Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Joe Strummer


I've just finished reading Redemption Song, a 600 page (!) biography of Joe Strummer, the lead singer of the Clash who died in 2002. I regret having picked the book up for a couple of reasons. First, much as I love the Clash, 600 pages is a bit much, particularly given how leaden much of the prose is. More than this, I regret reading the book because of how horribly Strummer is depicted. Preening narcissist...sex addict...coward...drug addict...neglectful father...unfaithful husband...the list goes on and on. Talk about knocking a guy from his pedestal! It was almost enough to make me forget the amazing things that Strummer accomplished and the positive values that he communicated in many of his songs. Anyway, reading the book made me remember an email I sent around when Strummer died, which I reproduce here for posterity:

>>> Greg Berman 12/30/02 12:42PM >>>
In addition to being a frustrated comic book artist, I'm also a bit of an amateur rock critic, so I didn't want to let the passing of Joe Strummer - the lead singer of the Clash, who died last week of a heart attack at the age of 50 - go by without a comment or two.

The Clash have always been a favorite band of mine. What I loved most about them was their creative energy. Although the Clash emerged out of the British punk movement in the mid 70s, they refused to be confined by the rigid expectations of the punk scene. Rather than confine themselves to the three chord aggression of most punk rock, they experimented with different styles, tempos and rhythms, trying out ska, dub, rockabilly, dance and hip-hop (although they are rarely credited for it, the Clash were among the first white bands to attempt a rap-rock hybrid, with 1981's "Magnificent Seven"). They even attempted a love song or two.
I think the Times' article about Strummer's death got it right - what separated Strummer from his peers was his capacity for reinvention, his ability to manufacture a second act for both the Clash and for himself as a solo artist. This stands in marked contrast to other punk bands like the Sex Pistols or the Ramones, which never could manage this difficult trick.

When Joey Ramone, the lead singer of the Ramones, died a year and a half ago, I was similarly moved to write a short piece about the Ramones. I thought it worth sharing with you (some of you may have seen it the first time), since it eventually works its way around to a few thoughts about the Center for Court Innovation.

Joey Ramone, arguably the most influential musician of his generation, died on Sunday. The lead singer of the Ramones and one of the originators of punk, Joey's influence can be felt on just about every "alternative" band playing today (artists that owe a particularly large psychic, musical and stylistic debt to the Ramones include the Clash, Sex Pistols, Green Day, Blink 182 and Nirvana). Despite his accomplishments, Joey merited only a short obit in Monday's Times, which ran under a smart-ass headline that identified him as a "yelper" (an unnecessary diss that was, thankfully, rectified when the Times re-ran the obit on Tuesday).

This got me to thinking about the fleeting nature of public acclaim and the challenges of innovation. I'll spare you my thoughts about fame, but I did want to communicate a couple of ideas about innovation.

The Ramones had one genius idea. They were the perfect antidote for a late 1970s pop music scene dominated by disco, progressive rock and "supergroups" like Led Zeppelin. Instead of the bloated ten minute jams that appeared on many albums of the era, the Ramones took a streamlined approach, stripping their songs down to the basics - they were five albums into their career before they recorded a song longer than three minutes. Instead of the self-serious pretension of "rock operas" and "concept albums," the Ramones were funny and self-deprecating. (Their song titles accurately conveyed their lyrical obsessions: "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," "Suzy Is a Headbanger," "I Wanna Be Sedated"). Instead of emphasizing musicianship (extended solos, massive overdubs, etc) the Ramones reveled in their limited musical talent, playing all of their songs the same way: fast and loud. And instead of the glitter and glamour of the prevailing rock fashions of the time, the Ramones wore the same get-up (leather jackets, torn jeans) to every show.

Unfortunately, although they kept at it for more than two decades, the Ramones never came up with another good idea - they simply rode their one original concept until they dropped. Their final years as a band were marked by internal dissension, shoddy records and declining ticket sales as they slid inexorably towards irrelevance.

So what's the moral of the story? Are the Ramones a case study in success or failure? I think there are two lessons to be learned from their career. The first is how far you can go with just a single good idea. The Ramones got two dozen albums, a feature film, several books and more than two thousand concerts out of theirs. Not bad for a couple of drop-outs from Queens.
On the other hand, the Ramones are probably not going to go down in history with the greats of their genre - the Beatles, Elvis etc. What separated them from the top echelon in their field was their inability to constantly re-invent themselves. There was no second act for the Ramones, only the first repeated ad nauseum.

I don't want to draw any pat conclusions about the Ramones or facile parallels with the Center for Court Innovation. But I will say that we owe it to ourselves to push our good ideas as hard as we can for as long as we can, because, after all, good ideas are not so easy to come by. At the same time, if we want the Center to be an enduring institution, we need to always be aggressively thinking about what comes next and where our next good idea will come from.