. It was still terribly confused, but the sense of panic seemed to have slightly ebbed. But on the shuttle bus out to the plane, the new world in which we now lived, dawned sadly.
Two bearded Middle Eastern men wearing jellabiyas walked onto the over-crowded shuttle. The whole bus shared a silent gasp. There were lightening quick glances from passenger to passenger, but no one dared to stare straight on at the two new arrivals. At least they were given that much dignity. Our reluctant imaginations surged towards conclusions of violence. We sweated fear and we sweated shame. Mostly shame.
Two days later, Carla and I rose at 3:00 in the morning to head to the Lisbon airport for a flight to London. The airlines had notified us that, because of additional security measures, we needed to be there at least four hours before our flight. Sleep deprivation gave us an extra layer of patience, and we drifted, woozy, through military body searches and doubled-up x-raying of baggage. We arrived at Heathrow and took the commuter train to Paddington Station. That was the last plane we would need to catch for a few days, and we felt massively relieved, even giddy.
It was coffee time. We sat ourselves down at a café on the outer edge of the station hall, our chairs facing the morning rush of business suits and backpacked students. I was staring off in one direction, Carla the other. She then elbowed me, and leaned in, whispering,
“That’s Joe Strummer.”
“Look straight ahead, but don’t make it obvious.”
And yes, there he was: 5-meters or less in front of us, passing quickly, his head tilted down, the morning newspaper locked under his arm. Intent. Intense. As one would imagine a revolutionary rock and roll poet might be.
We watched Joe Strummer of The Clash—one of my most beloved music idols, from one of rock’s most influential bands—disappear into the faceless, teaming crowd of Paddington Station. Just another commuter catching the morning train.
I turned to Carla and said “wow,” and Carla said “wow” right back, and that was that. Almost.
Moments later I stood up. I was going to look for a pay phone so I could call the hotel to see if we could check into the rooms early. Yes, this was 2001. I wandered into the middle of the station bustle, made a 360-degree view of the scene, didn’t see any obvious sign of a phone and turned back around. I started walking towards the café and as Carla came into my sights, I guess the aforementioned giddiness took over.
As I walked toward her, I went into an air-guitar pose. It was a very specific air guitar pose. I was miming Joe Strummer’s guitar style. The Fender telecaster strung way low, the right-arm pushing down hard and blunt onto the strings. Then I did something even more uncharacteristic: I started to sing out loud.
“London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared and battle come down
London calling to the underworld…”
As soon as the first words escaped my throat, Carla started to exaggeratedly point with her index finger to the left of me. She was also mouthing something, but it was indecipherable. At first I had no idea what to make of this, and for a few moments I continued to sing aloud, play air guitar and walk my jagged line forward. I was venting all the terrible dread and frustration and sadness of the previous week; channeling it through the words and defiant body language of one of my heroes. But of course, a few seconds later, I did turn my head, and what I witnessed, is something I will never forget.
There was Joe Strummer, staring straight at me. He was little more than a few steps away. My mouth froze. My arms collapsed. His eyes were sharp, and his face spoke something I can only call fear. Not mortal fear. Not an-animal-backed-into-a-corner fear, but fear nevertheless. When he could see that I obviously realized who he was, he sized me up one last time, and then bolted quickly towards the open passageway that led to the street.
I stood there mute. Blank-faced. Gutted.
But it’s not over yet. This next part is the part that nobody ever believes. Less than a month later, I was walking down one of the endless transit hallways in London’s Heathrow airport. This time, I had a guitar case on my back. I remember the hallway being quite empty and a fair distance ahead, walking toward me, I saw three men together, animated in conversation. The one in the middle was of shorter stature and also had a guitar case strapped to his back. As we all approached each other, it became clear who the guitar player was: Joe Strummer.
And when the moment came that we actually passed each other, I couldn’t look away, and in fact my gaze went straight at him. And for a split second his verbal flow ebbed, and Strummer turned, and I saw those clear, sharpened eyes again. And I swear at some primal level he recognized me. Of course not necessarily as the kook from Paddington Station, and not in the way I would have desired, as a comrade, as a fellow traveler. But a visceral response was triggered, and in that moment of instinct he saw me - for a second time - as something I am not: a person to be feared.
“Yes I'd stay an' be a tourist, but I can't take the gunplay”
--The Clash,“Safe European Home”
Whatever jolts I might have given Joe Strummer on those two occasions in London, they certainly didn’t compare to what he experienced in 1977, when he ventured to Kingston, Jamaica with his partner in crime in The Clash, Mick Jones. That experience was raw and resonant enough that Strummer and Jones actually wrote a song about it.
