Remembering Joe: publications share their thoughts on Strummer

The Washington Post
The Prefect Who Rocked the World
By Desson Howe

Joe Strummer wasn't Joe Strummer when I met him.
That was in the late 1960s, in England. He was John Mellor, a thin-lipped, sarcastic prefect sitting in his study. The younger students had big collective rooms for their homework. But prefects had private rooms, which they'd share with one or two senior colleagues. He was older than I was -- 17, I suppose. I was 11 or so, a new student at the City of London Freemen's School in Ashtead, Surrey, and a so-called "grub." I had been sent upstairs to summon him to "prayers," the boy boarders' nightly session of Our Fathers and so forth.
"It's prayers," I said, with no idea I had just transgressed the code. You never ran into a prefect's study unannounced. At this British private school, the prefects had an almost mullah-like presence. You had to do anything they told you, without hesitation. Some, I found to my distress, used that authority for physical and emotional cruelty. By blundering into his inner sanctum, I was asking for trouble.
Mellor looked up from his desk. Stared at the ridiculous "plebe" in school tie, short trousers and blazer before him. Curled his top lip and said: "Knock on the door, you crud."
I had to close the door and knock again. He waited a long time before telling me to enter. I opened the door and told him again.
"I bloody heard you the first time," he said.
Unlike the other prefects -- I can still see their dour expressions, pale skin, zip-up boots and pink shaving bumps -- Mellor had a fantastic, surrealistic and absurd sense of humor. And at the boarder gatherings, in which we stood in hushed, military lines before our housemaster, Mellor played to the gallery -- the grubs. We were so grateful. Prefects never gave us the time of day, except to beat us or force us to polish their shoes.
John Mellor was the one with the implied twinkle. Always playing pranks, mind games. Not as cruel as the others. Always funny. I suddenly remember that he once wore a T-shirt with a heart on it. It said: "In case of emergency, tear out." I never imagined how much it would hurt to think of that now.
"Howe, you're in for the high jump," he thundered one night, after catching me talking in the dormitory after lights out. I was shaking. Even Mellor could be like the rest of them, at times. This was going to hurt.
Solemnly, he made me stand in front of my bed. Withdrew a leather slipper from his foot and told me . . . to jump over my bed. End of punishment.
He used to make me sing the Rolling Stones' "Off the Hook." Every night. My voice hadn't broken yet. I sang it like a choirboy. ("Sittin' in my bedroom late last night," I squeaked.) It broke him up to hear my rendition.
He made me recite the names of the band members. Who plays bass? Bill Wyman, I told him. What about the drummer? Charlie Watts. Right, he said. Who's your favorite band? The Rolling Stones! Not the poxy Beatles.
In this POW camp of a place, John Mellor was my Hogan.
We had graduated by the late 1970s when we learned he had formed a group called the Clash and, even better, become punk rock's hard-sweating leader. And he'd changed his name to Strummer. Joe Strummer. What a laugh.
But what music he played! Bloody brilliant. Forget the Sex Pistols -- they were just a spitting, guitar-thrashing Kings Road gimmick. The Clash were the real kings. "London Calling" was, and remains, one of the great rock albums of all time. Come on. Sing with me now: "Rudie can't fail, oh-no!"
After he left school, I didn't see John for years. Although there was that surreal afternoon when he visited City Freemen's on "Old Boys' Day," wearing an afghan coat. He was under the influence of something. Just grinned at us, still geeks in our school uniforms. Did you see Mellor? We asked each other later.
My family immigrated to America in the 1970s, so I followed "Joe Strummer" along with the rest of his American fans. Formed a band in 1979 with my friend Ken Cobb, who had become a big fan of the Clash. One of our cover songs was "London Calling." Did the Washington audiences get it at Mr. Henry's of Tenley Circle, or the Reeks club? We didn't care. We played it anyway.
I talked my way backstage at a Clash concert in the late 1970s, when they played at the Ontario Theater on Columbia Road. There he was, with that curled lip again. He didn't seem to remember me that well. But he was gracious. And I met the other members of the band: Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon. Bo Diddley was walking around backstage as well. Thick fingers festooned with rings. Bloody hell, I thought. John Mellor's got Bo Diddley opening for him!
And then came the most meaningful reunion of all. It was just last October at the 9:30 club, when Ken and I went to watch Joe Strummer and his last band, the Mescaleros, kick off their American tour.
He played such sublime music from his latest album, "Global a Go-Go," a world-music-loving classic of its own. From the new album, the high point was "Bhindi Bhagee," a lovely song with South African-style lead guitar, about a bloke from New Zealand who comes to the singer's neighborhood searching for a restaurant that serves the quintessentially Brit dish, mushy peas. And he played almost every classic a Clash and Strummer fan could ask for.
I realized what was so great about his songs: He didn't care if they made sense. They were beautifully, achingly personal. You got him or you didn't. We got him, all right. And we were lucky enough to get backstage and meet him afterward.
Someone pulled a curtain back, and there he was again. Older. Wiser. And now he seemed to remember me. No more curled lip -- he was smiling. He'd taken off his shirt because he was so hot. We sat there with him for hours, just talking. Others came around too, including Ian MacKaye of Fugazi. And I realized in a palpable way, he wasn't my John Mellor. He was everyone's Joe Strummer.
With other well-wishers, we migrated to another room, drank and spoke about so many things. I told him everything I could remember about the old days at Freemen's. He laughed. Joked into my ear. Ken spoke to him, too. And he allowed us to be the cheesiest fans of all, repeating his lyrics back to him. Singing in that nasal Strummer voice. He enjoyed them with us.
Finally, it was time to go. Our wives probably thought we were dead. I handed Joe my card. He told me to visit him at his farmhouse one day. Beautiful countryside. Shame about the telephone towers. It wasn't going to happen, the visit. But it was a heady thought. I imagined seeing him at his front door, a straw in his mouth, Wellington boots on. Waving.
That's where he died Sunday. At home with his wife, Lucinda, and his three daughters. Whom I've never met. I can sense a powerful, silent wave of appreciation from fans around the world.
Maybe Ken and I will raise more than one single-malt whisky to Joe, to John, and to whoever or whatever he's become. We'll play the music, of course. Talk to other fans. That's what you do. I don't care if I don't go to another concert again, Ken said Saturday night, the night before John died. It'll be nothing compared with our night with Joe Strummer. Bloody well right, mate. Bloody well right.

