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This DVD is probably the most bittersweet Christmas present that I've ever gotten. Ever since the resurgence of Clashmania a couple of years ago, I'd been trying restlessly to get my hands on a good copy of "Westway to the World" -- first by asking an old friend to tape the abbreviated premiere off VH1 for me while I was out of the country, then later by paying a good amount for a decent bootleg VHS copy once I realized that Sony wouldn't be putting out the full version anytime soon. Well, now here it is -- uncut, official and with all the whistles and bells that DVD technology allows. But suddenly, getting my hands on it finally doesn't seem like so much of a triumph anymore. . . .
As if it even needed to be said at all, we've just lost an amazing musician and, by all indications, a fine human being in Joe Strummer, which makes it more than a shame that "Westway to the World" will likely come to be regarded as his final word on The Clash. But it's even more unfortunate for his death to overshadow the documentary because this is a work that stands very well enough on its own. Joe, Mick, Paul and (to a lesser extent) Topper all have worthwhile stories to tell here, even if those stories tend to center more around emotional truth rather than hard facts.
The first three treat the origins of The Clash as a sort of happy accident, but there's still a certain sense, threaded through their accounts of their childhood and art school years and the grayness of '70s London, that The Clash is something that WILL happen, if only because there's probably no other way out. Topper is fairly skeptical and noncommittal when he arrives, and his role is somewhat understated by his drug use and its obvious toll on his health. But his role's borne out quite well by the live concert clips. (True, "Westway" never shows The Clash performing a complete song live, but the clips are still awesome enough to get me on my feet every time I see them.) The main details behind the band's disintegration -- Topper's drug problems, the wedge between Mick and the rest of the band and the exhaustion of moving too fast for too long -- actually come only at about the last five minutes of the documentary, which brings it home how dizzying it must have been to come so far just to fall apart. For me, though, the last two or three minutes have always been the hardest of "Westway" to watch, as the regret and hardened hindsight comes down and "Sean Flynn" and "Straight to Hell" make things even more somber from the background. But now, there's the added poignancy when Joe mentions the absolute importance of keeping the "chemical mixture" going between people no matter what it takes. When he winces and turns away from the camera, we know now that, whether we'd wanted it or not, the mixture really is never coming back.
The bonus materials may be a bit easier to bear. The "Clash on Broadway" film is basically 22 minutes of surviving archive footage from the band's extended residence at Bonds in June of 1981. Besides the live snippets (their version of "This is Radio Clash" is particularly rousing), the footage is really held together by segments of an off-the-cuff interview with Topper, who probably says more in this than he does in the whole documentary. I found the footage interesting for the way that it shows bits of what New York City was like back then, as well as how much it must have changed ever since.
In the bonus interview footage, we see the band members all go into some of their stories in a bit more depth, without having them turned into the reconstituted soundbites of the documentary. This is good because the stories show off a bit more of each band member's personality and focus within the band. Topper seems very humbled and goes into sometimes heartbreaking detail about his struggles and failures. ("I lost the plot" almost sounds like his mantra.) Mick is cool and laid-back and talks about the music that influenced him, as well as his early experiences in the London SS. Paul is probably the funniest of the bunch, and he tells a bit more about the hi-jinks that he and the band got into (including those that happened while Lester Bangs was on tour with them). As for Joe, he talks about the early punk years and the often desperate climate of them, and he sounds like the type of guy who'd have told the stories right to you if you'd asked.
In the end, I can't watch this DVD and believe -- honestly believe -- that Joe Strummer is dead now. That may still be the shock and the incredulity talking, of course, but somehow I don't think so. His reflections just seem too fresh and in the moment, his onstage persona just seems too much in the throes, and even his visage as an older man still seems to say, "Oi, it's not over yet, mate."
Perhaps I just believe that when a person's life and work are real enough, and they still mean something important years down the line, then it's almost as though the person never really leaves us. But if it really is true, and Joe Strummer really does have to leave us, then watching "Westway to the World," as well as listening to as much of the music as you can handle (and then a little bit more), are probably the least painful ways to say good-bye.