The slightly grandiose title to this post comes from The Olive Reader, the blog of Harper Perennial (a book publisher), which is doing a promo for a book of theirs, Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives. On the blog they ask, “What album changed your life at 17? (Or whenever.)”
That’s easy. Here’s my answer:
It’s 1981, and I’m 15, a gawky, pimply, f*cked up soup of hormones, and I’m busting my ass on the subway to get back and forth to my new high school where no one likes me because I’m new and I’m not from the suburbs.
Reagan is president, I’m convinced he’s going to make me sign up for the draft in a few years, if he doesn’t annihilate us with nukes first.
The radio is filled with crap like “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Sheena Easton, Juice Newton. It’s worse than bad. It’s insultingly bad, like saccharine on a popsicle.
Then I discover the Clash. Specifically, “London Calling,” with its brilliantly dark, apocalyptic title track, plus “Spanish Bombs,” “Guns of Brixton,” and “Death or Glory,” just to name a few.
This is a punk band, yeah. I’m 15, I’m all about that. But there’s reggae in there, dub, rockabilly, ska, pop culture references … and POLITICS.
LEFT politics. These guys are playing Rock Against Racism, they know their history (“Spanish Bombs” is about the Spanish Civil War and fascism, “Guns of Brixton” is about the Brixton race riots) … and they can flat-out PLAY.
At 15 you’re right at the bottom of the trough, as awkward and angry and frustrated and drug-taking and screwed-up as you can be. And when Air Supply and Abba and Hall & Oates’ hair gel were all conspiring against me, along came Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon putting out music that was angry, vital, political, engaged, smart, and most of all, REAL.
And after a few hundred listens, you figure it out. It’s OK to be screwed up and angry, because you can be all those other things, too. Note by note and song by song, they showed me the way.