“Safe European Home” is the opening track on The Clash’s second album, “Give ‘Em Enough Rope.” It is the first song that I ever heard by the band. It was the start of what became my hardcore Clash addiction. They were a band that staked everything on their ability to “matter,” and for several breathless years, they were one of the fundamental soundtracks of my life. I saw them play their first show in Seattle. I saw them open for the Who in a ridiculously ill-suited sports arena called the Kingdome. I travelled to London in the autumn of 1981, and scrounged a ticket to their infamous, seven-night stand at the Lyceum. In London, punk was already nostalgia at that point, and the concert became a stare down between the purists of the band’s early work and those that were willing to come along with the pan-global vision of the later albums. The purists pummeled Strummer with constant spitting from the first song onwards, a pointed reminder of where he came from. After a half-dozen songs, I had enough and reached for the mouth of one of the skin-headed offenders. He of course came right back at me, and suddenly I was crushed and lifted by the surge of the crowd. I found myself shaking and gasping for air in the corridor.
Like so many Clash songs, “Safe European Home” comes crashing out the speakers, forceful and full of pent-up rage and anxiety. But the opening lines of the lyric make it clear that this is not another one of their classic state-of-the-world anthems, but rather an off-beat travelogue of a personal journey gone awry.
Most of the song is structured as a call-and-response, a musical trick more akin to gospel or traditional music from the African Sahel, than late 70s British punk rock.
Call (Strummer): “Well, I just got back an I wish I never leave now”
Response (Jones) “Where’d you go?”
Call (Strummer): “And who that Martian arriving at the airport?”
Response (Jones): “Where’d you go?”
And it’s not until the lifting chorus that we find out the answer to Jones’s question:
“I went to the place where every white face
is an invitation to robbery,
an' sitting here in my safe European home
I don't wanna go back there again”
Strummer, the brash, no-bullshit punk rocker who had lived by wits alone since he was a teenager, saw much of his bravado short-circuit when he arrived in Jamaica. He was in over his head, spooked, unable to distinguish friend from foe, and the real from the imagined. He described the red-hot atmosphere in an interview: “When me and Mick went to Jamaica, I was quite convinced we were going to die…we get there and we’re driving through Trenchtown and I glance up at this wall and just see this one word ‘BLOOD.’” The trip was supposed to have been a pilgrimage deep into the heart of the reggae culture that Strummer and Jones worshiped, but they never got over their pervading sense of dread, and ended up spending most of their time at the hotel compound, poolside. Mere tourists.
Were they being obscenely careful? Were they too immature to reasonably assess the situation? Was there a severe cultural misread going on? Are “open minds,” noble intentions and rational risk assessments almost automatically upended, when we encounter different cultures and skin colors? Will “who we aren’t” and “what we fear,” forever be one in the same?
While certainly facts and fears don’t always align, Kingston was without doubt a murderous place when Strummer and Jones ventured there. Their read of the situation was not completely misguided. Armed gangs ran riot throughout the impoverished shantytowns, fighting deadly turf wars to defend their criminal interests while, at the same time, lending muscle to the battling political parties of Prime Minister Michael Manley (PNP) and his rival Edward Seaga (JLP). But the two youthful musicians never got even close to that action, and were ready to cut and run almost upon arrival. Back to London, back to what they perceived as safety.
But the unintended irony of “Safe European Home” is that Europe itself was experiencing its own flash of politically-charged assassinations, bombings and kidnappings during that same period in the late 70s. The main perpetrators where the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Red Brigade in Italy, Basque separatists in Spain and a steady run of plane hijackings by the PLO that either originated or tragically ended at European airports.
“Safe European Home?”
Well, not exactly. And the situation that Strummer and Jones had left in Great Britain (and wanted to flee back to) was arguably even more anxious than it was on the continent. While the Irish Republican Army’s campaign of violence took an eerie pause in 1977, the previous year had seen several train bombings in London, and a particularly gruesome incident at the crowded Earl’s Court exhibition hall, where a bomb detonated in a garbage can had maimed 70 people.
Our fears are rarely judicious and discerning, and our primal responses have deep contradictions and prejudice. All conditions being equal, we are unquestionably far more afraid of the unfamiliar than the well-tramped.
Following the tragic terrorist incidents of the last nine months, in Paris and Brussels, those cities tourist industries are now steadily rebounding. But Istanbul, which has experienced its own run of horrors, has been almost emptied of European and American tourists. Estimates of the decline range up to 60 or 70%, and that was before the recent coup attempt. I was in Istanbul a couple of weeks after the coup, in the height of the summer season, and the 30-room hotel we were staying in had only four other guests. Social media and world leaders drummed up solidarity and full-embraces for the wounded European capitals, but for Turkey and Mali and Kenya, there has been only resounding silence and sternly-worded travel advisories.
