I missed posting this yesterday, what with one thing and another. Twenty years ago yesterday, the 22nd of December 2002, my friend Tony texted me and the other members of our then-band, Burn, to the effect:
I was at work, and immediately googled for the story. Joe Strummer, dead at 50 from an undiagnosed heart defect. We didn’t hear the reason at once, of course.
I wrote The Death of a Hero at the time. Not much has changed, in some ways. I still play his music, both The Clash and his solo stuff. I sometimes wonder what he’d have to say about the times we live in now.
Hard to imagine he’d have been 70 this year. Such is life, and death.
Since Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been confirmed, there has been a lot of chatter about free speech. Musk, we are told, describes himself as a ‘free speech maximalist’, and there are fears that he’ll have Twitter reinstate the accounts of Trump and other white supremacists.
But I’ve been thinking about Joe Strummer.
More specifically, I’ve been wondering why his ‘The Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ was popping into my head so often. It wasn’t a problem: getting an earworm of a song I like doesn’t bother me. But I wondered what was triggering it.
I can often work out why I get a song in my head. I knew, for example, why I often had The Clash’s ‘The Prisoner ' in my head through the summer. The words ‘The Prisoner ' are written on the whiteboard in our kitchen, along with the titles of the other serieses we’re watching.
And in fact I sing ‘The Prisoner’ every time I hang out the washing, owing to its line referring to ‘hanging out the washing and clipping coupons and generally being decent.’
It clicked today, though. You know how — if you’re an old-school album listener (or just old) like me — when you play an album, one track’s ending often triggers the expectation of the next? So that, when you hear a song in isolation, on a playlist or on the radio or something, and the wrong song plays next, it can be quite jarring?
So it turns out my head was just playing the next song whenever the phrase came up.
Or maybe that should be ‘flame one up for Joe’, considering his preferences. It’s the anniversary of Joe Strummer’s death today. Nineteen years. I still miss him.
The soundtrack for today starts with Earthquake Weather. How can Joe Strummer have been dead for eighteen years already?
I know, that’s just the way time works. The music lives on.
Ah, Joe. I can hardly believe that it's already four years since we lost him. I started reading this on Christmas day, and finished at about two in the morning on the 14th of January: exactly three weeks later. If I read a book every three weeks that would be seventeen in a year, which isn't very many. Anyway, during that time I completely immersed myself in Strummeriana; as well as reading the book I listened to little music other than The Clash or Joe's solo stuff, and I also put my bit in on the various Wikipedia articles.
And none if it can make up for the fact that he’s gone.
In fact, reading the book only makes it worse: it reinforces the sense of what we’ve lost. He was on a great creative upswing when he died, as the the posthumous Streetcore album showed. Its opening track, ‘Coma Girl’ (which, we learn, is about his daughter Lola) was the single best song he wrote since ‘Trash City’, at least.
Alas, we’ll never hear anything new from him again.
Or at least, not truly new: it seems from reading the book that there might be quite a few unreleased recordings out there, and he worked on more film soundtracks than I knew about.
Most interestingly of all, perhaps, is this piece of information. Around the time that Joe and the Mescaleros were writing and recording Global A Go-Go, the second of the comeback albums after the wilderness years, he also sent a set of lyrics to Mick Jones. He seemed to be suggesting that he was considering an alternative to the Mescaleros album. Mick wrote tunes for them and sent them back, but heard no more about it. Some time later, after Global A Go-Go had been released, Mick asked what had happened to the songs. Joe said, “Those weren’t for Global A Go-Go; those were the next Clash album.”
There’s no suggestion that he ever recorded any of them; but you never know: one day Mick might, when he’s not too busy with Carbon/Silicon.
What of the book itself, though? Well, it’s certainly compelling reading (at least if you’re a fan like me). It is flawed in some ways, of course. It can be hard to follow the early sections about Joe’s family, without an actual family tree to clarify things, thought that’s not a big problem.
Despite its size and comprehensive nature, there are parts that come across as too anecdotal and perhaps incomplete. Certainly there are places where I would have liked to have a lot more detail. But a book this size could be written about The Clash alone (several have, of course, but perhaps none quite the size of this one).
