I need to tell you all something: the catalyst for everything I’ve done on The Secret Sun -- and with Synchromysticism in general -- ultimately stems from a five-month period in 1984 in which I had a genuine religious experience during what I now see as a bonafide mystery cult convocation.
And that experience in turn set me on a Grail quest, which I am extremely happy to say was finally fulfilled last week, after thirty-seven long years. Along the way I learned a lot of invaluable, immersive lessons in shamanism, dream reality, parapolitics, establishmentarian cultism, the power of apocrypha and our false reality simulacrum.
NOTE: The comments form seems to have vanished, so you can post comments here.
It’s a very Gnostic story in that it centers on a false reality sold to the public and maintained by a corrupt priesthood, versus the deeper truth.
It’s only as I’ve been working on this post that I realize the size and scope of this story, and all the high strangeness that weaves in and out of it. This is inevitably going to become a much larger piece, but I want to nail down some of the bullet points while they’re fresh in my mind.
The religious experience— experiences, rather— were the Clash concerts in April of 1984 at the Worcester Centrum and the Providence Civic Center. I don't know if it was the intensity of the noise and lights, or all the dope I was smoking pretty much around the clock, but it felt like a door was opening somewhere and I could see another reality on the other side. The music and the graphics and the band seemed less like the door itself, and more a symptom of that other reality.
This wasn’t the rockin’ the Casbah Clash most people are familiar with; this was Joe Strummer’s “Clash II,” formed after Mick Jones was fired on August 29, 1983 (which was Elizabeth Fraser’s Twin-Tenth birthday, BECAUSE IT COULDN'T POSSIBLY HAVE BEEN ANY OTHER DAY)ª
Like they're all playing in different rooms. Painfully bad.
There was always something ragged and rickety about the original Clash lineup: even at their peak performance, they were like a rusty old Chevrolet barreling down a steep hill, glued together by Mick Jones’ ear-shredding live guitar sound. The original drummer, Nicky “Topper” Headon, was a solid player in his prime, but a monstrous heroin addiction soon played absolute havoc on his timing, coordination and power.
And as the old Clash tried their hand at funk and reggae, the near-total non-musicianship of bassist Paul Simonon — and he and Topper’s inability to sync up anywhere near the same beats together— became increasingly hard to listen to.
Clash producer Glyn Johns said he realized that Simonon played on a “different, non-musical planet” from the rest of the band when mixing the Live at Shea Stadium album. Terry Chimes, who'd played in an early Clash lineup and was brought back after Headon was sacked, worked very hard to compensate for all the beats Simonon was missing, but even he quit in frustration after the tour and joined Hanoi Rocks.
The new lineup was distilled Clash, hardcore Clash: the new lineup was much faster, tighter and more aggressive than the original lineup. The new members, two guitarists and a drummer, were younger, fitter and a lot more technically proficient than their predecessors. Simonon finally reached a perfectly reasonable level of competence on the bass and Joe Strummer was able to hear himself singing without Jones’ punishing onstage volume.
To complete the package, the bipolar Strummer was in the midst of a long, raging, frothing manic episode and gave the most intense and shamanic performances I’ve ever seen to this day.
And then it all went to shit. Complete and total shit.
After 18 long months of waiting, fans were rewarded with one of the worst albums ever made by a band of The Clash’s stature, Cut the Crap.
The entire band was locked out of the sessions and their carefully arranged renditions of Joe Strummer’s new songs were all scrapped. The backing tracks were then assembled by a severely psychically-unwell Strummer, his psychotic manager Bernie Rhodes (the Clash’s Demiurge), a novice drum programmer, the funk bass player out of Ian Dury and the Blockheads and a bunch of German session hacks.
It's every bit as nauseating as that recipe sounds.
But my musician’s ear could always hear strong melodies and excellent vocal performances (Strummer was less a singer than a vocal performer) buried under the later of mentally-sick electronic noise, jarringly-inappropriate slap bass and appallingly amateur-hour punk rock guitar.
But I felt cheated and betrayed. I became obsessed with hunting down recordings of the real band, which led me on a many a long walkabout in the nooks and crannies of downtown Manhattan. My unconscious got to work on the problem, and I had increasingly frequent and increasingly vivid dreams of finding that Grail— the apocryphal real Clash II album -- for more years than I should probably admit.
That quest ultimately led us here.
In 1994 I published my first work; a fanzine called Clash City Showdown, which featured a long piece explaining what went wrong with Cut the Crap, at least as I knew it then. That led to a very early Clash webmaster inviting me to blog on his site, which led to my first nonfiction book, also called Clash City Showdown.
The book led me to being recruited by the editor of Classic Rock, a slick monthly out of the UK. That led to me writing the first longform article about Clash II, in an issue guest-edited by Slash and Duff MacKagan.
