THE STUFF THAT SURROUNDS YOU: Mimi Zeiger talks with artist SHIRLEY TSE (Arthur, 2003)

Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (March 2003)

THE STUFF THAT SURROUNDS YOU

In the work of artist SHIRLEY TSE, plastic aspires to more than Pop. Mimi Zeiger reports. 


Uber glossy, chicer-than-thou, magazine Wallpaper subtitles itself “the stuff that surrounds you.” The lifestyle porn peddler advocates a world filled with things: Palms, Karim Rashid baubles and Prada shoes. Anything. Any high-end object from the precious to the perverse to fill the vacuum of consumer culture. 

But what is all that stuff that surrounds you? Embraces you? Suffocates you? Artist Shirley Tse looks around and sees plastic. She sees that injected-molded form used to shape your iBook or Oral B, the packaging that surrounds the products: it’s the miracle of plastic that fills the vacuum surrounding us these days. In the translucent, bubble-pack Styrofoam between the box and the object lies the impetus for her artistic vision. 

“It is symbolic of our culture,” says Tse of packaging. “When you see a computer, you don’t even think about the box. You don’t think about what it takes to move that product from its origin to your house. Looking at the box makes you think about the process.” 

Rather than aspiring to package lifestyle, Tse’s most recent sculpture, Shelf Life, 2002, is life-sized packaging. Strangely beautiful, it is a 20-foot wide synthetic iceberg lodged in the second floor galleries of the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) in San Francisco, seemingly filling the room to eye level with white polystyrene. There’s so much Styrofoam that prior to the show’s opening, Tse–the Capp Street Project Visiting Artist at the CCAC Wattis Institute–is jokingly apprehensive about how people will react to the piece. 

“It is a lot of Styrofoam,” she laughs. “Being here in San Francisco, with the tradition of radicalism, I have this nightmare that people are going to picket outside the gallery. They’ll boycott my show because of the amount of Styrofoam used.”

Like a three-chord pop song, Tse’s work seems simple enough for anyone to put together (given enough packaging material from stereo components), but its artistry comes in the handling of the few elements. Her earlier work is on a slightly smaller scale: sculptures made of polystyrene sheets, hand-routed into elaborate topographies. The scale of the artwork invites the viewer to make comparisons to things out in the world of culture, pop and plain. 

“I’ve been told it looks like a model for something bigger; it looks like a spaceship; it looks like a city,” explains Tse. “Which is fine, but I don’t want this piece to stop as a representation of something else. At some point I want my viewer to stop and look at the piece and go, “Oh, it’s just foam, it’s not a city.””

Complexity-in-simplicity is a truism in modern and contemporary art discourse: it’s why paint dribbled by Jackson Pollock is an artwork and paint dribbled by a two-year-old is a mess. In Pop Art, it’s why a Campbell’s soup can gets elevated to artistic status. For Tse, this duality is inherent in plastic: the simplicity spells out all sorts of arty questions. 

“I love how plastic embraces the paradox of a lot of things,” she explains “It’s soft, but hard; it’s surface and structure. It is something so ubiquitous and at the same time so alien. We live with it, but say things like ‘that’s phony.’ Plastic asks all these questions about originality.” 

In Tse’s hands, plastic aspires to more than pop. Despite its alien material, the work Shelf Life is desirously physical. The claustrophobic entry, where Styrofoam surrounds you on three sides, is relieved by a small set of steps. The short flight finishes on a foam plateau. From this vantage point, with your head nearly touching the gallery air conditioning vents and track lighting, what had seemed so stifling now stretches out into a landscape. The block is carved into organic shapes and marked with surface totems. 

“Is landscape really that natural anymore? It’s not,” Tse asks and then emphatically answers. “Even the landscape that we do see these days, like national parks, are totally manipulated. I can’t tell you when the packaging begins and when the landscape ends. The two things are going on at the same time.” 

