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Inside the Fury and the Power of the Clash with 'Rolling Stone' Writer Mikal Gilmore

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Was there a moment when you felt you broke the ice with him?

As I recall, it’s on the page. It had to do with talking about what the Clash’s goals were and the risks they were running – the idea of not just a cultural uprising like punk, but [writing for] a larger community, the world. It could be lethal. I’ve always thought the most remarkable song lyrically were the ones on that second album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, where they really start to look at the world around them and to talk about just what a dangerous and complex place it was. He said he wanted them to be the biggest band, but he recognized the contradictions in that.

The Clash's Topper Headon Demonstrates How He Wrote 'Rock the Casbah'

When you saw them back then, you wrote they were the most persuasive rock n’ roll show you had seen in years.

They were just so assertive. You got the sense that they were trying to push some limits. They were trying to goad the audience into the kind of confrontation that people could take into their lives and assert themselves, seize some power for themselves.

Is it sad for you looking back to see they never reunited?

People want reunions because there’s a sense of wanting a better ending. When the Sex Pistols reunited, they were still a great band, but they were out of context. I think the Clash knew that. More than anyone other than the Beatles, the Clash had this remarkable progress from record to record – musically, thematically and in terms of sound and production. If you drop off from that for years and you try and go back and pick up that thread, it doesn’t work. The context, the moment, is gone.

De Niro, Cannibals and Punk Rock: Mick Jones Narrates the True Adventures of the Clash

After all this time why did you want to write about them again?

I’m particularly drawn to the stories where somebody makes something that basically amounts to more than themselves. You look at the breakdown in the Clash and the way in which Strummer in particular betrayed that community within them; yet Strummer made something that redeemed that. Sometimes the most interesting stuff comes from deeply fucked-up people who manage to be the best people they can or do the best things in the world that they can in their art or in their music, and that was the case in the Clash.

All three original members were people who had been misplaced in their lives. The Beatles grew up together; these guys hadn’t. They made a community, but didn’t have the kind of background to trust a community or to hold it together ­– tension between creating something new and not really trusting the union that you’re doing it in. All three of those guys had longed for something that they could only find with each other, but they couldn’t trust having it with each other.

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Song Stories

“San Francisco Mabel Joy”

Mickey Newbury | 1969

A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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