The passing of Clash legend Joe Strummer hit harder than the deaths of most musicians. Strummer was in many ways the voice of a generation and he was also a musicial visionary and poet on par with the likes of Bob Dylan and John Lennon. His death at age 50 of sudden cardiac arrest at his home in rural Somerset, England was a shock in that he seemed to be the picture of health—a man who was both physically fit and intellectually and artistically engaged with the world around him.
Strummer’s musical legacy is astounding. He, along with Mick Jones, wrote the soundtrack of an era—late ‘70s Thatcherite Britain with all its decaying industry and racial strife and the cynical and selfish early Reagan ‘80s. Strummer had a compassionate political voice and only this past November he played a show on behalf of the striking firefighters in the UK. Without Strummer, the Clash wouldn’t have been political and without the politics, punk would not have moved beyond safety pins and other sneering fashion statements. Post-Clash, Strummer remained firmly in the political arena, fronting the Pogues on occassion and releasing two intellectually-charged albums—Rock Art and the X-Ray Style and Global a Go-Go—with his new band, The Mescaleros.
In many ways, there would have been no PopMatters without Strummer either. Punk spawned the DIY (“Do It Yourself”) ethic that applied not just to music, but to magazines as well. Hundreds of small zines were started by us kids during the punk era—some like Trouser Press became legendary. In high school, I published a photocopied magazine that I sold around my school. That DIY ethic made me and many others believe we could get our voices out there and participate in culture in a meaningful way. I credit Joe Strummer with inspiring that self-belief and call-to-action in me and so many others. But his influence on this magazine goes beyond just knowing like-minds could put together an endeavor like this. Strummer’s championing of the political within the pop culture sphere is at the heart of what PopMatters is all about. In so many ways, I can honestly say that Joe Strummer was my personal hero and he has been for more than 20 years. His life’s work will continue to influence me and many others worldwide for generations to come.
Thank you, Joe. We’ll miss you. What follows are thoughts about Strummer from a cross-section of PopMatters writers. We will continue to add to this tribute page as the weeks go by and more of our writers gather their ideas about this great musician, poet, and man.
—Sarah Zupko, Editor & Publisher
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Joe Strummer Remembered
My girlfriend and I are listening to that absolutely majestic London Calling at 8:15pm Eastern Standard Time, December 23, 2002, in tribute to Joe Strummer.
Like Joe Strummer, the two people I most associate with the band also died young.
The first time the band blipped on my radar was courtesy a woman in high school. Tara, who was a year ahead of me, loudly announced her difference from the jocks and preps that clotted our classrooms and residence halls with an asymmetrical jet-black hairdo and a Sharpie-scrawled “The Clash” on her bookbag. I sat behind her at one pointless school assembly, where she and her friends dismissively (and not a bit unexcitedly) pointed out the photo of the band when the album I’m listening to right now was voted “Best Album” by some equally disposable Rolling Stone poll, laughing at Joe and Mick, two tough guys with tough disguises. She drowned the summer after her senior year.
Later, in college, I lived with a Clash fanatic. Matt’s room and mine faced each other and “Death or Glory”, “Lost in the Supermarket”, “I’m Not Down”, “Clampdown”, and “The Card Cheat” either jarred and energized me in the morning, ready to stride confidently to class and work; or they sent me off to sleep, to dream of firebombing car dealerships and suburban homes. We once spent all night painting a set while a CD of London Calling thundered on permanent repeat from our theater’s p.a. He died in his sleep around this time about seven years ago.
Of course, it was only years later that I realized how important the band was, how they were uncompromising in their ideological stance and how experimental they were in their musical one. But all of that pales beside the fact that I can’t help hearing Matt’s laugh and seeing Tara’s profile whenever I hear London Calling. My sadness tonight is as much for losing the man who shares responsibility for creating this record, for being part of a truly revolutionary band, as it is for losing the people who, for me, will always belong to that record.
Anthony C. Bleach
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I saw the Clash a number of times between 1977 and 1979, either in Brighton or at events like the Rock Against Racism rally in London. They were the only punk act to fuse politics and music with any sustained success and provided astute commentary as well as the definitive soundtrack to that era. Strummer’s energy and intensity on stage has remained fresh in my mind. There was an urgency and a passion about Strummer’s singing that seemed to match the historical moment perfectly. For me, he is just about the last rock vocalist who really mattered.
