Raise a toast to saint Joe Strummer
I think he might have been our only decent teacher
getting older only makes it harder to remember
we are our only saviors
The Hold Steady, “Constructive Summer”
Another summer day, another birthday of note. So far we’ve seen the voice of a generation, the bluesman that started it all, and even the roots of lyrical poetry. But today we celebrate the would-be 59th birthday of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most influential badasses, an A-list rebel, and a link to almost every other modern rocker: Joe Strummer, frontman for The Clash.I first started listening to the Clash, when I was fourteen, because of the album cover for London Calling, which featured Strummer in typical fashion, smashing a guitar into a thousand pieces on stage. I later found out that album cover was a riff off the late great Elvis Presley’s debut album cover, obviously, and the universe was like, Didn’t You Know? Everything You Like, Likes Each Other. That was my first clue to the Six Degrees of Joe Strummer.
The onslaught of evidence continued: late in his career, he starred in a film called Mystery Train, directed by Jim Jarmusch, a godfather of indie film in America, who is from Akron, Ohio, just like the Black Keys, and who also made a film entirely based on the Screamin Jay Hawkins song, “I Put A Spell On You,” perhaps more famously done by Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Animals, and Nina Simone. Mystery Train is the name of a famous Elvis song, later covered by The Band, and also the onus for legendary rock critic Greil Marcus’ book, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.
And all that’s just from his appearance in one film.
The songs he wrote are chock-full of historical and political allusions, from “The Guns of Brixton” to “Clampdown,” which tackle race riots and capitalism and oppression, and sung with such visceral intent, such sting and candor, that it’s impossible not to get on board with sticking it to the man. The key to this early punk music is the slight amusement with which it is made, the cold laugh, the raised eyebrow; among the Clash lines that come to mind are “I get my advice from the advertising world / Treat me nice party girl” and the classic “He who fucks nuns / will later join the church.” And Strummer was leading the parade, syncing public education with slouching, groovy dancehall beats, irresistable to the listener.
As a comparison, at the same time, Bruce Springsteen was making music that was just as galvanizing — only where “The River” and “Promised Land” sing of hope and dreams and sustained optimism, Strummer & co. were singing of hope and dreams and the lousy sham of the market interests of the ruling class placed upon the oppressed and the sanctity of human life lost in the commercial shuffle. Or something.
Since I first started my love affair with the Clash’s music, I’ve only seen more and more of Strummer’s influence in all of the music I listen to and the art I like and the books I read, and it became clear that Strummer provided for all of these folks the same inspiration and respite he provided for me at fourteen. It’s important to feed the subversive whims of young people, to indulge in some anti-establishment thinking right as the world is revealing its inner workings to you, so that the seed is planted, and that’s why Joe Strummer matters today. You can catch his ghost most recently sprawled across the latest Vampire Weekend album, from the reggae riffs to the world music influence, and especially on “Diplomat’s Son“: “He was a diplomat’s son / it was ’81.” A nod to Joe, the son of a Turkish diplomat; a nod to ’81, the year Sandinista! was released; a nod to the political implications of class struggle in the whole arc of the song lyric. HE IS EVERYWHERE.
– Caroline Klibanoff
Check out the charming interview below from ’81 with the whole band.
Tom Snyder: You prefer to be identified, not so much as a rock ‘n’ roll group but as a news-giving group – why?
Joe Strummer: There’ve been, too many songs have been written about love already, you know? Subject’s covered.