Saturday, October 17, 2015

Final Songs: Death is a Star

Album:Combat Rock by The Clash
And I was gripped by that deadly phantom
I followed him through hard jungles
As he stalked through the back lots
Strangling through the night shades

Oh, the thief of life
Moved onwards and outwards to love

In a one-stop only motel
A storm bangs on the cheapest room
The phantom slips in to spill blood
Even on the sweetest honeymoon

The killer of love
Caught the last, late Niagara bus

By chance or escaping from misery
By suddenness or in answer to pain
Smoking in the dark cinema
See the bad go down again

And the clouds are high in Spanish mountains
And a Ford roars through the night full of rain

The killer's blood flows
But he loads his gun again

Can make a grown man cry like a girl
To see the guns dying at sunset

In vain, lovers claimed
That they never had met

Smoking in the dark cinema
See the bad go down again

We see James Bond when he's on the job. Playing baccarat, bedding beautiful (if sometimes treacherous) women, fighting goons who exist only to ambush him and be vanquished: it's all in a day's work, and his work is what he loves. Yet he must have downtime. Between missions, 007 hangs around London in jeans and a sweatshirt. He washes his shirts in a near-empty laundromat. Drinks things he doesn't have to explain to the bartender. And sometimes late at night he goes up to the roof and stares at the cars driving down the street, the few pedestrians still out and about.

Combat Rock was a commercial peak for the Clash, especially in the US. "Rock the Casbah", "Should I Stay or Should I Go", and to a lesser extent, "Straight to Hell" were all radio hits. The band finally got the call to be musical guest on Saturday Night Live, on an episode hosted by Ron Howard. At least from the outside, life was good.

Within the band, not so good. The creative partnership at the heart of the Clash was breaking down seemingly beyond repair. Drummer Topper Headon would be dismissed from the band for drug problems soon after the album's release, and co-leader Mick Jones wouldn't last much longer. Combat Rock is the last recording with anything like the original lineup. When the band name, at least, came back in 1985 with an album called Cut the Crap, Joe Strummer might as well have been wearing a self-written "kick me" sign.

But if the Clash were in a way coming to the end of the road, they weren't going out with a whimper. Okay, yeah, technically they were. But what a whimper!

"Death is a Star" is as good a proof as any of the Clash's versatility. Their music was most often characterized as punk rock, of course. Since London Calling, and arguably before, it was really rock 'n' roll made by punks, or just music made by punks. Still this was something else. With a subdued string section that came from who-knows-where and a piano solo that was wild and unassuming at the same time, "Death is a Star" stood at the intersection of jazz and easy listening.

Good music for a movie soundtrack, and the lyrics send it in that direction. There's a reference to "dark cinema" and that film noir standby, a car pushing through the rainy night. The nod to Niagara falls may be inspired by Niagara, a noir shot in color and featuring Marilyn Monroe vamping it up in one of her first starring roles. The whole thing is wrapped up with "Can make a grown man cry like a girl/To see the guns dying at sunset." The Clash, trust, are not ones to mouth such an absurdly macho sentiment without tongue firmly in cheek.

This is something of a strange musical experience. After the 3-disc experimental odyssey of Sandinista! the band were under pressure to produce a "normal" Clash album, and while the phrase doesn't mean all that much where they're concerned they did manage an album of more radio-friendly material. Here, though, they stop doing that. Maybe they knew that, in a way, time was running out. Maybe it was time to switch to other priorities. Like, say, scoring James Bond movies that could only exist in their dreams.


semiconscious said...

excellent little essay (as have been all your 'last song' pieces thus far). i'm pretty sure that they indeed knew it was all over by the time they were recording 'combat rock'. i think mick jones enjoyed being a rock star much more than strummer, who seemed to have all kinds of other interests...

we saw, & greatly enjoyed, a big audio dynamite show at the living room (remember the living room?), which was jones at his pop-rockiest, & much fun. afa joe strummer, we re-watched 'straight to hell' within the last year (which was nowhere as good as 'mystery train', but dumb enough to be okay), as well as 'the future is unwritten', a very good documentary about an obviously very interesting guy...

'combat rock' (last song included) was, in many ways, distilled essence of clash: a great achievement, containing some very unforgettable songs... but 'sandinista!'? now there's pure, unadulterated, stoned-out brilliance :) . they were certainly a band who defined their time as much as any other band ever has...

Ben said...

Thank you, semi-C! I appreciate your feedback. I think you're right about Mick and Joe having diverging interests. Strummer died at a sadly early age, but I don't think that was why he never worked his way back to becoming a rock star. What he did was what he wanted to do.

So far I haven't seen Straight to Hell although I probably should. Strummer as the hero of a Western that manages to fit Elvis Costello in as well? Does sound like something that must be seen to be believed. (I guess Alex Cox kind of discovered Courtney Love as well.)

Combat Rock was their last chance to show everybody what they could do, really, and was successful on those terms. Sandinista!!! is a whole 'nother kettle of fish, though. When people ask me what my favorite Clash album is there's no way I can't answer that one. Doesn't give me a lot to work with in terms of this feature, though. Side six doesn't have any Clash songs, as such, on it. Side five, on the other hand...