Walking across the polymer landscape, Calvin Klein-minimalism gives way to something weirder. Seamier. The material properties come to life. White Styrofoam gets dirty. It gives under the weight of heels and toes, leaving small divots behind. The edges crumble and Shelf Life makes noises, high feedback squeaks and lower-toned groans as it adjusts to pressure.

Nestled in the foam terrain are three fiberglass tubs – fleshy peach with lip-gloss sheen. A fourth tub is set in the end of Styrofoam jetty that juts out into the empty area of the gallery space. They are decidedly unnatural and they seem to mimic beauty products. It’s appropriate that the vacuum-formed tubs were fabricated at Warner Brothers Studio Facilities, the heart of the Hollywood culture industry

Two of the tubs are lined in “memory foam.” The material akin to the sponges used to apply make-up is used in the piece because it holds an impression–place a foot on it and the print remains in the foam for a several seconds. Other tubs bring to mind the hedonistic high times of Jacuzzi baths. Sensuous curves fit the body. Climbing all the way into the tub, there is something sinister in the way that the plastic supports your spine and provides cubbyholes for arms and feet. This is vacuum-packed, human-sized packaging. Hot tub luxury is transformed into a disposable womb or tomb.

As frightening as it is to find yourself ensconced in plastic like a GI Joe or Barbie, Tse sees the work as liberating rather than confining. 

“At the end of the day, when I ask myself why my interest in plastic is sustained, it has a lot to do with plastic itself and its history and all that, but it is also an entry to the world for me. It has allowed me to slice through the layers and see what is going on the world. It’s a navigational tool: a way to open up.”

Without evoking fist-raising slogans, Tse’s work asks the uneasy question: Are we packaging our own existence? The confines of the shiny fiberglass sarcophagus make clear what really is the stuff that surrounds us: “brand new trash” as Tse likes to call it. The artist wrestles with her own position as a consumer and producer in the world of plastic. 

“The whole issue of recycling and the environmental aspects of the work is a complicated one for me. On the one hand, I do recycle material, but on the other hand I buy new material,” she says. “It’s a moral issue. When I ask myself these hard questions, I ask “Is it necessary?” And yes, I think it is necessary precisely because I want to use this material that makes up so much of our culture. Part of the environmental issue is that the plastic is used once and then thrown away, but as artwork, hopefully it won’t get thrown away, so it isn’t consumed in the way we usually use Styrofoam.”

Tse grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in Los Angeles. The artwork she makes fills the gap between these two polar existences: supply and demand. 

“Sometimes you see artwork from someone from outside the United States, and you can tell that that’s a Latin or Korean artist because the work references something in their cultural heritage. I don’t think that there is anything that jumps out from my work and says that I’m Chinese or from Hong Kong, necessarily,” she reflects. “It is all about it, just not directly. There is the whole issue of commodity, artificially, synthetic exchange and movement–all coming from the place I grew up in.”

For Tse, the stuff that surrounds her and her cultural heritage are one and the same. It is plastic: malleable and rigid, beautiful and artificial.

Avant Garde, a Force for Good: at the peak of his popularity, JOHN COLTRANE went for something deeper (Ashley Kahn, Arthur, 2003)

Avant Garde, a Force for Good

At the peak of his popularity, JOHN COLTRANE went for something deeper.

by Ashley Kahn

Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (March, 2003)

Excerpted from A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album by Ashley Kahn. Copyright (c) Ashley Kahn, 2002. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc. 


Perhaps it was a four-year itch.

Not that John Coltrane planned his career turns with any exactitude, but the timeline of his most creative period does imply a certain regularity: one year bursting with diverse activity and unsettled exploration—1957, 1961—followed by three of relatively focused progress. By that schedule, 1965 promised another creative eruption.

On cue—while the sound of A Love Supreme threaded its way into the cultural tapestry—Coltrane again accelerated his experimental drive in contexts large and small, in the process testing the bonds that held his core group together. Before the year was out, the reign of the Classic Quartet would come to a close, and Coltrane would front a new band and a new sound.

