“Somewhere in my soul there’s always rock and roll.
— Joe Strummer, “Long Shadow”
Joe Strummer spent the better part of 2002 alternating between working in the studio and playing on the road. He had entered the studio in February with the Mescaleros and began jamming, returning again in the summer and fall, pulling together strands of music, molding and sculpting what would become his final and most impassioned solo album.
In many ways that album, Streetcore, is a tragic testament to Strummer’s gifts as a songwriter and musician, a political and spiritual disc, a great rock-and-roll record that questions the state of the world and somehow simultaneously looks both forward and backward. The tragedy of the album, though, is that Strummer did not live to see its completion. The former Clash frontman died unexpectedly in December of a heart attack at the age of 50, leaving bandmates Martin Slattery and Scott Shields, acting as producers, to finish what proves to be Strummer’s best solo effort and one of the best rock records of the year. Streetcore is a rocking, rumbling record, a pastiche of straight-on rockers, 60s rave-ups, folk and Third World rhythms, upon which Strummer sets his most focused lyrics since his days with The Clash.
Even before Streetcore, Strummer’s place in the rock pantheon was secure. His body of work with The Clash is rightfully considered punk’s defining sound, a real stew of amphetamine-soaked guitars, Jamaican dub and socialist and anti-imperialist politics. Unlike the Sex Pistols, who occupy punk’s other, anarchist extreme and flamed out far too quickly, The Clash persevered through five remarkable albums (including the remarkable, flawless London Calling), an EP and several 45s, pushing themselves to the edges of their talent and their genre into what is now called world music.
Strummer’s post-Clash work was spottier, though no less thoughtful. The final Clash album, Cut the Crap, was downright awful — Mick Jones had been fired after the band released the uneven but underrated Combat Rock and guitarists Vince White and Nick Sheppard were brought in as replacements. The band broke up shortly after and Strummer drifted from project to project, scoring films, co-writing some tunes for Mick Jones’ Big Audio Dynamite, temporarily joining the Pogues, until he formed the Mescaleros and released Rock Art and the X-Ray Style in 1999.
Rock Art was a strong but uneven effort, melding Strummer’s interest in world music with stream-of-consciousness lyrics to create a rather atmospheric brew. Its follow-up, Global A-Go-Go, was a tighter effort, both musically and lyrically, mixing ’60s folk rock with his growing obsession with world music — and it features the great “Cool’N’Out”, a funky throwback to the Clash’s Sandanista!, though less rocking. But neither Mescalero disc could be called a rock-and-roll record, which is what Streetcore is.
Streetcore opens with a rush, the hard-rocking “Coma Girl”, inhaling deep, its rhythm guitar a charge of adrenaline running atop the muscular, frenetic drumming of Luke Bullen, and exhales simply and strikingly, Strummer remaking Bobby Charles’ “Before I Grow Too Old” (renamed “Silver and Gold”) as coda: “I want to do everything silver and gold / and I’ve got to hurry up before I get too old.” And that is Streetcore, a spiritual record, a political record, reflective yet forward-looking, all jagged edges and motion. “Where the hell is Elijah,” he screams in “Get Down Moses”, a plea, an accusation, a rambling ska with a sinister jazz guitar line out of an old black-and-white noir film. “You gotta get down Moses,” he sings. “Once we were free, / The recipe for living / Is lost in memory”.
It is an album of memory, of connections, of echoes, “Coma Girl” channeling the power pop of he Pogues or the Jam through a punk-rock filter and a lyrical nod to Dylan and Springsteen, Strummer’s rock scat riding the ringing guitar solo into the fade. And then into “Get Down Moses”, a song with deep echoes of The Clash, a close rhythmic cousin of “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe” or “The Call Up”, both from Sandanista! And then he slows it down, strumming an acoustic guitar in “Long Shadow” and singing “Falling back in the garden / of days so long ago / somewhere in the memory / the sun shines on you boy”, before tearing into “Arms Aloft”, with its chorus: “May I remind you of that scene? / We were arms aloft in Aberdeen / The spirit is our gasoline / We were arms aloft in Aberdeen / May I remind you of that scene?”
Throughout the disc, these bits of memory echo. “London is burning”, he sings in the refrain to “Burnin’ Streets”, while on the elastic, atmospheric “Midnight Jam”, a song built around spoken samples like something off Combat Rock, Strummer plays the radio DJ, invoking “Radio Clash” and announcing that “This is London calling. . . .”
Strummer contemplates his mortality, all of our mortality, inveighs against our broken times. He offers a simple, but exquisite cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”, singing against “mental slavery” and calling on the listener to “sing this song of freedom,” calling like Marley for the dispossessed to come together for redemption. While the song was not recorded by Strummer during the Streectore sessions Strummer recorded the solo version and a version with Johnny Cash — it acts as the album’s centerpiece and lynchpin, the axel on which the entire project spins. It is the thematic core for an album that, as the critic Greil Marcus wrote recently in Minneapolis City Paper (referring specifically to “Redemption Song” and “Silver and Gold” specifically) “would still bleed, and still make you smile” even if Strummer had not died last year.
Rest in peace, Joe, and thanks for leaving us with such a remarkable musical epitaph.