Ode to a punk hero

BY JEFF LEVEN

Joe Strummer’s heart gave out in December, at age 52. The day I heard the news, an image popped into my head: videos of Joe in what must have been about 1977, scratching out the chords to “Police and Thieves” on his battered Telecaster, draped in revolutionary red, his leg flailing at about ten times the speed of the song, peaking on amphetamines. I paused for a moment to get some distance from it in my head. The picture is easy to misinterpret, and casts into relief the greatest flaws and victories of this man, the driving force behind the Clash, perhaps the one punk band whose shadow was never taller than their proverbial souls.

Joe Strummer wasn’t just another disaffected young Englishman, gorged on a punk diet of speed pills and anger. Joe was something else entirely. Joe was an engine, intense and focused, fueled by vague and sprawling politics and the chemical fruits of the street, spurred by the very thing that made him different from many figures of his time, the very reason that he should be given a hero’s farewell. In a time of great turmoil, in an underground brimming with nihilism, defeatism and self-hatred, Joe Strummer was a striver, blessed with the simple courage to give a damn.

It’s easy to forget what punk rock meant in England in the late 1970s. Now that the public has had almost 30 years to get comfortable with them, the Clash’s contemporaries — groups like the Sex Pistols and the Damned — have become sanitized, welcomed into the history books, VH1 specials and the occasional car commercial. But in late 1970s England, they were the bloody antichrist, the end of civilization, the expression of a society on the brink of all-out rupture. There was something very bad in the air in those days — economic depression, political uncertainty and seething class and race tension just waiting to explode. Undergirding all of it was a more systemic disease of the English body politic — the final gruesome decay of a centuries-old empire and a crisis of post-modern identity that was coming to a head now that the wars were over and the glory of survival had faded.

It was out of this coal-and-sweat-soaked soil that the cannibalistic flower of the Sex Pistols grew, and the fear of these monsters eating their makers was very real indeed. Like I said, it is easy to forget how scary a band like the Sex Pistols was in its time: Johnny Rotten, the weak-eyed banshee with a crazed sneer and a shock of red hair, Steve Jones, a gritty street thug and kleptomaniac and, perhaps worst of all, Sid Vicious, a weak and trusting young man who had plummeted into a life of a heroin-ravaged rag doll. And that was before listening to their songs. The energy of the Sex Pistols was irrevocably corrosive. On a musical level, it made for great stuff — the energy of sheer combustion in the guitars, a drive that only the desperate could muster. Lyrically, however, the Pistols were an open wound recklessly courting infection. Marginalized and scared of the reality before them, the Pistols hurtled as hard as they could into the darkness, starkly categorizing the horrors of a nation’s worst fears about itself. The result was a catalogue marked by pure nihilism, a parade of destruction with little tone other than bitter irony. Songs like the groupie-abortion number “Bodies,” or the deeply unsettling (and unreleased) Holocaust lament “Belsen Was A Gas” chided listeners with the raw cruelty of their subject matter, but advocated nothing. Like the death metal bands that would follow in their wake, the problem with the Sex Pistols wasn’t that they were celebrating evil, but rather that they resigned themselves to being powerless to stop it.

By contrast, the glory of Joe Strummer’s Clash was that, in the midst of a punk world that was otherwise only offering torture without catharsis, the band did its best to take some step forward.

A simple story can lay the groundwork. In 1977, racial tensions flared when members of the Jamaican community in London’s East End rioted in response to aggressive police tactics. In a time when class tension was itself at fever pitch, race became a flashpoint that cut across the normal battle lines. With unemployment rising, some in the English working class blamed the growing immigrant population, and racist groups like the National Front sprang up to fuel the fires. Meanwhile, among the English youth, various subcultures were taking hold, ranging from the Teds (a distinctly English brand of gang) to the punks to the skinheads, a working class movement that initially had none of the racist associations that its name would later develop (to this day there remains confusion between racist and anti-racist skinheads — a rift that developed during this time).

Strummer himself entered the scene as nothing in particular — living in squatter settlements, Joe played with the rough-and-tumble 101ers, a band whose genre is best described as “pub rock.” But in the Jamaican riots, Strummer, a deep admirer of Jamaican culture and music, saw a call to arms, a model that his own community could follow to make their frustration felt. The result was “White Riot,” the Clash’s first major single. Injected into this furious and confusing melee, the intent of the lyrics (“white riot, I wanna riot, white riot, a riot of our own”) — a call for solidarity with and emulation of the Jamaican resistance — was quickly lost. To Strummer’s dismay, the burgeoning forces of the National Front attempted to appropriate it. The Clash, however, simply weren’t ones to stand for such ambiguity, and responded by getting involved in the fledgling Rock Against Racism and taking back their anthem. Strummer and the Clash cared deeply about the impact their music had on the world. As Joe himself used to shout during their show “this is a public service announcement with guitars,” and the Clash served their public to the utmost of their abilities.