The signs of his future direction were already present in the Love Supreme sessions. Coltrane’s measured key-hopping on “Acknowledgement” presaged a harmonic approach in his playing bordering on—and soon embracing—a passionate atonality. His penchant for chanting would resurface on recordings like “Om”; his love of poetry on the album cover of Kulu Se Mama. His explicitly hymnlike titles became an unbroken theme among the many tracks recorded in 1965—”Dear Lord,” “Welcome,” “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”—and their meditative sonority a looser reflection of that on A Love Supreme.

A Love Supreme also left its trace in the extended, suitelike compositions Coltrane brought into the studio throughout 1965. He even chose the title “Suite” for a five-part work with sectional names again suggesting spiritual focus–“Prayer and Meditation: Day,” “Peace and After,” “Affirmation.” The album Meditations (and the later release First Meditations, among the final sessions with the Classic Quartet) furthered Coltrane’s trend to multisectioned constructions presented in continuous performance. Meditations also elicited questions as to whether he was consciously following in his own footsteps. Coltrane’s response leaned more to the spiritual than the musical, as he saw his current efforts as points along the same continuum:

“Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do. In that respect, [Meditations] is an extension of A Love Supreme, since my conception of that force keeps changing shape. My goal of meditating on this through music, however, remains the same. And that is to uplift people, as much as I can. To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives.”

As Alice [Coltrane] noted, “From A Love Supreme onward, we were seeing a progression toward higher spiritual realization, higher spiritual development.”

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ASK JOHN LURIE (Arthur, 2003)

Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (March 2003)


ASK JOHN LURIE

We’ve been informed that Arthur’s supposed regular advice columnist, Fat Possum recording artist T-Model Ford of Greenville Mississippi, is too busy facilitating a 10-day workshop-retreat on “Transpersonal Enlightenment and Ancient Wisdom” in Peru to take any of our goddamn questions right now. He’ll be back next issue, no doubt.

Our advice columnist this issue is John Lurie, who needs no introduction. (pause) Right. For the more curious members of Arthur’s readership, here’s an update on Mr. Lurie’s current activities. John claims that he is on sabbatical from music, and is living in New York City while working on an autobiography entitled What Do You Know About Music, You’re Not a Lawyer. Also, he just fired his girlfriend. 

None of this has been independently verified. 

Onto the questions…

Q: I’m 25 and have two children from previous relationships. I met my boyfriend a year ago and we hit it off immediately. He’s 28, divorced with two sons. I find him funny, gorgeous, witty and charming and we are totally relaxed together. 

When we first had sex, it was the best ever. He is a fantastic lover. We were planning to spend our lives together and I want this more than anything but for some reason I have gone out of my way to sabotage the relationship by sleeping with many other men. I go out with my friends and as soon as another man shows any interest, I’m there. I have met men in clubs and gone home with them. The sex is never up to much and I am disgusted with myself afterwards. I decided to stop going clubbing to avoid temptation and started just going to pubs in town with my mates. 

My boyfriend found out about the flings and was devastated. I seem to go out of my way to hurt him but I felt brokenhearted when he told me recently he was seeing someone else. I thought I had lost him but he was back a week later to see how I was and we ended up sleeping together. He still comes round and we have sex but now I am the one who feels betrayed. He says he has feelings for me but he is still with the other woman. I am at my wits’ end about what to do.

John Lurie: You have no business feeling betrayed as you created this situation yourself. You may have to wait a while until he feels he can trust you again. In the meantime, please forward your phone number to our staff.

My daughter spends less and less time with the family since she met her boyfriend. She’s 16 and has just started dating a boy of 19 who we have known for years. He was such a nice boy once but now he is abusive and rude. He has a bad temper and we know he smokes pot. We used to have a good relationship, then he was rude to me. My husband was furious and told our daughter that her boyfriend was a lout who would never be allowed to come into our house again.

