Joe Strummer: Through Death And Glory
If I had a time machine that could take me back to see one rock concert, it would have been the Clash, around 1979. No question. No debate.
Thinking of all the potential concerts: U2 in Austin during the Joshua Tree tour, Nirvana at a club in Seattle in early, early 1991, Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Ranch Bowl in 1992, when each band was hungry and had something to prove. Public Enemy in 1989 in New York. James Brown at the Apollo in 1968 (OK, that one would be close).
But, honestly, at their most intense, their most politically active, their most artistic, I don't think there has been a rock band that could take The Clash on when they were at their peak. Their intensity was destined to implode in a few short years. But a few years was all that Joe Strummer needed to propel rock into a realm that U2 and Rage Against the Machine would later get into.
I would love to say that I got into them by discovering a hidden 'London Calling' album at a garage sale when I was eight and had my world turned upside-down. Instead, I initially associated the band as 'The band with the funny armadillo in it,' for their huge hit and video, "Rock the Casbah." Heyah, I was eight.
The Clash was a band that was never considered 'cool' by some standards: they didn't have the destructive antics of the Sex Pistols. What's worse, they actually CARED about melody and politics. To care about political change implies two uncool traits for people: vulnerability and awareness of what's going on in the world. Joey Ramone might have cared, but he disguised his feelings with silly pop-ditties about sniffing glue and punk rock chicks.
Joe Strummer did not have that luxury. Even their most punk album, their self-titled debut, had songs that attacked police brutality, but sympathized for the blue-collar folk who had no choice but to be a police officer in economically depressed times. He alienated punk purists by signing his band to CBS. And with London Calling, he dared to create an expansive album that incorporated everything from blues to rockabilly.
In interviews, Strummer said he smoked so much pot, he should be a bush. But he didn't dabble in the 'hard stuff.' Even after the Clash disbanded, he kept busy, from creating one of the best movie scores of recent memory with Grosse Point Blank to creating a new band and touring extensively. Unlike some band leaders, where people almost wait to read their obituary, it was almost assumed that Strummer would be around. He would be around to to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame this year. He would be around to constantly tease Clash-lovers about a possible reunion, although he thankfully has avoided the dreaded 'reunion' tour that has tarnished the legacy of countless bands.
But, he's gone. On December 22, 2002, Strummer died of a heart attack. An all-too-ordinary end to an extrodinary man. His latest band, the Mescaleros, was just starting to gain a following. But Strummer will forever be remembered for his work with The Clash. Of course, The Clash was so much more than Strummer: Paul Simonon and Topper Headon provided the pulse for The Clash and Mick Jones made sure the most radical of statements had a catchy rhythm to it. If you didn't watch yourself, you were singing about the Spanish civil war or the methodical ways that racist groups target their victims.
The shock has worn off in the past few weeks. But the sorrow will come back when the band gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later on this year. U2 and Rage Against the Machine have done great work in carrying on what The Clash accomplished, but they had none of the humor of the band. One song could be as provocative and confrontational as "Killing in the Name of," but the Clash would throw in a song like "Rudy Can't Fail," a pub-anthem if there ever was one.
So I raise a brew in honor of Mr. Strummer: a man who knew that even though idealism has its limitation, losing that optimism is an even bigger waste.