#81: The Clash, "The Clash" (1977)

81 The Clash.jpg

I.

I started listening to the Clash in 8th grade, the same year our class bussed north from North Carolina on an annual pilgrimage to our nation’s capital. My brother and I were running multiple BMG and Columbia House schemes, pulling in dozens of “free” CDs for the bargain price of a penny before our parents received the bills for our crimes and shut the whole thing down. I was newly into punk rock and ravenous—the Buzzcocks, Blondie, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex—and packed my Sony Discman with a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, a dreamy EP by the band Luna, and the Clash’s first album.

Our class stayed at a rinky-dink Days Inn somewhere on the Virginia border and I roomed with three other girlfriends, two on each double bed, sequestered away for the night by a piece of tape on the outside door, ensuring no sneak-outs, no boys, and no fun.

Only I’d picked up some fake blood pills at a gaudy prank store on an excursion to one of the area’s myriad malls—where a $5 psychic reading left me thinking I had a bright future in dentistry—and slipped into the bathroom, sometime around 10 o’clock, just as me and the girls were growing delirious with cabin fever. The pills frothed into realistic blood streams as I gnashed into them before lurching from the bathroom, groaning, to the utter horror of my friends before we all tore into laughter. The commotion signaled the red-faced teacher-chaperones who threatened us in their casual wear, always on high alert to squash whatever hijinks we might be up to. But the beauty of youth is feeling emboldened even when you know you shouldn’t, and so after they returned to bed, we cracked the hotel windows to smoke a surreptitious cigarette, passed between us and exhaled into the crisp night air of the biggest city we’d yet traveled to.

The next day, we wandered the Smithsonian and explored the National Mall in fragments I can just barely recall, but what I do remember happened on the bus ride home. The underwire from my bra had snapped on a tour of the aquarium and was jabbing the underside of my breast; so, in the aquarium restroom, I disposed of it entirely. My burgeoning knockers could still go without any real support and so I thought nothing of it—until we returned to the bus and settled in for the long ride back to Greensboro. I’d bent over to retrieve my Discman, totally oblivious that Mark, my ultimate skater boy crush, was watching, peering down my v-neck shirt as I rooted around my bag, emerging with my Sex Pistols CD in hand.

What happened to your bra? he demanded loudly, both indignant and satisfied, as though he’d caught me mid-crime and savored my humiliation.

I flushed and felt my whole body go hot. People were looking at me, and I knew I had to say something.

It broke so I got rid of it, I stammered.

Mark howled with laughter and glanced at the Sex Pistols CD I was still holding. God save the Sween! he crooned—standing up on his seat for the whole bus to see—She doesn’t wear a bra!

II.

I preferred the Clash, anyway, I remember telling Jeff almost a year later. Anytime I heard the Sex Pistols, I heard Mark’s song echoing and I winced—at the time, his cleverness bugged me more than his cruelty.

Up until this point, Jeff and I had led our parents to believe we were the best of friends, strictly platonic, but of course we were dryhumping like chipmunks in the hammock of his parents’ backyard and dryhumping in the car while we waited for his younger brother to finish class at Tumblebees.

I was just a freshman, but Jeff was a junior and drove a white Buick, and thus became my default chauffeur. After school, we landed at his house and I’d harass him while he attempted homework, distracting him into picking up his guitar and he’d break into Sonic Youth, Pavement, and the Clash, which I’d just turned him onto.

He preferred London Calling, but I still carried a torch for the Clash’s first album, and remember making my father drive me to the record store to buy it. Even if I now prefer London Calling—the band’s more literate older brother, back from study abroad—I seized upon the first album’s anger then because I was angry too. Angry that my mother had chosen her loathsome and jobless boyfriend over me, prompting me to run away from home and get picked up by my drunk father, who I loved dearly but who I’d never imagined as a qualified caretaker. Angry because those circumstances coupled with my age ostensibly rendered me powerless.