Because she can’t now bring him home, the only time we see our girl is at dinner and for a few minutes before she goes to bed. Do you think I’m being too possessive wanting her to spend some time away from this boy? Or should I just leave her alone and hope she comes to her senses?

You are not being too possessive wanting to see your daughter, but I don’t think that is what you really mean. Are you saying you could demand that she spend time with you and away from him? Because that would be a disaster. She is 16 and not supposed to come to her senses for at least another 13 years. One thing you might try is inviting the boy to your house. You must show him how uncomfortable loutish behavior can be. If he smokes a joint, you and your husband could take out your crack pipes and start smoking. Your husband should scream at you constantly, “Smash the pipe! Smash the pipe! We’ll just keep mine. Smash the pipe!” You could suggest that your husband smash his pipe, while you crawl around on the floor picking up pieces of the carpet to smoke. Make sure that you are both hyperventilating. This has been proven to work for many families with teenage daughters.

My boyfriend is perfect for me but he can’t last long when we make love. We are both 22 and have been together four months. I’m multi-orgasmic and self-satisfaction isn’t what I want but most days it is what I end up with. I never tell my boyfriend how I feel because I don’t want him beating himself up over this.

Change the “up” to “off” and have him try it an hour before visiting.

I am 32, my wife is 31 and we already have three girls. We always planned to have four children and would really love for our last child to be a boy. Is there any way we can make this happen?

I would suggest flushing the female kittens down the toilet.

My hubby is 35 and I’m 30. We’ve been married for 12 years and have two children, aged three and six. We have been happy, although things had become a bit dull. We hardly ever went out and only made love at weekends.

Last year two good friends of ours split up. She is 32 and he is 33. They also have two children, aged seven and nine. I should have given them my support but instead I went after the husband, even though I knew she wanted him back desperately. It was exciting at first, meeting in secret and having illicit sex while my husband was at work. We did things that my hubby and I would never do. He made me feel desirable and daring. I felt alive again for the first time in years. Eventually, it all came out and my husband left.

Worse still, I’ve told my lover lots of lies about his wife to keep them apart and he’s treated her terribly because of it. We’ve both neglected our children while we’ve been seeing each other.

This man thinks I’m totally in love with him and that I’ve given up everything for him. The truth is it started out as a bit of fun and a challenge and now I want out.

How do I do it without losing face and owning up to all of my lies? And how do I get my husband back? He has now found someone else but I want him back because I’ve realized what a bad mistake I’ve made.

You’ve already lost face. You have no face at all. If you are seeing a face when you look in the mirror it is the same psychological mechanism that causes phantom limb pain in amputees.

I am 21 and she is 20. We have been together for 18 months and I fancy her like mad. She’s beautiful, loving and sex was brilliant at first. I started having problems six months ago. I can’t satisfy her and she thinks I’ve lost interest. But when I’m alone with a magazine or video, everything works normally.

You aren’t explaining what doesn’t work normally when your girlfriend is there. Perhaps you could get a large cardboard box from outside the local refrigerator store. Cut a large rectangular hole on one side, glue knobs to that same side that say “POWER,” “VOLUME” and “CHANNEL.” Then ask your girlfriend to wear rabbit ears and step inside. Go around the house yelling “Honey! Honey I’m home.” But tell her not to respond.

I’ve been married for six years to the woman I thought was the perfect partner. She’s sexy, good-looking and has been a fantastic mum to our children aged three and 11 months. We’re in our early thirties. For several months my wife has said she is suffering from post-natal depression. Then two weeks ago she said she was was seeing someone else and had also slept with her lover’s friend on one occasion. Then she told me about the group sex video her new man wants to make. The idea horrifies me but she seems to be going along with it. She has changed totally. She ignores the children and won’t do anything for them while speaking to her lover on the phone for hours. She’s obsessed with this man. He’s in his forties and well off. Until the other day she didn’t even know his real name. He lies to her and has no respect for her. 

