Finally, after years of searching, there it was on Redbubble.com: a pre-shrunk, tri-blend, moisture-wicking, ethically sourced Clash T-shirt with an indigo-on-black silhouette of Paul Simonon smashing his Fender Precision bass guitar.
“At last!” I enthused in one of my post-midnight internet jaunts. “The ultimate rock rebellion T-shirt! With the click of a button, it will be mine!”
But wait. Something felt off. It wasn’t the T-shirt. Yikes, it was me.
That iconic image, which dates to the cover of the 1979 album London Calling, came out when I was 19, at peak rebellion, pissed off about nothing in particular and eager to share my dissatisfaction with the world.
Back then, I would have given anything for that T-shirt.
Not only would it have looked great under my Fonzie-styled bomber jacket with fold-up leather collar, it would have sent the message: I may be a privileged suburban mall brat whose mother chases him down the street shouting “PUT ON YOUR HAT!” but I am cool. Do not mess with me.
The problem wearing it today — as I shuttle between physiotherapy appointments and trips to the chiropractor — is that at 58, I’m a dishevelled, sallow-cheeked burnout with an irrational fear of hip-hop.
Sipping a glass of prune juice, I ponder whether my enfeebled stature can really do justice to this iconic rock ’n’ roll image. Or will my attempt at generational appropriation desecrate its sanctity?
“Seriously?” interjects my wife, who didn’t grow up with an obsessive pop-culture fixation and couldn’t care less about some stupid T-shirt.
“Why are you even thinking about this?”
And yet, I know what happens when people try to relive their lost youth with Michelin Man torsos and faces like the shrivelled-up Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I see them all the time, parading around in skin-tight Metallica T-shirts, beer bellies exploding over their belt buckles.
“Hey look at me!” they telegraph to the world at large. “I never grew up!”
If I see one of these characters near my kids, I gesticulate wildly and point to the car. “Hurry up, kids. There’s a 59-year-old who thinks he’s 17. Run!”
And yet, the pull is strong.
That London Calling T-shirt could put me back in the game, I reason.
It could make up for that “bird is the word” necktie that made me a laughingstock at the company picnic in 1997 and the “What ’Choo Talkin’ ’Bout, Willis?” photo T-shirt intended as an ironic statement about cheesy sitcom culture that was instead mistaken for overt fan worship.
At the root of this obsession, of course, is the lingering idea that for all intents and purposes, I’m still 19.
Realistically, I know this is not the case.
If I look at my driver’s licence renewal form, it informs me I’ve been driving for, gasp, 41 years.
And try as I might, I can’t deny the fact that when I look in the mirror I see not the perky rebel of my punk-rock past, but a balding version of Dr. Zaius, the orangutan elder in Planet of the Apes.
“How can I still want to stick it to the Man?” I muse as I haul out the garbage bins. “I am the Man.”
More precisely, I’m the dad in Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” video, a seething gasbag who explodes in rage when his kid blasts heavy metal. “You call this music? I call it garbage!”
That’s me at 58 — the same rebellious attitude I had as a teenager, but inverted, turned in on itself.
Still, it is a categorical fact that my personality — the essence of who I am — has not changed since the dawn of the disco era, when ties were wide, Bee Gees ruled the Earth and refrigerators came in three shades of lime.
There’s a tiny part of me — stubbornly ageless, but mostly just stubborn — that remembers what it’s like to feel righteously angry about stuff I no longer have the energy to care about: the ozone layer, big-box culture, the rise of Miley Cyrus.
“London calling to the faraway towns,” growls Joe Strummer on that Clash album’s title song. “Now war is declared and battle come down.”
It’s not as if I’m a lone outlier.
There are a whack of post-50 icons who exude the sublime, chilled-out confidence once associated exclusively with the young: Stevie Nicks, Denzel Washington, Neil Young, Catherine Keener, Julianne Moore, Geena Davis, Bill Murray, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Chrissie Hynde.
“But you’re no Chrissie Hynde,” points out my teenage stepdaughter, who views me as a trusted piece of furniture.
“If you’re serious about wearing a Clash T-shirt, you might want to invent a time machine to go with it!”
Ouch. The real cognitive dissonance — as any post-millennial can tell you — comes when I run into people who actually are 19 and realize, holy crap, we have nothing in common.
I like outlaw country and classic rock. They like hip-hop and EDM. I’m outraged and indignant. They’re empowered and open-minded. I think the ’90s were an irony-tinged wasteland. They find them sweetly nostalgic.
And here’s the thing that really sticks: if a 58-year-old can be 19 in his head, so can someone who’s 68, 78 or 88.
Are they gonna walk around in Clash T-shirts, besmirching the iconic stature of my cultural totem at Mahjong tournaments and bowling competitions? Could my frazzled brain cells tolerate this kind of cultural insurrection?
Then again — call it the musical equivalent of squatter’s rights — when it comes to wearing a Clash T-shirt, if not me, then who?
“If you owned it once,” goes the cultural rule of thumb, “it’s yours forever.”
It’s true. Just as 80-year-olds have Elvis and 70-year-olds have the Beatles, the Clash was my band — not just musically, but symbolically, from the full-sized window display at A&A Records’ Toronto flagship store to the album cover pinned as inspiration on the wall of my office.
No matter how old, decrepit and out of touch I become, that guitar-crashing image — an invitation to think outside the box, to be my authentic self — is part of the cultural glue that formed me.
So if you see a balding prune-face walking the streets with a stark image of Clash bassist Paul Simonon on his T-shirt, please stop and say hello.
The 19-year-old me will be more than grateful for the acknowledgment.
Joel Rubinoff writes for the Waterloo Region Record. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @JoelRubinoff