A bio-doc looks at the punks who changed the complexion of white rock

After Joe Strummer's early-evening set at the Quest one evening in November, I pile into a van with him, Billie Joe from Green Day, Billie Joe's wife, and two awed punk fans--"You could kill me right now and I'd die happy," one of them says. We speed down Washington Avenue to the West Bank, driving in and out of the lights toward the Riverside Plaza high-rises, which resemble nothing so much as the London tower blocks Strummer once wrote about as frontman for the Clash. Aside from some sagging around the eyes, the singer still closely resembles himself two decades ago--he may have shed some fat in the hyperactive whirl of touring behind his new solo album, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. His eyes dart around excitedly as he remarks on everything and everyone he sees. "Hey, Ethiopia!" he calls out to a parking attendant as we careen to a stop.

At the 400 Bar, locals Lifter Puller are about to go on--Strummer has read about the show in the paper--and owner Bill Sullivan sees to it that Joe and Billie Joe don't slip in without a donation. Inside Strummer finds himself surrounded by fans, but he's a suitably gracious star, posing for every photo, signing every autograph. One after another, people thank him for...for what, I wonder? "I've had a really great life," one of them says, "And you were a big part of that."

This sort of banter might engulf any icon--somewhere, a teenage girl is having a great life, and the Backstreet Boys are a big part of that. Yet it occurs to me that the Clash's impact in America might have been deeper than critics--perhaps suspicious of their own fan feelings--have led us to believe. Strummer encounters thank-yous like the one above constantly in the States, though he routinely deflects attention from himself. ("It's Lifter Puller's world," he raves after the show. "We just live in it.")

And now the Clash are suddenly everywhere. Not just in Strummer's set list with his band the Mescaleros or in a rotten Epic tribute album (Burning London). But in hit songs by Vitamin C and Will Smith (see "Byzantine Rock," right), and on "alternative classics" radio, and on the soundtrack of Bringing Out the Dead. (Scorsese once gave the band a walk-on role in The King of Comedy.) Epic just rereleased the entire Clash catalog and a previously unheard, sloppy yet wonderful live album, The Clash Live: From Here to Eternity. And now their slice of eternity is also the subject of a surprisingly affecting new documentary by Don Letts, a Rasta who befriended the Clash early on and whose filmmaking career was inspired by their then nascent "DIY" ethic.

Westway to the World, which airs Sunday on VH1, may be the best Behind the Music ever made, a humorously edited couch-sit with Strummer, guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, and drummer Topper Headon that begins to make sense of their cultural afterlife in America. This rise-and-fall tale loses some sweep in its cropped one-hour length (a sporadically screened director's cut ran 80 minutes). Yet the film still engages four of punk's best talkers in an age-old conversation about music, politics, and race--one that has grown more complicated in their absence.

So much has been written about the Clash that I had trouble convincing my editor these thousand words weren't redundant. But where is the article about the band as cultural integrationists, the portrait that emerges in Letts's film? Though rock scribes today throw the term revolutionary at any band retailing on the Web, 25 years ago the Clash did nothing less than subtly, irrevocably realign blackness in white rock 'n' roll. When Strummer put his nasal rasp to "White Riot" in 1977, he was calling for a sympathetic imitation of black immigrant disgust with police abuse. Yet in doing so, he gave the dispossessed white underclass a voice it had never had, and has rarely had since. For British Sex Pistols fans who bought into the Clash myth, it was as if Elvis had started to sing about feeling an uncomfortable solidarity with the crowds on Beale Street, or about being depressed on welfare, or about hating his dead-end truck-driving job.

The Clash went even further, telling whites where they might situate themselves in the black freedom struggle as critical and self-critical fellow travelers. The Pistols considered reggae too sacred to meddle with, but Westway casts the Clash's stylistic purée as both aesthetic and political at a moment when aesthetics and politics seemed, to them, inextricable. "We made it clear we were bringing our own culture to the party," Strummer says. In doing so, they introduced dub reggae to a generation of American fans that might have otherwise dismissed Kingston's highest art as cover-song fodder for Eric Clapton. Obsessed with reggae's rhythmic edges and bottomed-out atmospherics, the Clash similarly reorganized the aesthetic priorities of a generation of rock bands.

Forgoing third-person narration, Letts tells pieces of this story, mostly with the band members' own voices. The most frequent speaker is, as ever, Strummer, whose passionate and amusing rants about the blues brought 1995's Gary Busey-narrated television documentary Rock'n'roll to a rollicking close. In his comments here, Joe has the rambling quality of someone who knows he is too close to have an objective handle on what it all meant. So he stumbles in every direction, well aware that the notion of personal transformation through worldwide revolution has ossified into rhetorical cliché--or at least seems to have done so under a boomer hegemony that recoils even from the WTO protests. "We weren't parochial," Strummer tells the camera. "We weren't narrow-minded little Englanders. At least we had the suss to embrace what we were presented with, which was the world in all its variety."

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