Joe Strummer, Twenty Years Gone


Joe Strummer died two decades ago today and I have no idea how that could be twenty years ago now. What has changed? The world in many ways seems to have become trapped and frozen somewhere along the way. 

We had cellphones back in 2002 (if not smartphones yet, thank God), the Web, social media (AOL et al, which all the others since just ripped off), and all the rest of it. Compare that to 1982 and you may as well be on a different planet.

News of Joe's death ripped through the old Clash message boards (again, not even remotely different from Facebook or Twitter in any meaningful way) like wildfire, bringing a very exciting time for fans to a crashing halt. A community that had risen up overnight suddenly found itself without a center, and soon its members were scattered to the winds once more, aside from a dedicated cohort.

So to give you all a look back at how it all felt, I wrote the following essay the day after Joe Strummer died. You can get that and so, so, so much more in my first book Clash City Showdown, available on Amazon. 

To paraphrase Francis Ford Coppola, Clash City Showdown isn't about The Clash: Clash City Showdown IS The Clash.

JOE STRUMMER 1952-2002

It all makes a kind of strange and terrible sense. Five weeks after sharing the stage with his old partner-in-crime Mick Jones for the first time in nineteen years, our hero sat down in his kitchen and never woke up. 

It had been a heady time for Joe Strummer. His tour/recording binge was nearing its fourth year. It seemed as if he would never stop. With the Mescaleros, Joe seemed determined to play as many shows as The Clash ever had. And if his ticket and album sales were never what they were with The Clash, it was more than made up for by the tremendous love and affection that he seemed to receive from nearly everyone. 

Once an irritant and thorn in the side to the supercilious twits of the British press and Record Industry of the 80’s, Joe received adulation from journalists who had been baptized in the sweat and fire of The Clash’s revelatory concerts. And if the music and the shows never quite matched the pure catharsis of The Clash, they were certainly a damn sight better than nearly anything else out there. 

In addition, Joe had eased himself into the role of Rock Elder Statesman, but still was able to retain the credibility that most of his contemporaries and predecessors would never be able to buy with their cash-in ‘best-ofs’ and $500 a seat ticket prices. One look need no further than Sting, Joe’s old rival, to see just how far a star could fall into total irrelevancy and fatuousness to appreciate how tightly Joe clung to his principles. 

Joe was almost universally recognized as a major influence on what has followed him and his company was prized by many of today’s top artists. His effortless charisma, grace, and easy-going manner were prized by fan and star alike. Just before he passed, he was working with no less than a superstar than Bono, on a number for no less a luminary than Nelson Mandela. 

Joe was hard at work on an album with the Mescaleros, following a year of guerilla raid touring. For those of us who have watched Joe closely over the years, there were worrisome signs on the recent ‘Bringing it All Back Home’ tour. Photos of Joe showed him looking pale and haggard, and his mighty bellow was weak and thin on many of the recordings I’ve heard. If you were in the crowd, this was probably unnoticeable. Joe and the stage are a magical combination, and I found it impossible to look at him onstage and think he was a minute older than he was in the early 80’s.

If Joe’s solo work hadn’t the instant classic feel of The Clash, it was certainly enormously entertaining and satisfying taken on its own terms. And it was impossible to sign on the Internet while he was touring without being bombarded by testimonials about ‘how great Joe was when I met him’. Having written a few of those myself, I can corroborate them. Joe was an artist but he was also a tremendous fan of music. 

I had the pleasure and honor of meeting the man many times. The time that sticks out most in my mind was in ‘99 at the tour-ending show in Philadelphia. I had made two T-shirts for him, using cartoons from The Clash City Showdown site. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I gave them to him. Sheer delight and surprise and even - dare I say it - admiration. Joe was also a fan of cartooning and he really seemed to enjoy seeing himself the subject of a cartoon. 

The second time was at the Virgin Megastore in-store appearance the day Global a Go Go was released. Having hunted down an advance promo, I and my cohort-in-Clashery, BJ aka Sonny Burnit, knew all the songs by heart. Having read a report on the London in-store, I also knew then-new drummer Luke’s name. BJ, Matt and I were seriously inebriated by the time we entered the store, and we spotted Luke setting up his kit and inaugurated the now customary ‘LUUUUUUUUUUKE’ chant. He later told us we scared the shit out of him. 

BJ and I spent the entire show screaming out the lyrics with Joe and then drunkenly shouting out nonsense between the songs. When we met Joe, I was honored to find he remembered me from Philadelphia and he was shocked to realize that we already had memorized all the new numbers. We alternately scared and amused the assembled Mescaleros with lunatic, drunken raving, but Joe was obviously pleased and flattered. He made a point to say goodbye to me by name and we ascended the escalator screaming and hollering his praises. He later christened BJ and I the ‘Decibel Twins’. 

