Commodity Fetishism Gone Right | Anglophilia, Conception, and Punk Nostalgia in Manhattan
The Clash’s London Calling is just one of those albums that managed to do it all. I’d try to sum it up myself, but Wikipedia already did such a good job that I’ll just show you what they had to say:
“The album received unanimously positive reviews and was ranked at number eight on Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003. London Calling was a top ten album in the UK, and its lead single “London Calling” was a top 20 single. It has sold over two million copies worldwide, and was certified platinum in the United States.”
It was socially conscious, tackling themes of unemployment, revolution, and racial conflict, and drew from reggae, ska, rockabilly, glam rock, pop, and soul influences without compromising its punk rock edge. Its album cover, an action shot of punk heartthrob Paul Simonon smashing the hell out of his bass, was so iconic that the UK Royal Mail plans to issue London Calling postage stamps to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the album release. Lionized as “the only lastingly listenable punk band” by Scottish literary critic Elizabeth Young, The Clash was the first artist after the Beatles, Stones, and Zeppelin to be inducted to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after the minimum period of 25 years since their first album release.
But aside from its epic status in the annals of rock, London Calling was equally instrumental in my own family history: oh sure, plenty of people will tell you that the album changed their life, but how many can say that they never would have been conceived without it? Being the hard-hitting journalist that I am, I’m fearlessly offering a story that will put my life at risk. Sorry, Mom and Dad — please don’t kill me!
1979: Dad gets accepted to grad school in London, so he and Mom pick up their shit and elope to the UK. Mom, a newly graduated oral surgeon, takes a job as attending dentist during the graveyard shift at the ER of the Royal Dental Hospital on Leicester Square. One fateful night in late June of 1980, an ambulance brings a teenager with every single one of his front teeth knocked out to my flabbergasted mother. The ambulance driver explains that the kid, in shock from acute blood loss, is a victim of some rather wild concert antics during a huge show at London’s legendary Hammersmith Palais Ballroom.
Mom works through the night attempting to reconstruct the mouth. Though the British National Health Service is footing the bill, Mom is so shaken after the procedure that she comes home to a bottle of sherry and the arms of Dad, who convinces her to take the next week off along with him.
I think we all know where this is going. The valedictory hometown show on the Clash’s tour in support of London Calling was the concert, and the sexy staycation nine months before my birth was the week off. In spite of their previous agreement to not start a family, Mom and Dad decided to keep me and left London. Things actually looked like they were going to be okay until I hit 14 and found punk rock, dyed my hair black, pierced a couple dozen spots on my body, and started to blast hell-raising music from my locked bedroom covered in posters for The Clash, The Smiths, and the memory of Kurt Cobain. London was calling, and giving my parents nightmares of their worst memories of the city.
I’ve cleaned up pretty nicely in the last 15 years, and these days I try my best to resist telling my parents to fuck off, but London….London hasn’t ever stopped calling, leaving voicemails of the sickest drum’n'bass parties at Fabric, tempting me to delve into chapter 11 on Alexander McQueen buying sprees, or spamming my inbox with the full text of The Waste Land. So it’s no surprise when London calls to tell me that I should find its spirit on a tour through the West and East Villages of its sister city.
On a cold, rainy, and unbelievably British afternoon, I start off my tour at Tea & Sympathy, New York’s oasis for all things British, at least of the edible sort. The place is actually broken into three separate small establishments: fish and chips on the left, a full-menu restaurant on the right, and a shop selling teas, sweets, and other imported sundries sandwiched between the two. I enter the restaurant on the right and have a seat at one of the tiny floral-printed tables. The walls are covered in photos and artwork of the royal family, along with the Beatles, the Beckhams, and Monty Python, and there are dozens of teas and British specialties on the menu.
I’m not usually a terribly heavy eater, so I settle on the Welsh Rarebit and a pot of Earl Grey. My tea ($4.50) comes in a large square pot emblazoned with a Union Jack and picture of Winston Churchill and perfumes the air with the light scent of bergamot, but the Welsh Rarebit is the real star of the show. I initially think that $10.95 is a little steep for what’s essentially cheese toast with mustard, but this is no ordinary comfort food: the grainy brown mustard and English farmhouse cheddar combine to form a mouthwatering golden crust on the hearty multigrain bread. After paying my bill with the charming waitress who calls me “darling,” I stop by the shop and pick up a box of Taylor’s of Harrogate Earl Grey ($7.95) and start my pilgrimage east.
I walk all the way past Union Square and turn on St. Marks Place, that little three-block strip immortalized by English poet W.H Auden, who lived here for almost two decades. I go to Trash & Vaudeville, which has been selling the best in punk rock apparel and accessories since 1975. Manic Panic-haired Brandy, who’s worked at the store for nearly a decade, tells me about the struggles of maintaining their business in spite of radical gentrification of the neighborhood. “There are constantly people coming in here trying to buy the store from us, but I’m pretty sure that the owner will never sell,” she explains. “Just because CBGB’s closed down doesn’t mean that punk is any less relevant to the history of this city or the neighborhood, and we’re a major part of that.” Apart from the obvious band t-shirts, studs, and spikes, the store also boasts one of the city’s largest collections of Doc Martens. I buy a Clash t-shirt ($15), change into it in the dressing room, and keep moving east to Alphabet City. It’s time for some booze.
Manitoba’s is a cozy little bar on Avenue B owned and operated by Richard “Handsome Dick” Manitoba, lead singer for the pioneering New York City punk band, The Dictators. Punk is always playing on the stereo, and pretty much every inch of wall space is covered by photos of Handsome Dick with some of his legendary friends: Joey Ramone, Iggy Pop, Joan Jett, Johnny Rotten, and of course, Joe Strummer. I sit at the bar, order a Maker’s Mark on the rocks ($7), and start to chat with the bartender, who explains that Manitoba’s is so steeped in history and frequented by punk celebrities that she’s had dozens of patrons from the UK who’ve told her that it was a must-see destination on their trip to New York. “My boss is just a really nice guy and is still so invested in the city’s punk scene, so this is really a haven for all of his kindred spirits,” she says.
As I’m turning the corner of Tompkins Square Park on my way home, I walk past Jesse Malin from D-Generation‘s bar, Niagara, and see a mural that literally takes my breath away.
Forget Sting: Joe Strummer was the ultimate Englishman in New York, dearly beloved by his colleagues here on the other side of the Atlantic for all of the gritty spirit that he injected into one of America’s greatest contributions — rock and roll. In spite of the endless rivalry for the status of financial or cultural capital of the English-speaking world and the debacle that was Sid and Nancy, my little tour has led me to consider that punk might just be the only true and lasting collaboration between London and New York, and the singular cultural phenomenon that led them to embrace one another.
Like a pair of Siamese twins destined to continue dancing cheek-to-cheek, the two cities are inextricably bound by the richness of their shared history in the punk movement. London called New York, New York picked up the phone, and the sidewalks south of 14th Street are forever etched with the transcript of that epic conversation. Cheers, mates.
TEA & SYMPATHY: 108-110 Greenwich Avenue | New York, NY 10011 | www.teaandsympathynewyork.com
TRASH & VAUDEVILLE: 4 St. Marks Place | New York, NY 10003 | (212) 982-3590
MANITOBA’S: 99 Avenue B | New York, NY 10009-6210 | (212) 982-2511 | www.manitobas.com
Tune in next week for some poetry in the tropics, but in the meantime, become a fan of Commodity Fetishism Gone Right on Facebook and stay updated on your favorite column.