Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Clash soccer game in 1979: outtakes from the Montecristo story

Gerry Hannah was the one who told me about the Clash soccer game that took place in Kits back in 1979 (which he played in). I honestly forgot why I wasn't recording the conversation at the time; Gerry and I did talk occasionally on the phone, back when the Subhumans were playing, without it being for an interview per se, but for some reason, that day, my recorder was off.

Gerry wasn't among the people I spoke to last month for an article I did for Montecristo magazine, but Nick Jones, John Auber Armstrong, and Phil Smith were. There was actually a fair bit of stuff all three men told me for the article that I didn't end up using - of necessity, since I interviewed about eight people.  

Pointed Sticks at Richards on Richards, 2017, photo by Cindy LeGrier

Nick Jones had some great stories - but I mostly only used the ones directly related to the game. Like Nick, who said at one point that "for me, the Clash was Joe Strummer, plain and simple," I've always been mostly a Joe Strummer fan, so it was interesting to hear his tales of other interactions with Joe, for example when they played the Combat Rock tour  at Kerrisdale Arena, which he told me, "was the best Clash show I ever saw, by the way. Which most people would disagree with, but for me, that was them at their absolute peak, they were just majestic that night, riveting. And there was a party at one of my old girlfriend’s house’s, on East 12th in Vancouver, and I don’t think Topper came, but Joe and Mick and Paul came, and Joe actually tried to steal my jean jacket that night."

Sometimes you leave things out of a story because they just would prove disruptive to where the story is going, make it impossible to do justice to the other stories. This is one of those times, since Nick went on to speculate that "that was Joe possibly in the throes of heroin addiction – he was doing a bit of nodding." (Hadn't ever heard of Strummer using heroin before, but I haven't read and don't have any of the bios written of him; his ever having been an addict would put his later firing of Topper Headon for heroin use into a somewhat unflattering light. And then there's the attempted theft itself: "he saw my jean jacket; it was a Lee Stormrider, he commented on it, and the first time I put it down, and the next thing I knew, he was wearing it. He was nice enough to give it back to me, when I pointed out that it wasn’t actually his, so – I don’t know what he was thinking of the time, he was pretty out of it. But that show was phenomenal. And I think most people who was the Clash the four times they played in Vancouver would agree that that was probably the best show they did here.”

Later, as a merchandiser, Nick told me, "I did see him at a Rolling Stones show once, when I was working for the Stones, Joe came to a show in Paris, and we actually talked about how, at that point, Michael Cole had offered them a million dollars each for ten shows in the United States. This was in 1995 – probably the Voodoo Lounge tour? I don’t even know if this ever became public, but Joe told me that Cole had offered them ten million dollars to do ten shows in America, which seems a ridiculous amount of money at the time. I don’t know how he would have gotten that money back. But I may have the story wrong – maybe it was ten million for twenty shows? But Joe was not interested in re-forming the Clash at that point. I think that was probably the peak of the personality differences between Joe and Mick and Paul."

It's "probably just as well that it never happened," Nick continued. “It might actually be better that there never was. If you had to go see a Nirvana reunion now, would it be any good? Probably not. If you had to see the Doors play at age 70, would that be any good? Probably not. Sometimes these things are just better left sort of preserved in amber for everybody to look on. Would you want to see a 70 year old Jimi Hendrix, at this point? I don’t think so. But what you really want to see is a 62 year old Pointed Stick playing. That’s different!”

John Armstrong with the New Modernettes, at the Rickshaw, Dec 7, 2019, by Allan MacInnis

I also left out quite a bit of a conversation with John Armstrong, some of it because it duplicated stories John had already told in Guilty of Everything. (I mean, Nick, John, I'm sorry, but the article I submitted was over twice my actual wordcount, and, like, I hadda get Jon and Phil and so forth in, too!). 

Armstrong is among those - as, I think, was Tom Harrison, who I also spoke to at much more length than appears in the interview - who agrees that American producer Sandy Pearlman vastly improved matters for Give’Em Enough Rope, the album the band was then touring. “It was kind of a surprise at first, but I thought it sounded a lot better than the first record. I still don’t think the first record sounds any good; it succeeds just through its sheer balls – the intensity and enthusiasm of it win you over, but it really sounds awful. But Pearlman’s production – it’s a little kinda ‘American FM radio,’ but it’s the same as Jimmy Iovine doing Patti Smith, right? He turned the Patti Smith Group into a rock band, and Pearlman turned the Clash into a rock band. But it’s nice to hear Topper’s drums sound that good. I think possibly too there was a lack of material – y’know, second album syndrome: you’ve got your whole life to write your first album and six months to write the second. The best songs on there that are just fucking stellar. There’s a few that I don’t think would have made the cut if they’d had more than six months. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s just not them at their best. But no, I never hated it the way some people did. I just kinda thought, ‘Well, what do you expect? Have you ever heard Blue Oyster Cult? Why are you surprised?”