Being able to see Joe eight times in the past three years, as well as the two solid sets he released in that time easily made up for the Dark Ages of Joe fandom, which essentially began the minute the Out of Control tour ended and were evaporated only the night before my 33rd birthday on 17 Irving Place in the great city of New York. Joe’s wilderness were emotional torture for this obsessive-compulsive fan, and I ran the entire gamut of responses as the interminable waiting of the 90’s wore on. 

There were wonderful surprises in these dark times, as Joe floundered to recover from the epiphany that was The Clash. There were the indisputable triumphs of No. 10 Upping Street, his collaboration with Mick Jones and BAD, the brilliant Walker soundtrack, his appearance in Mystery Train, the killer Gangsterville 12’’ EP and various re-release projects, but it wasn’t until the 1-2- 3 punch of the Westway to the World film, the live From Here to Eternity CD, and the Mescaleros summer mini-tour that all the bad feeling and disappointment and the endless waiting were swept away and forgotten. 

Following those events I had launched the Clash City Showdown site, which had been enormously successful in my eyes for the two years it was really cranking. Events conspired to end its original run, but the primary purpose of the site had been fulfilled and there were any number of Joe Strummer sites to take on the next phase of the story. 

As much as I enjoyed what Joe was doing, the focus for me was always The Clash: that peculiar multi-media collision of vision and zeitgeist that created something that far exceeded the sum of its parts. Joe’s new collaborators were outstanding musicians but Joe always worked best for me with Mick’s incessant melodicism, Paul’s glamour and Bernie’s lunatic subversiveness. 

In a strange way, I felt something coming to an end recently but I had no idea it would be Joe’s brilliant life. I was content to let Joe carry on, feeling that my contribution to the cause had been completed. He seemed happy and content, and that was enough for me. I do regret that some of the shenanigans of a few of his professed fans had soured my enthusiasm for Joe at the end. But all it took was a glance at some old videos to relight the flame all over again. That’s what makes a classic a classic: it does the trick for you time and again. 

But now he’s gone forever in body, but here forever in spirit. Having begun this year losing my best friend and former musical collaborator to cancer and then ending losing my all time musical idol, I am learning how to cope with loss.Perhaps I can offer some comfort to people who like me, are suffering from this seemingly senseless loss. First of all, Joe went out peacefully and with dignity, in his home near people he loved. 

Second, Joe died with his boots on, having just returned from the studio where was working on his almost-completed third album with the Mescaleros, following a mad dash across Britain culminated in him sharing the stage with his brother in arms, Mick Jones, for the first time in two decades. Joe had been in the public eye like never before, through involvement with high profile charities, a pilot on MTV2 and his occasional show on the BBC World Service.

Joe had two speeds; fast and off. Having spent nearly a decade in the ‘off’ position, Joe was making up for lost time since the turn of the millennium. His notorious appetite for hard work and hard partying probably hastened his demise, but would he have it any other way? He pursued everything he did with abandon and gusto. That’s what made him Joe Strummer: he lived life more fully than any ten normal men. And he left an amazing legacy. 

Joe was a man, just like any other. He wasn’t perfect, wasn’t divine, wasn’t faultless. But knowing that just makes his achievements all the more remarkable. Is there an intelligent and creative person between the ages of 35 and 45 that wasn’t influenced by him? The Clash were the dividing line between the old and the new back in their heyday. Before the hits you really knew where someone stood when they said they were a Clash fan. 

Human mortality is a mystery. Joe lost both of his parents back in The Clash days, and his brother long before. Maybe Joe came back in ‘99 and was so eager to live his life to the absolute fullest because something in him knew there was a deadline approaching, and better to go down singing and shouting and rocking, than playing snooker. Joe got a pretty good second run at his career, a career that had been pretty remarkable to begin with. And even if he didn’t experience the same level of success, I am reasonably certain he enjoyed himself quite a bit more this time around. 

So what am I going to do? I’m going to remember Joe the way I think he wants to be remembered, and I am going to continue to take inspiration from his courage and his honesty. Back in the Prog-Rock days, no one would have bet on some sandpaper-throated chord-banger to change the world. But he did so because he dared. I take inspiration from that and from his willingness to put it all on the table with every hand. Again, look at other artists from Joe’s heyday to see what dishonesty, compromise and fatuousness a careerist musician is capable of. Whatever you think of Joe’s body of work, it was always from the heart. And that is exactly why so many people still care about him. 

And I can never forget seeing The Clash and how huge they sounded onstage in their prime. That’s the kind of thing that never leaves you. Nor all the great nights - legendary nights - I had out at Meskie gigs. Or all the great people I’ve met because of a shared interest in The Clash. And the music and all the boots live forever. And his kindness, open-heartedness and enthusiasm. 

Don’t mourn Joe—-celebrate him. 