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December 23. It’s my birthday. I’m 48. My wife and I have returned from a exhilarating three hours watching The Two Towers, I just retrieved my son from his day long playdate when a brief email check informs me of Joe Strummer’s passing. I am suddenly remembering a Clash gig, Boston, Orpheum Theater, 1979. After opening the show with a life-sustaining version of “City of the Dead”, Strummer dives headlong into the swirling crowd at the front of the stage. This wasn’t rock star self-aggrandizement (which, to be fair, Joe knew a little bit about) he was breaking up a fight. Angered at the bouncers who were forcing exuberant dancers back to their seats, Strummer’s angry, disembodied voice filled the hall, “Who’s promoting this show?” “Don Law,” the crowd answered in unison. “Where’s Don Law?” Strummer began to chant, “Bring me Don Law.” It was a wonderfully spontaneous moment of punk rock guerilla theater.
I was lucky enough to see the Clash a number of times in their prime. I always thought that as the front man in the “only band that matters”, Joe Strummer had cornered the market on cool. When he let his summer of ‘76 shorn locks grow back it was forever (even as a Mohawk) combed into a rockabilly quiff. There was a lot of history in that hair—Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Vince Taylor. And while the he forcefully articulated the year-zero cant of virtually all ‘70s punk bands (“No Elvis / Beatles / or the Rolling Stones / in 1977”) Strummer (and the Clash) ultimately embraced his musical past and made punk less about style (although he had plenty of that) and more about music—all kinds of music. Genre busting that took root with London Calling, reached its improbable apotheosis with Sandinista, and continued with Strummer’s latest band the Mescaleros—this was not a pose, he meant it, man.
Unlike numerous others who will wax far more eloquent than I, sadness robs me of the ability to make sense of his life and work, other than knowing that rock and roll, my life, and the lives of many others were improved by his efforts. A deeper more profound understanding will take time, and right now I have a six-year-old who needs to learn a thing or two about Joe Strummer.
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Joe Strummer was punk back when nobody knew what that meant. Johnny Rotten was punk, but so was Debbie Harry, so was David Byrne, so was Joey Ramone and so was Tom Verlaine. Punk back in Strummer’s day wasn’t a fashion statement made of funny-colored hair and faux-raggedy clothes. It was a catch-all, like the word etcetera, to group a bunch of stuff under one heading that otherwise didn’t fit under anything else.
In that sense, The Clash was the greatest punk band there ever was. Nothing they did ever made much sense. They were white English boys rapping over a black reggae pulse. They were sneering rockers in love with pop music. They were rebels who dabbled in old timey music. You thought you had them boxed in to a pocket of consistency, and then they would go off and make some bloody horrible racket you would never get. It was exhiliarating, it was frustrating, it was the only music that mattered, it was music that never mattered at all.
Now Strummer is gone and still the man can’t be figured out. Dead at 50? A heart attack? How? It’s only a few days before Christmas. He was still movie star handsome. He was still playing regularly on stage. The stage appeared set for a long-delayed Clash reunion. What the hell is going on here?
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I was on a train somewhere between Washington, DC and Philadelphia when I heard the news about Joe Strummer. My father picked me up at the train station, and I mentioned something about the tragedy. “When you get to my age,” he replied, “those kinds of things don’t matter to you anymore. Who is Joe Strummer anyways?”
As much as I’d love to paint my father as a grumpy old man, what he had to say spoke volumes about the way the rest of us valued Strummer. We smiled nostalgically and went to see the Mescaleros play, and it made us happy to know that punk rock could grow old with style, that not every punk rocker had to end up like Sid Vicious. We took Joe Strummer for granted. And we never took the time to appreciate just exactly how profound the impact of the Clash had been.
When George Harrison passed earlier this year, my father didn’t dismiss it as yet another obituary. Yet Strummer’s role is no less important in shaping the contemporary rock aesthetic. The Clash deserve even more credit then they already get. Only in retrospect, after the U2s and the Manic Street Preachers of the world have come and gone, only 20 years later, only, sadly, after Joe Strummer has passed, can we see how integral his role was, not just in punk rock but in rock music itself. Strummer was the man who coupled the punk spirit with the rock sound, and maybe now that he’s gone he’ll finally get all the credit due to him.
