Monday, December 10, 2012

What's My Name?

by Ben Greenman

How do you know that a band has Jewish roots? Maybe if they assimilate into the world around them without losing sight of the strands that resist assimilation: political expression, other immigrant cultures. Maybe if they ask more questions than they answer. Maybe if they seem like they don't have Jewish roots.

Michael Geoffrey Jones had a Welsh father and a Russian-Jewish mother. He spent much of his childhood with his maternal grandmother. In his teens, he took an interest in Britain's music scene, first in a glam-rock band called The Delinquents, then in a punk band. When he was a young man of 21, he met a slightly older young man named John Graham Mellor, also a veteran of local bands, and the two of them joined forces in a new musical concern. Take a look at these two, standing there. Blink. It's the Clash, and Michael's Mick Jones and John's Joe Strummer. Close your eyes again. This time don't open your eyes just yet. Try to hear the music they made without seeing, in your mind's eye, the iconic images that went along with them: Paul Simonon smashing his bass in the cover photo of London Calling, of course, but all the rest, too, boys leaning in doorways, proudly held microphones, guitars wielded like weapons. Okay. You can open your eyes now, though you may not want to.

When people are told that Mick Jones is Jewish, they usually have one of two responses.

a) "No way! I didn't know that."
b) "You told me that yesterday, and I didn't believe it then either."

But maybe it's not as strange as it sounds. American punks were largely Jewish, from Richard Hell to Joey Ramone, and while the demographics of British punks aren't as immediately apparent, they're relevantly similar. Take the prime mover of first-wave British punk, Malcolm McLaren. He sounds like he's Scottish because his father was, but that same father left when he was two and Malcolm was raised, largely, by his grandmother Rose Corre Isaacs, who came from a wealthy Portugese Sephardic family. (The Corre name went to McLaren's son withVivienne Westwood, Joseph, who founded Agent Provocateur). Even within the Clash, it was more the rule than the exception. Joe Strummer's father's mother's father was Jewish. And the band's other lead guitarist, Keith Levene, who was fired soon after Jones joined, was also half-Jewish (though father, not mother, which makes him less Jewish than Jones or McLaren according to matrilineal-descent rules).

The Clash's career needs no review. Does it? If it does we are all older than we think. The band recorded a series of slashing singles that established them as the world's best punk band. Maybe you've heard them: "I Fought the Law," "Complete Control," "White Man in Hamersmith Palais," "I'm So Bored of the U.S.A." Then they became the world's best band, period, branching out into rockabilly and dub and funk and pop. If you need a more detailed summary than that, maybe you should be looking elsewhere.

Longer articles, even entire books, have been spent analyzing the dynamic between Jones and Strummer. Generally speaking, though this is almost so general as to be inaccurate, Strummer was the straight line, the political firebrand and musical agitator, and Jones was the steadying force that permitted and even encouraged divagations into pop music. There is some evidence for this woefully incomplete theory. Early on in the band's career, Jones wrote and sang "1-2 Crush on You," which sounds at first like Sha-Na-Na and then like a not especially punky (but especially expert and energetic) love song. Other Jones contributions were relevantly similar in tone: "Train In Vain," from London Calling, and even "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?" But Jones wasn't all soft McCartney to Strummer's uncompromising Lennon. He was also responsible for lead vocals on a pair of the band's best lesser-known songs, "The Prisoner" and "Gates of the West." There's not much evidence, overt or otherwise, of Jones's Judaism in his music. though it's fun to retitle Clash songs as Jewish, especially when there are execrable poems involved. In that spirit, we offer "Whitefish Riot," "Wrong 'Em Oy-o," and, of course, "Verklemptdown."

Or is there? "Gates of the West" is an especially interesting case. It's usually read as a straightforward account of the Clash's first experience with America: that's the West, and they're coming across the ocean to find it. But there's another undercurrent that shifts
things a thousand miles to the East and hints at the contributions of Eastern Europeans, many of whom were Jewish, to British culture: "The immigrants an' remnants of all the glory years / Are clustered around the bar again for another round of beers."

This is a theme Jones would return to later on. When the Clash broke up, not particularly amicably. Jones went on to a brief dalliance in General Public and then, along with Don Letts, formed Big Audio Dynamite. That band's cut-and-paste dance-floor aesthetic alienated some Clash fans, but new fans came aboard. And then, for the band's second album, No. 10 Upping St., Jones reunited with Strummer. They produced the record together and Strummer co-wrote several songs. One of them, "Beyond The Pale," picked up that second, almost invisible thread of "Gates of the West."

My grandpa came from Russia
Stowed away hidden in some bales
He took my grandma dancing
To the air raid sirens wail

Later in the song, Jones wonders what would have happened had his grandfather not stowed away:

Now there's a rocker in Vladivostok
Got every side by Jerry Lee
But for accidents of disorder
That guy could well be me

"That guy could well be me." True, though it's just as likely that he would perished in one of the sweeping historical atrocities of the middle of the twentieth century: Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany. The Clash was always particularly sensitive to injustice, and never afraid to speak out about it. When Jones first joined the band, he and Strummer and Levene wrote a song together called "What's My Name?" It's a bit of youthful dyspepsia, delivered at top energy like the rest of those early songs but not otherwise their finest moment. But it asks a good question. What is in a name? Jones is a fairly benign name, but it's his, and he kept it, unlike Mellor, who went to Strummer and never went back. Despite the fact that he kept his name, Jones never recorded under it. Since disbanding Big Audio Dynamite (I & II), he has played with as series of groups, from Carbon/Silicon to The Justice Tonight Band.

But the most interesting footnote, from a Jewish perspective, comes back at the beginning. While in the Delinquents, Jones met Tony James (later of Generation X) and formed his first punk band, London SS. I'll print it again to cushion the shock. London SS.  People were understandably dismayed by the name. The war was only thirty years gone, and they didn't take kindly to what seemed like an overt reference to the Schutzstaffel. Many punk bands flirted with fascist rhetoric, either ironically or straightforwardly. Andrew Matheson of the Hollywood Brats claimed to have invented the name, in part because the members were sporting Nazi fashions; Jones, he said, had a swastika armband. This account has been disputed or dismissed. "We hadn't thought at all about the Nazi implications," James has said. "It just seemed like a very anarchic, stylish thing to do." And Jones himself, who did not tolerate this behavior in others (he was irritated by Sid Vicious's habit of wearing a swastika t-shirt, and vowed to never appear onstage with the Sex Pistols), has claimed that the SS stood for Social Security and that the "London" prefix was an homage to the New York Dolls.

Among the songs London SS played was "Protex Blue," a song about prophylactics that the Clash would later record. The Protex line was manufactured by the Schmid company, which was founded in 1882 in New York by the German immigrant Julius Schmidt, who lopped the "t" off his last name to appear less Jewish.


"1-2 Crush On You" mp3
by The Clash, 1978.
available on Super Black Market Clash

"The Prisoner" mp3
by The Clash, 1978.
available on Super Black Market Clash

"Gates of the West" mp3
by The Clash, 1979
available on Super Black Market Clash

"Beyond The Pale" mp3
by Big Audio Dynamite, 1986.
available on  No.10 Upping St

"Protex Blue" mp3
by The Clash, 1977.
available on The Clash (UK Version)

photos by Pennie Smith 
top image from Hell W10

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