Long Live Joe Strummer! 1952-2002

by D. Firebrand

Revolutionary Worker #1183, January 19, 2003, posted at http://rwor.org

We received this correspondence from an RW reader.

"Somebody's got to say the truth and it's a hard job to say the truth."

Joe Strummer, interview in the Revolutionary Worker September 28, 1979

I was pretty fucked up for a few days. Seriously. It's like, in life you prepare yourself for losses and sacrifices. There's a lot of that going on these days and surely more to come. As 2002 was coming to a close, things were quiet in the holiday season. Then in an unsuspecting instant we lost a hero. Joe Strummer slipped away just as he came, making indomitable music. It's as though he was always there. A stalwart.

But he wasn't always there, and neither was The Clash. By the time I was born, The Clash had basically came and went. But in my orbit The Clash was the beacon. They created incendiary music on the threshold of contemporary culture. They were a revolutionary band, who put forward the need for a radical overturning in society and in music. Their music was an audio onslaught. Of all the radical bands, they were the first to really do it, putting it down for the people and sticking it to the system. I have loved The Clash for a long time and although they broke up almost 20 years ago I've always been able to go back to them. Now I've been listening to The Clash incessantly since Joe died.

You just wish people could stick around, even just a little bit longer. After I heard about Joe's passing I put a Clash poster up and bought a small candle in a glass. I scratched the prayer off of the glass and lit the candle in remembrance of Joe. When I woke up the next morning the wax had melted away and the wick burned down. All candles will eventually go out, but I really wish that first one had lasted longer. I have since replaced that candle. I guess that's how it goes, everyone dies, but you just wish that Strummer could have been around longer.

Thinking about The Clash really brings to mind the space and the oxygen provided by the people's bands. The great revolutionary artists do not simply create inspiring music that exposes people to ideas and politics to change the world. They are a force of attraction that people gravitate towards. Millions come to live their lives by what these artists say, do, mean, and come to exemplify.

You see, The Clash had so much disdain for the bloodsuckers running the world, especially the Yankee fools. As one of the seminal bands of the late '70s punk explosion, where various bands embodied a straight-up fuck-you attitude to the status quo, The Clash also had and gave hope for the future.

From the days of '77 until the very end, Strummer was an internationalist. When The Clash jumped on the scene in England their music fostered and promoted common cause between the white working-class youth, Black people, and immigrants, especially the Dreads who had such an influence on them, helping define much of the band's sound. They embraced and fused dub reggae into their music, and even incorporated the early rap sound when hip-hop was only a baby.

Though I never saw The Clash live I did have the chance to meet Joe four or five times, and all in one night. Last year after I saw Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros he brought a few dozen people out to the bars. And all through the night Joe was talking it up with the people--old friends, new friends, people who didn't know who he was. He would approach you, ask you questions, dis you, talk to you about music, politics, the world, all interspersed with countless anecdotes about his many years making music and meeting people all over the world. With whatever struggles they went through as a band, and the bitterly painful breakup, Joe was so proud of The Clash and what they had done. It was so good to see Joe and his new band. He was carrying the torch, and in listening to their albums and seeing them live it felt like they could come to mean a lot to people. When you saw Strummer on stage, with the younger musicians behind him, it was something else. He was beaming with rapture and had more heart than most artists half his age these days. He stepped to each show like it was a battle, and they were gonna win.

Strummer was a living legend. When you were with him, it was written all over him. He would tell you all he knew and thought. There was no pretension. And when we spoke Joe was challenged and excited to cross paths with revolutionaries from a new generation, who had been so inspired by his music. The passion was constantly flowing out of his eyes to his arms (which he used as his own `palm pilot' of sorts to write down important things that you said to him). When you were with him you felt as though you mattered. He was the kind of dude who stood really close to you in conversation. He wanted to hear what you had to say and was curious about the intonations in the way you spoke.

When you listened to his music it was deeply personal and yet at the same time it was as if he were speaking for millions of youth. From The Clash years all the way up to The Mescaleros, Joe faced the facts, and he challenged us to do the same. From "London Calling" to "Yalla Yalla" Joe fought against any notions of saviors coming down and rescuing the people from the horrors of the system. He proceeded from reality as it is, and not definitions--as idealists wish it to be.

There is a famous picture of The Clash standing in front of a photo of Red Army fighters during the Russian Revolution. Emblazoned across the top, over the band it says, "Clash, The Only Group That Matters." The attitude and demeanor of that band in taking themselves so damn seriously is something to learn from. For real. With the war on the world that the U.S. government is raining down around the planet and the police state that it's implementing here in the "homeland" I am reminded of the stance of that classic Clash song, "Clampdown."

The Judge Said Five To Ten But I Say Double That Again
I'm Not Working For The Clampdown

No Man Born With A Living Soul

Can Be Working For The Clampdown

Kick Over The Wall Cause Government's To Fall

How Can You Refuse It?

Let Fury Have The Hour Anger Can Be Power

D'You Know That You Can Use It?

It was this approach of taking all that rage that gets pent up inside and among the people, and diverting it towards the source of all the horrors, and being so fearless about that stand. Politically Joe had become disillusioned by the possibilities of revolutionary change. He never thought that a radically different world was undesirable, but the prospect of that happening in our lives--even if it could stay good-- was a big question for him and he had his doubts. Joe was hurting from defeats and letdowns of the past, but he never gave up on radical change.

In the Mescaleros song "Tony Adams," Joe asks, Somebody tell me clearly - has the new world begun?then declares, We're waiting for the rays of the morning sun.He wasn't sure if it could be done, and knew it would not happen in his life, but he wasn't closing the door on real change. In "Cool'N'Out" again he asks, "what's it all about,"but says, "let someone else figure it out."In spite of this torn-up feeling of change not coming in his life he still would come out and sing with hope for the future and faith in the people. "Well So Long Liberty, Let's Forget You Didn't Show, Not In My Time, But In Our Son's And Daughter's Time"("Yalla Yalla"). He wanted it sooo bad. He was throwing it out to the next generation.

He saw a power in music from all over the world bringing people together. In "Willesden to Cricklewood" he crooned, Come with me and be no good/ Be a madman on the street/ Sing something out like reet petite/ Let's hip-hop at the traffic lights/ Ten thumbs up and smilin' bright/ Crossing all the great divides/ Colour, age, and heavy vibes.

The pain is real, and I feel it in my gut. I wish Joe were with us right now. It felt so good to be out there knowing that Joe was trying to figure it all out with us. He has left with us quite a legacy. His memory will keep on strumming and nothing can take that away. I think Joe would understand that we need to mourn for a little while, then he'd tell us to grab a brewsky or tequila while we thought of him. He wouldn't want us to sit around too long though, he'd tell us to get up and make something better of this mess, and go find some people to get down with too, whether they look like you or not.

Make your moments count, cuz you never know how many more of them you can count on. The torch has been passed, now who's gonna take it towards the finish?

Crashing Head-On Into The Future
It Won't Even Leave A Dent
Just Walk In Like You Own It
Remember, It Ain't Set In Cement"
You Gotta Live In This World
Go Diggin' The New

Joe Strummer, "Diggin' The New"

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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