Duff had wanted an article on the first Clash US tour in 1979, but I was able to convince him that that wasn’t really much of a story, especially compared to the epic tragedy of The Clash’s last US tour.
That ultimately led to me landing a cover story on Lucifer Rising, which boasted Jimmy Page, Kenneth Anger, and Bobby Beausoleil all going on the record about the film for the first time. That ultimately led me to landing a deal with Weiser Books for Our Gods Wear Spandex, which led to TV appearances and convention panels and lectures at Esalen. And all that ultimately led all of us to this very spot.
But seeing as this story opened on Elizabeth Fraser’s birthday, let me just rewind the clock so we can see just how it all began: with an interdimensional visitor. What else?
A strange confluence of events entered my life at the same time as The Clash. My mother was teaching at a public school and befriended a Wiccan art teacher, my first exposure to this lifestyle. It seemed especially interesting to me when this teacher and her lover accidentally burned down the house they were renting during a ritual and were sent out into the street in their birthday suits.
Then I got sick. Really, really sick. Some kind of bacterial infection. I was running 105/106º fevers for more than a week, couldn't move an inch from the couch and I'm not exactly sure how I didn't die.
And then as I recount in The Endless American Midnight, my own living room became a doorway to another dimension.
And I had a ...visitor.
I called him a leprechaun for the longest time until I found out that local Wampanoag tribes called the thing I saw the "Pukwudgie."
I don’t remember the exact date the veil fell, but I do know it would have been around the time The Clash were making their US debut on the other end of the Red Line from me. I didn't realize it but there was also a UFO flap going on inside the Bridgewater Triangle a few weeks after that experience. I'd only find that out in the past couple years.
I’d seen The Clash kicking around the pages of Creem (nothing less than holy scripture to me at the time) and I’d read an article about them in Time Magazine (cover story; “Communists at War”) but hadn’t really taken them seriously until I saw a rave review of their first New York concert in Rolling Stone, accompanied by a famous photo of their first Boston concert.
I should note that this was also the time period that saw the Sino-Vietnamese War, the Iranian Revolution, the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, the “I don’t like Mondays” school shooting in San Diego, and the last total solar eclipse visible from the US until 2017.
And for the astrology minded, Pluto was observed inside the orbit of Neptune for the first time ever. I am certain that means something, I just have no clue what. Tell me in the comments.
I’d see The Clash a year later at the Boston Orpheum ("Temple to Orpheus"), and after smoking a too-large number of joints with my sister, had an extended out-of-body experience. I also kept seeing Elvis standing in Joe Strummer’s place. I was thirteen years old.
Sadly, The Clash had already been made to toe the line. After releasing a string of classic punk albums and singles, they learned that American radio programmers weren't even breaking the shrink-wrap on their records. They got plenty of press attention, but near-zero airplay. And without airplay in the late 70s, there was no way of getting heard.
Faced with overwhelming pressure from their record company and disinterest from the industry as a whole, they blinked. The result was London Calling, a classic 70s Rolling Stones album in all but name. The critics loved it, radio would play it, but for young punk rockers like myself reactions ranged from disappointment to confusion to betrayal.
"The Clash sold out," became a mantra in punk circles, especially in Boston. Of course, those same punks would be the first in line for tickets whenever the band came to town, but that’s show biz
But here too was another revelation, one of primary influence on my life and work.
THE LOST CLASH GOSPELS
Beneath the weak, watered-down sound of The Clash's later records I received a hidden transmission of sorts - a signal inspiring me to look beyond what was on sale at the mall and dig deeper. Seeing them on the London Calling tour I realized that what was on record was not reality, but a simulation of reality for the masses.
All of which to say is that they sounded nothing like The Rolling Stones onstage and more like The Clash. Or The MC5 or Live at Leeds-era Who, if you need a reference point.
Combat Rock was a last straw for me; at least until the new Clash blew into town. To me, it was no different than a Seals and Crofts or Elton John record circa 1977. You had your radio-ready “funky” songs and a couple watered-down “rockers,” but the preponderance was insipid soft-boiled mush (Strummer’s opinion of his songwriting partner's material is nakedly apparent in the unenthusiastic performances on many of the album’s many filler tracks).
Imagine being so stoned you think this dogshit is worth charging money for
And the B-sides for the Combat Rock singles are some of the stupidest, most inept shit anyone has put to tape this side of The Shaggs. The Clash had become exactly what they set out to replace, in a terrifyingly short time.
But after I broke down and finally bought Combat Rock. I discovered that it made for a nice soundtrack for partaking in what was becoming my daily sacrament for the remainder of my high school career: Der schmokedy schmoke.
But true to form I discovered there was another gospel, where the guitars still blazed and the drums still thrashed, if only one would bother to look for it.
