Thirty years ago The Clash played their last gig with founding member Mick Jones at the ‘US Festival’ in San Bernardino, CA. It was to be the last show with the three front men together and spelled the end of a seven-year era. It was also the first moment I sensed that my own scaffold was already being erected – my own ‘Armagideon Time.’
The date: May, 28th 1983
The place: The US Festival in San Bernardino, CA.
The temperature: 115 blistering, stinking degrees, made all the worse by 150,000 wall-to-wall hippies as far as the eye could see. The intense heat added another insult to all the other injuries of that ill-fated gig the Clash should never have played. Digby Cleaver (Mick’s guitar roadie), and me had just about finished getting the backline ready, and were running through last-minute equipment checks so that the band could get this piece of shit over and done with. I thanked the heavens that that particular nightmare was about to be consigned to the record books, as I tightened wing-nuts and taped down drum-stands. All around us there was a feeling of hostility towards us. Even the stage-crew seemed to resent having to stay late. Maybe because it was the end of a long hot day for them (there were about a dozen bands playing that day), or maybe they were looking forward to seeing all their heroes on the following two days, I don’t know, but it was obvious we were just an irritating annoyance for them. “Fuck them,” I thought. This was nothing compared to what we had overcome through the last seven years of struggle.
We had become real good at these fast set-ups, after the treatment we’d received supporting ‘The Who’ for several weeks the previous year. They had treated us like SHIT and we hardly ever got anything close to a sound-check. In all our seven years, we had never treated any support band that way, and had always tried to give them time and space for a sound check. But beggars can’t be choosers I suppose. The band came out, plugged in, and after a few disparaging remarks to the audience from Joe, launched into their set with ‘London Calling.’ Giving the band the thumbs-up to acknowledge all was well and assuage any butterflies Digby and I settled into our roles. Despite all the well-documented pre-gig shenanigans, difficulties, hostility, and confusion beforehand (including a two-hour delay while Bernie called a last-second press conference), the set went off quite efficiently with no major technical hiccups, as far as I can remember. But with the audience being 25 feet away, there was no energy coming from the crowd and Joe was visibly frustrated pleading, “Give us something!”
But no amount of cajoling could rouse the audience out of their slumber despite the band pulling out all the stops. As the set began to wind down, so did our heightened sense of awareness, and I was able to take in more of the show. It was clearly not one of their best! Though the band tried their best the audience reaction was minimal. Even the outright hostility we had experienced opening for the Who would have been preferable. They had become a smoothly oiled machine through necessity after our ‘Who’ experience, and were taking it all in their stride. They cruised through a set of about twenty numbers. Paul did ‘Guns of Brixton’ and they even threw in a couple of the oldies like ‘Hate and War’ and ‘I’m So Bored.’ They ran over their allotted time and finished up with Clampdown. To audience applause, they finished the last encore and exited the stage while Digby and I breathed a sigh of relief that we could finally begin our post-gig routine and get the hell out of that nightmare.
All of a sudden, we noticed Kosmo Vinyl attempting to wrestle the microphone from the MC off to the side of the stage. At first, we paid no attention. Then more bodies joined the mêlée and Bernie ran out squealing, “Leave him alone, fucking leave him!” Digby sauntered over to me and asked, “What the fuck is Vinyl up to Bal?”
“I have no fucking idea…” I said, shaking my head in confusion. “No one let me in on anything.”
Quickly, the stage resembled a scene from a ‘Keystone Cops’ movie, with arms and legs flapping all over the place, in mock aggression. If Kosmo was trying to repeat the scene from the 1978 ‘Rock Against Racism’ gig in Victoria Park, where Tom Robinson’s stage crew had pulled the power, and Ray Gange had incited the crowd to demand an encore, he was sadly mistaken. Back then we had 80,000 Clash fans baying for blood; the time was right. This was 145,000 Californian hippies with a possible 5,000 true Clash fans dotted around. It wasn’t even on the cards! Digby and I looked at each other, as if to say, “This is a joke, right?” We’d had literally hundreds of stage brawls over the years and they had all meant something. This was meaningless – no one was howling for more! It was Bernie’s last-minute attempt to cause a ruckus as all other attempts at upstaging the festival had failed and he had instructed Kosmo to go start a fight. Personally, I was damned if I was going to go and join in their little ruse, not even having been forewarned.
Bewildered, we watched the scene unfold on the other side of the stage, still uncertain as to what it was about. It petered out as quickly as it erupted and everyone was ushered from the stage, as the stagehands resumed pulling our equipment apart. My sense of unease grew as the abysmal stage spectacle, and everything that had led up to it, came crashing in on me. Ever since Topper had been fired 15 months before, things had become muddled and the inner conviction of everyone involved mired in personal vendettas. For the first time in years, I got the creeping sensation that I was no longer in sync with what was going on in the Clash camp anymore. Supporting the Who had been a bitter pill for me to swallow (and certain members of the band), with accusations of ‘sellout’ all around. Now my exclusion from the mock brawl was further proof that I was no longer part of the inner circle, and I’d been demoted to the status of a paid-worker. I’d seen too many roadies, band members, and even managers come and go to mistake the signs. Maybe I should have seen it coming earlier but with sickening clarity I felt my time was finally up. It was like one of those moments you see in the movies.
‘What do you suppose that was that all about?’ Digby asked. ‘I have no fucking idea,” I replied. ‘And you know what? I really don’t fucking care either!’ I spat out, as I turned and threw my stage gloves at my flight case in disgust. For the first time in seven years, I forgot about the backline equipment and just wandered unconcerned to the back of the stage. I lent up against a scaffolding pole and looked out at a sea of trailers and caravans behind the stage. “How could it have all gone so wrong?” I wondered aloud. At that moment I finally realized that ‘the only band that mattered,‘ had ceased to matter, and for me at least, the end had probably come. My mind arced back seven years to the summer of 1976 and everything that had transpired since then. It had all seemed so simple and straight-forward then. Now ambition and success clouded everything and what the band thought they most desired – cracking America – looked like it was going to rip them apart. Little did I know that in three short months, Mick would be fired in a sensational, irrational sacking and a week later I would turn and walk away from the only life I had known for seven years, without a word.
With a heavy heart, I returned to the task at hand and started dismantling and storing away the equipment in their flight-cases. The next day everyone flew out to their separate destinations. I flew back to New York.