Beyond Photography: Joe Strummer at 60

Joe Strummer by Joe Kerrigan (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)
Joe Strummer by Joe Kerrigan (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

Joe Strummer — guitarist, lyricist, provocateur, one-time Clash frontman and the guiding force behind the 101er’s, Latino Rockabilly War and Mescaleros — would’ve been sixty years old today. As I write this, with Strummer and the Mescaleros’ “Global A Go-Go” blasting through the speakers, and I’m reminded of an old saying: “It’s not where you take it from. It’s where you take it to that counts.”

“Big Youth booming in Jakarta, Nina Simone over Sierra Leone, big sound of Joujouka in Nevada, and everywhere, everywhere Bob’s bringing it all back home…”

Joe struck me as something of a magpie, taking a little of everything from a little of everybody. However, it was where he took it — that stew of musical influences, passion, politics, and humanity — that made, and makes, his music worth listening to. It also ensured that Strummer was never “just” a punk, some kind of one-note joke or one-chord wonder. Sure, his earliest recorded work (available on the 101’ers Elgin Avenue Breakdown Revisited*) has a ragged proto-punk intensity, and early Clash material like “White Riot” and “London’s Burning” had all the venom, fury, and irresistable force that the Pistols had. But from Strummer’s earliest days, the worldview and the music were so much more, and so much wider. You can hear it on the covers (“I Fought the Law,” “Pressure Drop,” “Armagideon Time,” and “Redemption Song”), the originals like “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” and “Get Down Moses” that name-checked and musically referenced everybody from Bo Diddley, Johnny Cash and the Mighty Sparrow to the Skatalites and Baaba Maal.

Anyway, it’s good to be sent back to the underground. There’s always a good side to bad things and the good side to this is that at least everyone has to go back down.

Of course, it wasn’t all ups. When the Clash dissolved in 1984, Strummer was at loose ends. During these “wilderness years,” he’d release Earthquake Weather,* a mixed bag that drew decidedly mixed reviews. His soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Walker* fared better critically and artistically (the juxtaposition of the jaunty “Filibustero” over the movie’s violent opening scene is a stroke of genius), but he’d essentially dropped off the radar, taking stray acting gigs, scoring small indie films, and even joining the Pogues to fill in for a wayward Shane MacGowan. All that would change in the early 1990’s when Strummer formed the Mescaleros, a band that would, over the course of three albums (Rock Art & the X-Ray Style,* Global a Go-Go,* and the posthumously released Streetcore*), alternately build upon his roots, and branch out in new directions. He never quite recovered a Clash level of fame and reknown (indeed, one scene in Dick Rude’s Let’s Rock Again shows Joe handing out flyers and busking on the Atlantic City boardwalk). But his later career was, I’d argue, every bit as important as his earlier work, and has aged gracefully in ways that, say, the Pistols and Buzzcocks reunions didn’t.

So what do I take from Strummer’s work, and why am I bothering to write all this? For starters, if you’re going to pursue your craft, do it as though it matters, even if you’re the only one to whom it matters for now. For another, wherever it takes you  — the ups and downs and then the ups again — handle it with as much grace and humor as you can muster, but also with no small measure of gratitude.

Welcome stranger to the humble neighborhoods / You can get inspiration along the highroad

Above all, though, approach your craft wide open. Eyes, ears, heart, the whole lot of it. Our work, whatever it may be, doesn’t exist only in our minds. The act of creating something puts it out into the world, and also — even if it’s only in a small way — acts on the world. In some way, then, we need to acknowledge that the world exists, and acknowledge the people who’ve shaped it and with whom we hopefully engage. We’re confronted every day with something, or someone, new. Whether it’s our neighbors, or what comes out of their stereos, their ideas, or their way of life, they present us with a choice. We can stop to learn from them, or run in the other direction with our eyes shut and hands clamped over our ears to drown them out. But of course, if we do that, we cut ourselves off from a give-and-take that could otherwise have expanded our options, our understanding, and ultimately ourselves… all of which is to say that the world doesn’t stop with us, and so our art and craft shouldn’t, either.

Joe Strummer passed away on 22 December, 2002. This December, in other words, will mark a decade that he’s been gone. It seems a lot more fitting, however, to celebrate his birth and all that he brought with him into the world, along with all that he left behind. Rest easy, Joe.

Postscript:

On the Web: Joe’s legacy lives on via Strummerville, the Joe Strummer Foundation for New Music. You can find out more about it (and hear from a ton of bands and solo artists I expect we’ll probably hear a lot more from in years ahead) right here: http://www.strummerville.com/

Audio: Any of the Clash’s albums are worth having, even the sprawling wreck that is Sandinista!* (my personal favorite). If you have to start somewhere, I’d suggest either The Clash (US Version)* or London Calling*. Yes, there are collections (like the excellent Clash on Broadway*), but the albums have a power and cohesiveness that you’d miss if you just listened to the singles. When it comes to Joe’s post-Clash output, his work with the Mescaleros is far better than his work on Earthquake Weather, while the Walker soundtrack is a bird of an altogether different feather. You can get the Mescaleros stuff in order (linked above) or all at once (on Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years*, just released on MP3 today as it happens) but bear in mind that as band members dropped in and out, the group’s sound changed markedly from one album to the next.

Print: Two books are essential if you want to learn more about Joe and the Clash in depth. Marcus Grey’s The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Town* has been revised several times and covers the history of the Clash with detours into the members’ lives after the band broke up, while Chris Salewicz’s Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer* is a revealing portrait of Joe before, during, and after his time with the band. There’ve been other books written about both the band and the man, but none that I’ve read were as good as these.

Video: Finally, there are several films about both the Clash and Joe. For the former, check out Don Letts’ The Clash – Westway to the World* For the latter, there’s Dick Rude’s Let’s Rock Again* and Julian Temple’s The Future Is Unwritten*, which feature archival footage of Strummer, alongside interviews with bandmates, friends, and those he influenced.

It’s time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed, it ain’t going anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Times Square. Without people you’re nothing.

Links with an asterisk (*) are Amazon affiliate links that help support The First 10,000. Links to song titles go to YouTube videos. The Strummerville link goes to Strummerville.

 

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