List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 1

This week, it’s been all about Story Songs, those songs that adopt their own meanings, sometimes far from what the original artists meant. Previous editions are here and here and here and here. And finally, we come to:

1. Stay Free, by The Clash.

Way back then, in the early early 1980s, we wrote letters. Lots of letters. On actual paper, which went into real envelopes, which that spent several days in transit before they were delivered.

My friend Geoff was back in New York, and I was in St. Louis, and for a couple of years there, it was extremely rare that there wasn’t a piece of paper in my typewriter, representing a letter-in-progress. Mostly to Geoff, and later to Jean, but also to other friends.

Geoff, in particular, soon got bored with sending letters in plain white envelopes, so my mailbox got a lot more colorful, with envelopes made out of pages torn out of rock magazines and folded around the letters inside, with my address scrawled on the outside under a stamp.

Basically, the outsides of our mailings became as much an outlet for creativity as the insides. Geoff, of course, was always much more creative than I was.

So yes, letters also went to other people, one of whom was my brother Jim. In the spring and early summer of 1980, we hung out a lot together, but by July of that year he found the weather and the attitudes of St. Louis to be too stifling, and picked up and moved to Provincetown, Mass., where he had some friends and where, I think, he had lived for a time previously.  That summer, I was sorry to see him go, but I always knew it was important for him, and I knew that once he got back to Provincetown, he was happier and, frankly, where he belonged.

He was from St. Louis, but he was at home in P-town.

Sometime in the late winter/early spring of 1981, I sent him a long letter. And on the outside of the envelope, I wrote the following song lyrics:

‘Cause time has passed and things have changed,
I move any way I want to go.
And I’ll never forget the feeling I got
when I heard that you’d got home.

And I’ll never forget the smile on my face
‘Cause I knew where you would be,
And if you’re in the Crown tonight,
Have a drink on me.

But go easy,
Step lightly,
Stay free.

They’re the closing lines from the song Stay Free, from The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope album. I thought they pretty well summed up how I felt about Jim at that point. (The “Crown” reference was a bonus; the previous year when we were in town and working at our Dad’s company, we would often have lunch together at Crown Candy Kitchen, a landmark in north St. Louis.)

Anyway, I sent the letter off and didn’t think much more about it, until that summer, when I took the train to the East Coast to visit both Jim, in Provincetown, and Geoff, in New York.

It was my first visit to P-town, and I was able to spend the better part of a week there. Jim had some friends who were Clash fans, and he was actually starting to listen to Sandinista! a little bit; it was beyond his usual range, but his musical tastes were always eclectic.

These friends had taken him to see the Clash movie Rude Boy, and he told me—I can still visualize him telling me this—that when they played that song in the movie, for the first time he recognized the lyric from my envelope. He had thought that I had just written it, so when he saw the lyrics sung out before him in the movie theater, it was a revelation. I think I would have written “—Strummer Jones” at the bottom of the lyric on the envelope, but at the time he received it he probably wouldn’t have known who Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were.

I wish I could remember our conversation more clearly, but for the most part it’s lost to time. I know, however, that he appreciated the sentiment, and the fact that he remembered the lyric over the several months between my letter and his seeing Rude Boy was fantastic.

So anyway, the song has always, for me, sort of encapsulated everything I felt about Jim and Provincetown. And my favorite part is that he got it; he was right there with me on it.

*****

My Clash-fan friends won’t believe this—and will probably berate and shun me when they read it—but I’ve never seen Rude Boy. But as I was preparing this post, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, I have finally seen the Stay Free scene. It’s a little raw, compared to the album version, but hey, it’s the Clash. And it’s great. Here:

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