NYRM Literary Society: Vonnegut and Joe Stummer (and the Mescaleros)

Kurt Vonnegut Joe Strummer

I can’t do either of these men justice in this little column.  That’s why they have to go together.  I finished Slaughterhouse Five nearly two months ago, have read multiple books since then, and have still been stuck on the proper song with which to match Vonnegut.  I usually have a few vague ideas for these posts after finishing a book, and when they don’t work it’s almost always because I don’t feel that the tone of the music matches that of the novel.  For Vonnegut, on the other hand, the problem was that no one was cool enough.

I’d escaped high school and college without reading any of his work (I think the title of Slaughterhouse somehow always kept me from reading it- I was imagining some sort of cautionary meatpacking tale, a la The Jungle).  I wasn’t surprised to find that the novel was truly incredible (when he passed away in 2007 I remember being impressed by how universally loved he was), but wasn’t expecting its humor, the brief phrasing of Vonnegut’s writing, or his fascination with science fiction.  What a book!  What a writer!  What a personality!  Billy Pilgrim is such a pathetic, wonderful 20th century hero- completely neurotic, demasculinized, caring.  An apolitical figure in a very political book.  Kilgore Trout is a fabulous allegory, metaphor, recurring character.  I can think of few books, movies, songs, anything that tackle the weighty topic of war with such humor and humanity.  I’m pretty sure the days of men like Billy Pilgrim are behind us, but I’m glad that Vonnegut has allowed him to exist in these pages.  So it goes, right?

I’m no book critic, but I think you get the picture.  I thought it was real good.  Still, no songs I knew seemed economical enough, funny enough, or classic enough to qualify for Slaughterhouse Five.  Yesterday I was hanging around my apartment and needed to quickly throw on some music.  I scrolled from the top of my iTunes until I reached the first suitable band.  I ended up in The C’s.  The Clash.  I immediately felt like an idiot for taking so long to make the connection.  Joe Strummer is the perfect artist to match with Vonnegut.  A cult of personality, unquestionable importance in 20th century popular cultural discourse, the blending of genres (reggae and punk, science fiction and war stories), brief phrases made all the more powerful by their brevity, personal hero to many.  If Joe Strummer was a punk, one not impressed by the music’s fashion but instead with its potential to affect change and change minds, then Kurt Vonnegut is a punk, too.  Vonnegut may be the original punk.  I think of all the pairs I’ve written about so far, these two are the most likely to get along.  Besides all the aspects of their writing they have in common, both men seemed to have a tremendous sense of humor, and I can imagine them finding quite a lot to talk about.

Instead of the Clash, though, I was most reminded of Joe Strummer’s final album, Streetcore, with the Mescaleros.  This is where the tone part comes in.  The Clash do make a nice fit with Slaughterhouse, but this posthumous album seemed to have more in common with the book.  I purchased Streetcore in high school, not really having any idea who Joe Strummer was (even more embarrassing fact: I didn’t realize Redemption Song, the 6th song on the album, was a cover until college), and listened to the album a lot.  I just read the very mediocre Pitchfork review of the album from 2003 (also never heard of Pitchfork until college) and fully undertand that it isn’t necessarily a good album, but I loved it.  This is the first time I’ve thought about Streetcore in a long, long time, so I thought maybe you’d like to know about it, too.

As Strummer’s last recorded work, it deals a lot with fitting in everything he wanted to do in life and a lot about death (though he was only 50 when he died in 2002).  If Billy Pilgrim could experience time in a non-linear way, traveling around from section to section of his life, then a Mescaleros album is an interesting choice to represent Strummer.  Not necessarily his best work, but his last, from what surely was an interesting time in his career: not over, but in all likelihood past its prime.  Those are some of the most tragic, revealing parts of Pilgrim’s life, lying in his bed trying to let the magic fingers lull him to sleep.  Not that that’s what Strummer did at all, but it’s an interesting time of life, especially for an aging punk rock star.  As if Strummer survived the war of fame and the 70s instead of WWII, and was dealing with the consequences.  So many of his comrades didn’t make it out alive.  I’ve singled out “Burning Streets,” if only for the similarity in theme: the bombing of Dresden, the image of London in flames.

Vonnegut and Strummer are two men who definitely belong in the unquestionably cool club.  You can criticize them, but there’s no doubt that their best contributions are some of the most genius works of art of the last 50 years.  I wonder if the two ever met?  I’m sure they were both aware of each other in their lifetimes.  I can’t imagine the conversation they would have if they were able to speak today, but I do know that it would be cooler than anything I’ll ever be able to say about them.

MP3: “Burning Streets (London Is Burning)” – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros

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