Today is the anniversary of Joe Strummer’s death. When I think about him unprompted by my mp3 player, it’s usually on December 22nd, because I remember where I was when he died. I heard it in the car, on the radio, and it was the last death I heard about that way.
Now I hear about celebrity deaths on Twitter. I assume every trending hashtag regarding a celebrity I like is The Death Announcement, and I’m palpably relieved when it’s not. Death is the default expectation, so it doesn’t register the same as the radio. I don’t feel it. When I hear it on the radio, I know it’s only one or two levels removed from the wire. When I read it on Twitter, there’s always that miniscule chance it’s not the celebrity I like, but a practical joke on a One Direction fan with the same name. It doesn’t feel like news.
I felt it when Joe Strummer died, because he was the first rock ‘n’ roll singer I enjoyed. He didn’t sing love songs — I always found those abstract and alienating — and he didn’t sing rock ‘n’ roll as I imagined it before I heard him. Before Joe Strummer, I thought rock ‘n’ roll was half hormonal teenage masochism and half people doing drugs in West Hollywood, and I never ever listened to it.
I don’t remember exactly when I first heard him sing. I know my mom had Give ‘Em Enough Rope and The Singles Collection. I know I heard “Train in Vain” before I knew it was by The Clash, and I hated it because it was a love song. I do know my internalization of Joe Strummer’s music was prompted by hearing “Straight to Hell” on a car ride a little before midnight, in Stockton, pretending to be asleep while my mom smoked a bunch of cigarettes and ashed them out in a Diet Coke can. I heard “there ain’t no asylum here, King Solomon he never lived ‘round here” and suddenly realized music could have lyrics.
I didn’t live in a musical family, and had Baptist shame about any music that wasn’t explicitly a hymn, so I’d listen by going out to the garage in the middle of the night and playing the CD in the car, real quiet. I might as well have been doing drugs. My dad probably figured I was. If I had known where to get drugs, I might have doubled up on my vices, since the imagined punishment seemed equal.
That was 2000. So Joe Strummer was the first rock ‘n’ roll singer I liked, and the first one to die, in the course of about two years. I had no idea The Clash had any cultural cachet, had no idea they represented anything, had no idea they were punk rock. I just knew they made the hairs on my arms stand up.
They’ve become a difficult band to admit to liking, in their posthumous rise to canonization. Too much sloganeering. Too much neo-hippie bullshit where famous people sit around a campfire and use the Socratic method to teach us that rock ‘n’ roll, get this, it’s like going to church. When people ask what music I listen to, I clumsily figure out a way to disengage, but I used to say The Clash, before I started getting embarrassed about it.
So for the longest time, even after I moved out of my parents’ house and didn’t need a garage, I listened to The Clash secretively. Mainlining the albums and memorizing them, then mainlining the bootlegs and memorizing those, usually on headphones while feigning disinterest and wearing a long-sleeve shirt.
I waited until the twelfth anniversary of Joe Strummer’s death to write about him because I always think about him on the 22nd and any other year would have been too recent. Too much sentimentality and white noise. The usual problem. Framing The Clash as the center of the universe and endorsing any band that namedrops them. Blogspot histrionics.
I don’t think Joe Strummer was the best rock ‘n’ roll singer or the best rock ‘n’ roll performer, but I still have a suspicion he was the best rock ‘n’ roll band leader. He had the exact right balance of measured optimism and populist appeal and grit and panic, and he sang with the improvised fury of somebody who didn’t rehearse enough. Every time I watch a Bruce Springsteen concert, I feel a bit cheated, like I’m watching Joe Strummer’s rich cousin who keeps trying to talk to me about football.
Twelve years later, the shock of his death hasn’t worn off. It hasn’t worn off because he wasn’t done. He was as great a frontman and songwriter as he ever was, still writing potent, unwieldy songs that reminded me of being in that garage late at night.
And I worry, the more I see The Clash (and therefore only “London Calling”) get canonized, if his latter-day work will be forgotten. Anybody who liked The Clash should listen to “Johnny Appleseed,” “Coma Girl” (the last minute of which is power-pop perfection), or “Get Down Moses,” which are as powerful to me as any Clash song.
I only have one thing to say about Joe Strummer that wouldn’t rapidly devolve into a quiet eulogy for that time in my life when I played air guitar and thought whatever music I liked would save the world. Joe Strummer’s solo work was sporadically incredible, and none of it got the attention it deserved, and it’s all on Spotify.
That playlist — the complete tenure of Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros when they were on Hellcat Records — contains a concert from 2002, at Acton Town Hall in London. I’m surprised more Clash fans don’t know about it. It’s the sound of a band that finally found its groove and identity, and a singer who was aging into having some peace of mind. The versions of “Police & Thieves” and “Police On My Back” are my favorites ever, and Mick Jones joins them for the encore.
I listen to it and I forget about the neo-hippie bullshit and I can enjoy Joe Strummer’s work again, without thinking of those “great records you need to hear before you die” books that always seem to be upselling you on a Bob Dylan boxset. That concert makes me forget about the Rolling Stone “this band with a dead singer made a great album 30 years ago” blurbs. It’s not iconic. It’s not definitive. It’s just Joe Strummer in a good mood, playing his music in a modest club without any rock star posturing. It’s a good way to remember him.