It was 10:30 in the morning and we were skipping class. Well, Colin was skipping class—I was skipping gym.
We sat in Colin’s nineteen-something-something Camaro, parked in the back corner of the high-school parking lot, and drank from a six-pack that Colin found when he cleaned his car the night before. The last time I cleaned my car I found sand. Lots of it.
The beer was warm and tasted like Friday night. It tasted like a bonfire in the woods, with my hands deep in the pockets of my jacket, and the girls from across the fire, their faces lit in shadow. I sipped it slowly and looked out through the spotted windshield. I watched the high school silently manufacture things like honor students and the French Club.
Colin’s Camaro held none of the associations that usually come from the word Camaro. It was ugly, nondescript, and seemed to come from some weird era where sports cars were manufactured to look like your great-aunt’s sedan. It was not a cool car. It was built so low to the ground that sitting in the passenger seat was like being strapped into a fully reclined lawn chair. Getting into or out of it never failed to induce a powerful fear of gravity.
Amazingly, we were not skipping class for the beer. Instead, Colin had a song he wanted me to hear. He pawed through a box of tapes, all without cases, until he found the one he was looking for. It was a white tape with a dirt smudge on one of the sides and no legible song titles or band name on either side. It looked like a tape that had been played to within an inch of its life. Most likely it was a tape Colin lifted from his brother. Colin had an older brother, which meant he had access to things like music that was infinitely cooler than the Casey Kasemapproved pop I was listening to. Having an older brother as a teenager is like having exclusive access to imported goods: music, beer, fake IDs, pornography. He had things I did not.
He put the tape in and the first thing I noticed was how badly his stereo sucked. It sounded like the music was buried beneath an elevator and was calling for help. Colin turned it up.
The Clash blasted their way through “Death or Glory” and somehow the music managed to transcend Colin’s vacuum-cleaner speaker system. It was amazing. Beautiful. Loud and angry in a way I had not heard before. Until that moment, I thought the Clash were a one-hit wonder whose entire discography consisted only of “Rock the Casbah.” This was 1988 after all—Terence Trent D’Arby was claiming he’d be bigger than the Beatles. Confusion was understandable.
Listening to that song was like hearing the sound of a large door opening—a realization that there must be thousands of amazing songs, bands, and albums that I had never heard before. It was a gateway song. The one that set off a network of sparks and lead to a lifelong addiction to underdog bands on two-watt radio stations and bootlegs bought from men with beards in the back room of record stores on the wrong side of town. The moment I heard the Clash roar out of that awful stereo, I realized I didn’t know anything yet.
On that day, the Clash were not a political band from England. I managed to miss that part entirely. I was a kid from an American suburb who skipped gym to drink warm beer with a guy who could actually lose a six-pack in his car. I had bigger problems than politics. It was the urgency and the anger in Joe Strummer’s voice that struck me. It was the undeniable appeal of a statement like “Death or Glory” shouted over loud, angry guitars that hit me the hardest. It was the defiance.
That afternoon was the first of many times that I would write “Death or Glory” on the front of my locker with a large black magic marker. Each night the janitor would erase it and every day I would write it again. I doubt battling the high-school janitor with a slogan and a Sharpie was the type of defiance the Clash had in mind. But at the time, it was the best I could do.