The next to last time I saw the man who put the strum in Strummer, it was nearing afterhours at a Lower East Side bar in New York City, somewhere around the turn of the century. Despite the approaching dawn, Joe was ready to keep on the move, full of restless energy, praising the accessibility of techno music, of all things, and talking about how the computer was putting the means of production into the hands of the people, a do-it-yourself ethos not far from the wellsprings of the Clash.
The last time I saw Joe was in full band flight at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, lunging and spitting at the microphone and leading the charge of his young Mescaleros with a fist-clenched ferocity. The music touched on rockabilly, reggae and classic rock ‘n’ roll – all the grand rolling r’s of the genres he loved – and after, backstage, I watched him surrounded by his crew of New York misfits and miscreants and misses, clustered around because he was them, and me as well, going over to give him a hug and a shared embrace, battle-hardened warriors of the Two Sevens Clash, when rebel musics took on Babylon, as they did these 35 years past, and will always again.
To look at the legacy of the Clash is to appreciate the idealism of rock in action. Incredibly prolific, reveling in their own ambitions and electric energies, they wielded a social conscience that harnessed the violence and contradictions inherent in the glory that is punk rock at its most confrontational. Believing in music’s possibilities for self-invention and inspiration, their offer of hope and rejuvenation stood in direct opposition to punk’s nihilism and penchant for self-destruction.
As a musician, John Graham Mellor came of age in the 101′ers, a pub-rock combo that immediately preceded the upheavals of punk. He might have stayed in revival mode – pub rock, in the form of Dr. Feelgood and, especially, the chop-shop chords of guitarist Wilko Johnson, was all about a return to roots. But the oncoming of punk, whatever form it took, with its sense of renewal and wiping the slate clean of the excesses of the past, gave Joe an opportunity to make a fresh start. More, he took readily to the political implications of the music, its’ embrace of an Us vs. Them class struggle, its revolutionary fervor and crash-and-burn ideology.
There were no halfway measures for Joe, such was his commitment to the music. He was a believer, and the more the Clash took up their opposition against the music establishment, an artistic call to arms that gave their music a high-minded sense of purpose, the more they catalyzed and proselytized; and the more their renown spread. Strummer, who had gotten his stage name from the vigorous way he scrubbed “Johnny B. Goode” on the ukulele in the London subway as a busker, could be alternately articulate and overwrought. In the Clash’s triangle of guitars, Mick Jones would become the musical adventurer, appropriating any worldbeat genres that came into his questing range, the slice-and-dice that would result in such sprawling masterworks as London Calling and Sandinista!; Paul Simonon, besides providing bedrock bass underpinnings, helped create their look, as befits the visual artist he is today, beginning with his own chiseled instrument; Joe was appointed Clash spokesman.
There was nothing pristine about the Clash’s debut album, all rabble-rousing anthems with Joe’s vocals shouted down the awaiting gullet of a microphone, guitars bristling with aggression and tension and tube overload, and lyrics that seem all too eager to storm the barricades. They grow up in “Garageland”; they have no “Career Opportunities”; they want a “White Riot” of their own. In America, the emphasis of punk was on cultural revolution. In England, the social and political situation came to the fore, and so did a more rigid sense of style and subculture, the arcane rituals of spitting on performers, pogo-ing, donning black motorcycle jackets and bondage trousers.
The Clash were often unfairly criticized for side-stepping the strictures put upon them by the parochial punk community, adding rap or even “pop” into their mixage. Joe was aware of the inherent paradox of being in a band that advocated freedom, even as he had to continually fight to maintain his independence and sense of purpose.
For me, all this comes together in “White Man In Hammersmith Palais,” Joe’s telling tale of a night he spent at a reggae show in which the performers seemed bent on showboating in a way that negated the revolutionary power of Jamaican song stylee. Reggae, another music built on resistance and ritual (“Pass the duchy to de left hand side”) was the soundtrack for punk’s spiritual transformation, proclaiming an underclass Rastafarian creed at once alien and yet all too alluring to those seeking to overthrow – at least metaphorically – the oppressor. More, he looks into his own mirror at his pale skin, an outsider and perhaps even an usurper, and questions his own place in the equation: “You think it’s funny?/ Turning rebellion into money.”
Throughout the subsequent history of the Clash, up to and including their slot at Shea Stadium opening the Who, and only a shortest time later, Joe wandering England as a street singer with the remnants of the Clash (none of the original members) by his side, he would feel these opposing forces at work (and play), the extremes of celebrity and artistry, and his desperate attempt to reconcile both in the words of a song.
It’s Joe’s post-Clash career that I find most endearing these days, when the Strummer persona that he’d created found outlet in film, such as his sterling turn in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, and as he followed his own heartfelt inclinations. He sang with the Pogues and was a BBC disc jockey with a program appropriately titled London Calling. The Mescaleros kept the clattery feel of the Clash’s surround-sound, and the albums he made with them have a respectful integrity, acknowledging the gifts of music that allowed him such a rollercoaster ride.
But it’s “Know Your Rights” that I will be playing when I celebrate what would have been Joe’s 60th birthday this year, when I take a moment to raise the flag and salute a fallen comrade. “You have the right not to be killed,” he proclaims, and I wish it were true for him as well, since there was so much more to come, including, perhaps, a reunion with his brothers-in-arms, and a consequent storming of the battlements. I can hear his voice at full throttle, the strangled shout that always seemed on the verge of shredding his vocal cords; the conscience, the loose cannon, the oversoul of the Clash.