It took me some time to figure out what Strummer was going on about in “Safe European Home.” The singer’s diction was usually sacrificed to the “fury of the hour,” and there wasn’t a lyric sheet included with the record. Once I got the gist of things though, my teenaged self was more than a little disappointed. It didn’t seem very “On The Road” (I knew, by that point, Strummer was a huge Kerouac fan) or for that matter very “punk rock” to idealize domestic tranquility over the unknown promises of a great adventure. And as I began writing this piece, I wondered if Strummer ever regretted writing the song? Was he eventually a bit ashamed about his display of selective logic and borderline xenophobia? I decided to do some digging. In an interview done many months after his return, he mused about his ill-fated Jamaican journey: “Mind you, nothing happened…and when I got back I thought, ‘What a lot of time I wasted worrying.’”
“Great news that you are coming over. Don't worry too much about the security situation - I generally feel safer in Bamako than in many cities in Europe.”
-- an email from my friend Mark, who currently lives Bamako, Mali, about my upcoming trip there.
In 2015 there were two deadly radical Islamic terror incidents in Bamako directly targeted at foreigners. The attack on the La Terrasse bar, a place I have frequented many times over the past years, left five persons dead. An attack several months later at the Radisson Hotel resulted in twenty-seven deaths, including the five attackers.
Especially given what has happened in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Istanbul and Ansbach over the last months, “Safe European Home” resonates as a naïve oddity, penned during the self-reflexive youth of both Joe Strummer and the post-war European ideal. Our gut feelings today (like it or not) are much different. We perceive that we live in seriously dangerous times (like it or not), and that the European continent and its satellites have become impervious to the threats of radical death cults and other terrors. Very few of us feel as safe as we once did, as we mourn the recent murders that have occurred in the realm of the hyper-normal: shops, cafes, concert halls, airports, train stations, beachfront promenades and magazine offices. We witness things we have never quite seen before, whether through the 24-hour drone of instant media, or up close and personal, with our own tired eyes. Our worst thoughts and impulses seem to reveal themselves more easily than before. The gloves are off. Our moral filters appear to be corroding.
In November of last year, a week after the Paris attacks, my wife Anda and I found ourselves flying into Charleroi airport, outside of Brussels. By that point, the Brussels Molenbeek neighbourhood had been identified as the probable home base for many of the Paris attackers, and things were obviously on heightened security. Something was expected to happen. As we exited baggage claim and walked towards the reasonably-priced shuttle bus that would take us downtown, I experienced what I can only describe as a “bad feeling.” It was already late, nearly 10 o’clock in the evening and, through the airport plate glass windows, one could make out the deep winter darkness. Something gnawed and silently shouted, “Don’t get on that bus.” I turned to Anda and emphatically said, “let’s take a taxi.” We moved quickly towards the taxi stand and got inside the first available car. As I watched the taximeter, kilometer-by-kilometer, rack up an obscenely high fare (Charleroi airport is 61 kilometres from the center of Brussels), I felt betrayed and embarrassed by my abstracted fear and rattled instincts. In the end, we paid more for that 45-minute trip than we did for the two round–trip flights to Charleroi. At least for that moment, the “irrational” won out. Of course months later, following the carnage at the main Brussels airport and the downtown subway station, our decision might be viewed quite differently. An increasingly thin, fractured line separates the prudent and prescient from the dogmatic and reactionary.
The next morning, we started the short walk from our hotel to the Brussels central train station. We were headed to a music festival in Utrecht, Holland, and would catch our train there. Noisily dragging our suitcases behind us, as we turned down Rue de la Montange, a long convoy of military troop carriers started to pass on the street. From the open backs of the trucks, one could see the young, uniformed men, holding their rifles between their legs and staring out towards us. The abnormality of the situation was immediately obvious. This was a full-blown military occupation of the center of Brussels. At that point, not knowing if the troops were in fact responding to specific incident or threat, we accelerated our pace and headed for the relative refuge of the train station. But of course we found more guns and nervous uniforms there. The air had been sucked right out of the high-ceilinged station hall, both the passengers and the security patrols moving deliberate, their faces tightly wound, in a constant grimace. The train couldn’t come soon enough.
When we stepped onto the station platform in Utrecht it felt like another paradigm altogether. Saturday mid-day shoppers roamed, slow and random, along the quaint canals; the troubles of Brussels seemingly much more distant than the ground we had just covered. Was this the “Safe European Home” or only another illusion, another paradox?
Danger is everywhere. But much of the time, it’s not even close.
Danger is both hardcore reality and only in our heads.
Personal safety is mostly a perception. Until, suddenly, it is not.