I’m coming to the end of my tether. I know she uses me and walks all over me but she says she still loves me and he’ll never love her the way I do. I’d forgive anything because I can’t live without her.

I suggest an icicle. There is no murder weapon and no finger prints.

HOOKED ON POLYPHONICS: Gabe Soria meets the Polyphonic Spree (Arthur, 2003)

HOOKED ON POLYPHONICS

Tim DeLaughter is the cheerful mastermind behind THE POLYPHONIC SPREE, the world’s best happiest symphonic pop band. Ornate on record and staggering live, the grand tradition of Texas psychedelia has never sounded so ecstatic—or tasted so sweet. Text by Gabe Soria. Illustration by Paul Pope.

Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (March, 2003)


“This is going to be fun,” says the impish man with the curly black hair. He’s dressed in a flowing white robe, and he chuckles. The crowd titters in agreement. Then, like the thunderclap before a sudden and wonderful summer rainstorm, a firecracker burst of a drum roll breaks the anticipatory silence and the band behind and besides the man kicks in, and the choir behind them starts boogeying and the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up because for all intents and purposes you feel like you’re rocketing down the first drop of the world’s best wooden roller coaster, full of terror and elation, brimming with the beauty and potential of life, coupled with a stirring acknowledgment of its sadness and inevitable mortality.

“This is gonna be fun,” said the man in the white robe, and he wasn’t telling tales out of school. The band—the French horn player, the trombonist, the harpist, the flautist, the drummer, the ten person choir, and so on—are, like the singer, dressed in matching white robes, and although they’re only two songs into their set at the second anniversary of Dallas’ Good Records store, you can hear that they’re already working up an ecstatic sweat. The audience is besides themselves with excitement. And then the defiant simplicity of the song’s main refrain, almost like a school yard chant, comes in: 

“You gotta be good!

“You gotta be strong! 

“You gotta be two thousand places at once!” 

And by the time the song winds down, the entire audience will be chanting along, singing with the band, hands in the air, beaming, beatific smiles on their faces. And the only people enjoying it more than the folks watching are the band themselves, all two dozen of them looking like they’re fit to burst from elation. That is what watching the Polyphonic Spree live is like. It’s the type of thing that makes you raise your hands up and say “Yeah!” while joyous tears of hope and fear brim at your eyes.


“So… how was your day?” I ask.

“Today was… wow,”  laughs Polyphonic Spree ringmaster Tim DeLaughter, 37, over the phone from Dallas. He excuses himself from his dinner companions – he explains that the maelstrom of noise and chatter in the background is simply the sound of what seems to be his hometown’s busiest Tex-Mex restaurant – and walks outside to continue our conversation in relative silence. And this isn’t the first time he’s going to say that word, that “wow”. It peppers his speech liberally, and the way he wraps his soda-pop sweet Texas accent (it splits the difference aw-shucks good-ol’ boy and cosmic space cowboy) around it, it’s given its due as the English language’s best shorthand for awe and amazement. This fella (and his band) have got a lot of time for the wonder and the glory in this terrible and grim world and he wears it on his sleeve.

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A MAN THAT MATTERED: Joe Strummer, remembered (and interviewed) by Kristine McKenna (Arthur, 2003)

A MAN THAT MATTERED
Joe Strummer was a spectacular, inspirational human being

Text: Kristine McKenna
Photography: Ann Summa
Design: W.T. Nelson

Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (cover dated March 2003), shortly after Joe’s untimely death on December 22, 2002.