The MO of the Clash was simple — passion, clarity and precision in their intent, vigor and grit in their music, and in their hearts and minds a desire to make sure their agenda was aired to the corners of the globe. “White Riot” itself shows some of the virtues, but more often limits, of this agenda. Prone to extremism and hyperbole, Strummer often unwittingly romanticized violence by portraying a type of insurgent fantasy. Songs like “Tommy Gun,” “Spanish Bombs,” and “Guns of Brixton” portrayed a world boiling with political conflict. In album titles like Sandinista! and Combat Rock, the Clash advertised their willingness to ally themselves with even the most wanton partisans. In a post-9/11 world, Strummer’s fascination with the possibilities of armed resistance has a demonic aftertaste that is perhaps contextually undue. When set against the backdrop of the Sex Pistols, the Clash’s revolutionary dreams are more easily seen for what they were — a sincere hope that the world could be turned upside down (in their minds for the better) in one wrenching swoop of change. And, unlike the Pistols, the Clash were never without warmth and empathy. On songs like “Straight to Hell,” “Washington Bullets,” and their cover of the reggae classic “Armagideon Time,” the Clash strained to speak for a colonial international underclass whose suffering they inherited as their own. Earnest as they were, the Clash’s politics suffered from the common pathologies of angry Lefts worldwide. It is generally easier to complain than rebuild, and like so many other self-styled revolutionaries, the Clash spent a great deal of time describing the problem and lamenting behaviors of various enemies, but offered very few answers. In a particularly poignant outtake entitled “Questions and Answers” in the excellent Clash documentary Westway to the World, Strummer admits as much. He describes the band as “vaguely groping” for some better future and trying to take seriously the questions of the day, but admits that the band’s program never contained a clear-cut solution to the world’s problems. The Clash were, he reminds us, four English guys with guitars who, in the context of history
, were no more likely to rule the world than the many thinkers and leaders before them.

But within the musical world, the Clash’s revolution has perhaps carried the day. The Clash saved punk by imbuing it with the dignity of social purpose. To the extent that some of the afterglow has reflected back onto the Pistols themselves is a testament to the magnitude of Strummer’s ambition, and the extent to which the Clash took the gnashing propulsiveness of the genre and tried to point it forward rather than grotesquely inward. A critic once said that “punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS,” but the argument could be made that this was precisely the moment when it was reborn. The Clash were the first of the punks to reach and engage an audience in a way that transcended shock value and morbid curiosity. While at times their sprawling designs lead them to strange places — an awkward opening slot in front of the Who, an unlikely series of latter day radio hits in “Rock the Casbah,” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” — the inroads the Clash made on the consciousness of the mainstream were immense. Fusing the taut energy of Jamaican ska with the irreverent yeehaw of American country and rockabilly with the earliest strains of American hip-hop with the brittle grind of English punk, the Clash created a new world rebel music whose stamp is born by hosts of post-punk fusionists that have come in their wake, including but not limited to the Police, Elvis Costello, Social Distortion, Rancid, No Doubt, R.E.M. and Rage Against the Machine.

Even in his comparatively modest solo career, Joe was one of rock’s greatest syncretists — attempting to translate various strains of world music into productive coherence. When Lester Bangs gave the Clash the weighty and perhaps damningly overwrought mantle of “the only band that matters” it was undoubtedly in recognition of the sheer scope of their craftsmanship and the sheer audacity of their internationalist vision. From Westway (a London freeway) to the world, indeed.

And so my mind returns to London 1977. Joe Strummer in battle pose, blood pumping with the poisons whose delayed fury no doubt took him from us those three months ago. Action, passion, fire — a combustible youth in a time and place where people were cutting out their own souls to spite their aching hearts. Joe, a fighter — a fighter for lots of causes, some misplaced, some not, but more deeply than that a fighter for the simple premise that there is a step forward to be taken, and that perhaps four men with guitars could get us part of the way there. And for that, that simple stand of faith and courage, that belief in believing, therein stands the hero within the self-styled revolutionary. God Bless you, Joe, and goodbye from a world that already misses you like hell.

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