The weirdest five minutes of your life, October 17, 2001, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros at the EMP Sky Church. The Wallflowers opening, Dylan’s kid the frontman.
The Sky Church, man! Paul Allen’s musical wet dream. Capacity maybe two-fifty, max. A music venue so perfect, only a billionaire garage-band wannabe could make it a reality. And the cachet of a famous billionaire had a gravitational pull all its own. That’s how you get Joe Strummer into a venue so intimate.
That first time you stepped out onto the floor of the Sky Church, you thought you’d wandered into a space opera. A lot of shows have passed under the bridge since then, but none as big as the one you’re about to see this night. Joe Strummer, man, and you standing at the edge of the stage, right in front of the bloody mic.
The floor buzzes with pre-show anticipation. The stage glows in the weird lighting, and the people too. They coalesce into groups, like individual notes forming chords. Then something changes and they swirl apart, swirling and waiting, waiting for the show.
The loyal Clash army is easy to spot. Old or older punks going grey but looking like they could still hold their own in a scrum. You’re on the younger end of that spectrum, but it’s still your posse.
The Wallflower fans are younger, the techies, hipsters, and baristas. They want to hear Jakob Dylan’s ironic lyrics and the band’s smooth hooks.
One clutch of hipsters is louder than the rest, their voices rising above the others. Then, in a trick of near-perfect acoustics, you hear a single voice ring out across the floor.
— Don’t think I’m staying for the second act. I mean, Joe Strummer? Who the fuck is Joe Strummer?
The Sky Church chooses to go silent at that exact moment, and the hipster’s words hang in the air like a neon kick-me sign.
For a few heartbeats, you’re gone, sucked back into your high school homeroom. Back of the class, talking smack with your crew, loud, but the whole room is buzzing so you’re covered. You drop the punch line, complete with a roared F-bomb, a millisecond after the room has gone stone quiet.
Every face in class is looking at you, including that new teacher, the super-hot one, Miss Dennis or Davis, whichever. Serious fantasy stuff, but not now. She’s pissed, informs you she’s waiting for your apology. You stutter it out and then fall through the floor.
You’re back at the Sky Church and the hipster is regretting his choice of words. Always ready to avenge an injustice, the grizzled punks pounce on the kid. Tough old cobs, greybeard slam-dance vets, front row stage divers. Two seconds and they’ve got the kid surrounded, his back to the empty stage.
Half a dozen hard-edged voices assault the big-mouthed hipster, indignant bellows stinging in from three sides. Behind the lines, a second ring of hardcore Clash fans waits their turn.
— I hear you right? Did you say who the fuck is Joe Strummer?
— Ignorant little shit.
— Joe Strummer, man, The Clash. The only band that matters.
The circle pushes tighter and then the hipster kid has his hands up, palms out. You see half a smirk on the hipster’s stubbly face, and you hope the old punks don’t spot it. Or maybe hope that they will. But the kid seems to understand he’s outnumbered and outgunned.
— Okay old guys, don’t blow a gasket. Sorry, like, Joe Strummer. Cool. I’ll stay for the main act. Just chill.
The surrender seems to be enough for the mob and they let the kid go unharmed. A few promise to check in with him after the show, see if he’s ready to eat his words.
Then the Wallflowers take the stage.
It’s not their best night. They’re letting the big-mouthed hipster kid down. Missing lyrics, uncertain rhythm, hell, lacking the juice. You’ve seen it happen before and it’s never pretty.
They know it too, up there on the stage. The band phones it in for the rest of the set. Their fans hold them up, bandage their wounds with applause, and hey, you’re clapping too. Give them their due. Everyone stumbles now and then.
The stage change is quick. There’s enough time for a few of the Clash loyal to raze the hipster kid, but they’re not too far in his face. His band let him down. He’s suffering already. Then the lights are going down again, and a disembodied voice is introducing the headliner.
Joe Strummer hits the stage and the Mescaleros are right behind him. Hey, ho, what’s up Seattle, and then a wall of guitar, bass, and drums pounds off the stage. Shit gets real and fast.
And you’re singing along because hey, it’s an anthem. Rudy can’t fail, can never fail, and you’re singing. Singing it loud with eyes closed. You sing it right past the end of the chorus and smack onto the bridge, where no one else is singing, especially not Joe.
It’s the homeroom thing all over again, except this time, it’s Joe Strummer, not more than three feet away, looking down at you from the stage. Like he’s thinking what’s up with that. Then he covers the mike and says it right out loud, says it to you.
— Thanks for singing through that bit.
Right then there isn’t a hole deep enough or a hell dark enough for you to hide in. And while that’s weird enough, what happens next is much, much weirder.
Joe waves his hand and in the blink of an eye, with the single beat of a heart, the Sky Church goes silent and still. There’s no fade, no soft dissolve. It goes from pulsing music to church silent in a blink, and not a creature stirring. Everyone in the room is frozen in place, onstage and off. Everyone except you and Joe Strummer. It’s like being trapped inside a photograph.