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Joe Strummer’s singing was the first thing I noticed about The Clash when my dad—a ‘60s rocker who was then in his mid-30s and curious about this whole “punk” thing—brought their first LP home from the library. I fixated on the voice because I couldn’t understand what the hell he was saying. The more I listened, the harder it was to tell his guttural snarls from the equally guttural guitars. To this day, I have probably listened to that first Clash album more than any other single piece of music. And to this day, even after reading the lyrics, I can’t tell what the hell he’s saying. But I know what he means—you can feel it in every joyful angry spit and gargle. He got a little more comprehensible as time went by, but you never needed the words to understand the songs. All you had to do was listen to Joe’s ragged wild horse voice.
Jesse Fox Mayshark
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Thump, thump, thump, thump, thuuuuuuummmmmmmmmp, “Ahh HAAAA HAAAAAAAAA, hahahahahahahahahaha!!!!!” Dear God. The first time I heard “This Is Radio Clash”, I wasn’t sure if I should crank up the volume on the TV or run for cover. It wasn’t just an intro. It was a battle cry. And the enemy was scared. Everybody hold on tight.
The Clash wanted to be The Only Band That Mattered. And for a little while, they were. People loved them so much, no one even dares to talk about their abominable last album, 1985’s Cut the Crap. Only a truly great band could get away with a stunt like that. Punks aren’t supposed to age gracefully, but Strummer did just that. His ideals never changed; only the medium in which he delivered them. John Lydon, by comparison, now realizes that he will forever be the Rhoda to Strummer’s Mary. He must be seething with jealousy.
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I’m not really sure I understood anything about punk music until I received a copy of The Story of the Clash and heard Joe Strummer talking about seeing the Sex Pistols for the first time. The notion that it wasn’t so much about music, or talent, as it was about expression really gave the whole concept of punk some perspective. I was seven years old when Combat Rock was released, so obviously I missed the show the first time around, but as I grew up the legend of the Clash was imbued in a lot of the music I grew to love. I wish I could say something to the effect that the Clash changed my life, or made me interested in music, or want to be a writer, but I can’t. The fact is that, like a lot of people my age, I discovered the Clash in reverse, becoming interested as I became more and more aware of their reputation. What I do know is that if it weren’t for the Clash, many of the bands I love dearly might never have been. For that I will be indebted to Joe Strummer for life, and even as I throw on London Calling to celebrate his memory, I know that his legacy is spread throughout my music collection. Thank you, Joe Strummer, for being someone who came out with your hand upon your gun (in music, words, and life).
A tribute from one of my favorite comic strips:
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Joe Strummer Recollections
I recall the first time I heard London Calling. I was in high school, and it was easily 11 years after it had originally been released. A bandmate at the time was excited about them and put the tape on in his car while we were driving around aimlessly at the time. I remember thinking, “Oh great, punk music. I’m not really into that at all.” But all it took was that first listen. Joe Strummer’s songs put to rest the naïve notion that punk music was “just three chords played and sung poorly in as hazardous a fashion as possible”. What wasn’t there to like on that album? London Calling still holds the spot as the best punk album of all time, to my ears. Of course, Strummer and the rest of the Clash wanted to give the people even more for their money with the silly Sandinista! that almost undid everything the band achieved on London Calling, but that was Joe for you. He believed in what he did and was a true blue honest rock and roller. An intelligent, witty, and compassionate guy who always had something interesting to say, no matter who he was playing with. Thanks for the great history lessons, Joe. I’ll certainly miss all the great music that could have been, but you have an undeniable legacy that will affect kids for generations to come.
Friday, December 27 2002
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.
Filled with life, Joe Strummer and the Clash showed us just how much vitality and hope rock could convey.
The music of Joe Strummer and the Clash were an integral part of the soundtrack of my high school and college years. Strummer's death represents the disappearance of an important and substantial part of my musical past as well as the loss of one of rock music's truly poetic voices.
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.
Although I saw Joe Strummer in action many times, I only met him once and, embarrassingly, confused him with someone else. In early autumn 1976, as term at Sheffield University unfolded, news of the arrival of the most talked about gig of the year filtered through the underground grapevine. The Anarchy in the UK tour, bringing the nascent fury of British punk to the nation, wended its uncertain way through the country, uncertain, because where-ever the entourage set up camp, there was imminent danger of the local council denying the potential hell-raisers a performing licence.