My lifeline in the dark days
When a record dealer set up shop at a local flea market circa '82-'83, I discovered the freshly-minted Down at the Casbah Club double LP bootleg, which began a lifelong obsession. While all the kids at school I couldn’t stand were mildly bopping away to Combat Rock, I was playing the Casbah Club LP, which reassured me (especially after seeing an underwhelming show at the Cape Cod Coliseum) that the cathartic Clash was alive and well. You just had to look behind the veil, beyond the official recordings.
It was like discovering a Gnostic Clash, a lost gospel buried in the dusty corners of a grimy old marketplace. It would change everything. I just didn’t realize it at the time. In a funny but potent way, I learned that reality is not what we are being sold; there is a deeper, more powerful reality waiting to reveal itself to those who would dare seek it out.
ENGLISH POUNDS AND ESKIMO PENCE
The Clash, like The Doors before them, had a truly remarkable afterlife. The driving force behind this rebirth was newly-installed Columbia Records head Don Ienner.
After the platinum-selling Story of The Clash compilation put the band back on the map in 1988 and a Levi’s ad featuring “Should I Stay or Should I Go” gave the band their first #1 UK single, Ienner tapped them to be one of the flagships for his new Legacy reissue imprint, and The Clash on Broadway boxset was released in 1991. This was followed by an endless tsunami of compilations, documentaries, books and magazines, nearly all of which either totally ignored Clash II or utterly trashed them.
Despite his numerous faults, Joe Strummer was a bonafide shaman, even if that magic never really made it onto the records (it needed the fans to complete the circuit). It was that strange charisma he wielded onstage that made his band's reputation, and fed the corporate machinery that took his mystique to the bank.
It reminds me very much of the Jim Morrison industry: Morrison and Strummer were both extremely passionate performers, were both of Scottish extraction, were both self-destructive personalities, were both obsessed with Beatnik poetry and Situationalist provocation, and were both privileged scions of the Military Industrial Complex.
Recent biographies reveal that Strummer was no working-class hero, he was raised at a City of London boarding school. He was the son of a genuine Foreign Office spy who was drinking buddies with Kim Philby and spent most of Strummer's childhood undermining the elected governments of oil-producing countries like Iran and Mexico by breaking their codes, all the while under diplomatic cover.
Guitarist Mick Jones' father was also in British intelligence, stationed in Israel for the Special Branch. Bassist Paul Simonon's father was a member of the Communist Party (which was notoriously infiltrated by spooks) and seemed to move around Europe under mysterious circumstances. (Yeah, I know).
So that's definitely two and probably three members of The Clash from intelligence families. That beats the Police, who had only one offspring of a spook family (Stewart Copeland's father was one of the founders of the CIA). I actually told Dave McGowan about this in 2007, but it didn't really seem to register with him. Probably since it wasn't in his LA ballywick.
Which brings us to The Grateful Dead.
CITY OF THE DEAD
I was mostly oblivious to the Dead in 1984. They didn’t get much airplay on Boston radio in the Eighties, and I could never square their quasi-Metal iconography with their mellow stoner folk rock. But as fate would have it, The Dead and The Clash would cross paths and play many of the same venues on their respective 1984 tours.
That led to this amusing anecdote from guitarist Nick Shepherd:
We had a three day drive from Denver which Joe turned into a cultural and historical tour of the Oregon Trail. We stopped at Pony Express stations, swam in the Snake River and hung out with some native American Indians. We had a fantastic time; Joe had a book about the Oregon Trail and would read from it when we stopped at various places.
We had other great days off in Chicago, Kansas City and Detroit. We saw Black Flag in Atlanta. Shopping, eating soul food, watching protest marches, being taken out by great looking girls - I've had worse jobs, believe me.
In Philadelphia, we stayed at the same hotel as The Grateful Dead. When I got on the bus in the morning neither Joe or Koz had been to sleep, and Joe had this (pillow case full) of ‘hippy hair. Apparently Kosmo had setup a Mohawk barber service in the Dead's entertainment suite and cut mohawks all night!
When I went in the early morning to the Orpheum box office to get tickets for the Clash’s Worcester Centrum show, it so happened that a small army of Deadheads had camped out overnight for their upcoming shows at the Providence Civic Center. I’d never really had any encounters with Deadheads at that point but I ended talking to a bunch of them, and they were all super nice. They even shared their food and drink and schmoke with me as we all waited a very long time for the booth to finally open.
I got a chance to see the Dead for free the following year at Giants’ Stadium but I resisted, despite the incessant cajoling of my roommates. The Cut the Crap disaster hadn’t happened yet and I was still a doctrinaire punk rock asshole.
I’d finally go into a big Dead phase after The Clash crashed, along with a lot of other psych rock like Jefferson Airplane, early Pink Floyd and The Moody Blues. It was refreshing. (I'd go through another big Dead phase when a lot of live shows started going online in the early 2000s).
