The Christmas card from Joe Strummer and family arrived by email on Sunday night, a seasonal greeting accompanied by Joe’s colourful illustration of a fantasy festive scene. I was touched Strummer was always such a generous host, keen to entertain and be entertained, full of the Christmas spirit all year round. Like me he was no doubt relishing the chance to celebrate the festive period with friends and family.
Then, just as I was preparing to send a return salutation, I checked the e mail on Monday and the genuinely shocking news from his record company came through the ether. The Christmas message had been sent on Thursday 19th. When I had received it Joe Strummer was already dead.
Even now it seems hard to believe. The Strummer I came to know over the past 20 odd years was always an infectious and inspiring presence, alive with energy and ideas. Not the sort of bloke who would simply lie down and pass away peacefully in his sleep.
I first interviewed him shortly after The Clash had split up. He was a rock legend, who’d lead The Clash out of punk onto to become one of the biggest bands in the world. Drug problems and ballooning egos had caused the band to split. It was undoubtably a cause for regret and he’d tried to effect a reunion with Jones several times. But Joe’s belief in the power of music to effect change remained strong, a passion that continued as long as he drew breath. During our conversation we discovered that we’d both recently buried. Our fathers and Joe’s mother had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, tears were shed as we downed our drinks. A proud punk rebel with a big soft heart Strummer was also a loving son and an attentive father. As a musician and as a human being it was his ability to express his deepest feelings – anger or grief, sadness or fear – that made him special.
His father had been a Foreign office employee, and he was born John Graham Mellor in Ankara Turkey 1952. As an infant he lived in Mexico, Germany and Cairo before he and his elder brother David were sent to boarding school in Epsom Surrey. He recalled being beaten at school by the day pupils “they used wooden coat hangers, golf clubs, hockey sticks and leather slippers anything you could beat a person with” he told me. Music provided an escape hatch, something to believe in, the place where he could assert himself.
” The Stones, The Beatles, The Who and Hendrix there was no time for anything else really. After I heard The Rolling Stones Not Fade Away I never paid attention to anything in school. Music was everything,” he told me.
But, while Joe was obsessed with the idea that rock culture could change the world his brother David became withdrawn and solitary. The brothers argued when David got involved with the racist National Front and the occult. But the flirtation was short lived on July 19th 1970 David committed suicide in London’s Regent Park.
The loss affected Joe deeply but made him more determined to pursue his musical goals. He was expelled from London Central School of Art for taking LSD. He played in a succession of bands in Wales, with his friend Tymon Dogg he busked around Europe and London in the style of folk legend Woody Guthrie. Back in London he found a home squatting at 101 Walterton Terrace and found minor league fame with the pub rock band The 101ers.
But, when The 101ers had released their one and only single Keys To Your Heart (written and sung by Joe) their frontman had seen The Sex Pistols in April 1976. It was a sign that pub rock was dead and the rock n roll revolution Strummer had longed for had finally arrived.
“It was like an atom bomb going off in your mind, I was driven by The Pistols and everything they were doing,” he told me.
Bernie Rhodes a friend of Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren introduced him to aspiring punk musicians Mick Jones and Paul Simonon and The Clash was born. With Mick Jones knack for arrangements and melody and Strummer’s ability to deal put weighty subjects – unemployment, social decay and race riots – into incisive headline grabbing lyrics, one of the great songwriting partnerships in Britrock history was born.
Though cheapened by imitations over the years the group’s self titled debut album remains a punk rock landmark. AS a teenager growing up in Ireland the effect was immediate and transformative this was music that I’d never dared imagine stuttering invention, righteous politics, proud and defiant of the old order. When The Clash debut appearance in Belfast was cancelled hours before the group were due onstage a riot broke. Riots were not unusual in Belfast back then but this protest was unique because the participants were united not divided by creed or religion. A homegrown Belfast punk scene that crossed sectarian line was the direct result.
The punk dictates were something Joe soon rebelled against but he refused to be drawn into a slanging match with lead Pistol Johnny Rotten. Rotten always delighted in ridiculing The Clash. I asked him why he’d never responded. “He’s one of the best poets we have, a real poet. Poets deserve respect,” he told me.
The fact was that Strummer’s band would have a more lasting effect than the group that inspired them. Joe’s sense of community, his determination to reach out to all those who’d ever felt victimized or isolated grew out of his childhood experiences. When The Clash went on tour, Strummer’s hotel room became an open house for followers seeking a floor to sleep on. With his brother’s suicide he’d seen what happened when loneliness and isolation were allowed to fester and onstage it was as if he were trying to reach out to every lost or confused soul in the audience.
Over the course of five albums The Clash rewrote the punk rulebook with a musical game plan that embraced reggae, r&b, funk, folk, calypso, jazz and rap. Classic singles – Complete Control, White Man in the Hammersmith Palais and Bankrobber – were accompanied by albums that showed a hotbed of creativity. London Calling with its Cold War inspired title track was their masterpiece but the ambitious Sandinista, named after the revolutionary Nicaraguan group was their most ambitious and diverse. Joe had found out about the Sandinista rebellion from Moe Armstrong a onetime member of Daddy Longlegs.
“They’d made a big noise when they came to London in 1969 and Moe had become very left wing, he gave us info that was quite hard to find out. A bunch of teenage Marxists oust your favourite dictator? The establishment don’t want to know.”
The Clash began to fall apart when drummer Topper Headon was dismissed over a burgeoning heroin problem, soon after Rhodes and Strummer sacked Jones for “straying from the original idea of The Clash”. Typically Joe would later take the blame for the split figuring that he “deserved to eat humble pie”. Despite many lucrative offers the group never reformed but they patched up their differences and he, Jones, Headon and Simonon remained firm friends. Indeed before Christmas he appeared onstage with Jones at a benefit for striking firemen, and the entire band was poised to play together in New York next year when they were inaugurated into the rock n roll Hall of Fame.
There was one last Clash classic after Mick Jones departed, the definitive statement of Thatcher era despair This Is England. But Joe was hardly inactive for the last 15 years of his life. He replaced Shane MacGowan for a while in The Pogues, worked as a producer, played for Amnesty International, had a fitful career as an actor. In the summer he was a regular at Glastonbury Festival his ever-present soundbox pumping out world music classic by the campfire. And he enjoyed going off to his bolthole in Spain for the holidays with his family and his guitar.
Three years ago he decided it was time to “get back to rocking” and formed The Mescaleros. The three nights I spent with him first in Finland near the land of the midnight sun and at a London recording studio where the group recorded their first album. Joe was thrilled at the prospect of recording in the studio in an area of North West London rich in ethnic diversity but also because it was where Free had recorded Alright Now. His passion for music was sometimes as surprising as it was infectious. One night in an Indian restaurant he and the owner enthused over Keith West’s cheesy 1967 hit “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera”. A few days after Christmas a friend received an excited answer phone ordering him to celebrate Bo Diddley’s birthday, he always cherished the memory of playing with Bo, his musical lodestar, on the first Clash tour of America.
The time I spent with him was always some of the most rewarding and inspiring of my professional career. Which was just as it should be, if it weren’t for Strummer I doubt I’d ever have thought it was possible to make a living writing about music. He always thought rock n roll could change lives, the most fitting testimony I can think to give to my old friend is to say Hey Joe; you were right. Adios amigo.
GAVIN MARTIN lives in London, where he writes about music. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org