“Stay Free”: R.I.P. Joe Strummer

And I have lived that kind of day
When none of your sorrows will go away
It goes down and down and hit the floor
Down and down and down some more
But I know there’ll be some way
When I can swing everything back my way
Like skyscrapers rising up floor by floor
I’m not giving up
— Joe Strummer, “I’m Not Down”

Hearing about the death of Clash lead singer Joe Strummer brought sobering thoughts to mind. Ultimately, we are all here but for a short time, and among the long list of things we cannot control is when and how we leave this world. Admitting these bleak facts, it almost makes me just want to give up. Fortunately, rock music has consistently saved me from utter despair. At its best, rock expresses the undying conviction that, as Bruce Springsteen sings, “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”.

Filled with life, Joe Strummer and the Clash showed us just how much vitality and hope rock could convey. From its musicianship to its politics, the Clash rarely took a wrong turn. I first learned of the band when I was 12, looking through a magazine that would become my Bible: an issue of Rolling Stone that picked the 100 best albums released between 1967 and 1987, among them The Clash and London Calling. As a very angry but thoughtful teen, I felt particularly drawn to a group with loads of righteous fury but next to no nihilism. A stanza from “Clampdown” always resonated especially:

Kick over the wall, cause governments to fall
How can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
D’you know that you can use it?

A band with a staggering musical and lyrical reach, the Clash integrated diverse genres — early rock, punk, reggae, funk, and disco, among others — into a cohesive sound that was distinctively its own. It turned songs written by others — “Police & Thieves”, “Police on My Back” and “I Fought the Law” — into Clash songs, using those songs and its own to further its political mission. That mission was to promote personal, individual freedom and dignity, especially for the working-class and third-world people to whom such things have routinely been denied. Maybe just as important, the Clash looked honestly, but not judgmentally, at the lives of the individuals who were deprived of basic human rights. Strummer was not afraid to write and sing candid songs about drugs, crime, or war.

Though I never saw them perform in person, the Clash, from what I have read and the concert recordings I have heard, unleashed a nearly unparalleled energy when playing live on stage. More there than anywhere else, it seems, the Clash reminded its fans what it meant to be truly, viscerally alive. Gracing the cover of London Calling, the legendary photo of Paul Simonon smashing his bass captures this frenetic, vital energy. I am particularly proud that the photo was taken in my home town of New York, a city that the Clash, in its later years, adopted as its own.

In 1983, Strummer’s partner Mick Jones left the band, and after recording one more album with Simonon and drummer Terry Chimes, Strummer agreed that the band’s time had passed. The Clash planned to get back together for its upcoming induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and a lengthier reunion might have ensued. In the wake of Strummer’s death, that now seems to be unlikely. Perhaps the rebirth of the Clash was just not meant to be.

In any event, we are left with the sterling recorded legacy of the group as well as all of the memories we have of what its music has meant to us. I know I will do my best to continue carrying the joie de vivre expressed by the Clash into my own life. Each of us owes Joe Strummer no less than that.