Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Future Is Unwritten

Joe Strummer sort of took me by surprise this year. In an attempt to connect with a friend who claims to be The Clash's biggest fan, I tried to wade through his biography Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, and failed. It was slow, and terrifically dull. It was all about his art school buddies and living in squats, and his history with his first, failed bands. Rather than the exciting, kinetic, thrashing energy of The Clash, the book dwelt on Strummer and his transformation from John Mellor, son of an English diplomat, attendee of boarding school, and brother of David, who killed himself when Strummer was eighteen. Which are all important life events but like, hello? London was calling! Mellor, who went by the name Woody and then Joe Strummer, was a young man who, by all accounts, could charm the yellow off a bee with sheer charisma, and led The Clash to worldwide renown. He was, as the kids say, the shit.

His band changed the face of music in the 2oth century; drawing its sound and fury from reggae, the Sex Pistols, the Zapatista movement, and the fuck-the-rich ethos that grows from squatting in abandoned London council houses, The Clash shaped a generation of young punks into belligerent, intelligent listeners. The band ultimately imploded, starting with Strummer's ill-starred disappearing act that muffed the first leg of the Combat Rock tour, and ending with the ejection of Topper Headon (for heroin addiction) and Mick Jones (for what the California courts might call "irreconcilable differences"), and Strummer had what are widely considered his wilderness years.

I love the concept of the wilderness years. To me, the notion that someone has so much damage that he (or she) has to quit, commit social seppuku and just up and leave, is incredibly potent. Strummer had kick-started a new sound, a hugely influential band, and his own misery. The next logical step was for him to disappear. Strummer was relatively young when he first stamped his name on the music scene - "White Riot" charted in the UK when he was 25 years old, and by the time he had turned 27, London Calling had been released. Ten years after their first show, the band had eaten its own tail.

Think about that for a second. Put yourself in Strummer's shoes. Boarding school must have been tough - Redemption Song mentions that, while he was in school, Strummer saw his parents about once a year. Living in squats must have been rough, although the book and The Future Is Unwritten, one of the many Strummer documentaries produced since his death in 2002, both point out that the squat lifestyle led by a lot of England's youth at the time was a community of politics, not poverty. But then to go from this left-behind feeling, to being the frontman for one of the leading musical acts in the world, must have been really effing weird. Living out of hotel rooms, performing music for aggro crowds around the world, being 32 with a mohawk...come on.

Think yourself into that situation for a second. Leave your wife, your shitty job, your lease, you fridge full full of wilted celery and beer, and put yourself in a hotel room in Osaka in 1982, stoned on adrenaline and Jamaican green. Think about how disconnected you might feel, from your friends, your kids, your closet, your shower. Think about how your boyfriend smells, and think about not smelling that for six weeks while you sing songs for strangers in a foreign country where you don't speak the language and the traditional breakfast is rice and fermented soybeans.

So who can blame Strummer for lying low for a while? He settled down, had a couple kids, did some soundtrack work, along with a few movie appearances, and tried to put his head back together. Normalcy, after a decade of being in The Clash, would have been...weird. But for those of us who aren't internationally acclaimed fathers of rock, the concept of "wilderness years" falls flat. With few exceptions, our psychic damage - and make no mistake, fame and fortune are damaging - is just the regular, normal, fucking up that we all engage in. But I admire him for taking off. It speaks to a level of self-awareness that most people don't have, and getting out of the limelight, for the most part, is a killer move. And then the best part is, he came back.

His later-life project, the Mescaleros, were a much mellow, worldlier-sounding band than The Clash. They were nowhere near as high-profile as his youthful ensemble, but they produced a sound that fits with Strummer's disappearance, his breaking and eventual rebirth as a musical figurehead. Instead of a young lion, the Mescaleros gave him a chance to be a statesman of rock, incorporating the sounds of his ancestral homeland and the reggae that helped shape The Clash. And that band couldn't have happened without his wilderness years.

