Today’s birthday boy is Mick Jones, formerly of The Clash. I’ve already posted about a song—“Lost in the Supermarket” from London Calling—with a Jones lead vocal. And today we have another Jones lead, though there aren’t that many of them with The Clash. Jones’ lead vocals tend to be found on Clash songs that got radio play, straight-out rockers like “Train in Vain,” “Police on My Back,” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” I considered all three, but why go with the most recognizable stuff?
The song I chose today features my favorite Jones vocal. It’s also the first song to make its way from London Calling onto one of my personal tapes, those tapes that comprise what I like to call “the saga.” Which is to say, this song struck a chord with me back in the spring of 1980 when I first got to know this album. And it might have to to do with the fact that it’s a piano-driven tune.
“There’s a solitary man crying ‘hold me’ / It’s only because he’s a-lonely / And if the keeper of time runs slowly / He won’t be alive for long.” At 20, that idea of not being alive much longer is meaningful. Possibly more meaningful than it is to me at soon-to-be 55. And that’s probably because any change I see coming my way now is likely to be filed under the heading “decline,” whereas, at 20, there’s no idea about how long life might be. It’s easy to imagine not making it to 30. In fact, it may even be romantically satisfying to not do so. Now, there’s nothing at all romantic about not making it to 60, or even 65. The longer you live, the less chance there is to die young.
“Half in love with easeful death,” Keats says, but, given the state of health of himself and those close to him, he had good reason. I’ve always been, constitutionally, pretty much strong as an ox, so such a love is born only of that love for the idea of ending one’s vassalage to time itself. I suppose that attitude made more sense to me, back then. It certainly made me respond to this song.
The song doesn’t really tell a story, but it gives little glimpses of illustrations, we could call them, for its thesis that we’re always trying to cheat death. And that, eventually, we won’t. “He only wanted more time away from the darkest door” is delivered with all of Jones’ ability to put a wail into a line. And isn’t that what we all want?
The song gives us a gambler who, a cheater, is eventually “seized / And forced to his knees / And shot—dead.” So much for that card-up-the-sleeve, Ace. The song leaps from the fate of this unfortunate to the situation of those who bravely face death in battle—we get a fast tour, with a wonderfully jaunty propulsion: “From the Hundred Year War to the Crimea / With a lance, and a musket, and a Roman spear / To all of the men who have stood with no fear / In the service of the king.” To all those dearly departed souls, the singer offers a caution: “Before you met your fate / Be sure you did not forsake / Your lover may not be around any more.”
I’ve always liked the way the lyric folds two statements into one. In one, “your lover” is the object: “be sure you did not forsake your lover.” In the other, “your lover” is the subject: “your lover may not be around any more.” Forsake requires an object, so “your lover” has to be both. The idea being, you men at war did forsake your lovers and she might not be there if you ever get back. Never a martial person myself, I took this, upon first hearing, to be a way of saying “make love, not war.” After all, Vietnam wasn’t that far behind us when this album came along.
The song then returns to the opening verse about that solitary man who won’t be alive for long. Which is sort of a “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” idea at this point. Go kill and die if you like, me, I’ll be back in bed with a girl.
And yet. The bit that was bugging me at 20, though in bed a lot, was the line that also shows Jones’ ability to fling desperation into his voice: “If he only had time to tell of all of the things he planned.” Y’know, like Hamlet says, “things standing thus unknown,” which we might change, in this context, to “things standing thus undone.” Not known, not done. Lost to posterity, lost to chance. That’s the notion that used to make me keep an eye on “the keeper of time.”
And now it’s 34 years later, and Mick Jones is 58. Happy birthday.