December 23, 2002 


Originally posted 12/27/02 

The first time I ever went to New York City was to look for ‘84 boots. It was October of ‘84 and some Art Punk friends and I took the bus into New York to scour all the shops. This was the days when kids could buy a can in a bag and we got drunk that day while walking the streets. My nutty skinhead friend, Buster, took it upon himself to piss wherever he pleased: on the sidewalk, in the park, in a doorway. 

I found a double cassette of one of the Clash II’s Brixton Academy shows at Bleecker Bob’s, the one where Joe says “I will not play ‘Train in Vain!’” So ever since that day, when I was all of 18, New York and The Clash have been intertwined. I cannot count how many boot crawls I’ve been on. Or during the Lost Years, how many magazine shops I would haunt, scouring for any news of Joe’s activities, any little shred of information. 

Greenwich Village is the setting for some of my craziest bacchanals, but that feeling of Clashitude is irrevocably interwoven in my mind. I have had literally thousands of dreams of scouring the streets of the Village in search of the Ultimate Bootleg: usually a bizarre dream-mix of Black Market, Five Alive and the Studio Out-Takes 7” with the Mick as Napoleon and Joe as Jack the Ripper pic on the cover. 

So when previous plans fell through, I fought back the nearly stultifying winter depression and dragged my shut-in ass for one last walkabout, and brought From Here to Eternity, Give‘ Em Enough Dope and that crappy Mutable Punks transfer of Five Alive (Stockholm 1984) along with me for sentimental reasons and hit the streets. I blasted Dope in my car and was more convinced than ever that that stuff was pro-recorded and that a quickie Clash II live thing was being considered and then scrapped. It really kicks ass cruising down the highway too. 

I hit Electric Lady on Eighth Street first and looked at the little tribute in the window. I forgot that Joe’s bio page in the Armagideon Times had a comic book page in the background, and eerily enough, it was some ghost story. I looked at the Futura handwritten track listing for Rat Patrol and it confirmed something I had been told earlier: ‘Beautiful People’ was really called ‘Fulham Connection’ and ‘Kill Time’ had the dreadful title of ‘Idle in the Kangaroo Court W1’. 

I went over to Revolver Records and they had no Clash stuff, so I left. That place is a crusty old boomer-haven anyway. Went to Bleecker Bob’s and was depressed: it’s a shell of its former glory. Lots of Satanist crap there: a sure omen of death and decay. The streets were nearly empty, since all the NYU kids were back at home counting their parents’ money. 

Walked over to Revolution Records: they had a lot of boots, but nothing I had to have. They were playing Joy Division - which I was listening to a lot of in ‘84 - so I appreciated that. They had a vinyl thing of the Rude Boy stuff, but I didn’t need that either. But Revolution has always flown The Clash flag, just like their immediate predecessor, Second Coming Records. The Clash never disappeared from the Village’s collective consciousness. 

I walked through the cold, grey streets to the East Village. New York can be the most miserable place in the world in the winter. Or the most glorious, depending on the time of day and the company you’re keeping. I was alone and I was feeling as cold and gray as the city seemed to be. Maybe it was in mourning, too. 

I skipped Tower Records in favor of the Tower Flea Market and bought myself a nice warm scarf. I was reminded of the Portobello Road market stalls, and the vibe was enhanced by a stall pitching some vaguely Clash-like gear — with red and black star logos and all — to the teeniebopper market. There was also a stall selling martial arts vids, which Joe would have found entertaining. 

I made it to St. Mark’s Place. Never a notable landmark in The Clash mythography, it is filled with a Clash-like spirit (and it was one of the settings for Joe’s Global Boombox TV pilot). For those of you who’ve never been there, it is a short little block where the counter-culture still seems to exist, though increasingly as a museum/gift shop. All the t-shirt shops have always had lots of Clash goodies for the asking (and for the buying). Nothing to lift my spirits though. 

Went into the former Venus Records (once on the corner of Sixth Ave and Eighth Street) now burdened with the dreary moniker, Bob’s Records. I was severely depressed there; it was like walking into a nursing home. 

Still, it was good to see the flag being flown from the store windows of old St. Marks. I skipped Kim’s Underground and Trash and Vaudeville; I didn't want to get caught up in all that pop-culture ephemera. The only people on the streets seemed to be tourists. Joe would have been amused at the packs of fashionable kids speaking a host of tongues. 

I went over to the basement haven known as SeeHear. This little hideaway was once entirely stocked with Rock rags and books, now it is a reading room dedicated to marginal culture. There are underground comics, occult stuff, fetish rags vying for shelf space with your usual Mojo’s, Maximum Rock and Roll ’s and the like. 

But as soon as I walked in I was confronted by the unlikely strains of ‘Stay Free’, which immediately segued into ‘Junco Partner’. The owner was listening to Terry T. and Hova’s Joe tribute on WFMU. The whispers and hints of Joe’s restless ghost came out of the shadows. I was delighted to discover the Return of the Last Gang in Town, simply because I am a completist and didn’t want to pay import prices for it. Gray did seem to fill in some gaps amid all the sneering and glaring errors. 