Anyhow, the Dead in turn got me into all the hippie New Age stuff floating around Deadhead circles at the time, which in turn got me into everything else that eventually led us all here.
SO, WHAT ABOUT THIS GRAIL OF YOURS?
Since I’d been pining for a straight-ahead rock n’ roll album from The Clash since 1979, I took the Cut the Crap clusterfuck hard. While holding out hope for the hasty full band sessions where the This is England EP B-sides were recorded to be leaked, I spent the next decade and a half trying to find the next best thing.
Since "unfinished business" is one of the triggers of OCD, I kind of went overboard. There were a lot of decent live bootlegs available so I was able to hear the songs in their proper form, but that felt like a consolation prize. So my dreams went to work on the problem.
From my Clash book:
I have a more specific dream of the Clash too. I had it almost every night for years and years, and I still have it from time to time. The details change, but it concerns going into a record store and finding a bin full of Clash bootlegs, chock full of songs I’ve never heard before... I am always depressed when I wake up, because I want those damn records!
Those dreams never stopped, in fact they'd only get increasingly more vivid and realistic. I'd be in a record store and find that Grail, which I came to realize was actually that album I was cheated of. I'd find that Grail and it all felt so tangible and true and complete. And then would vanish as soon I woke up.
And then on Friday, those dreams came true. Not metaphorically, not poetically, not hyperbole: they literally came true.
A musician in Germany was so obsessed with that same vision that he learned all the parts to the songs from the live performances, programmed the original drum parts beat by beat, carefully duplicated the guitar sounds from demos, then put it all on tape. Then he digitally stripped Joe Strummer's vocals from the album and dubbed them onto the backing tracks.
On songs he didn't have live recordings to follow from he did his own arrangements in an absolutely uncanny approximation of the short-lived band's idiosyncratic style. It's just an amazing, amazing accomplishment.
So, after 37 long years of waiting to hear studio recordings of the band that blew my mind onstage and over 40 years for a straight guitar rock Clash album, I finally have my Grail.
And to be honest, it’s freaking me out more than a bit.
Allowing for the obvious limitations, it sounds EXACTLY like the album I’d been imagining since 1984. It feels uncannily like those albums that tormented me in my dreams. It’s more British Invasion power pop or pop punk than 1977 punk but that’s exactly what I was looking for: my favorite Clash was always the power pop stuff (such as the quintessential Cost of Living EP).
You can hear the whole album here.
So this is the Lost Gospel of Clash as far as I’m concerned, the Gnostic Clash redeemer come to usurp the Demiurge’s simulacrum and to dispel the ignorance that’s surrounded this band for so long. Better late than never, I say.
You can also clearly tell that all those 90s neo-Punk superstars saw Clash II live when they were kids and took their arena-punk formula straight to their Cayman Islands banks. I had no doubt about that when I saw Green Day at Giants Stadium in 2005.
The next grail is decent quality video of a 1984 show
I got to be friendly with the three replacement members of The Clash when doing the Classic Rock article and see them as tragic heroes. They came into the project with talent, charisma and dedication, and they were systematically shat upon by Strummer and Rhodes, then offered up as ritual scapegoats to angry nerds for an album they didn’t even play on, aside from some some backing vocals and lead guitar licks (most of which were buried in the mix) here and there.
Nick Shepherd appreciated the effort of the restored album but found it all bittersweet, since it proved this band could have worked. And that’s even with a couple of Joe’s less stellar songs (‘Dirty Punk’ ’Cool Under Heat’) and without some of Clash II’s best songs (the mournful reggae-rock ‘Galleani’, the Latin-inflected guitar workout 'National Powder', the moody dance rock of ‘In the Pouring Rain’, the furious Dick Dale-tinged face-puncher ‘Jericho’, and the scorching punkabilly ‘Sex Mad War’) even appearing on the album, on account of being impossible to program a 1985 drum machine for.
SYNC LOG: Shortly after posting, this real-life Donnie Darko story trends on Twitter.
º I saw Clash II right around the time of the release of "Pearly Dewdrops' Drop."
*I’d always think of the Dead when I’d see Joe Strummer perform with his last band, The Mescaleros. They were kind of a punk Dead analog in that they offered all the younger fans who’d rediscovered The Clash in the 90s a taste of the old magic. Joe would play plenty of Clash classics along with his newer stoner rock numbers.
† It should be noted that Black Flag was on their 47th or so lineup at the time, and had largely eschewed Hardcore for a fan-repelling update on Fun House-era Stooges with a newly 'roided-up Rollins stomping around and hollering like a hockey jock while only-remaining original member Greg Ginn just plucked a bunch of shit at random and the new rhythm section suppressed their wincing. The latter would both flee the Black Flag shitshow the following year.