JOE STRUMMER: TWELVE YEARS ON
August 21st, 1952—December 22nd, 2002
Every generation has their rock icon and mine, like millions, was Joe.
Rock icon—such a stupid term. Joe’s music, was so eclectic, such a global stew of every sound he’d ever heard and loved, that the static three-chord churn the word “rock” brings to mind doesn’t begin to do justice to it. And far from being an icon, an object of worship, he was the most inclusive and approachable of men, intent from the very beginning on ripping down the barriers between “artist” and fan. His death shook me in a way that was completely unexpected. A friend mentioned the news casually, assuming I’d already heard, and I was staggered, had to sit down to take it in. For the first time I understood the pain fans of Hendrix, Lennon, Presley or Cobain must have felt—figures whose deaths had left me quite unmoved. This was my very own generational tragedy.
I was too timid, too middle class, to fully embrace punk with its ferocious working class swagger, though I certainly gave it my best shot, desperate to be cool. My love of the Clash, as with countless people, really took off with their great picaresque sprawl, London Calling, replete with its gamblers, horsemen, card cheats, lovers, drunken bus riders and mysterious forces working for “the clampdown.” It should have been awful, an ill-advised cocktail both thematically and musically, but it wasn’t. It was poetry, perfect human music, rich and complex. It was this complexity that Strummer rediscovered in his later years after the agonizingly drawn out end to the Clash, and it’s partly what made his death so sad: when he died he was playing the best music of his life. The Mescaleros, his last band, provided not a mere backdrop for a comeback job, but for an artist reborn. With the fizz of the Clash and the propulsion of youth—the band was half Strummer’s age—they allowed the demented stream of consciousness of a man who saw hidden connections everywhere, stories to be told that only he could see.
In April 2002 The Mescaleros played five nights in Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO—“Five Night Stand” the posters proudly proclaimed. This was typical of Strummer; not for him the fly-by-night passing of a star—“Hey, Cleveland!”—but a real desire to explore a new place, settle in and get to know people. I remember the pent-up excitement in the room on the first night I attended, the third of the five shows, the sense that this was a special moment. The audience was mixed, to say the least; a combination of those, like myself, who liked to believe that they had grown old gracefully—jeans, sneakers, dress shirts—and unreconstructed 1970s punks with foot-high green Mohawks and leather jackets. But I remember no tension, not even a frisson of contempt: we were all there for Joe. The band, slightly late, strode on and began tuning up and suddenly Joe launched into an apology, of all things, explaining that the band had discovered there was more than one Water Street, the site of the venue, “and one is over that sodding great big river down in the financial area, so some of us being British got lost down there…” With that, he promised to make it up by “giving it to you straight” and launched into London’s Burning, to the wild delight of the instant mosh pit in front of us.
The set was a seamless mixture of old stuff—White Man in Hammersmith Palais, Police and Thieves—and new—Cool ‘n’ Out, Johnny Appleseed—though that tired old phrase “seamless mixture” fails to convey the magic of the night, the way the old invigorated the new and vice-versa; there were no old chestnuts, dutifully played, no contemporary doodlings, hopefully slipped in: all was brilliance, all was fire, all revelation. There were nods to the New York greats, too; a version of the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop and an ethereal Walk on the Wild Side, introduced as “the Blue Plate special.” During Bankrobber, a loping Clash reggae number, Joe began ad-libbing:
Rocking in the Brooklyn Town…
And we go by bus and we go by plane…
Sometimes through desert and sometimes through rain
One day we’re looking for Water Street
But Water can no cab driver that we meet…
There’s a Water Street in Bronx
And a Water Street in Queens
There’s a Water Street in the Upper Side scenes
There’s a Water Street down by the New Jersey shore…
I say—how many Water Streets do you want in this town anyway?
We roared. This was about us, our town, our borough! Then it was done—“Thanks for coming”—and we filed out amid the still largely pre-gentrified monoliths of DUMBO. A drink was clearly in order, and like much of the crowd we headed into 66 Water Street, a nearby bar. Forty minutes or so later, just as we were pulling on our coats, there was a sudden commotion in the doorway and a rising tide of shouts and whistles: Joe and the band had walked in, dark-clad outlaws, acknowledging the cries cautiously. Someone thrust a Heineken in Joe’s hand and clapped him on the back. He wanted to talk, it was clear, break down those barriers, but I couldn’t. I smiled as I brushed past—we all smiled, great gaping grins—and then we were back out on Water Street street again. Do I regret it? No. It takes a braver man than me to commune with the Gods, but that image of Joe standing there, a foot away from me, green bottle glinting in his hand, amused, hungry, curious, will stay with me for ever.
—December 22nd, 2014