Not all that useful, ultimately, to talk about the importance of Joe Strummer in my life, because that only applies to me and my junior high and high school friends. I’ve actually done this before, written about how the Clash politicized us, made us care about US foreign intervention and issues of culture and class (funny how close “class” and “clash” always were), introduced us to dub and re-framed rockabilly so it sounded cool instead of corny—but somehow none of that means much of anything right now. Everyone who loved this band has stories about when they first heard or felt or loved or saw the Clash, and I don’t really feel like I can do that better than anyone else.
And anyway, it’s not the Clash that died this week. They’ve been gone a long time now, close to 20 years, and although you could make a case for “they live on in our hearts” and all that crap, it’s not really all that relevant to Joe Strummer’s heart attack. Hell, Mick Jones almost died 14 years ago, but he managed to cheat the Reaper. But even talking about the endless arguments that me and my friends used to have (“Strummer! Jones! Strummer! Jones!”) wouldn’t really tell you a lot about Joe Strummer himself, about how he was the last great multiculturalist, about his overall importance in music history, etc.
Indeed, there are a lot of people these days who will argue that Strummer HAD no “importance” in anything so dull as “music history”. I’ve been reading stuff for the last six months about how the Clash was “boring”, how their records were turgid and sluggish and way-too-political-and-not-fun-enough, stuff like that. I can’t possibly imagine that this is anything other than backlash, a way of slaying an unslayable giant. But I guess there are people who really have actually heard all the Clash’s records and still actually have these incomprehensible opinions—it’s all a matter of taste, innit? So I guess people are allowed to NOT—like the music that I consider to be vital and spunky and fun and hilarious and serious and multi-faceted and everything that music is supposed to be.
The Clash has always had to face this shit. First, they were punks, hated by politicians and bourgeoisie and Teds everywhere. Then, they weren’t real punks (oldest accusation in the book): the Ramones and Richard Hell and Patti Smith and the Sex Pistols were the real thing, man, and everyone who came after was just a poser. Then, when that didn’t really stick, it was more about how Strummer had a public school education, how his dad was a diplomat, how he wasn’t real, wasn’t raw, wasn’t street enough. And when that didn’t take-who was real anyway? and it turned out that all them punks, rich poor middle-class, all of ‘em were just weird freaky beatniks anyway—things turned ugly: if the Clash were real punk rockers, they wouldn’t play all that stupid reggae shit, they’d be hateful sneering sorts like that charismatic Johnny Rotten or they’d be down with the skinheads, and they’d certainly stop asking us to stop gobbing on ‘em during shows.
But again, nothing like this ever really stuck. So now they’re getting gobbed on by the little nephews and nieces of the same critics that loved the Clash, young “punk” pundits of the new century tossing bottles like “worthy” and “so-called” and “dad-rock”, always from the safe distance of history. In this point of view, there is no such thing as “influence”, no line of succession, and any band that is considered to be “important” is automatically discounted, especially if they tried to carry any weight at all-and there were times when Strummer and Jones carried the weight of the whole entire world on their teeny little shoulders. They’re easy targets, my Clash; hell, they’re now eligible for the freakin’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How
And now of course Joe Strummer won’t be able to fight back. He was kinda doing that with the Mescaleros, a great band that I never got into because I never gave them the chance because I wanted to preserve the Clash in amber, wanted it to always be 1981 when Titus and Holbrook and I wrote letters to Jim Miller at Newsweek telling him what a tool he was because he refused to believe that Sandinista! was the greatest LP ever released in the rock era. But it ain’t then anymore, now. It’s almost 2003, Strummer dropped dead Monday night, he can’t respond to these new no-nothing kids pissing on the Clash the same way he once pissed on rock history by declaring “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones!”
Or can’t he?
Because last night I laid down on the couch, turned off the lights, and put on Disc 1 of that aforementioned greatest LP ever released in the rock era. Sandinista! starts, rather famously, with “The Magnificent Seven”, a rap track with a backing track so funky that some New York urban stations played as an instrumental. Strummer rapping is not a pretty thing, not a template for smoothosity; he doesn’t even have the flow of mumble-mouthed titans like Biz Markie or Vanilla Ice. But damned if some of those lyrics ain’t just kinda poetry writ small: “You’re frettin’ / You’re sweatin’ / But did you notice you’re not gettin’ anywhere / Don’t you ever stop / Long enough to start? / Get your car outa that gear!”
Okay, those particular lines don’t look so hot on the page, but it all makes perfect sense when you hear him sing-song-say them. It suddenly hit me, last night, that that is where Joe Strummer is truly unimpeachable as one of the greatest rock and rollers of all time: his amazing cracked-leather voice. Not to take anything away from Mick Jones, who remains one of the more affecting vocalists of the last 25 years—but Strummer, man, he was simply one of the 10 best singers we’ve ever had. Just listening to Sandinista! proves this beyond all doubt. One doesn’t have to think that Strummer was a genius-level writer (as I do) or to agree with his hyper-leftist politics (as I do) to hear the tough precision of his vocal attack; he pulls off songs as diverse as the avant-folk “The Rebel Waltz” and the skiffle blues of “Midnight Log”.
Sure, he always had the punk rebel yell down pat; Strummer made an art out of the shouted intro, and the beginnings of “Guns on the Roof” and “Know Your Rights” could not have been done by any other human being in the world. But he never rested on this barbaric yawp-go through the Clash’s catalog and hear example after example of how Joe Strummer’s voice pulls off songs that shouldn’t possibly work. The sneery breakdown at the end of “Clash City Rockers” where he’s riffing on an old London folksong: “Come out and show me / Say the bells of old Bowie”? Perfect. The slurred-out jazzy lope of “Jimmy Jazz”, when he starts spelling it (“J-A-Zed-Zed / G-Z-Z”)? A hoot. His ad-lib at the end of “Revolution Rock”, where he’s offering up the Clash to play weddings and parties, “with bongo jazz our spesh-ee-al-I-tee”? Oh man, so perfect. The double-tracked man-vs.-himself monologues in “If Music Could Talk”? Creepy, sad, haunting, beautiful.
No musical style was beyond him, and he welcomed every challenge. Can you think of any rougher sound on the airwaves in 1983 than Strummer singing “Rock the Casbah?” Listen to it again, man: he’s so radio-wrong, but that’s exactly what the song needed. And on that same album, the now-maligned Combat Rock, he turns in one of the most intense and hardcore vocal performances ever recorded, “Straight to Hell.” Goosebump city on that one, with his spitting whisper: “Lemme tell you ‘bout your blood, bamboo kid / It ain’t Coca-Cola, it’s rice / There ain’t no need for ya”. Anyone who can’t hear the purpose, the power, the pathos in that song . . . well, they just have no right to listen to it, that’s all.
Let the poppist naysayers talk all their shit about how punk music wasn’t all that great after all, or how if it was then the Clash weren’t even really punk, or how they don’t care for music that tries too hard or means too much to ancient 36-year-old bastards who should just be put out to pasture or something. They can say what they like about Strummer’s lyrics or his performances or his fashion or whatever the hell they want. What they can never assail is the voice of Joe Strummer. It was a weapon, it was a blessing, it was many things. And it meant, by which I mean that it means, everything to me.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More