Joe crouches, then takes a seat on the edge of the stage, legs dangling. Hunches forward a bit, one hand holding on to the chrome stem of the mic stand like it’s an anchor to keep him from falling.
He’s close, close enough you could reach out and touch his face if you dared, but you don’t. He’s looking right at you, sort of smirking, then his voice breaks the silence.
— Just got time for a quick smoke.
Reaches into thin air and plucks a lit cigarette from nowhere. Inhales, pops a smoke ring, then blows a plume through it.
— You digging the show?
You’ve got a choice between screaming in terror or answering, so you nod your head yes.
Eyes still on you, Joe takes another drag from his cigarette, waits. The first words out of your mouth are an apology.
— Hey, sorry for singing over the bridge like that. I kinda got carried away.
Joe waves it away with a smile. The apology vanishes in a trail of smoke.
— Nothin’ to it, mate. Happens every show. That, or a lot worse.
You nod again, fighting back the weirdness of it all, trying to get hold of the moment.
— What’s your name, then?
— I don’t have one.
Joe’s turn to nod this time.
— It’s probably easier that way, I reckon. The name thing, it can be a millstone, like this weight you carry about no matter where you go.
Then it’s like a barrier has fallen away. You feel some part of this making sense, even though you’re surrounded by human statues.
— Are you talking about the music?
Joe shakes his head and he’s haloed in smoke.
— Not the music, mate. That’s always been the saving grace of the thing. The music never lets you down. Never.
— So, it’s worth it then?
— I could ask you the same. You’re here now, alive, beat all the odds. You’re at a show and got this good-lookin’ woman with you.
Joe points a thumb at your girl, frozen like all the others. Her eyes are glued to the silent stage. A mannequin smile is plastered across her face.
— All that shite you went through, living in those squats, ripping and running, slamming the dope. Somehow, you survived. No small thing, right? And now here we are in a new millennium and you’re, what, fifteen years clean? Sixteen? Same question then: Was it worth it?
— How do you know all that, Joe?
— It’s your fantasy, mate.
— You mean…? But I thought…
— We’re in your head, not mine. Are you gonna answer the question?
Was it worth it? Tally up the wasted years, weigh them in the balance. No time for that now. And no time for regrets. Joe’s cigarette is burning down, and you think you know what that means.
— I don’t know if it was worth it or not. I don’t even know if that’s the right question. I made it. Lots of folks I ran with didn’t. I got lucky.
Joe gives you the long eye before he responds.
— Luck helps, sure, but no one survives that shite forever.
Your mouth kicks in before your brain can stop it.
— William Burroughs, maybe.
— Yeah, him being the exception that proves the rule. Used to run into Burroughs at CBGBs in the seventies. Odd cat, very dark. But funny, you know?
You don’t know, but you take Joe’s word for it. Because maybe what’s going on is he’s somehow become your higher power. Is that what this weird shit is all about? The oldtimers are always saying your higher power could be anyone or anything, long as you know it ain’t you.
Joe takes a last drag on his cigarette, eyes it, then drops it to the floor.
— Get that for me, will ya? Can’t be burning the place down.
You crush the thing out under your foot. When you look up, Joe’s pushing himself up into a crouch and you know whatever this was is over. But then he looks you in the eye one more time.
— Bit of advice? Forget the magical thinking. It’s a load of bollocks. You’re the one making it happen, mate, the good and the bad. Remember that and you’ll be fine.
Before you can nod, Joe yanks himself upright. He’s got one hand on the mic stand and the other raised in the air. One quick wave and the music is back, breaking over you like ocean surf, the Mescaleros hitting it like there was never a break in the beat.
The front of the stage is a pulsing scrum of bodies, all of them dancing and waving and singing. The music sweeps all of them away, even the reluctant hipster kid. It is glorious and raw, and you know you will remember this show for the rest of your life. And you do.
Two decades pass and all of it is mostly gone now. Joe Strummer is twenty years dead, and the Mescaleros are on to other things. Maybe the Wallflowers are still around but you don’t know, don’t much care.
Seattle’s gone as well, to the dogs and hell. Thousands of poor bastards living on the streets, blue tarp encampments everywhere. Homeless camps pushing right into the Seattle Center, where the EMP building still stands. Now it’s the Museum of Pop Culture, MoPop. Complete with barbarian hordes camped outside the gates. You think Joe would have loved that joke.
You’re gone as well, all the way across an ocean, chasing love and a second chance. Two more decades staying clean tucked up under your belt. While you were making other plans, you became one of the oldtimers. Bit of a shock, that.
Sometimes new folks ask you about it. You give them the same old line the geezers gave you. Whatever works for you, that’s your higher power. Yeah, it’s stale, but truer than anything else. The thing that keeps you clean for today, do that.
Maybe, if you get to know them a little better, you tell them a story. You might tell them about this show you went to once, a long time ago in Seattle. They probably won’t believe you, but that’s fine. You only half believe it yourself.
That’s another joke Joe would surely love.
Image – Pixabay.com