I actually agree that Pearlman did big favours for the Clash, though if I recall correctly, so did everyone else with whom the topic came up. It's one of those opinions, not widely held at the time, that is pretty commonplace now. (For the record, at least one other person - Tom Harrison, I believe - agreed that that album runs out of material at some point. The first side, up to and including "Julie's in the Drug Squad," is momentous, but there's not much memorable about side two of Give'Em Enough Rope. "Stay Free," I guess - one of Mick Jones' best songs. But the rest is all stuff I can take-or-leave. Second album syndrome? You bet).

Mostly the conversation with John focused on Mick Jones. John remembers, for example, that at the Clash concert, "Mick came out, stepped on his phase shifter, and left the fucking thing on for the rest of the show! Which was a particularly early-to-mid-70’s thing to do."

For those who don't know phase shifters, "It’s a guitar pedal, and it makes the sound go like this" (John went "woosh, woosh" And it cycles at whatever frequency you’ve got it set at. Keith Richards fell in love with it, he used it for a long time on everything because it fills up the sound, it makes your guitar sound like its covering more of the spectrum than if you’re just playing without one. It does have that weird (woosh) thing to it. I think that he found, playing live, he needed to fill up more sound because, I mean, Joe’s guitar playing was pretty rudimentary at best. And I don’t know how much he was actually coming through the mains. Like, I don’t think he was a particularly good guitar player, at least not as the rhythm guitar player for the Clash. I think Mick felt like he was the guitar player, so he had to get a bigger sound, not necessarily something louder or dirtier but something that filled up more space. I couldn’t believe that he came out and clicked the thing on and just left it on for the whole show. That was all I could hear was this fuckin’ phase shifter – but British guys seemed to all love that.”

Armstrong, of course (for those who have read his memoir) got his welfare card signed by the Clash, which we tried, to no avail, to include an image of in the story. “I know I’ve got it, it’s either glued and taped into a book I’ve got. I wanted to get an autograph – obviously we thought of them as being stars; I never wanted anybody’s autograph, but I didn’t have anything on me. And the only thing I could think of was, ‘fuck, my welfare card, here!’ It’s also my sense of humour.”

How did that come about? 

“We invited Joe for a beer across the street from the Windmill at the Nelson Place Hotel, and I think the pub was called the Captain’s Quarterdeck or something like that. A nautical motif. So we went over there and bought some beer and he just emptied his pockets out and said, ‘I don’t know how much this is, just buy whatever it buys.’ So we ended up with a tableful of draft. And I think he took one sip – do you remember, back in those days, the little hourglass shaped glasses with the white fill line around the top? He picked up one of those and took a slug and looked at it: ‘What is this shit?’ I don’t think he was impressed with Canadian draft beer. I know I wasn’t!”

But most of his stories were about hanging out with Mick Jones. (If you haven't read Guilty of Everything, you really need to). “We talked about Johnny Thunders Les Paul Special that he has on the back of the second Dolls album, then we talked about the Les Paul Junior that he had in the Heartbreakers, and solo… We bonded over that – over guitars and amps, Mott the Hoople, and Keith and Johnny. You know, you meet someone, and they’re from a different place, and there’s stuff that you and he are both crazy for, and it’s like – ‘brother! Kinsman!’ Well-met!’ It was like that." 

And Jones and Armstrong "really bonded over Mott the Hoople," a band also mentioned as coming up in conversations both Phil Smith and Tom Harrison had with Jones, who, according to Armstrong, "had been one of the guys that followed Mott around and slept on the floor in their hotel rooms, and then – it’s funny, because Mott the Hoople was famous for opening up doors and letting in kids who didn’t have money for tickets, and after the show they’d go and talk to the fans, and if somebody had travelled to see them, they didn’t have a place to stay, the band would let them sleep on the floor in their hotel room, and years later, the Clash did the same thing. I gotta think that’s where it came from.”

The most entertaining story, which John also tells in the book, is that "Me and Mick Jones and someone else were sitting in someone’s car that was parked outside, and the first thing was, we could not believe the amount of dope these guys smoked. They could smoke so much ganja, and it was business as usual. It was just a way of life. So everybody is really seriously stoned, and we’re sitting in this car, and Mick is turning the wheel and pretending to shift gears and going ‘vroom, vroom,’ making squealing-around-the-corner-on-two-wheels noises. And either he told me or I’d just figured it out, but he’d never driven a car in his life. He’s from London – it’s like Manhattan: who owns a car? It would cost more than the car was worth just to park it for a month, so for him, sitting in a car playing at driving was huge fun.”

