In Memoriam: Joe Strummer

Joe Strummer

Editor’s note: This review originally ran on PopMatters on 17 April 2002.

I had a dream about St. Ann’s Warehouse — it picks up just at the end of the April 6 Joe Strummer gig (the final night of a five-day stand here in New York with his band, the Mescaleros), and I’m rambling through what, in the dream, is a cavernous, labyrinthine polygon, with hidden stairwells, chain-link fences, and grim slabs of concrete at every turn. In truth, it’s a very nice-looking hall, but were it not at the precipice of DUMBO (the burgeoning yupster mecca on the Brooklyn waterfront), if it were simply an industrial shithole without any of the attendant cachet or market value, you wouldn’t find one Grinnell grad wandering those thereabouts, daytime or night.

I live (by the river) near St. Ann’s, in the tonier Brooklyn Heights. I moved here with my parents as a teenager, and I’ve spent years scouring that decaying sprawl of gravel, weeds, rust, and shady blue-collar business for photo opportunities. The current Arts at St. Ann’s performance space was virgin territory for me; I’ve been to a good dozen shows at the old site, a gorgeous Episcopal church in the Heights, but I was only vaguely aware the arts organization had moved.

These remote, on-the-waterfront digs are a terrific match for Joe Strummer’s tough, history-beaten exterior, even considering the $35 ticket price and the cost of real estate in such a ballyhooed part of the New Brooklyn. (All the ink in Time Out New York can’t blot out the fact that DUMBO, like Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, is a goddamn rat trap.)

The actual club is attractive and well-designed; the sheer amount of space means that even if every last ticket has been sold, all the patrons have plenty of room to mill about, smoke, drink, flirt. Near the entrance is a bar: silvery, metallic, candlelit. Not so well-designed is the sound system. Well, the former St. Ann’s — being an old, wooden church with high, arched ceilings, and home to many a choir or chamber orchestra — naturally had preferable acoustics. The Water St. warehouse is simply too big and boxy, and the booming, muddy PA doesn’t accommodate certain parts of the house as clearly as others.

None of this deterred Strummer from putting on a boss show, however. He trotted out many of his Clash hits (including their familiar covers of “Pressure Drop”, “Police and Thieves”, and “I Fought the Law”), some surprises (a New York tribute featuring “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Blitzkrieg Bop”), and a sprinkling of material from the two Mescaleros albums (Global a Go-Go and Rock Art and the X-Ray Style).

The crowd, as you’d expect, went insane during the Clash numbers — “Rudie Can’t Fail”, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”, and the anthemic “London’s Burning” brought the house (celebrities spotted: director Jim Jarmusch and legendary punk photographer Bob Gruen) to near-pandemonium.

Strummer’s voice is in great shape, full of piss and bile, and all the appropriate Cockney/rudeboy affectations. He was in excellent spirits, happy to play the warhorse singalongs and confident with the newer stuff (a blend of folk-punk, reggae, and Celt-rock). The Mescaleros handled the Clash catalog capably, if not totally authentically — no matter how proficient they are, they’ll never saddle up to the white-hot chaos and electricity of anything you’ll find on From Here to Eternity.

Hell, I had no truck with this performance. Faults and warts, I still proudly hoist my pint Joe Strummer’s way. The only thing that would have made the evening perfect (besides Joe singing the right lyrics to “Blitzkrieg Bop” — pretty hard to fuck that one up!) is if my Clash aficionado friend Will (visiting from Raleigh, North Carolina and so looking forward to seeing this) could have gotten into the show as well. (Loser.)