As famous as he got, Joe Strummer never forgot what it was like to be on the other side of the stage. He never forgot what it was like to love a band with all your heart and soul. He never forgot about the transcendent power that all the best bands are capable of, and of the tremendous responsibility that comes with that kind of power.
By now, tales of Strummer’s kindnesses to fans—the smuggling backstage of penniless punters, the rides home from gigs, the crash-outs on hotel floors—have passed into legend.
Because The Clash were just that sort of band.
Long after all the “Only Band That Matters”, claptrap has fallen away, they will remain an indestructible symbol of how transforming a force music can be when it’s created with guts, with passion and with heart.
At their best, The Clash not only broke barriers, they smashed them. Dub. Reggae. Soul. Rock. Elements of all those forms and more found their way into The Clash’s music. If it’s proof you’re looking for, just listen to the looping bass line on “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”, or look to their cover of the classic “Police and Thieves”, as evidence of the band’s miraculous ability to bridge stylistic divides and create something far more enduring than the three-chord slashes that characterized the work of their contemporaries.
Even their most popular song, the one most Americans know by heart, “Rock the Casbah”, incorporated elements of soul and reggae while delivering an explicitly political message. There’s nothing more punk than that. It’s a lesson that all the pretenders to the throne—the Blink 182s, the Sum 41s, and other numerically challenged combos would do well to heed.
The lesson went down easier in those days because The Clash had Mick Jones, a consummate craftsman with a mastery of theory who knew how to assemble all the components needed to capture that most elusive of quarry: the enduring pop gem.
But in Strummer, the band had its fiery heart.
Without him, it’s unlikely that The Clash would have had the same resonance with fans. Footage from the time shows it.
There’s Strummer, mouth frozen in a scream, eyes squeezed shut, sweat pouring down his face, as he tried to bridge the gap between musician and listener in an effort to create something that was bigger than both of them.
In his memoir, A Riot of Our Own, former Clash roadie Johnny Green vividly described the lengths to which Strummer and his cohorts would go to accommodate their fans.
“The band and the fans would festoon the bar,” Green wrote. “Fans went to the bedrooms and the band were saying, ‘Woa! Look what we got. Come and share it. Have a bath. Have a shower. Call room service.’”
In a time when the gap between performer and the audience—thanks to the behemoths in the entertainment/industrial complex—grows ever wider either through phalanxes of security guards or ever spiraling ticket prices, it’s important to remember that lesson.
In the end, even though a musician may create it, the music belongs to the fans. It’s a power they grant, and the best bands, the ones that stick with fans ages after all the other plastic icons crumble, are the ones that remember it.
Joe Strummer remembered it, and for that we will never forget him.
// Notes from the Road
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