Fear is a virus, often passed on by hate, ignorance and mistrust.
When trying to dispel our fears, we often create more hate, ignorance and mistrust.
By trying to thwart the danger we perceive, we run the risk of creating even more danger.
In fact, this is something we seem to excel at.
As violence and fear increase, many seek cover in a grotesque, nullifying nostalgia. Many seek safety-in-numbers in the self-satisfied mob. We have almost given up on a sober and compassionate appraisal of how we got here, and what we might do together (locally and globally) to dig our way out. We are quick to build walls but stumble all over ourselves, when attempting constructive conversation. Late June’s Brexit vote, fuelled at least in part by xenophobia, racism and a long repressed distrust of “the other,” is certainly a demonstration of all of this.
And possibly worst of all, we continue to misguidedly prioritise our “European” pain and suffering over the interconnected horror in other parts of our woefully small planet. “Je suis Charlie” completely permeated our cyber-reality, but we struggle very hard to find a similar sense of solidarity with the 126 Iraqis who died in car bombings yesterday, or the long river of refugees driven out of Syria and Afghanistan by conflicts many European governments have at least tacitly engendered. When will we fundamentally recognize that one of the defining characteristics of the 21st century is that we can’t effectively go-it-alone? We are already too entwined, too interdependent, too globalized, too desperately in need of each other’s knowledge and perspectives. If we can somehow transcend our own isolated, ineffectual tribalism, we might all stand a chance. We might still rise together.
The Lebanese novelist and essayist, Amin Maalouf, writes:
For it is often the way we look at other people that imprisons them within their own narrowest allegiances. And it is also the way we look at them that may set them free.
We have profound choices to make, and will need a sharp gaze, borderless thoughts, open hearts and inspired language to help us choose what works best. In these rueful times, it is obvious that none of those things are in great supply. We can tangibly feel certain bonds severing, and one wonders if we can ever get them back. Instead of disconnecting, shouldn’t we, in fact, be connecting more, and connecting better? Emphatically. Passionately. With a last chance joy and a gambler’s hope. What do we have to lose? Well, in fact, everything. And if that doesn’t make us fearless, nothing ever will.
Following their first two albums, Joe Strummer and The Clash’s musical art became wildly expansive. On records like “London Calling” and “Sandinista,” the band almost entirely shed their narrow punk rock agenda and embraced sounds and textures that cut across stylistic, racial and cultural lines. The very title of the “Sandinista” album was a call-out to the Nicaraguan rebels who had taken over the country, following a guerilla war in the early 80s. With songs like “The Guns of Brixton” and their cover of Willie William’s “Armagideon Time” (and many others) they dove deep into the lexicon of reggae and dub. They also became one of the first rock bands to tout proto hip-hop artists like Grandmaster Flash, whose influence showed up decidedly on the “The Magnificent Seven” from “Sandinista.” This was a radical, inclusive music that rejected aesthetic prisons and the “narrowest allegiances” that Maalouf criticizes.
Nearly fifteen years after The Clash chose to burn out, rather than fade away, Joe Strummer returned to music as the front man and raconteur for a band he called The Mescaleros. While the young Strummer was, relatively speaking, a parochial, who wrote a song about longing to return to a “Safe European Home” -- a home that probably never existed in the first place -- the middle-aged Strummer was of a much different mind, and christened his penultimate album with The Mescaleros: “Global A Go-Go.” The music is a gauzy, home-cooked gumbo that throws together British folk, delta blues, East Asian and West Indian sonics, pub rock, reggae, highlife, cumbia, Spanish and Balkan instrumentation and more than a little Strummeresque piss and vinegar. Joe had been doing some serious listening in his years away from The Clash. Free associating with the shortwave sounds of the global village, he had found a new home, one without a roof, one with an echoing, star-filled sky.
World service bulletin
From the nightshift D.J.
To all wavebands on Earth
Reconnoiter on the killahertz
This tune is going out to Marconi
To all corners of the globe
There ain't no hut in the Serengeti
Where my wavelengths do not probe
--- “Global A Go-Go”
Welcome stranger, there's no danger
Welcome to this humble neighborhood
--- “Bhindi Bhagee”
Joe Strummer passed on, a year after the release of “Global A Go-Go.” He died quietly, sitting in a chair in his farmhouse in Somerset. Like many great artists, his last songs seem more essential now than they did at the time they were made. They echo our yearnings for an inclusive, soulful conversation that rocks deeper than the blathering cross-talk of identity politics and manipulated fear. How I wish I could do over that morning in Paddington Station. This time I would, of course, leave my air guitar in its case. This time, I might even have the guts to humbly extend a cautious hand and ask: “Joe, do you have time for a quick cup of coffee? There is so much to talk about.”