When the Clash first burst on the scene in 1977 I dismissed them for the same reason I’ve always hated U2. Their music struck me as humorless, self-important political blather that wasn’t remotely sexy or fun. Definitely not for me. Nonetheless, being a dedicated punk I had to check them out when they made their Los Angeles debut at the Santa Monica Civic on February 9th, 1979, and what I saw that night changed my mind—just a little, though. As expected, Mick Jones came off as a typical rock fop who clearly spent far too much time thinking about neckerchiefs and trousers. Joe Strummer, however, was something else. With the exception of Jerry Lee Lewis, I’d never seen anyone that furiously alive on stage. Legs pumping, racing back and forth across the stage, singing with a frantic desperation that was simultaneously fascinating and puzzling, he was an incredibly electric presence.

At the press conference following the show that night, L.A.’s ranking punk scribe, Claude Bessy, jumped up and snarled, “This isn’t a press conference—this is a depressing conference!” (Jeez, tempers always ran so high during that first incarnation of the punk scene—who knows why the hell our panties were in such a twist!) I remember that Strummer looked genuinely hurt by the comment. Mind you, he was a working class Brit so he wasn’t about to start sniffling in his sleeve, but he didn’t cop an attitude either. I was touched by how unguarded and open he was—and I was certainly impressed by the mans vigor. I wasn’t surprised when I subsequently learned that Strummer ran three marathons without having trained at all. His preparation? “Drink ten pints of beer the night before the race and don’t run a single step for at least four weeks before the race.”

That first show at the Santa Monica Civic didn’t transform me into a Clash fan, but Strummer interested me, so when the band showed up in 1981 in Manhattan, where I was living at the time, I decided to see what he was up to. The Clash had booked a nin- show engagement at Bond’s, an old department store on Times Square in Manhattan, and this turned out to be not a good idea. The place wasn’t designed to handle the crowds the band drew, and the engagement turned into a nine-day stand-off between the band and the fire marshals. I attended three nights in a row and can’t recall them ever actually making it to the stage and performing. But then, that was business as usual during the glory days of punk, when gigs were forever being shut down, aborted, abruptly canceled. This was political theater, not just music, and nobody embodied that idea more dramatically than the Clash.

Cut to June 14 of the following year and I finally saw the Clash succeed in a completing a full set at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. By then, I’d finally begun to appreciate the breadth and fearlessly experimental nature of the Clash’s music, and Strummer was at the peak of his powers as a showman at that point. The huge hall was packed, and it was as if Strummer was a maestro conducting this undulating mass of sweaty people, with the mysterious power to raise or lower the pitch at will. Boots, beer bottles and articles of clothing flew through the air, people leapt on stage, leapt back into the arms of their friends, Strummer stood at the microphone stoking the fire, and somehow managed to keep the proceedings just a hair’s breadth short of total chaos for two hours. It was a commanding display from a man who clearly knew his job and knew his audience.

Following the break-up of the Clash in 1985, Strummer charged head-on into a busy schedule of disparate projects. He acted in several independent films and composed six film soundtracks, including one—for Alex Cox’s lousy 1988 film, Walker—that was remarkably beautiful. I wrote an admiring review of the score for Musician Magazine, and a few months after it was published Strummer was passing through L.A. and he invited me to lunch in appreciation for the supportive words. We were to meet at a Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, and though I was nervous on the way there, he put me at ease the minute we met. Strummer was such a genuine person that it was impossible to feel uncomfortable around him—I know it sounds corny, but he truly was a man of the people. He was funny and generous in his assessments of people, but he didn’t sugar coat things either–he had no trouble calling an asshole an asshole when it was called for. The thing that ultimately made Strummer such a spectacular human being, however, is so simple that it barely seems worth mentioning: he was interested in people. He wanted to hear your story and know what was going on in your neighborhood, he asked how you felt about things and was an empathetic listener—he paid attention! The other thing I immediately loved about him was that he was an enthusiast and a fan.

