The Magnificent Strummer

The Clash leader dies, closing out a somber 2002 for rebel music

Like fellow punk forebears the Ramones last year, the Clash, which dissolved amid drug abuse and splintering musical agendas in the mid-1980s, found itself among the list of 2003 inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As part of the March induction, Joe Strummer, his long-estranged songwriter partner Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon were scheduled to reunite -- maybe reignite is a more appropriate word -- on a New York stage for a brief set.

"I think it's time to just get out there and show people how it's done," Strummer half-jokingly told New Times writer Jonathan Bond in September 2001. He was pushing an album with his world-beat-savvy band the Mescaleros at the time, but his words were telling. "It depends on if you can find people to work with. That's the base of it all. If you don't have that, you suck. You need a good unit to rock with."

But like the Ramones, who lost front man Joey to cancer in 2001 and bassist Dee Dee to drugs this past summer, death ruined the script. Strummer died December 22 in his England home at age 50. What a shame: Punks really do die before they get old.

"I face the final curtain": A heart attack steals Joe Strummer from the spotlight.
"I face the final curtain": A heart attack steals Joe Strummer from the spotlight.

Initial reports have Strummer succumbing to a heart attack at home in his sleep. No drugs, no overly hard living, apparently, just cruel fate. Still, there was nothing slow about the intense singer or his music. Strummer ruled hard rock.

His end was a sour final note in a musical year marked by death. TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, Run-D.M.C.'s Jam Master Jay, Alice in Chains' Layne Staley (damn you, Layne!) and now, no more Strummer. We roll into the new year with the same bullshit to look forward to.

2003 will have the usual assortment of pop trends, new performers, evidence of the musical apocalypse and, of course, reminders of rock's past. Most of these time-traveling exercises, like the Santana explosion of 2000 and the Fleetwood Mac-a-thon of the late '90s, were made-for-VH1 pap. This coming year, however, may have been different.

Call me naive, but I think a Clash reunion might have had vastly beneficial effects on a somnambulant music industry in dire need of an enema. It was time, for example, for younger rockers to stop taking them for granted. The band was so invigorating, so rebellious, Strummer and his mates helped change the very blueprint of music when they, along with the Sex Pistols, X and a few others, gave the pop world a big, fat middle finger 25 years ago.

The Clash meshed attitude, sugarplum hooks, reggae swagger and Third World political bile that has passed into subsequent generations of performers like DNA.

Some of the locals get it. Mike Crews, guitarist for Tempe howlers Last Action Zeroes, understands the genetic inheritance when he says, "One of our biggest influences is Rancid, and one of Rancid's biggest influences was the Clash." You know, kind of like how the Beatles influenced ELO and ELO influenced any one of thousands of younger bands that followed those Brits into overdub heaven?

"For any band in the Valley that calls itself punk, the Clash is their roots," says Chris Lawson, co-founder of punk clearinghouse AZPunk.com. Mesa's Authority Zero isn't anywhere near as dangerous, but would it even attempt a Jamaican veneer if the Clash hadn't made it cool for white boys?

No one sang a "go to hell" line with as much marble-mouthed passion as Strummer -- it was his selling point, even turning a cover of Vince Taylor's 1959 rockabilly ditty "Brand New Cadillac" into snarling rebel music. His vocal delivery is now one of rock's most emulated -- walk into the Big Fish Sports Pub on a Tuesday or listen to any of KEDJ-FM's punk hours and hear one-syllable words become four in fits of snottiness. Almost certainly, though, you won't hear any of those locals calling out cultural imperialism in Central America and the stagnation of socioeconomic life in the bollocks. If they do, they won't do it with nearly the same cerebral leanings as Strummer or Jones. Contrast "In the gleaming corridors of the 51st Floor/The money can be made if you really want some more/Executive decision/Clinical precision" (from "Koka Kola") with "Burn down the bridge . . . When I'm done with my house I'm coming after you" and "Don't want to work today/My boss is a jerk" and "Go get a face full of whiskey made for me," all lines from Valley bands, and it's clear. The piss and vinegar of "I'm So Bored With the U.S.A." remains, but the wit and conviction do not.

Here's another sad part of Strummer's demise. The son of a British diplomat (born John Graham Mellor) never stopped writing or producing new songs. He was never content to collect royalty checks, tap the greatest-hits millionaire's well, or license his songs to car commercials (okay, so the band did let Jaguar use "London Calling" bass thump).

"It's a happy man that's got a new song to sing so that really drives it [for me]," Strummer said last year. "Where as if you were condemned to do a repeat bill, or something from way gone back . . . perhaps the energy would go inward or something. You need that forward explosive outward energy."

Recall that the Who's John Entwistle died in a Las Vegas hotel room on the millionth Who reunion swing. There was none of that stuff with Strummer. He wrote songs for movies like Sid and Nancy (naturally) and Grosse Pointe Blank. He released the solo effort Earthquake Weather in 1989, blasting through titles like "Gangsterville" and "Island Hopping." In the late '90s, he also formed Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, which experimented with Latin and African rhythms, released two albums on Hellcat Records and played the Tibetan Freedom Concert with the Beastie Boys in 1999. Reconciliation with Jones, whose songwriting sensibilities are punchier and whose melody on "Train in Vain" sold the Clash as hitmakers, could have been fruitful -- and important.

But it won't happen. Fortunately, for the pop music world, neither he nor his amazing band were just another story.

Kick & Scream says "Happy New Year!" Send the author wishes of your own to his online address: christopher.oconnor@newtimes.com.

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