Skip to content

Tougher Than Tough

Joe Strummer was the soul-rebel idealist who gave punk a cause

It was fitting that his final London gig was a controversial benefit for union workers. Though Joe Strummer will be remembered for generations as the singer/songwriter of the historic punk band the Clash, he will remain beloved for his humble, restless idealism. Born John Graham Mellor in 1952, in Ankara, Turkey, a British diplomat’s son who became a worldly pop star, Strummer never forgot the people beside him every day on the street. He chose his everyman stage name because he saw himself as a folk singer spitting raw information and emotion.

When I first met Strummer in 1976, he was squatting in an old ice-cream factory with Clash bassist Paul Simonon (who was spray-painting incendiary slogans on the band’s thrift-store clothes). And despite his later success, Strummer never lost that youthful grit. “He was a musician making a difference to the world–that’s why Joe dying young is so tragic,” says music writer, artist, and ex-Clash manager Caroline Coon. “With all today’s political activity, we needed his voice to be out there, like a Dylan or Bob Marley-type figure.” At that November 15 London concert, Strummer spoke out in support of the national firefighters strike–staunchly opposed by Prime Minister Tony Blair; he also reunited with songwriting partner and Clash singer/guitarist Mick Jones (Strummer fired Jones in 1983, a move that led to the band’s demise three years later). Ending their set with the seething Clash anthem “London’s Burning,” Strummer and Jones brought down the house.

“We had a really nice night,” says Jones. “He was very happy with his family, and he was proud of what he was doing with his band (the Mescaleros, which Strummer formed in 1999). He was continuing. He carried on. It’s a lesson to us all.”

Strummer, 50, was keeping busy at the time of his death last December 22. He had been collaborating with Bono on the Nelson Mandela tribute song “48864” for a South African AIDS fundraiser; he’d finished his third Mescaleros album for Hellcat [the label run by Rancid’s TimArmstrong, a Clash devotee]; and he was preparing to play at the Clash’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this month. Strummer was still so vital that when he returned to his Somerset, England, farmhouse after walking his dog, sat down in the kitchen, and died (of cardiac arrest), it was a total shock to family and fans. He left behind two daughters by longtime ex-partner Gaby and a stepdaughter from wife Lucinda.

On their early single “1977,” the Clash chanted, “No Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones!” and their manifesto was to smash the elitism of ’60s rockers who had lost touch with depressed, working-class England. “[It was] a message to the rebels,” Strummer told Spin in 2001. “You can do it. Don’t ever give up. And get off your ass. If you’ve got the spirit, you can do anything.” Strummer lived that credo. He started as a musician by busking in tube stations (with future Mescaleros fiddler Tymon Dogg); and during the Clash era, he regularly let fans ride on the bus and crash in his hotel room. “He loved staying up, smoking a spliff, drinking brandy, and reasoning [Jamaican patois for discussing],” recalls friend and writer Chris Salewicz.

In Strummer’s honor, 52,000 fans at a Newcastle United-Liverpool soccer match strictly observed a minute’s silence. A huge funeral cortege led by a fire truck wound through Strummer’s old multiracial, boho London neighborhood, Ladbroke Grove (passing the former Elgin pub where he started his first band, the 101’ers). Ladbroke was a crucial influence on Strummer–the Clash anthem “White Riot” was inspired by local battles between West Indian revelers and police at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival. He was also a regular at the neighborhood’s Jamaican shebeens (after-hours reggae parties). Throughout their career, the Clash were always open to reggae, ska, dub, and hip-hop, and those sounds became integral to their own music.

During Strummer’s sometimes painful wilderness years after the Clash self-combusted, he worked in movies by directors Alex Cox (Straight to Hell) and Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train) and became interested in ’90s rave culture. He remained a voracious music fan, and his notorious Glastonbury Festival encampments hosted everyone from London’s haute bohemia (like artist Damien Hirst) to lads from the local pub.

But it was Strummer’s influence during punk’s first flash that will never be forgotten. “When I saw the Clash pick up guitars, I picked up a camera,” says filmmaker Don Letts, Strummer’s close friend. “His energy was infectious. He could make anyone do anything. That kind of life force is a precious commodity.”