Still, it’s totally a must-have for any Clash fan, or solo Joe fan (can you be the latter but not the former?)
I wonder what it would have been like if The Clash had kept going and had become like U2 (who were heavily inspired by them)? In a good sense: I listened to an interview with Salewicz, where he pointed out that, though Joe didn’t like the distance from the audience at stadium gigs, he was very good at handling them. So imagine them doing something like the Zoo TV tour (indeed, when I saw footage of that, all the TVs as backdrop reminded me instantly of the Clash Mk II ‘Out of Control’ tour).
So I ordered the new Banksie from Amazon, and to get free delivery, of course, I had to order one or two other things, to bring the price up to the threshold. I tend to have a number of things queued up to buy when the time is right, so I selected some things from that list.
All three items I chose are things that I meant to get at the time they came out, but didn’t, for one reason or another. The book was Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, which I’ve meant to get since I read the reviews when it came out. I’m not sure why I never bought it (actually I did buy it once, but that was to give to a friend who had a particular interest in stage magic).
Anyway, my interest was recently rekindled because of the film coming out, of course. I may want to watch it one day, and I’m not going to read or not read something on the reported say-so of some film director. I can’t find a reference for that: the director is supposed to have said, “Don’t read the book before you see the film.” Though I suppose that I will, in effect, be doing exactly that – in a contrary way – by insisting on reading the book before seeing the film. Whatever: books come first.
But I didn’t bring you here to talk about books, for a change. No, this time it’s music. Because I also got two CDs from Amazon.
Regular readers might not be surprised to hear that I’m a huge fan of the late, and sadly missed,Joe Strummer. As such, I want to get a hold of anything he released that I don’t yet have. Now, during his so-called “wilderness years”, Joe did a lot of soundtrack work. I’ve got most of that on record, but I never got round to getting the soundtrack for Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell. I recall hearing a borrowed copy in ‘87 or so, and enjoying it, but not being overwhelmed by it. The one track I remembered was ‘Rake at the Gates of Hell’, by The Pogues, more of which later.
In the intervening years, I mostly forgot about the album. Once in a while I might have poked around a second-hand record shop, but it was low on my list of priorities. Recently, though, I discovered that it had been reissued, revised and expanded. Into my “buy later” list it went, until the other day.
As well, I discovered it was possible to jump back to an earlier part of Joe’s career, namely his pre-Clash band, the 101ers. Elgin Avenue Breakdown was originally released back in 19-something-or-other. At the time I was mildly interested, but saw no need to rush out and buy it. I had the ‘Keys to your Heart’ single, and it was OK, but nowhere near as good as the heights of The Clash. And Joe was still around, and we could expect new music from him in the future.
We are in that future now, of course, and we don’t have Joe anymore. So buying the 101ers’ album is a way to hear him again.
And a damn fine album it is. Straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll, jam-packed with bounce, verve and excitement. What it doesn’t have is the political sensibilities of The Clash. Or actually, it does have the first vestiges of them; and indeed, the first vestiges of The Clash’s excellent ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ (the B-side of ‘Clash City Rockers1'), in the form of ‘Lonely Mothers Son’. And I’m sure that title should have an apostrophe in it, but I’m not sure where.
And the Straight to Hell soundtrack? It’s great. It’s mostly film music, of course: largely instrumentals. There are selections by Elvis Costello and Pray for Rain, as well as by The Pogues and Joe. Among the proper songs are one by Joe called ‘Evil Darling’, which is OK, and the original version of ‘If I Should Fall from Grace With God’, which The Pogues wrote during filming, apparently. Then there’s a version of ‘Danny Boy’, by the cast, led by Cait O’Riordan, and the album ends with ‘Rake at the Gates of Hell’.
It’s hard to express how good that song is. From the opening guitar riff, through Shane’s crazed-gunman-death-worshipper lyrics, to the shouldn’t-work-but-does device of the verse and chorus being exactly the same tune, it struts into your ears and rips your head apart. In a good way. I’ve hardly had it off repeat on my MP3 player since I got it.
Go and buy it. Now.