Stay Free: A Tribute to Joe Strummer

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. The Ramones may have started punk rock rolling, and the Sex Pistols may have provided the flash and style as well as the inspiration, but the Clash provided punk music with its first real substance, articulating the war of politics, class, and aesthetics that lay at the heart of the movement. As the group’s lyricist, Joe Strummer was responsible for articulating much of this in phrases and images that place him in the pantheon of great rock and roll songwriters, period.

Strummer and the Clash were punks by virtue of the time and place in which they found themselves picking up guitars and trying to write their own songs, which is to say Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain. Joe was the clear-cut rocker of the bunch, singing Chuck Berry songs in the London subways. He was connected to rockabilly and R&B, great music from rock ‘n’ roll’s past that most punk rockers and new wavers had either never heard of or completely dismissed. An art school dropout, he was aware of the great cultural movements and developments of the twentieth century as well as having a strong sense of politics and history. He could see clearly that rock music had never really realized its potential as a political medium. Though the music of early Dylan and some other folk poets veered in that direction, it had always gone off the tracks when the songwriter became immersed in art for art’s sake, losing sight of the message along the way. David Bowie once said that he knew nothing political would come out of the punk movement because the guys in the bands all wanted so badly to be stars. Strummer believed he could have it both ways — in fact, the only way to truly bring the band’s message to the people at whom it was aimed was to become as big as possible. The only other band to play with these contradictions with any degree of success has been U2, and lead singer Bono has said that the Clash “wrote the rule book for U2”.

While the band may have become an enormous success in the UK and later the United States, they managed to remain truer to the spirit of punk rock than many bands who, while retaining the claustrophobic, nervous energy of the original music, stopped caring about what they were communicating and to whom they were communicating it. Almost from the first, the Clash was bringing in outside music and influences, with reggae and dub leading the way, providing both a sonic and spiritual link with another group of disaffected, angry outcasts. Their first album, The Clash, was largely comprised of singles that had already been a hit in the UK, but the record label declined to issue it in the US, citing its sound as “too crude” (read: lo-fi & political) to appeal to American tastes. Apparently, that was wrong, though, as the album became so successful as an import item that an American version was finally pressed, though it cut several tracks. The band moved forward musically and lyrically on each successive album. The second, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, featured a broader sound and displayed Strummer’s knack for writing lyrics that even today sound prophetic: “A system built by the sweat of the many / Creates assassins to kill off the few.”

By the time the two-record set London Calling was issued, the band was experimenting with rockabilly (“Brand New Cadillac”), guitar jazz (“Jimmy Jazz”), and the familiar reggae and ska (“Revolution Rock”, “Rudie Can’t Fail”), and Strummer was again offering first-rate imagery, as on the title track, a truly apocalyptic vision coupled with his wordless, blood-curdling rooster crows near the end, a wakeup call from deep in the depths of his soul. And then there was the majesty of the three-record Sandanista! While the sheer diversity of musical styles on display most often earns the album comparisons to the Beatles’ White Album, it ultimately seems much more ambitious than that, because its focus is outward rather than inward. Americans, deep in an era of failed Reaganomics and afraid the old coot might actually launch missiles at the Soviet Union, heard the truth behind Joe’s political broadsides, like “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”, “Police on My Back”, “The Call Up”, “Somebody Got Murdered” and “Washington Bullets”. Despite a global, pro-revolutionary outlook that today would probably be labeled “un-American”, the group continued to win fans in the US. The feeling was mutual, as Strummer showed he had thoroughly absorbed many elements of American culture as well, turning a line from Apocalypse Now into the hilarious and poignant song “Charlie Don’t Surf.”

On Combat Rock Strummer went even deeper into the American experience, and it seemed to be getting to him, as a more world-weary tone crept into songs like the refugee’s lament “Straight to Hell” and the incredible “Ghetto Defendant” (recorded with Allen Ginsberg), with its stark realization: “Ghetto defendant / It is heroin pity / Not tear gas nor baton charge / That stops you taking the city.” The tensions in the group had grown unbearable by this time, and there is a real tension on the album between the more poetic, brooding songs and the more pop-oriented ones. Still, Strummer’s lyrics on the group’s biggest American hit, “Rock the Casbah” were dead on, and sound just timely today as they did back in 1982. Strummer continued with what was left of the Clash on Cut the Crap, and it is the final Clash album, made the way Strummer wanted to make it-direct and without pretense.

Strummer continued to work in music, creating soundtracks for several films (including Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell, in which he also appeared), and later forming the Mescaleros, a band that explored many of the musical elements that the Clash had touched on with albums like London Calling and Sandinista! It was clearly his work with the Clash that will stand as his main legacy. The group is to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this coming year, and perhaps the tributes to Joe and the band will encourage people, particularly those who were too young to hear them the first time around, to listen once again their albums. What they will discover is a body of extremely literate and poetic work that also speaks very directly to the heart and the emotions. Because of punk rock’s proletariat aesthetic, the incredible quality of Strummer’s work has been overlooked in the past. In light of his untimely death and the attention that will be focused on the group in 2003, perhaps people will come to realize that punk was merely the spark that lit the fuse of Joe Strummer’s creativity. Songs like “London Calling”, “Working for the Clampdown”, “Stay Free”, “Four Horsemen”, “The Magnificent Seven”, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”, and “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” are pure rock and roll with all the imagery of Bob Dylan and all the urgency of Chuck Berry. In short, Joe Strummer belongs in the pantheon of rock music’s elite because he stretched the boundaries of what popular music could do, and because he engaged our hearts and our minds.