When I say Joe Strummer was a late bloomer, I don't mean he took a while to get started. The Clash were a game- and genre-changing band, and their out-of-the-gate influence was transformative. But it took a bite out of Joe in a big way, and his real bloom, his flower, his relaxation and his fun, seems to have come with the Mescaleros. And that, friends, is amazing. He gave himself permission to keep trying, to take a break, to give himself the kindness of a new start, and it paid off.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Living Arrangements

I'm not going to lie: I'm basically an overgrown sixteen-year-old, except that I'm also pretty short. So I'm pretty much a sixteen-year-old, full stop. I still have the same vague aspirations as I did then ("write frooferies for a living, make out with boys, and have cool clothes"), the same taste in food (sushi! And cookies), and some of the same actual clothes (a grey skirt that gets shorter and longer depending on how it's zipped - it sounds like it's a cousin to those pants with the zip-off legs, but I assure you, it's much cooler than that).

The threshold into adulthood can be defined any number of ways - some folks think you need a kid and a mortgage for that; I disagree - but, for better or worse, I feel like I'm getting there. A huge part of it is getting a day job, one with a commute and CPP deductions. With that comes a shift in schedule that aligns me with more of the world around me. I actually see the sun now! And I use an alarm to get up. (Okay, in theory I use an alarm, but in reality, I'm so totally stressed about both the job and the waking up early that I'm waking up at, like, 6:00 a.m.) I'm starting to feel like, with my little business skirts and my phone extension, like a business-meaning human.

But there are going to be other steps towards Real Live Adulthood, and I have a feeling the next big one is going to be living arrangements. I've long believed that human beings need both privacy and community, but too much of either isn't good for me. I lived alone for three years, and by the end, I was lonely and bored of myself (I'm not really that interesting, yo). I liked being able to pee with the door open, but the trade-off of not coming home to anything or anyone weighed on my soul. I didn't even have a houseplant. The flip side of that is the four years I've spent living with lots of people - between twelve and fifteen housemates. Three of those years, the fifteen of us shared one kitchen with one stove, and three showers. Looking back on it, I can't really remember how we didn't all go totally mad. Good thing students have low hygiene standards.

One of my favourite ideas is that of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the notoriously hot/cold couple who lived in neighbouring houses that were adjoined by a catwalk. Similarly, Helena Bonham Carter and her beau Tim Burton live in side-by-side cottages linked by a throughway. Both arrangements fill me with delight. Like, the chance to both live with your beloved and have your own kitchen? Amazeballs. But that seems like it requires loads of money, and unless the banks start taking winning smiles as a form of currency, I have no down payment on those kinds of dream houses.

Instead, I've been focusing on co-operative and co-housing models. I know most people go from their parents place, to living with some roommates, to maybe living alone, to living with a partner - this is an acceptable trajectory re: housing. But I've noticed that a lot of my people aren't doing that, and that's okay. I know a few couples, both common-law and married, who have elected to take on housemates in addition to their spouses. Some have done this for financial reasons, since housing in downtown Toronto can be wickedly expensive. Other have done it for community reasons - wanting to live with friends and family is, I think, a deeply rooted tribal urge. It's the reason my globe-trotting parents ended up settling within an hour of their parents' homes, and it's the reason even long-established residents of Canada still talk about their birth-country as "home."

Co-op and co-housing might offer me the best of both worlds: a chance to have my own private space, and a larger community in which to contextualize myself. As I get older, I want to share my spaces with those I care about - friends, lovers, family - and keep the rest of the world somewhat at bay. Friends of mine recently went through an elaborate process to find a new housemate, and it turns out that no-one can be absolutely perfect for any community's needs, even if that community is only five people strong. But splitting the difference, accepting flaws, and providing safe and private spaces to escape Julio's gargling sounds, or Mona's habit of leaving the kitchen counter soaking wet.

As I get older, I need to think critically about what I need from my living arrangement. I have plenty of time left in my little third-floor room, but eventually I might not want to live with total strangers. But finding that balance of private and group can be super challenging. It's going to be more than painting walls and stocking pantries - it'll be finding out what I need to live a well-arranged life.