Just how big a fan he was became clear to me a few months later when he guest hosted a radio show I had at the time on KCRW. My show was at midnight on Saturday, and KCRW’s office is hard to find, so our plan was to meet behind the Foster’s Freeze at Pico and 14th at 11:00 P.M. He roared into the parking lot exactly on time in a car with four pals, and the lot of them tore into the record library at the station looking for the records on Strummer’s play list. His plan was play all the records that shaped his musical taste as a teenager in the order that he discovered them, and the show he put together was equal parts history lesson and autobiography. Included in the far-flung set were tracks by Sonny Boy Williamson, Lee Dorsey, Captain Beefheart, Bo Diddley, Hank Williams, and loads of fabulous, rare reggae and dub. His loving introduction to the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again” brought tears to my eyes. Several fans crashed the studio when they heard him on the air and realized he was in town, and he welcomed them all. It was a wonderful night. He had fun too, and as he thanked me and said goodnight, he kissed me on the cheek and I blushed.

Strummer spent the next ten years struggling to re-start his career post-Clash and stumbling repeatedly. “The only thing that got me through was sheer bloody-mindedness—I just won’t quit!,” he told me when I interviewed him in October of 2001. We were talking on the occasion of the release of his second album with his five man line-up, the Mescaleros, Global A Go-Go, which was rightfully hailed as the best work Strummer had done in years. He was happy with the record, and when I saw him perform at the Troubadour a few weeks after we spoke, he seemed happy in general.

Above: Joe Strummer leads an impromptu dancing-on-the-tables moment at a restaurant in New York City, sometime in the late ’90s. (Photo courtesy Chris from Hellcat/Epitaph.)


“I’ve enjoyed my life because I’ve had to deal with all kinds of things, from failure to success to failure again,” Strummer told a journalist from Penthouse Magazine in 2000. “I don’t think there’s any point in being famous if you lose that thing of being a human being.”

That’s something that was never a danger for Strummer. During that last interview (printed below), I asked him what the great achievement of punk rock had been, and he replied, “it gave a lot of people something to do.” I loved the complete lack of self-importance in that answer, however, this isn’t to suggest that Strummer ever broke faith with punk. “Punk rock isn’t something you grow out of,” he told Penthouse. “Punk rock is like the Mafia, and once you’re made, you’re made. Punk rock is an attitude, and the essence of the attitude is ‘give us some truth.’

“And, whatever happens next is going to be bland unless you and I nause everything up,” he added. “This is our mission, to nause everything up! Get in there and nause it out, upset the apple cart, destroy the best laid plans—we have to do this! Back on the street, I say. Turn everything off in the pad and get back on the street. As long as people are still here, rock’n’roll can be great again.”

Thank you Joe for bringing us the good news.

* * * * *

The following conversation with Strummer took place in October 2001, on the eve of his final U.S. tour during the winter of 2001-2002.

Arthur: You say the great achievement of punk rock was that ‘it gave a lot of people something to do.’ What was its great failure?

Joe Strummer: That we didn’t mobilize our forces when we had them and focus our energies in a way that could’ve brought about concrete social change—trying to get a repressive law repealed, for instance. We’re stuck in a kind of horrible holding pattern now, and it seems to me that the only way to change it is if we get hipsters to stay in one place long enough to get elected. The problem is that no hipster wants to get elected.

Arthur: I saw the Clash several times during their U.S. tours of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and I remember the sense that something profoundly important was at stake at those shows, that they were about something much larger than pop trends. What was at stake?

Joe Strummer: In the rush of youth you assume too much—and so it should be—but we felt that the whole machine was teetering on the brink of collapse. Some amazing things went down in Britain during the ‘70s—the government decided they could disempower the unions by having a three day week, for instance. Can you imagine that? Monday morning you wake up, and suddenly there’s only a three day week, from Monday to Wednesday. There were garbage strikes, train strikes, power strikes, the lights were going out—everything seemed on the brink, and looking through youthful, excitable eyes it seemed the very future of England was at stake. Obviously, that’s very far from the feeling these days, when everything’s pretty much smugly buttoned down.

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