Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

Various Artists
Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten

The DVD version of Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten releases today. In memory of Strummer, Pop Past revists this special feature, Joe Strummer 1952-2002, originally published in December 2002.

See the film review of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten by Aarik Danielsen

See the DVD review of Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten by Ron Hart

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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.

— Sarah Zupko, Editor & Publisher

See the rest of this feature at JOE STRUMMER 1952-2002 including:

Stay Free: A Tribute to Joe Strummer, by Marshall Bowden

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. The Clash was what a certain group of music fans and writers refer to as a “real” band, meaning a band that was actually a somewhat autonomous group of individuals who contributed their individual talents to create a greater whole. A real band is also one for whom the main objective is to create the best music that they can collectively, to allow themselves the freedom to grow in new and surprising directions, and not to allow the considerations of the marketplace to dictate to them what their music should sound like. [full article]

Less Rotten than Reasonable: Joe Strummer and My Punk Damascus, by Simon Warner

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. [full article]

The Most Effective Weapon, by Matt Cibula

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. [full article]

Why The Clash Still Matter, by John L. Micek

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. [full article]

“Stay Free”: R.I.P. Joe Strummer, by Jordan Kessler

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”. [full article]