The best short bit of writing about the life of Joe Strummer was written by Bryan Doyle for The American Scholar in June of 2016. Less than a year later Doyle himself died of brain cancer. It’s easy to wonder, as that tumor grew and wormed its way through his skull, if the synapses in his brain had somehow been jolted into a deeper understanding of that mysterious veil between creative life and untimely death. Maybe that’s what made his remembrance of Strummer so deft and beautiful.
It’s easy to wonder, but of course it’s also nonsense, bordering on offensive. The heart anomaly that killed Joe Strummer on December 22, 2002 was, like most cases of brain cancer and many other ailments, undetected before it was too late. Death has no inherent meaning or symbolism. It is random, unfair, and a reminder of how hopelessly alone we ultimately are, no matter how much we try to avoid that truth.
This lack of sentimentality is what makes Doyle’s tribute to Strummer so poignant. Chris Salewicz’s definitive biography of the Clash front-man remains the most wonderfully comprehensive longform, but Doyle manages to say in fewer than four thousand words what made Strummer’s art and life worthwhile: his willingness to grapple with the myth he had made himself into.
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There was a time when all I wanted to write about was the Clash. This, among people of my age group, is not exactly unique. I was twenty when Joe Strummer died, and, having already been raised on the legends of what the Clash meant – for punk, for music, for radical culture, for the world really – I was naturally devastated. Call it my first genuine parasocial relationship, insofar as any parasocial relationship can be “genuine.”
That also meant that, though my formation as a left culture writer had a great amount of material to work with, it also took me longer to notice how I was being shaped by cultural overproduction. As I ended up writing countless times, the record industry loves nothing more than a dead hero. Dead heroes cannot argue, cannot protest the twisting and whitewashing of their legacy, cannot denounce the way in which their own rebellions are turned into money.
For me, though, the flourishing of books on Strummer and reissues of the Clash seemed proof positive that we all were collectively rediscovering something like “true” artistic expression, one facet of a much wider realignment that was taking place in politics and culture, a rejection of war and neoliberalism and various oppressions and the commodification of everything in daily life. That Joe had died just about a year before all this made him into a martyr in my mind. Though I most certainly would never have used that word. More likely, I would have called him a hero.
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Rock and roll has always been a mythmaking enterprise, something we all know by now, what with the death of Bowie in our rearview. In the case of Joe Strummer, he had always clearly wanted to be something other than himself. And who could blame him? The young boy who was born John Graham Mellor had a less-than-happy childhood. By all accounts his diplomat parents seemed to genuinely love him but were quite literally distant. He hated the boarding school he attended when they were out of the country, which they were most of the time.
When the body of John’s older brother David was discovered in Regent’s Park, he was the one who had to identify it for the police. By that time, John was going by Woody, having increasingly idolized Woody Guthrie, a man whose own mythos had made his identity as a folk musician and inextricable from his left-wing politics. David, on the other hand, had become enthralled with the occult, and joined the National Front. He hung pictures of Adolf Hitler in his room.
David Mellor’s death was ruled a suicide. As both Salewicz and Doyle point out, the young John-slash-Woody would keep his older brother’s suicide note for the rest of his life. It must have served as a kind of reminder for the man who would become the lifelong socialist Joe Strummer.
Some possible proof is provided in so many of the quotes he provided in interviews over the years. When someone says in one breath “I think people ought to know that we’re antifascist, we’re anti-violence, we’re anti-racist, and we’re pro-creative,” and then in another “It is fun to be alive. It’s a hell of a lot better than being dead,” you can sense a through-line. To be alive required one to create, and to create is to push against everything that reifies and deadens our existence into a predictable path.
Including oneself. Becoming someone else isn’t just a matter of ability. It’s a matter of right. Any free society wouldn’t only allow us to become whomever we wish, it would enthusiastically encourage the transformation. And yet, for all the rhetoric about making our own dreams come true, the bare materiality of life will always stand in our way. And there are certain forces – mostly faceless, though many uncomfortably human – who are dead set on preventing us.
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The London in which I wrote my first article in 2004 – a short review of the 25th anniversary reissue of London Calling – somehow felt close to the city that gave rise to the legendary album. Ultimately this had little to do with how it looked by then – though it is true that the Edgware Road I lived on, which still had a few pockets of housing cheap enough for broke students to rent, looked a lot like the road that Strummer used to frequent than it does in its current “rehabilitated” condition.
Maybe it’s because there were ads plastered everywhere cajoling us to buy the double CD, complete with demos, outtakes, and a short documentary about its making. Even then, the mythmaking machine of commodity was circling the Clash wagon. Or maybe it’s because there was still and anti-war movement to speak of. Or that the European Social Forum took place in London while I lived there, ending with a march of about a hundred thousand people, ending with a concert in Trafalgar Square that quite consciously mimicked the feel and aesthetic of the legendary 1978 Carnival Against the Nazis.
This was yet more proof of my own certainty that the age of uprisings was upon us. Much like the one that motivated Strummer and company. Only this time, when history repeated itself, it would repeat itself in the right way. And what was “the right way”? I had no idea, other than the fact that it involved some vague notions of revolution.
