The Sad Lingering Impact of Joe Strummer Not Being Here

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Pic by Des Brownlie

Over the past few years I’ve lost a number of musical heroes. David Bowie was an absolute god during my teens but when he left us, my emotional response was strangely muted.

I’m not sure why — Perhaps because I’d drifted away from him musically as the decades continued or perhaps there was some acceptance that he was of an age when these things happen.

And then there was Prince. Another icon like no other. More of a shock than David (I’m writing intimately here, so we’ll leave last names behind) due to Prince’s age and his vitality.

I just didn’t expect to be receiving that news for a few more decades. And yet, I felt he ‘belonged’ to others far more passionate about his Purpleness than I was, much as I enjoyed him.

I’m sure I could list others who have also passed, but these mentioned above were both very large in my formative years and at one stage I’m sure I believed they’d never leave us.

Then There Was Joe:

But the one that really sticks in my throat, all these years later, is the passing of Joe.

Perhaps it’s because in some ways his trajectory was only a few years before my own (on the other side of the desk in the music industry) and I could look on him proudly, as an older brother succeeding in life. And feel some attachment that I’d been ‘there’ at the beginning, walking those steps with him.

I was the first ‘punk’ in my small town of Cardigan, in West Wales. Simply re-stitching my jeans into what were known as ‘drainpipes’ (today’s ‘skinny jeans’), was potentially suicidal in the thug-heavy small Welsh town I called home.

I’d spike my hair with soap, (not ideal for West Wales where it rained every other day) and assumed the role of disaffected youth that I was primed for.

I was in fact, probably their core audience. A product of a single parent, with four siblings on Welfare — I was probably less angry than I would’ve been had my mother, originally from a military family, not brought us up with middle-class sensibilities regardless of the lack of money.

I’d been yearning for something to belong to, and at the age of 14 was already wearing Dr. Martens boots (10 hole, black — I’d graduated up from 8 hole, ox blood by then) along with a suadehead cut implying some skinhead-style affiliation.

Not that there was any racism implied by this uniform. It was just that- a uniform that exuded a certain attitude of youthful standoffishness. It was enough to have the respectable class in town crossing the street to avoid me.

I was looking for something that would mess with my perception of the status quo, that I could call mine, and that I’d cling onto with a defiant passion.

And punk to me was that and more. Where we lived, aside from radio DJ John Peel, the version of punk we consumed was the Top 40 variety — that included The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, Siouxsie & The Banshees and others from the first wave of the movement.

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I loved them all (well, aside from the Pistols, who I was somewhat ambivalent about), but The Clash always felt so ‘real’ to me. So legitimate, so right-on in every aspect – lyrically, their look, their West London bonafides, their multi-culturism. It was all there, and I loved them to death.

They probably had a lot to do with my decision to hitchhike to London at 16 years old, having just been rejected by the army earlier that day and having no local career prospects. London felt like my North and I just went, with no thought of what I’d do and where this decision would take me.

I lived there for the next 12 years, seeing the band perform many times. And felt that I belonged in this epicenter of the UK punk scene.

In the meantime, I continued to be employed in music, not as a musician, but as a label A&R man–as they were called back then.

The one period of time that best exemplifies my attachment to that Strummer credo was a six month period when I brought not only a three piece from Seattle in to meet the label that employed me, but also a band from Oxford, at the time called On A Friday — Nirvana and Radiohead.

In hindsight, after unable to sign either, I should have thrown in the towel and gone on to do something else. But I was still a romantic. I still believed that certain guitar bands would come along that had that resonance and deep meaning that The Clash had had for me.

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Meeting the Man:

Regrets -– I have a few. Primarily that night in LA where Joe and I happened to be at the same party.

I wish I’d tugged at his sleeve, pointed over to a corner and sat down together, looking for some communal connection that would have consummated this special bond.

Instead, I told him in a somewhat self-conscious way, simultaneously witnessing myself in a judgmental fashion, how much he’d affected my youth and entire outlook on life.

I was so in awe that I simply blurted it out and then left him shouldering that life-long confession.

Poor Joe. I suspect he had a few of those interactions in his life.

The only time I ever showed some disloyalty was the release of the final Clash album minus all the other key members. I couldn’t whip up the enthusiasm for the project and it all felt so “unfinished”. Me and Joe that is. It didn’t feel like the right way to part.

The Resurrection:

And then came his second act with his Mescaleros. I intuitively knew he’d discovered his passion project, not a cynical career-move, and I loved it as much for that as for the actual recordings. Remember, this was me looking up at my older, heroic brother finding his way again.

The Parting:

And with his death, some grieving, but, at that time, in the rush of life — not given much credence or weight. Too much going on, too many balls to juggle, in the busy game of capitalism I was caught up in.

Now:

I happened to watch a documentary on Joe the other evening. Caught it by chance on Netflix.

I don’t normally watch music docs. I don’t know why, but they appeal less than listening to their art. But in this time of reflection and the sudden ability to feel some feelings, this really rocked me.

Here I am a weeks later and still with a feeling that I’m on the cusp of breaking into the man-version of tears.

He seemed like such a good guy, honest. A breed apart from what rock dissipated into in the 2000’s.

I heard a great quote from Steve Van Zandt recently (not someone I feel any real kindred spirit towards musically, I just happened to hear him on the radio) where he said that rock bands in the 60’s, were looking to achieve greatness — on their own terms.

And that everything was judged by how close they got to that greatness, both with recordings as well as live performance.

During that time of rock legends being born, it was an assumption that artists chose to walk their own path, after all, why would they walk somebody else’s? And that’s what I believe the Clash and Joe did.

They mattered to so many of us because they suspected that they did matter and pursued that with a vengeance.

And for some strange reason (and I know I’m attempting to speaking on behalf of Joe — a worrying predisposition, I’m aware) even the splitting up of The Clash was him being human and not a business, not focused on ‘cashing in’ or living a more comfortable worldly existence.

To err is to be human, and it seems that two members of The original Clash interviewed in this documentary (not quite sure why Paul chose not to) knew why he’d done it, and spoke with understanding and compassion.

There was no assumption that it had been for the glory. It wasn’t about that. It just got to the end of that path they were on.

I still don’t know why I’m so touched by his death above all others, but typing these last few sentences still brings me closer to tears than I’d have guessed. I’m viscerally affected by his passing in ways I imagine I’d be were I to lose a close friend.

So perhaps that’s it. A friend’s passing.

A friend who was good and honest.

A friend who woke me up to the possibility of greatness, albeit framed from the street, and who I’m humbled by having lived alongside.

Written by

Compassionate champion of the human condition and its potential. In awe of this experiment called Life. Writes about emotions, acceptance, empathy, action.

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