One side effect of getting older has been the startling realization that certain songs have been present in my life longer than most people. Without delving into a Hornby-esque deconstruction of why pop culture matters, it is nevertheless amazing that I’ve known Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables or My Aim is True longer than some of the most significant people who are currently in my life.
I came to this realization on my morning commute. It was snowing heavily, so rather than dust off my car and shift endlessly from reverse into drive to rock myself out of a snowbank, I opted to take my fiance’s car to work. She has a tradition of making herself a mix cd each month, and while it often focuses on new music, there are usually reliable favorites that tend to show up as well.
I turned the ignition, still mostly asleep, and the car filled with the unmistakable bum, buh-bump, buh-bump of Johnny Appleseed by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros.
Just like drama, friends, and family, everyone brings their fair share of pop culture baggage into a new relationship. I pretended to be on Stevie Nicks’ side of Fleetwood Mac (#TeamLindsey) and Sam learned all about Joe Strummer’s other band – easily explaining how he found his way onto her mix cd.
But my relationship with Joe Strummer goes back much further than that. It began in middle school, before I realized that you didn’t have to skateboard to be a punk. As I watched segment after segment of Globe Shoe Co.’s “Opinion” video with a close friend (one I lost touch with in high school because of his affinity for Christianity and Nickelback), I heard a song that really stood out to me. It had the air and attitude of punk, but the style fit more closely with world music. I was just starting to grow out of the idea that any instrument without a distortion pedal made you a poser, so this eclectic mix of instruments quickly piqued my interest. My purpose for watching shifted from pretending to care about kickflips to checking the list of songs at the end of the credits.
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros – Bhindi Bhagee
I must confess, much to my own embarrassment, that the name didn’t mean anything to me at the time. My love affair with London Calling was still a few years away, and though I had probably heard of the Clash, I was excruciatingly unaware of their music or their impact.
That’s how I became the only person ever who got into the Clash through the music of Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros.
Global a Go Go came out in 2001. While Strummer had clearly dabbled in world music as the chief songwriter of the Clash (Sandinista!) and in his time as the touring frontman for the Pogues, it is hard to see a lot of influence from his early career in the music of the Mescaleros. Their songs benefit from the vibrant energy of multiculturalism without the undertones of camp and faux-novelty that can plague bands like Gogol Bordello and the Dropkick Murphys. With Joe it felt genuine – he was a normal British guy who, through no small amount of luck and talent, got to travel the world. He soaked up all those places and his music celebrated their influence on his life.
I bought the album at a time in my life where I wanted to visit vibrant new places. After the initial excitement of picking up and moving away from Mississippi to Colorado, it seemed like my life was on a set path along highway 285 through west Texas. Predictably, the move to Colorado had not severed my family ties in Mississippi, and in the years following our move my grandmother made the difficult transition from her own house to a nursing home. During each school break, my parents and I would pack up our car and drive 1,200 miles through plains and pine trees back to the south. On each return trip, we would gain a UHaul full of furniture that my dad and I thanklessly loaded in for the long drive back to Colorado, and promptly unloaded into a storage unit. These breaks provided little time for fun, and with all of my friends back in Colorado, they were usually pretty miserable for me.
One day, while going through my uncle’s childhood closet, I found an old shoebox of change. I guess those coins were his, stored away and forgotten about it what he thought was a safe place. His visits to my grandmother’s house were infrequent at that time, and he certainly wasn’t helping my dad and I load up the house, so I did what my heart told me to do.
I stole the shit out of his coin collection.
With no driver’s license, and no access to coinstar machines, I walked a few blocks away to the record store that was serendipitously located in the strip mall next to my grandma’s neighborhood. They mostly stocked country music, hip hop, and 60s classic rock, but one cover caught my eye: a stark white background contrasting a brightly colored lighter with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros handwritten in black sharpie. I had downloaded Bhindi Bhagee but never really pursued the band from there. I had enough stolen change for two cds, and given my choices I went with Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols and Global a Go Go. The look from the clerk was predictably cold given my method of payment – a shoebox full of coins that I assured him contained 33 dollars. As he counted out the coins, I found myself excited that I would finally have something new to listen to.
I knew what I was getting with the Sex Pistols, so I popped the latter into my cd player.
Johnny Appleseed was track one, and I immediately knew I loved this album. It sounded different than anything I’d ever heard – organically mixing soul, gospel, celtic, punk, and folk. The lyrics were vague, but the song slowly built up before finally erupting with energy close to the end. I was awake until the very early morning – sitting in the spare bedroom of the house my mom grew up in, waiting for the daylight and keeping my cd player volume low because, even though I had headphones in, I was terrified of waking anyone else up. For that night, Global a Go Go was my own intimate secret keeping me company while I fought with the night against the coming dawn. I played it over and over again, like an addict trying to prolong that initial high. I didn’t want that feeling to go away. That night is still fresh in my mind, fifteen years later, so much so that even on a snowy morning in Colorado I can’t let it go.