The heroes of the revolution

the clash I was 15 years old and my parents bought me my first stereo.

Being the AM-radio kind of guy I was, the first LPs I bought were Aerosmith’s “Toys in the Attic” and Van Halan’s debut disc. But while I was in the Warehouse that day, I spotted an album cover that looked interesting. The singer wore heavy-rimmed glasses that made him look like Woody Allen and his name was Elvis.

Here, I thought, was a nerd — just like me.

I thought about that album cover for two weeks, until my next paycheck. Then I bought “My Aim is True” by Elvis Costello.

I knew nothing about EC. I had never heard his music. I had only a vague notion of Punk Rock from a Newsweek article. I probably would have given punk a try at some point anyway, but it was Elvis that really drew me in.

And “My Aim is True” was truly a stunningly magnificant album. It changed my life. Because of it, I started trying to write song lyrics, which got me interested in writing in general. I started writing for the school paper (doing album reviews). But just as importantly, a whole new world of music opened up to me. I discovered that not only was there a world of music not being played on AM radio, there was a trove of stuff not even making it to the FM airwaves.

I discovered acts like the Talking Heads, Blondie, the Ramones, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls, Devo, the B-52s, the Cars, Roxy Music, David Bowie, the Police, Nick Lowe and Ian Dury.

elvis costelloSomehow, I also made the connection between this “alternative” music and early rock and roll, and I began to listen to Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, as well.

But it all began with Elvis.

I mention this now because I’ve been reflecting on Joe Strummer’s death. Also, Ben Orr’s, which happened quite a while back, but I’ve also been revisiting that Cars debut album recently (which remains brillently conceived and executed in both its originality and its glistening pop sensibilities).

If you had asked me in the late 1979 (three years after getting that stereo and just before I entered the Air Force) to list the music most important to me, the list easily would have gone like this:

  1. Elvis Costello
  2. The Clash
  3. The Ramones
  4. The Cars
  5. The Sex Pistols
  6. David Bowie
  7. Buddy Holly
  8. The New York Dolls
  9. The Talking Heads
  10. Eddie Cochran

Look at how much death is on that list. Joe Strummer is gone. Joey Ramone is gone. Dee Dee Ramone is gone. Ben Orr is gone. Sid Vicious is gone (though, he was only really a bit player in the Pistols). Johnny Thunders is gone. And of course, both Holly and Cochran were dead by the time I discovered their music.

The point is, back then I never would have believed that before I turned 42, so many of the heroes of my youth would be dead (and David Bowie might as well be with all the crap he turns out these days).

In 2003, what’s the most important music to me? I can’t categorize it like that … I now realize there is so much great music out there it’s hard to memorialize all-time lists (though it’s fun to try, and fun to argue about). I just thank God I live in a world where I can still make my own musical choices. Corporate CEOs still don’t have as much power as they think they have, nor as much control as they want, to make those choices for me.

And guys like Joe Strummer helped make my freedom possible.

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