Retrofit Digest: “Stay Free” by the Clash

stay free

(Originally published, Oct 2009)

This is the whole rock ‘n’ roll package. Rebellion. Friendship. Bad luck. Authority. Resilience.

And love.

All that from every loud, crunchy, melodic note of “Stay Free,” one of the best-if-lesser-known gems from the Clash’s “Give ‘Em Enough Rope.” Have you given it a good listen? What you see in this video (a partial in-studio performance from the dramatic film “Rude Boy,” in which the band figured) shows him alone in the studio, in the half-dark, backing track blasting in his cans, his eyes shut as he digs deep for the memories/feelings that animated the nostalgic tale of childhood ruffianism — he and his friend acting up in school; getting booted; one finding his way to a liberated future (“I go anywhere a wanna be!”) while his friend/inspiration heads down a more predictable, treacherous path: (a nicking spree, which gets sideways almost immediately, and ends up with a 3-year bit in Brixton Prison). In the end Mick is thriving with his punk band; the nameless friend is out of jail and headed into an undetermined future.

So watch Jones lean into the story; see how the boasts of rebellion (“Never took no shit from no one/we weren’t fools”) don’t resonate nearly as much as the more softer, more vulnerable memories of childhood friends on a lark: (“You always made me laugh/got me in bad fights/played me pool all night. . .”) And yet the writing’s already on the wall: Mick’s at home working with his guitar while the friend is hanging around a pub, planning a mini-crime wave. It can’t end well for him, and so it doesn’t. Off to Brixton, to where Mick sends typically raw and gutsy letters (and just watch him bite off this final line in the video): “When you lot get out, we’re gonna hit the town/We’ll burn it fucking down… a cinder.”

Then we get to the part that really kills me, right at the end of the vocal captured in the video: the way he signs off with a firm, if gently-worded, bit of advice for his newly-paroled friend’s near-and-distant future:

Go easy. Step lightly.”

(a beat)

“Stay free.”

Then something else happens. The music fades, Mick stares into the darkness, his eyes still lit/haunted by some other, unstated feeling. It’s what he’s not telling us that sticks in my mind: What he knows about this guy’s final destination, perhaps. Or what he senses in the distance between them. Maybe a sense that not everyone gets out alive. That something else trumps even the most jauntily raised middle finger. That even friendship can’t save you in the end.

See what it says to you.