Joe Strummer

Joe StrummerOde to Joe Strummer
By Shelbie Freedman (SugarBuzz Philadelphia)

I was not a Clash fanatic. But like everyone else, I liked The Clash. Their impact on music is undeniable, and their impact on today’s world of rock lingers on. Artists as diverse as Jakob Dylan to the Edge to Babyshambles have acknowledged their musical debt to The Clash; The Libertines, an off-shoot of Babyshambles, was indeed produced by Mick Jones, the lead guitarist of The Clash. Jones formed The Clash in 1976. After seeing Strummer perform with his band the 101′ers, Jones put the pressure on, and gave Strummer 24 hours to decide to leave the 101′ers and join The Clash. Rock and Roll is a cutthroat business, and Strummer saw his future with The Clash. He drank the Kool Aid, so to speak, and threw his hat in the ring with Jones, seeking as many musicians do, fame and fortune. Lucky that he did, though, as Jones and Strummer  became a legendary writing team. Hits such as Rock the CasbahWhite Riot and White Man in Hammersmith Palais amply attest to the strength of their songwriting abilities.

However, it turned out to be Strummer who eventually took the reins of the band. Strummer actually turned the table on Jones, and forced him out of his own band in 1983. Strummer had previously sacked the band’s drummer, Topper Headon, for excessive heroin usage, which seems to be a bit like faulting the Pope for being too religious. A rock star on drugs- really, you’re kidding, right? How absurd. Yet, Strummer outed Headon and then Jones, marking himself clearly as the band’s Alpha Male. Later, Strummer would remark that, “I was trying to prove that I was the Clash and it wasn’t Mick. I learned that that was kind of dumb. I learned that it wasn’t anybody, except maybe a great chemistry between us four, and I really learned it was over the day we sacked Topper, and not the day we sacked Mick. There was quite some time between them. We played a whole tour between those times. But it was the day we sacked Tops”.  Strummer was a man who had tasted power, and later regretted his misuse of said power. Strummer found his own form of redemption and peace with ever-looming legacy with The Clash, and later made peace with Jones.

Redemption, and acknowledgment of mistakes made, is what made Strummer a Rock Hero in my eyes. Many bands have sacked a member. The Pretenders, as one example, sacked their bassist, Pete Farndon, for excessive heroin use in 1982, the same year that Headon was fired. Farndon and Headon coincidentally tried to form another band, but their plans were derailed by Farndon’s heroin OD in 1983. Ironic, considering the fact that Farndon saw no problem in his heroin usage and never saw himself as addict. The difference between Strummer and let’s say Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders’ leader, is that Strummer regretted firing a band member, realizing the impact that a group’s chemistry has on its success. Later Strummer said that “If you’re allowed to make your mistakes, I think you should. But people don’t really like hearing you admit them. Although I’d never wanted to dump on the musicians that were involved in that…. Because it was not their fault”. Joe Strummer was a thinking man, a man who reflected on his life and on the twists and turns in his life, a man who knew his good deeds from his not so great deeds.  ”The toughest thing is facing yourself. Being honest with yourself, that’s much tougher than beating someone up. That’s what I call tough”.  Strummer, though always an icon and always a rock star, evolved and became a functioning adult as time went by, as opposed to the type of eternally adolescent rock star. Or the rock star who could do or say no wrong, and never found wrong with his own actions, much akin to Keith Richards variety rocker, who admitted in his recent biography that he had used his school-aged son as his tour manager. I could never see Strummer using his elementary school aged child to fend off drug dealers.

And so, ten years after Joe Strummer’s passing, I too shall throw my hat into the proverbial ring and write my own memorial to a great musician, a great but flawed man, a man who was actually great enough to recognize his flaws and rise above them, or in the end redeem himself from his own image. Because to me at least, Joe Strummer’s journey after The Clash imploded is what makes him so interesting, and marks him as a model for any aspiring musician. Any man who is man enough to acknowledge that “Everyone has got to realize you can’t hold onto the past if you want any future. Each second should lead to the next one” is my kind of Rock Star, a rock star that I can still admire as I myself grow older. I admired many rock stars in my youth; damn it for slipping away, but Joe Strummer was 50 years old when he died. He was a grown man who had left many of the silly perks of being a rock star behind, and who had himself grown up, as we all must eventually do. He became an adult, much as the young Clash fans eventually also had to grow up and pay bills, find jobs, marry and raise families. As the fans grew up, Joe did right along side them, which is a refreshing change of pace from the rock stars who always seem stuck at 18 years old. And what, pray tell, is so interesting about them?

In fact, as I read about Joe’s contribution to the music world with The Clash and later The Mescaleros, I realize that Joe had his faults, as all grown men do.  But he owned all of his mistakes. He was the political voice for those who were disenfranchised, he spoke against the wrongs of a society which, in Strummers time and still now, sweeps the nastiness under the rug and focuses on the young, beautiful and rich instead. He led the young to rebel against an authority that did not best serve their interests. Yet, Joe Strummer also spoke for the good in humanity, in the positive aspects of being a human being and treating everyone with kindness. He rejected the mean-spirited side to punk, where sheer might too often equaled right.  He was the voice against those in the Punk Movement who aligned themselves with Nazi fascism, and spoke of humanism over brutality. “In fact, punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human being. F**k being an a*****e, what you p****s thought it was twenty years ago.” Long Live Joe Strummer.

“I learnt that fame is an illusion and everything about it is a joke. I’m far more dangerous now because I don’t care at all.” – Joe Strummer on the being a rock star