I prefer this version to the original studio recording, which features spoken lyrics by renowned beat poet Allen Ginsberg:
I know Ginsberg was a towering cultural figure, and I’m sure his addition to the track is brilliant on some level. But if I’m being honest, I always found his part distracting. The live version is edgier, less, how shall I put this, presumptuous? It’s a matter of taste, I suppose. But live and sans Ginsberg, it goes from good song to great song, in my view.
In any event, I chose this song today because it happens to be the birthday of the great Langston Hughes – speaking of towering cultural figures – who was born Feb. 1, 1902 and died May 22, 1967. In the lyrics of “Ghetto Defendant,” I hear echoes of some of Hughes’ most famous poems. This verse, for example –
Hungry darkness of living
Who will thirst in the pit?
She spent a lifetime deciding
How to run from it
Once fate had a witness
And the years seemed like friends
Now her child has a dream
But it begins like it ends
Is reminiscent of Hughes’ “Mother To Son” –
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
And the similarities are even more striking when you compare these lyrics –
Forced to watch at the feast
Then sweep up the night
Flipped pieces of coin
Exchanged for birthright
To one of Hughes’ best known poems, “I, Too, Sing America” –
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Interestingly, though, Langston Hughes’ poetry is often more optimistic, in the end, than Clash songs like “Ghetto Defendant.” After all, “I, Too, Sing America” goes on to say:
I'll be at the table
When company comes …
There’s no similar better tomorrow in “Ghetto Defendant.”
On a related note, earlier today on Twitter, The Nation’s Peter Rothberg linked to this piece by Langston Hughes, first published in 1926, in which Hughes talks about the importance of celebrating, rather than shying away from, the Black experience in his poetry. It’s a fascinating read even now.
The Clash, of course, could not have known that experience first hand. Nonetheless, their empathy for people everywhere, even people whose own experiences were vastly different from the band’s, was perhaps their greatest strength.
So, there you go. “Ghetto Defendant”: Recorded live or in the studio, you know what to do …
Turn. It. Up.