Despite having already adopted the Marxist label, I still thought of history as a series of inevitabilities. Why then, was this inevitability more inevitable than the next? That I couldn’t tell you either. It would be the better part of a decade until I came to see that Marxism – indeed any theory of social change – was a wager. There are no guarantees in history, and even when the odds are at their best, they are still vanishingly slim.
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Go back and watch the footage of that carnival in Victoria Park, though. One has to admit that Strummer is magnificent in it, a live wire convulsing with energy and radical passion, raging against not just racism and fascism, but everything else that made them possible. It was this version of Joe Strummer that he would feel trapped by after the Clash split and he ventured into his wilderness years. Not because he didn’t still believe in everything said from the stage on that day, but because for all its brilliance, the Clash project couldn’t survive Britain’s Thatcherite turn. The Joe Strummer that would emerge in the context of the late 90s would have to be very different.
It is mostly forgotten today that it was the Tom Robinson Band – not the Clash – that headlined the Carnival Against the Nazis on that day in 1978. That might be for the best. For underrated as TRB are, they were much more of a conventional “protest music” group, and their songs could be tediously paint-by-numbers. The Clash were, at the time, something entirely new. They weren’t just acknowledging that a manufactured daily life had become a cage, a slow plod toward the inevitable, they sounded like the anarchic way out.
The Carnival Against the Nazis both sounded and looked like the way out. And that’s only one of the very real, tangible victories that was achieved with this performance, as Strummer wildly traversed the stage, not so much warning the crowd that London is burning as he is acknowledging what the eighty thousand in the crowd already knew.
Among the white faces in that crowd were probably a large handful who, even for a brief moment, were drawn to what the National Front was saying. Intervening – not just physically but ideologically and aesthetically – was what made the difference. It was these actions that pulled young people’s eyes away from a false liberation and toward a future in which kids of all colors are able to dance and pogo and hug together. Were it not for Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, as well as the many rock, punk, dub and reggae acts who supported them, things might have played out very differently, perhaps even darker than they are today. It’s the stuff of myth, but also of history.
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I wrote a lot of about the Clash. Some pieces are better than others. Most I wouldn’t recommend. None are on the level of Doyle’s article. By the time I stopped writing about them, I was looking for any opportunity whatsoever to write about them. It got repetitive, more and more trading in the same truisms and making the same arguments. Eventually it became impossible to write about “the only band that matters” with any believability.
History hadn’t come true. The war dragged on and on, the movement against it hitting impasse after frustrating impasse before finally fading away. Neoliberalism has continued its forward march, even as its viciousness became obvious. Occupy came and went. The Arab Spring fizzled. Syriza capitulated in Greece. Brexit. Trump. Actual Nazis on the street. And the IPCC reports that seem to foreclose on anything like a future.
Meanwhile, the music and iconography of the Clash are easily-wielded parts of an overstuffed but sophisticated culture industry. Buy the Strummer box set on Record Store Day. Buy the $1700 telecaster specifically worn to look like Strummer’s. Buy the limited edition Joe Strummer Nikes.
The most recent article I wrote about the Clash was in 2019, and it was the first I had written about the band in almost ten years. It’s a far more measured article, ostensibly a review of the Spotify podcast “Stay Free: The Story of the Clash.” It’s another exercise in mythmaking, though one that consciously seeks to distance the group from the commodity by historicizing their albums, songs, and the stances the band took.
There is the inevitable “gotcha,” the challenging question about whether anything distributed through the same algorithms that gently and almost imperceptibly narrow artists’ field of creativity can provide anything like a way out. It’s a question I have no clue how to answer. Though as I suggest elsewhere, it may have something to do with first acknowledging how thoroughly the culture industry has captured our imaginations, and perhaps then finding real, physical space to reclaim. Space to posit possibilities of how we can live and create differently. The particulars, however, are beyond my reach.
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Joe Strummer’s version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” appears on Streetcore, the posthumously released final album he recorded with his band the Mescaleros. The video for the song shows the painting of the famous New York City Strummer mural on the side of the Niagara bar in what used to be Alphabet City. It begins with a quote from Joe:
I’d like to say that people… people can change anything they want to. And that means everything in the world. Show me any country, and there’ll be people in it. It’s time to take that humanity back into the center of the ring, and follow that for a time. You know, think on that. Without people you’re nothing.
Twenty years after Strummer’s death, that quote also feels like a myth, just one more set piece amidst the countless books and reissues, the murals, the number of times we’ve heard a Clash song in an advertisement. Unreal. Hope in a convenient travel-sized option. If people can change anything they want to, then that initiative still seems to be on the side of those who see the future as a fiefdom, open only to them and the people who look like and think like them, provided they can afford it.
As it happens, the mural shown in the video was removed in 2013 because the underlying brick on the wall was starting to crumble. After the structural issues were resolved, the mural was re-painted. Reified, if you will. It still has Strummer wearing shades and a leather jacket. It still says “the future is unwritten” along the bottom. Right now anyone with a soul wants desperately to believe that’s still true.