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Time softens

Music | The Clash revolution looks positively tame in retrospect

Issue: "Return of the Lion," May 17, 2008

"Comedy," Carol Burnett once said, "is tragedy plus time." Replace "comedy" with "acceptance" and "tragedy" with "rebellion," and you have The Clash.

The Clash Live: Revolution Rock (Epic/ Legacy) comprises band-member interviews, occasional voice-over narration, and 22 full-length performances. It follows the group from 1977, the year of its debut, to 1982, the last year its best-known lineup performed. Profoundly, what seemed anarchic at the time now seems distinctly unthreatening.

As fans of Elvis Presley and the Beatles can confirm, such a transformation is nothing new. But it's especially striking in the case of The Clash, a group rooted in the violence-prone class warfare of Thatcher-era England.

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Simply by staying together for five years (a Methuselan lifespan by first-generation punk standards), Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon outlived the emotional opposition they initially provoked. By the time they appeared on the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder in 1981 (footage of which the DVD includes), their polite, sober demeanor stood in stark contrast to the Sex Pistols' drunken, profanity-laced appearance on British television in 1976.

Furthermore, the openly left-wing specifics of their working-class anthems lost a good deal of resonance in the United States, where even the explicitly political Sandinista! album made little ideological headway. Cementing their mainstream status were their hits. Instead of rallying the proletariat, "Train in Vain," "Rock the Casbah," and "Should I Stay or Should I Go" registered mainly as the apolitically catchy songs that they still register as today.

To the 21st-century "progressive," The Clash saga may reek of defeat, but it's a reminder of the winnowing effect of time.

Sex & lies

When it's all in the service of art, anything goes

By Arsenio Orteza

During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton's defenders made a national mantra of "everybody lies about sex." Now a senior art major at Yale has gone them one better by transforming lying about sex into "performance art."

Aliza Shvarts recently made headlines by claiming to have artificially inseminated herself and induced subsequent abortions repeatedly over the course of nine months as part of an art project. When a Yale official sought to diffuse the outrage that greeted news of Shvarts' endeavor as "creative fiction" (a distressing redundancy coming from an institution of higher learning), Shvarts countered first by saying that, no, she had done what she'd claimed, then by saying, "No one can say with 100 percent certainty that anything in the piece did or did not happen" as the "nature of the piece is that it did not consist of certainties."

Actually, someone can say so with (another redundancy) "100 percent certainty": Shvarts. Either way-by claiming that she did when she didn't or vice versa-she's lying.

When "performance art" first entered the mainstream lexicon, it usually referred to creative multi-media presentations-like those of the poet/filmmaker/musician Laurie Anderson-for which no other pithy description quite fit. It took the sexually graphic National Endowment for the Arts--funded spectacles of Karen Finley to make the term synonymous with puerile obscenity.

If Shvarts succeeds in using the term to legitimize her sexual prevarication, there could be seismic aftershocks. The rantings of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the varied responses of Barack Obama, the war-zone experience of Hillary Clinton-all of it is art.

And who but those bitter, religious, gun-clingers among us could be opposed to that?

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