I first bought an mp3 player in 2008. Before then, I’d held on to my trusty Sony discman with a desperate strength, long after mp3 players had become the standard for portable music devices. I didn’t care what anyone said, mp3s were the enemy. I loved my clunky, double-A battery operated discman. I loved carrying it around with me everywhere, as well as a monstruously bulky CD carrier with 48 of my favorite albums from my extensive collection. Forty eight– the cream of the crop. And because changing CDs in public was such an enormous hassle, I’d have to really commit to whatever album I chose when I got up and left the house, for at least as long as it took to get wherever it was I was going. Sometimes I’d travel far– when I was going to the University of Buenos Aires, I’d take the bus for 90 minutes every morning, then another 90 on the way back every afternoon. As a result, there’s a select group of about 30 albums that immediately transport me back to that early-morning commute, and that strange, transitional period in my life.
One of those albums is Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros’ “Rock Art and the X-Ray Style”, the first album by Joe and his post-Clash eclectic rock outfit. I know this is probably tantamount to blasphemy, but I think I like this album better than about half of The Clash’s songs (though, to be fair, The Clash were an excellent band with a discography that quickly became ridiculously bloated during the later half of their career– approximately half of “Sandinista”, three-quarters of “Combat Rock” and all of “Cut the Crap” are irredeemably bad). I like this album because it’s bursting with energy, with ideas and with humanity. Unlike a lot of the wild eclecticism of The Clash’s later work, the worldliness of this music feels earned, less like genre exercises and more like the natural songwriting bent of a man who’s led the kind of life Joe led.
The album has moments of breathtaking beauty, with campfire singalongs like the title track and the English-folk-by-way-of-drum-loops-and-synth album closer “Willesden to Cricklewood”. The album has aggressive, hard-pounding rave-ups that are reminiscent of The Clash’s more rousing work, like the cathartic “Techno D-Day” (which, despite being by all intents and purposes a punk rock song, still manages to make use of Latin percussion and lyrical references to Colombian vallenatero Andres Landero). There are quirky songwriting experiments you’d expect from an up-and-coming indie band. But more than anything else, there’s a lot of heart and hard-earned wisdom in this collection of tunes, with Joe’s voice and personality at the forefront throughout.
Thanks to all those early morning commutes to school with nothing but my discman to accompany me, I have every second of this album memorized, front to back. I know it very well. And every single song brings up these incredibly vivid memories of chilly winter mornings almost nodding out in my chair, seeing the sun come up from aboard the bus 37 to Ciudad Universitaria. Buenos Aires at six in the morning is a sight to be seen. There’s always that early morning, post-drizzle mist that’s as intoxicating as the city itself, and there’s something fascinating about watching a city that’s usually so abuzz with activity actually slow down for a moment, then gradually progress back into chaotic cacophony. And I liked that commute because I loved seeing those sunrises in the river. It’d be the highlight of my day. Open water and the sun coming up from behind. Red, orange, purple, blue.
The first time I took that bus to school, something caught my eye as I gazed over the water. Coming up ahead, I could see a house. A little house, out by the water, bridged to land by what looked like a long dock. I thought “this is genius. That’s somebody’s house. Somebody lives there”. I was charmed by the idea, even if the practical implications of living a couple blocks away from land would probably make everyday life a total pain in the ass. I remember thinking about that for a few minutes, about how great it would be to live literally over the river, until the bus passed right in front of the house and I found out, much to my disappointment, that it was actually a fishermans’ club. But I wouldn’t let that destroy such a wonderful thought. And so, for the remainder of that semester, every once in a while– not always, but whenever the mood struck– I’d look out the window and listen to Joe Strummer and daydream about life in a house like that. And for a couple of minutes, I’d smile, unencumbered by the drab prosaicness of real life.