Phil Smith also ended up talking with Mick Jones at a pub during that stay in Vancouver. It was at the suggestion of the band, as Smith recalls it, that, “interviews take place in a pub, being British and all. As you might remember, you could count the non hotel-beer-parlour pubs back then on one hand. So I guess Bimini’s came up, and it was kind of a somewhat discordant setting, of a pre-Yuppie Kitsilano pub, before the word Yuppie even existed, and the Clash, but, you know, it was a pub, and there was beer, so it was all good.”

If I've got it right, that conversation was with Mick Jones (and perhaps Topper Headon). Smith definitely remembers talking with Jones, and recalled him being sharp, “in both quickness and style of wit. I definitely remember that he gave some very good, pointed answers to questions. He was very personable and very responsive.” 

Compared to that conversation, he doesn’t remember “any musical conversation” while the game was on. “I think one reason musicians love to play sports is so they don’t talk about music, so I don’t remember any musical conversation. It was more game talk, weather talk, Vancouver talk.”

I actually used most of my conversation with Phil - though I didn't transcribe part of it, about the Clash concert that *I saw Phil open for the Clash at* back in 1984. I remember Corsage getting booed by the audience - this being back in the days when audiences were often very intolerant of opening acts they didn't know, something I'm glad to see is not so common these days. I had thought it pretty unfair, and totally enjoyed Corsage's performance - most of which I now forget, but I wondered why people were being so mean (an impression Jade Blade had backed up in a Dishrags feature I did a few years ago for Big Takeover). 

Smith's own memories, understandably, were sharper than mine, but he recalled being warned by Payola's drummer Chris Taylor, that for stadium shows, you had to play only your very best material, not try anything new or less known, in order to keep the audience with you. They did okay, Smith recalled, as long as they followed Taylor's advice!
I will save Phil Smith's other stories about that night in case I ever have cause to write about that specific Coliseum show again (the only time I saw the Clash, if you call that Clash the Clash; some people seem not to). Some of my favourite things to come out of the process of writing this story actually ended up being about that concert, which took place May 31st, 1984. I hadn't recalled, for instance, that the Clash at that point had not released Cut the Crap. I share people's disdain for that album, which has some bizarre, even horrifying, missteps on it, and which smeared some of its detritus on my memories of that concert (which I had totally enjoyed!). 

But as a result of thinking about that album again, I had the following pleasant discoveries:

a) Thanks, I think, to Erik Iversen (and maybe Doug Smith?) I learned that in fact, the wreckage of that album had little to do with Joe Strummer, who eventually walked away from the project; a lot of responsibility for everything that's bad and wrong with the album can be laid at the feet of Bernie Rhodes. The Wikipedia page about the recording of it is actually pretty interesting. I had always felt like there were some potentially excellent ideas on the album, songs I wanted to like, even one or two that almost survived the terrible presentation, like "This is England." Check out this Youtube clip where someone has adjusted the pitch on Joe's voice... At the time, my other favourite song was called "Are You Red...y?" which turns out to be a mangled form for "Are You Ready for War." 

b) I discovered there's a bunch of fan-traded bootlegs out there of shows from that tour, one of which, on Rhode Island if I recall, has pretty good audio (find it!). There are also demos that give you a glimpse of what the album was going to be before it was, uh, Rhodes'd.

c) And finally, I had my once-a-decade-or-so relisten to to Cut the Crap, to see if it's gotten better with time or distance. It hasn't, but I discovered a song that I had forgotten about, "Three Card Trick," actually is kind of fantastic, flashing forward to the kind of music Joe would be making on Earthquake Weather or with the Mescaleros. 

There is some possibility I will write about the 1979 Clash soccer game again, depending on who else's stories (or photographs) surface. Nick Jones had said, “I seem to remember that we took team pictures. Like, there was a picture of them, and a picture of us, and then there’s a picture of all of us together." He described the pics as "absolute gold," but didn't know who had them, and it proved beyond my reach to track them down. I did talk to a few people about whether they took pics - Bev, Lynn, and Don didn't, and other leads proved fruitless. Eric von Schlippen - I dunno if he wanted his real name in print, so there's his nom de plume again - said he had photos, but we didn't actually connect (maybe he's got his own plans for said pics; I hope so). I ran out of time, and had to focus on the writing (plus Heather Ewasew's photos are pretty fantastic), but if other people know where those photos are, they should dig them up. 

Anyhow, the real article, over at Montecristo, is a pretty fun read - check it out. Thanks to Nick Jones, John Armstrong, Phil Smith, Jon Williams, Susan McGillivray, Jade Blade, Tom Harrison, Grant McDonagh, Heather Ewasew, bev davies, Gerry Hannah, and everyone else who provided background and helped stoke my enthusiasm for the piece! 

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