I loved the Clash’s first album for its visceral, political anger—which had always felt so romantic to me, a rebel child born from such Southern, genteel sensibilities—but also for the way Joe Strummer fused that anger with something that felt like joy. Janie Jones was a love song if ever there was one; Garageland an homage to a DIY musical ethos; and Mick Jones’s soaring, ribbon-light vocals gave me something to shout from the Buick’s open window—Let them know, let them knowwww-ooh-oh-ohhh.

One fall school night we were riding around, making out at each red light, which prompted Jeff to pull into the parking lot of a Baptist church off Friendly Avenue. Under a lone streetlight we kissed, we dryhumped, and then there was Jeff’s penis, the first real-life penis I’d ever seen, and at 14 and still clueless about sex I certainly didn’t know what to do with it.

But I’d wanted to see it because I was advancing—as a teenager, as a person in the world, and as a sexual being who’d someday soon know what to do. But that night, I looked at Jeff’s penis and nodded. Then I said, You can put it away now.

And that's when he got on top of me and pinned me to the car seat with the full weight of all his taut teenage body, still new and golden and filled with all the opportunities the world affords to bright young white men, while I writhed and struggled beneath him before starting to scream. 

As he simultaneously thrust his penis at my face while trying to wrangle my arms into submission, I remember screaming and staring at a blue dumpster up ahead, as if that dumpster might somehow come to life and rescue me.

And maybe my screams worked, because Jeff eventually stopped. But back then—North Carolina in 1997—no language for sexual assault was taught to young girls. There was only language for being molested by a family member or a friend of the family or rape, none of which happened to me.

I didn’t know what happened to me. But I know that Jeff drove me home and on the way, I remember thinking, Do not look unruffled in front of your father.

I remember thinking, What just happened, anyway?

I remember thinking, Do I tell my father? Do I tell anyone? Is there even anything to tell?

I remember thinking, It wasn't rape, though.

I remember thinking, If it wasn't rape, then I guess it was nothing.

Besides, I told myself, I started it.

III.

Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?

Lately I’ve been thinking about what Dr. Christine Blasey Ford said of her decision to appear—though I want to say testify, even though we’re all supposed to believe she was not on trial—before the Senate Judiciary Committee and tell the world how the newly-appointed Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in a Maryland bedroom sometime during the summer of 1982.

On the day of the hearing, my coworker—a man I like very much, a man I consider a friend—asked to speak to me privately. I just want to understand, and I think you might be a good person to ask, he started. It’s just—what do you think of all this? Do you think she’s legit?

I closed his office door, and that’s when I told him about Jeff’s Buick, about the dumpster.

I feel lucky, I told him, because this is it. But isn’t that enough?

Isn’t telling my classmate that my bra broke enough? Isn’t telling Jeff no enough? Isn’t telling my coworker enough? Why must humiliation—annihilation?—be the cornerstone of womanhood, of our believability?

I still can’t listen to the Sex Pistols without wincing, without thinking about how I thought I loved Mark and how he was an asshole to me, and how I thought I loved Jeff and how he was an asshole to me, and how I’d come to internalize humiliation by men as a part of life—even as a token of love. Once I believed that pain was part of being a woman, that suffering for a man was the most valiant love in the world.

Years later, in college, I saw Jeff and asked him about that night in the Baptist church parking lot and he said he didn't remember. I'm really sorry if I did that, he said, but I just don't remember.

But women and girls—we remember.

When I listened to the Clash as a young girl, I felt powerful. I felt angry. I didn’t quite understand the political and social context of the lyrics, but intuitively I recognized that the songs were about injustice.

That night with Jeff may not have ruined my life, and he may not be on the Supreme Court, but if he were, I would’ve come forward too. I am now.

Appearing on Joe Rogan’s podcast in 2017, the singer Henry Rollins said of Trump’s regime: This is punk rock time, this is what Joe Strummer trained you for.

Now I know exactly what he means.

—Sarah Sweeney