Book Review: Clash By Night

Clash by Night

The job of the music writer is to convey the emotions of a performance by describing it in evocative ways.

For albums, it’s a way for the writer to put his stamp on something permanent, or even influence another person’s decision making. It’s a little like inviting yourself over to a party. For live concerts, it’s about the ephemeral—sometimes literally smoke and mirrors. Music writing at its best is enthralling; at worst it’s too pretentious for the subject matter.

I’ve always liked the idea of writing poems about music — in theory. Jazz poetry works well because both art forms are inherently impressionistic. But they’re also a logical match because they are often inscrutable. It’s easy to conclude that poetry and jazz deserve each other, but that’s wrong.

Poetry works well with punk, too — just for the opposite reason that it works for jazz. With punk poetry–as with punk–what you see is what you get.

Enter Clash by Night, an anthology of “low-fi poetry” dedicated to the English band’s 1979 classic London Calling. In the book, forty contributors cover each of the album’s 19 tracks—and it feels just right.

While some of the poems refer directly to London Calling songs, many talk about the writers’ experiences when the album had its greatest impact on their lives. Some of the poets point out that our society is still dealing with the problems of the early ’80s. Others are nostalgic for the youthful idealism of the time. A lot of the poems are political and hard-hitting. It’s no surprise that people who were changed by London Calling are likely to have something to say.

The first poem in the anthology, La Frontera Te Llama (the border calls you) is by Amalia Ortiz. It’s a punk song, really, and with lines like “The children wear targets the NRA supplies,” and later, “The children carry weapons the Zetas supply,” it’s a tribute to the Clash with an update for the new millennium.

Another by Bryan Lampkin talks about a store in Greensboro called Jimmy Jazz (after the second track on London Calling) that sells products by Beyonce and TLC instead of punk records. To him, this is a corruption and the antithesis of punk: “Joe Strummer reduced to Lisa Left Eye.” Later in the poem, he laments:

…Could the Clash
have saved the day for the revolutionaries? No,
but we once thought they could. Once we thought they could.
We’re all fools for the oncoming train…

A certain spirit runs through Clash by Night, despite this theme that idealism is often flattened. There are remnants of hope and scrap—not that a punk band can change the world for the better but that anyone still tries—even as the wheels crush onward: there’s “the anarchist in Oakland” and “the radical librarian in Plattsburgh.”

It will be interesting to see which albums come next in the series. In the below interview, editors Gerry LaFemina and Gregg Wilhelm mention Exile on Main Street, the Rolling Stones’ opus, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and the Pogues as possibilities. I’d like to suggest Beyonce. I’m sure in a few years, there will be many brilliant women whose lives were changed by Beyonce, too. Songs like “Put a Ring on It” are no small statement, after all. (Tristan Loper)

Owl and Bear contributor Marty Williams, who has a poem in the book, sat down with LaFemina and Wilhelm to talk about the project. Check out their conversation:

Marty Williams: It’s nice to talk with you both on Les Paul’s hundredth birthday. How did you guys dream up an anthology of poems inspired by The Clash’s iconic London Calling?

Gregg: Like all good ideas, this one was hatched over beer and food. Gerry and I have known each other for a while, and we try to catch up every once in a while, and we were sharing a meal and some drinks in Fredrick, Maryland, and talking about our mutual love of rock music in general, punk rock in particular, and Gerry was the one that sort of offered up the what-if question, “If you could cover one album in poems, what would it be?” And I think we both simultaneously said London Calling because it was an important record for both of us. And from there Gerry picked up the ball and ran with it, with his network of colleagues and peers who are poets.

Gerry: For me, that nexus where the lyric song and the song lyrics meet has always been of interest to me as someone who works in both mediums. I’m a firm believer that the most interesting cover songs are when bands make a song their own, you know? To play any song exactly as it is on the record is just being a tribute band, basically, but when you adapt it and make it your own, that’s when it actually feels like a cover, when it’s something new. So I became really interested and fascinated with this idea of how would a poet cover a song.

MW: Obviously London Calling is an iconic album, but I could think of so many others. In punk I could go with The Ramones, with Raw Power, Never Mind the Bollocks, post-punk, Unknown Pleasures, or out of punk, Ziggy Stardust, so many others. Was it really that easy to come together on London Calling?

