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Joe Strummer’s Complex Legacy: 10 Years After the Clash Leader’s Death

Joe Strummer in 1999 / Photo by Isabel Snyder/Corbis

On December 22 it will be 10 years since the unexpected death of Joe Strummer, singer, lyricist, rhythm guitarist, and centerpiece of the Clash. Strummer was 50 when he passed away from a congenital heart defect, old by the standards of rock mythology but terribly young for someone to die of natural causes.

Lifelong partisans know the Clash’s history and music inside and out. Most rock fans must be acquainted with at least a handful of the band’s works: “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “I’m So Bored with the USA,” “Clampdown,” “Train in Vain,” “Rock the Casbah,” “Rudie Can’t Fail.” And there is, of course, “London Calling,” perhaps my favorite song of all time, which was played, referenced, and used as a headline during last summer’s London Olympics ad nauseum.

The journey from upstarts to ubiquity was long and strange. Punk circa 1976 didn’t demand much more than will from a musician. This was fortunate for Strummer, because beyond a singular intensity, a way with words, and a worldly background, he didn’t have a lot to give. He was a limited singer and played his right-handed guitar like a natural lefty. For a time he called himself Woody, after Woody Guthrie, and took his ukulele to busk political folk tunes in the London underground. During their ten years together, the Clash recorded two indisputably phenomenal albums, The Clash and London Calling. The former had to crawl its way to six-figure sales; the latter classic topped out at No. 27 on the Billboard Top 200. Strummer looked less comfortable sporting a Mohawk than many a teen wannabe, and London Calling was anchored not by sloppy, angry punk but warm, infectious traditionally informed rock’n’roll. But what linked The Clash, London Calling, and the later Sandinista! and Combat Rock albums was that rather than letting rock’s past define the band, the band set out to expand the music’s borders. They borrowed heavily from the sound and outlaw politics of reggae, yet were open to anything. 

The chemistry that fueled the Clash was intricate and unique, and it was destroyed by the pressure, exhaustion, paranoia, and claustrophobia that came with success. The key ingredient that Strummer brought to the band was his belief in the four as blood brothers, a gang of outlaws. Guitarist Mick Jones, drummer Topper Headon, and bassist Paul Simonon were not just collaborators but friends and family who filled a hole that had opened when Strummer, the son of a diplomat, was banished at nine years old to boarding school in Surrey, England, and which widened with the 1970 suicide of his 21-year-old older brother David. The Clash officially broke up in 1986, but decay started to set in four years earlier when Headon was sacked for his drug use. Jones and Strummer fought bitterly, and in late 1983 the former was fired. There was a new lineup and an album (1985’s Cut Out the Crap), but though the band didn’t officially split until the following year, the end had been long in coming.

Without his comrades, the hole in Strummer once again yawned, and he fell in. It marked the beginning of what his called his “wilderness years.” He dabbled in acting (Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 shaggy-hipster tale Mystery Train was a highlight), toured with the Pogues, and released the LP Earthquake Weather to tepid response. To say he disappeared for a decade to mourn the Clash reduces the complications of adult life to the level of tabloid romance. Still, it’s a fact that Strummer needed people, and never again found the kind of collaborators and friends he’d had with the Clash.

The world often wasn’t as kind as it should’ve been to Strummer, who was attacked for circumstances beyond his control. As recently as 2010, the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon told Goldmine magazine that “Joe Strummer came from, like, wealthy parents. So don’t be playing my working class roots on me like that. I truly do come from that. And it bugs me when they’re trying to use that as some kind of edge to their career. And it became appalling with Joe.”

After a point, Strummer seemed like a man out of time. From his first days with the Clash till his last days on Earth he was openly political. He was anti-racist, anti-war, anti-colonialist, and pro-socialist. No wonder he struggled to find a foothold once the age of irony had arrived.

This was a hero who was always open and patient with fans. The Clash were famous for facing off with CBS to keep the price of the triple-album Sandinista! down; they routinely snuck fans into shows; and went out of their way to book vintage rock and R&B artists to open their tours, including Bo Diddley, Lee Dorsey, and reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry. In the spring of 1980 some friends and I followed the band from city to city, hoping to convince the guys to play a revolutionary May Day benefit. Although Strummer eventually passed, he heard us out, was never less the courteous, and taped “On the first of May Take a holiday” to his guitar for a 1981 appearance on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow talk show.

Strummer married Lucinda Tait in 1995, which was a turning point. He went on to form Los Mescaleros and in 1999 released the strong Rock Art and the X-Ray Style. Having failed — with the rest of us — to right all the world’s wrongs, he did his best to create something new for a few days each year at Britain’s Glastonbury Festival. There, he and a posse of sidekicks founded an alternative nation dubbed “Rebel Wessex” — complete with a flag — and led a joyous, days-long sharing of values and fellowship that would exist everywhere, all the time, if only the world weren’t insane. Julian Temple’s 2007 documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten captured the simple pleasures of friends passing guitars around a big campfire, singing and playing as if this were what music was about, rather than networking, branding, marketing.

For those who grew up with Strummer, his death offered this jolting reality check: we were officially too old to die young. Still, we hadn’t been cheated musically; the Clash weren’t about to hit the classic punk circuit. Why, then, did we feel the loss so sharply? Perhaps it was because Strummer was strong enough to stick to his guns, and helped us do the same. He defied the forces whose vicious, buy ’em-or-beat ’em business-as-usual warped a world that deserves better. He never promised change, but he never stopped trying to equal the score either.

Ten years after his death, I hold on to the Strummer who night after night walked point for a gang that had his back for so long, that was the only band that mattered. I listened to the Clash’s music a lot, then and now. And on my best days, I feel like I’m part of Joe’s gang, too.

Tompkins’ 33 1/3 book ‘The Clash: London Calling’ will be released in March.