It is always bittersweet to see an artist no longer with us get the recognition they deserved in life. For Joe Strummer, the Clash-man who died five years ago last week (December 22nd) at age 50, that is exactly what’s happened. In 2007 alone, we’ve seen an exhibit dedicated to the Clash at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, a magnificently authoritative biography from friend and journalist Chris Salewicz, and the long awaited (however problematic) Julien Temple documentary The Future is Unwritten. And, of course, Strummer’s music is used to sell everything from cell-phones to cars . . . the true mark of a rock ‘n’ roll icon.
There’s no doubt that Joe deserves every drop of praise for his contributions to popular music and culture. But for those of us moved by his call that “anger can be power,” it’s hard to take the flash-and-fanfare seriously. The pop music myth makers love dead rock stars. Dead men can’t argue, and in the case of Joe, can’t protest while their legacy and message are picked apart and made safe for consumption.
This past spring’s Doc Martens ad sums it all up: Strummer, complete with halo and angel’s wings, playing his guitar atop a cloud, joined by angel versions of Hendrix, Vicious, Joey Ramone and Kurt Cobain.
It’s a trend that can easily take a much more insidious tone. Joe himself recalled how he could only weep when “Rock the Casbah” was played by US forces during the first Gulf War. This February, Rudy Giuliani had the nerve to use “Rudy Can’t Fail” as his campaign kickoff song. And none other than Tony Blair once thanked “bands like the Clash” for creating (and I am not making this up) a much undervalued source of British exports!
The irony is absolutely stomach-turning. The man who warned against “turning rebellion into money” is now turned to fodder for marketing firms and politicians.
Joe Strummer had a different legacy, and it has absolutely nothing to do with export ratios. He was an artist profoundly shaped by his time and place. In a 1970s Britain wracked by racism and unemployment, Strummer chose to put himself squarely in opposition. The newspapers called the Clash “degenerates,” “hoodlums,” “anarchists.” To young people, they were “the only band that matters,” and it wasn’t because they sold a million records or made the most money. They mattered because they were the first band in a great long while that tapped into how the majority of youth actually felt.
And how did they feel? Quite frankly, they were pissed. Comedian Mark Steel was one of many radicalized during those tumultuous years, and he’s honest about the role the Clash played: “The Clash didn’t just legitimize anger, they politicized it, giving meaning to the directionless rage that drove early punk. They celebrated multiculturalism and supported the Sandinistas; they weren’t just against, they were for. And where most adult advice involved how to earn a few bob or save a few bob, they sold their records so cheap that they threw away a fortune.”
While politicians blamed immigrants for joblessness and gave cover to neo-Nazis groups, the Clash embraced the roots reggae of the Caribbean community. It was a gesture of solidarity that would inspire countless groups, including those of the soon-to-follow “2-Tone” movement. If not for the Clash, we might never have heard of Rock Against Racism or its successor Love Music Hate Racism.
Their embrace of hip-hop a few years later came from similar motivations. “When we came to the US,” said Strummer, “Mick (Jones, guitarist/vocalist for the Clash) stumbled upon a music shop in Brooklyn that carried the music of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, the Sugar Hill Gang . . . these groups were radically changing music and they changed everything for us.” The band’s controversial decision to have Flash and the Five open for them at the legendary Bond’s Casino shows in NYC lent a great deal of credibility to a burgeoning genre that has shaped popular music ever since.
Their identification with working people didn’t just translate into cheap album prices. During the miners’ bitter strike against the Thatcher government, the Clash were among the many acts that lent support and played benefits for the National Miners Union. These types of events were standard fare for Strummer. One of the last shows he played with his new band the Mescaleros (where he famously reunited with Jones onstage) was also a benefit for the British Fire Brigades Union.
This might be one of the most truly outrageous things about Strummer being claimed by the likes of Blair. Joe’s entire catalog rails against Blair’s ilk. One of the last songs he ever recorded was a collaboration with reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. “Over the Border” combines the righteous swagger of reggae with a steadfast punk outrage, and directs both against the horrors of war. Strummer’s gravelly growl and Cliff’s smooth patois bounce off each other:
“They’re shedding blood over the border
So who came first to these hills?
Only the drums remember
‘Cos the hand of the drummer was stilled
Oh, will chaos and disorder
Always rain through these hills
Peace will be slaughtered by anger
And the blood of the lamb will be spilled”
This is what Joe (who wrote the song’s lyrics) did best. He cut through the rhetoric and got to the meat of what ails the planet. Strummer tragically died several months before the US went into Iraq. But his urgent plea rings even more true as his thoughts during the run-up to the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan: “Even though there are extremists in the world, if we represent the sane people of the world, then we’ve got to hold on to our sanity and not allow ourselves to get crazed with vengeance…”
Perhaps the best living legacy of Strummer lies in the foundation set up in his name. Founded by his widow Lucinda, the Strummerville Foundation exists to give young musicians the instrumental and studio opportunities they might not otherwise have. Joe was always convinced there would be another Clash later down the line, another voice in music dedicated to the dreams and aspirations of ordinary people, and Strummerville is built on that idea. Already, from London to Tuscon, Arizona, there are annual benefits for Strummerville held on the anniversary of his death. It seems that there is a large swath of musicians who owe Strummer a great debt, from Anti-Flag and Rancid to MIA and Antibalas.
This is precisely what the Blairs and Giulianis don’t get; that past the bottom line of more money in the bank account, there is a world well worth fighting for. A world of dignity, equality and humanity. Joe Strummer fought for that world, and that’s why he doesn’t deserve to be frozen in time with the rest of the rock aristocracy; his message embalmed into a milk-toast pabulum used to sell shoes. He deserves better. He deserves to have his message listened to.
* Special thanks to Antonino D’Ambrosio, who provided much of the material for this article.