Gregg: I think Gerry and I were of the same mind. Well, for me, when I encountered that album, you were fourteen, fifteen, it was a few years after the original release in 1979, but that’s when you’re thinking about informing your own political, social, religious—all kinds of platforms and ideas and stances—and that album really helped open a portal to think more seriously about those issues, or at least as seriously as a fourteen year old can who had previously listened to some inferior music. And the album itself was audacious. It was a double album set, it covered various genres of music and exposed me to those genres, reggae, blues, a little bit of rockabilly, for the first time. Of course, Joe Strummer came out of a sort of rockabilly background.

So it exposed me to all different ideas and all different kinds of genres, and that’s why both Gerry and I were drawn to the album, and I think that’s ultimately why the album maintains its strength and resonance today.

Gerry: Yeah, it should also be pointed out that in the conversation we agreed that this would be the first of a series of books, because we had the same impulse you had, which was “What would be the other albums?” You know, after London Calling, Exile on Main Street was pretty quick behind it, and as we talked to people time and again, people were throwing out Replacement records, and Pogue’s records, and so many others, of course, Ziggy Stardust, or Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, which was the album being discussed at the Clash by Night release reading.

MW: That’s a good one.

Gerry: You know, for the second book we really didn’t want to do another punk album. We didn’t want to do a punk series. We want it to be as broadly defined as possible. Like, I can’t wait for somebody to give me Fear of a Black Planet, or It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, those would be great cover records, or even Purple Rain, which I think would be pretty amazing. But we actually have two that are vying for the next one. The first is Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness at the Edge of Town, and the other, the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, and I think it’s going to be Pet Sounds rather than Darkness. The other thing we want to be cogent about is that women in rock and roll kind of get short shrift, and I would really like to see Parallel Lines or Learning to Crawl, or even something like Surrealistic Pillow; I think “White Rabbit,” the cover, would be phenomenal because it’s already covering a literary text in some ways.

MW: So you put out this general call for poems about London Calling and you received poems from all over. What surprised you most about the poems that showed up, that you picked, and how did the poems touch the music?

Gregg: I’d like Gerry to answer that one, because it was primarily through his networks that the call went out and the poems came in, and, because of the volume of poems that were submitted—we’re talking about a little over a two year timeline from semi-conceptualization to the finished project—Gerry can speak a little about that process, and to the fact that somewhere between 33 percent to 40 percent of the poems submitted were taken for the anthology.

Gerry: Yeah, we didn’t want to be prescriptive about what it means to be a cover. So some of the covers literally incorporated the song lyrics in the poem, and you see that throughout George Guida’s “Spanish Bomb” spread, that does this quite well. Others were personal reflections on the record, on some aspect that the songs hit upon; some of them were kind of riffs in general on a song or on an idea of a song or the theme from a song—I think of Joel Allegretti’s “Revolution Rock,” which really focuses on the reggae aspect of the song, and that decision to go reggae. And then Joe Bonamo’s “Brand New Cadillac,” which almost feels like a lyric essay on the making of that song. And then we, of course, have the “Liner Notes” poems that really allowed people to talk about the band. And the great thing about the album isn’t just the songs; it’s also in the inserts, the lyric sheet with the producers and the notes by the band and the thanks, so the Liner Notes sections allow for that extra bonus. I really appreciated these moments in which people got to sort of respond to the record as a whole, or to the band in a much looser fashion.

The hardest thing about making some of the choices was that we didn’t want two poems that felt the same about each song, so then we’d have to sort of pick and choose between them.

The interesting thing was, of course, that, by the time we got through the initial culling of the poems, we had a couple songs that did not have poems. And we really had to make a concentrated effort to get poems for “Lover’s Rock” and “Hateful” and “The Card Cheat,” and those took some work. We inevitably got ‘em, and I think the outcome is a pretty exciting mix of poetic styles and poetic voices and a broad spectrum of what’s going on in contemporary poetry today. And I was impressed with was how multigenerational the anthology was. You have several people in their twenties in this anthology and some in their sixties. And that’s pretty good in terms of how important this record has been to people and its staying power over time.

MW: Absolutely, and when an album keeps renewing itself in repeated generations, that always speaks to its longevity and its importance.

Gerry: I think the other interesting thing is that we know that Mick Jones and Paul Simonen and Topper Heddon actually have the anthology.

MW: Really! Cool.

Gerry: We know they have the anthology, and the cease-and-desist order hasn’t been issued.

Gregg: That’s why we put Gerry on the cover.

MW: Good choice.

Gregg: They’ll come after him first.

Gerry: I understand that Paul’s a little pissed about that.

(Laughter).

