Joe Strummer's unwritten future at 60
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The feeling crept up again this morning. What, exactly, is today?
August seems particularly loaded with these days, those that trigger flashing synapses followed by an uneasy feeling of unfamiliarity. "Today is Aug. 18. Is it someone's birthday? It's, no, wait, today was the last day of Woodstock, that's it."
Today was another one of those days, beginning almost as soon as I woke this morning. Pulling up the calendar and seeing "21" under "August" gave me another fit as my brain flashed in and out of compartments in an attempt to pull up something. Do I have a meeting today? Did something happen? Why does Aug. 21 mean something to me?
That was cleared up later in the afternoon when I saw that today is Joe Strummer's birthday. In a better world, it would have been his 60th. But Strummer died on Dec. 22, 2002, in the midst of one of the more exciting periods of his career.
He set the bar early with the Clash, emerging via the British punk movement of the late 1970s as one of the clearest voices for good of the era, writing lyrics that displayed as much social conscious as they did heart. No one sounded quite like them, and thanks to his blazing presence up front, no one ever sounded like they meant it as much. He wanted to make music that mattered, and he wanted to do it the right way.
Beyond the music and the message, what set Strummer apart was his obvious fandom, a love of music that went much deeper than trying to maximize royalties and stay on tour for the gate receipts. He would carry a trunk of LPs with him on tour, shunning more compact and convenient formats for a more personal connection to the music. He would praise the artists he loved, old and new, on stage and in print. He encouraged younger bands. He attended the Glastonbury festival every year, reveling in the music and the campfires. He hosted a “London Calling” radio show on the BBC World Service, hour-long programs where he got to play DJ for the masses. Simply, he loved music. He surrounded himself with it every way he could.
Sometimes, I think about where he would've gone had he stayed with us. I think about how Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros were slotted to open for Pearl Jam on their 2003 tour, giving me five chances to see him live. I think about how, just a few months later, the world could've seen the Clash play one more time at their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. I pop in his final album, Streetcore, and realize how great it is despite containing scratch vocals on many of the songs.
Maybe that record is so great because of the scratch vocals, leaving just Strummer's enthusiasm for the songs without any polish or shine. After the Mescaleros recharged his musical batteries in the late nineties, each one of his albums was better than the one before, culminating in his greatest record without fellow Clash brother Mick Jones.
The tragedy, as a fan, is obvious in that record. This was a guy who was still making great work, who felt revitalized and motivated, and the music reflected that.
On a human level, the loss cuts much deeper. By every single account I’ve come across, Strummer was a great guy who recognized his good fortune and position, who worked to help others and served as an inspiration in life. He was an amazing force in this world, and just before Christmas 2002, he was gone, leaving his music and his spirit to continue his work.
There will never be another, but we should never stop striving to match him. Arms aloft, this is a toast to Joe Strummer. Today belongs to him.
Aug. 21, 2012
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org