I paid for it and then something else caught my eye; the Bob Gruen tome in all its glory and at a non-assrape price too! Loathe as I am to continue my walkabout burdened with such baggage, I couldn’t resist. It’s a gorgeous book and if all of you don’t have it, find it and buy it as soon as you done reading this. 

So I glanced a bit at the female body hair fetish magazines in bemusement (who buys that crap, werewolves?) I hit the empty streets again on my way to Niagara. I was confronted with a sign for happy hour, which I didn’t appreciate since I was wasn’t very happy. I’m glad I brought the walkman, because the earphones were keeping the cold North Atlantic wind off of my ears. 

Niagara’s happy hour wasn’t very happy either. The place was nearly deserted and the place were I thought the tribute wall is was roped off. I sat down and ordered a Yeungling, in honor of my summit with Joe in Philly. It is a damn fine ale, criminally overlooked by quaffers. Yeungling is also America’s oldest brewery, so it’s your patriotic duty to partake. I didn't push the roped-off issue, since the whole thing had a Strawberry Fields-vibe to me and the John Lennon parallels were already too strong. I wasn’t feeling Joe there. I was desperately sad. I couldn’t take too much more. 

On one hand, it was good to see The Clash still in the minds and stores of New York. A perverse thought entered my mind. The greatest Rock legends are all dead: Joe is now truly among the Olympians. And he has entered those august halls not as the has-been who oversaw The Clash’s implosion, but as the elder statesman who triumphantly returned to the street-level Rock and Roll scene from whence he had sprung. He didn’t exit as some wretched, addicted husk like Brian Jones or Elvis, or as some tragic misadventure like Hendrix or Jim Morrison, he died because his body had written the script since birth. And he went down with old debts paid. 


Well, there was a debt Joe never repaid with me. Blissfully, a musical genius from Germany popped out of nowhere last year and made the Last Great Clash Album so many hardcore fans had been pining for all those years. I wrote about it here and also did a piece on it for Classic Rock, but we can skip to the meat of the matter now...

Since I’d been pining for a straight-ahead rock n’ roll album from The Clash since 1979, I took the Cut the Crap clusterfuck hard. While holding out hope for the hasty full band sessions where the This is England EP B-sides were recorded to be leaked, I spent the next decade and a half trying to find the next best thing.

Since "unfinished business" is one of the triggers of OCD, I kind of went overboard. There were a lot of decent live bootlegs available so I was able to hear the songs in their proper form, but that felt like a consolation prize. So my dreams went to work on the problem. 

From my Clash book:

I have a more specific dream of the Clash too. I had it almost every night for years and years, and I still have it from time to time. The details change, but it concerns going into a record store and finding a bin full of Clash bootlegs, chock full of songs I’ve never heard before... I am always depressed when I wake up, because I want those damn records! 

Those dreams never stopped, in fact they'd only get increasingly more vivid and realistic. I'd be in a record store and find that Grail, which I came to realize was actually that album I was cheated of. I'd find that Grail and it all felt so tangible and true and complete. And then would vanish as soon I woke up.

And then on Friday, those dreams came true.  

Not metaphorically, not poetically, not hyperbole: they literally came true.

A musician in Germany was so obsessed with that same vision that he learned all the parts to the songs from the live performances, programmed the original drum parts beat by beat, carefully duplicated the guitar sounds from demos, then put it all on tape. Then he digitally stripped Joe Strummer's vocals from the album and dubbed them onto the backing tracks. 

On songs he didn't have live recordings to follow from he did his own arrangements in an absolutely uncanny approximation of the short-lived band's idiosyncratic style. It's just an amazing, amazing accomplishment. 

So, after 37 long years of waiting to hear studio recordings of the band that blew my mind onstage and over 40 years for a straight guitar rock Clash album, I finally have my Grail. 

And to be honest, it’s freaking me out more than a bit.

Allowing for the obvious (but insignificant) limitations, it sounds EXACTLY like the album I’d been imagining since 1984. It feels uncannily like those albums that tormented me in my dreams. It’s more British Invasion power pop or pop punk than 1977 punk but that’s exactly what I was looking for: my favorite Clash was always the power pop stuff (such as the quintessential Cost of Living EP).

You can hear the whole album here.

So this is the Lost Gospel of Clash as far as I’m concerned, the Gnostic Clash redeemer come to usurp the Demiurge’s simulacrum and to dispel the ignorance that’s surrounded this band for so long. 

Better late than never, I say.

1 comment:

  1. I fondly remember being taken to the funky record shop in Cleveland where the code was "Have you got any classics?" And the bootlegs would come out.


Tell me your secret history.