MW: Where do you want to take this project in the future?

Gregg: Well, I think what’s important for the series is that, although Gerry has expressed some interest in perhaps working on the Pet Sounds project, City Lit Press, which is the literary imprint of CityLit Projects, a non-profit in Baltimore, will serve as the publisher for the series. We’re preferably interested in hearing from editorial teams who want to suggest albums to cover, because it is a lot of heavy lifting, and it just so happened that the combination of Gerry’s contacts in the poetry world and my project management skills were a good combination. But it was time consuming, so I don’t think Gerry wants to be an editor of the following books, though he might want to pick and choose which ones he wants to be more involved with, so we really want to hear proposals from editorial teams making a good case for not only why they want to cover a particular record, but that they’ve got the chops to make it happen. And I think the series will have a dynamic and diverse lifespan.

Gerry: I’m happy to sort of function as a third editor for people, to help get the word out. I’ve been doing literary projects for twenty-some odd years at this point, but I don’t want to be the point person on every one of these anthologies for several reasons. One is because I want to see diversity. I want to see new poets that I don’t know. We’ve already seen that in Clash by Night. But I want to see more of that. The poet Christine Stroud, who covered “Hateful’ and who is associate editor at Autumn House Press said, “Let’s do Pet Sounds. Would you do it?” And I was happy to say yes. But I would like to see “I think we should do Darkness on the Edge of Town and I’m going to edit it.” And we have about four people who are willing to do the Springsteen book. And what happens next? I just hope readers of Owl and Bear go, “We want to do such that album.” Drop us a proposal.

Gregg: The series is described on the back of Clash by Night, and how you can contact us and make a proposal, and it’s also on line at CityLitproject.org.

MW: Great. I do think, as founding editors, though, you get your names in every book. (Laughter.)

Gerry: I do think that, when people propose to us, it’s important that it’s not an obscure record. There’re plenty of obscure records. We also want a little mainstream appeal. We want to attract people who may not buy poetry but who are interested in music. What I’m looking forward to is the day that some people who are Clash fans buy this book and go, “Wow, poetry isn’t what I thought.”

For somebody to say to me I want to see the first Minor Threat record—I love Minor Threat—I just don’t think that the Straight Edge movement has the clout that Ian MacKaye hoped it would have. I imagine that at some point somebody’s going to send us the Nirvana cover album, which would be great. I can’t wait to hear the “Smells like Teen Spirit” covers. (Laughter)

MW: Scratch and sniff. (Laughter) That sounds wonderful. Do you plan to keep this going for some time?

Gregg: Yeah, I think ideally it’s going to take on a life of its own and CityLit Press would be happy to be the publisher of the volumes, but I’m kind of hedging my bets until I see how the proposals roll in and what shape they roll in and if we’re confident that we’re getting proposals from editorial teams who frankly can do the work. I think the possibilities are endless, and I think the crop of talented poets both actively working and creating and currently coming up certainly promise to have the chops to get these kinds of projects done.

MW: That’s great. It is Les Paul’s hundredth birthday, and so much of everything we’ve been talking about, all these genres of music, blues, soul, rap, all the things you could do with them, trace back to those experiments with a solid stick and some microphones and recorders. Gotta give Les Paul some credit today.

Gerry: I’ll give Les Paul lots of props. And if somebody wants to do a Les Paul record, that would be great.

Gerry LaFemina is author of 12 books of poetry and prose, most recently Palpable Magic, essays on poetry and prosody, and Little Heretic. His first band, Expletive Deleted, played CBGBs with Suicidal Tendencies back in ‘84. He finds time to play music, write punk fiction, and volumes of poetry, while teaching and while teaching and directing the Center for Creative Writing at Frostburg State University in Maryland.

Gregg Wilhelm is an award-winning writer, publisher, teacher, and arts administrator with more than twenty years of experience in the literary arts. He has worked as an editor, designer, and marketer and brought over 100 titles into print. In 2004, he founded CityLit Project, a nonprofit literary arts organization that hosts Baltimore’s annual CityLit Festival and stages literary events and collaborative live music and poetry performances. He launched its CityLit Press imprint in 2010 and has published poetry in prominent literary journals such as Gargoyle, The Tampa Review, and The Baltimore Sun.

Marty Williams, who has a poem in this anthology, listens, writes, and teaches in Valdosta, Georgia, where he is a Professor of English at Valdosta State University. With Elena Karina Byrne, he co-hosts The Poetry Corner at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books each year.



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