The New York Times
Yep, the Clash Was Musical, but Don't Tell Anyone

They came out fighting. They didn't like the Beatles, they didn't like the British Parliament and they didn't like the United States. They were the Clash, not only one of punk's best bands but one of the best bands of any genre in the last 25 years. And there wasn't much they did confess to liking on their debut album in 1977, besides Jamaican reggae and themselves. "You better leave town if you only wanna knock us," Joe Strummer sang with snarling fury. "Nothing stands the pressure of the Clash City Rockers."
As for the other punk bands of the time, the Clash branded them as profiteering posers, "fighting for a good place under the lighting" while "turning rebellion into money."
While some of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll live on as caricatures of themselves, the pioneers of punk, who existed largely as a reaction to the indulgent behemoth that rock 'n' roll evolved into, are dying off. Joey Ramone of the Ramones died of lymphatic cancer in 2001; he was followed last June by Dee Dee Ramone, of a heroin overdose. And on Dec. 22, Strummer died of a heart attack at 50.
Though the Clash sang "No Beatles, Elvis or the Rolling Stones," the Clash itself soon became a classic. Its music influenced U2, Elvis Costello, the Jam and scores more. In the 90's, when punk made a brief comeback, there were two schools of music: the Sex Pistols' successors, led by Green Day, singing simple, snotty songs about being bored with everything (even boredom); and the Clash devotees, led by Rancid, which were more musically and politically sophisticated. I always preferred the latter.
I was first exposed to the Clash on my 12th birthday. (For a gift, I had asked an aunt for a copy of the Clash's debut album, titled simply "The Clash.") I had bought "Never Mind the Bollocks" by the Sex Pistols in the 99-cent bin of a local record store and, in my appetite for more punk rock, figured that the Clash, which was inspired by seeing the Pistols live, was the next step.
After listening to the album once, I put it away in my top dresser drawer. In my mind, it wasn't punk rock - at least not in the way the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were. It was too, well, musical. All the songs didn't sound the same. There were traces of reggae, jazz, cowboy music and oldies rock 'n' roll. The choruses were practically pop sing-alongs. And there was none of the Sex Pistols' lip service to anarchy; the Clash was as focused on social change and idealism as the 60's classic rockers it scorned. The only thing that felt punk about the music was that it was fast, raw and reactionary.
A year and a half later, I pulled out the album and listened to it again. Now I was ready: further exposure to music and life, not all of it good, had prepared me. The band's palette was broad and sincere; its choruses and chants were unforgettable; every hoarse, breathy word Strummer sang sounded as if it was damaging his vocal chords; and the lyrics transformed working-class frustration into galvanizing rock 'n' roll. I would never have guessed that Strummer was a child of privilege, a boarding-school-bred son of a diplomat.
To this day, I still tell anyone who doesn't like the music that perhaps they just aren't ready for it yet. My respect for the Clash soared with each new album as I listened to the band further expand its reach - into Southern R & B, Latin music, rockabilly, funk, blues, rap and especially dub reggae. Writing and singing choruses with his bandmate and sometime adversary, Mick Jones (who also sang and played guitar), Joe Strummer was at his best, particularly on the Clash's third album, "London Calling" - among its 19 songs there is not a single bad one (and just three that are less than great). Back in 1977, an interviewer had asked Strummer where he was getting his musical ideas. He answered in two words: "Black men."
One of the Clash's peculiar attributes was that it managed to alienate both the popular and the punk audiences with little effort. The band seemed to be in a constant struggle with its own pop sensibility, and every time that sensibility reared its head the band tried to push it back underground. After its early minor hit, "Remote Control," it wrote another hit complaining about it, "Complete Control" it hid its best pop song, "Train in Vain," as an unlisted track at the end of "London Calling" it released an uncommercially long triple album named after a Nicaraguan revolutionary group ("Sandinista!"); and it chose unlikely opening acts, from country singers like Joe Ely to rappers like Grandmaster Flash, long before country and hip-hop were trendy for punk rockers to like.
Of course, one of the ironies of the Clash is that, like most idealists making commercial music, its values and proclamations came back to haunt it. It dissed classic rock, but would later tour as an opening act for the Who. It sneered at consumerism, advertising and the moneyed class, but would later sell its apocalyptic anthem "London Calling" for use in a Jaguar commercial. It made fun of punk for profit, but another punk band (Crass) would later accuse the Clash of the same thing, singing, "CBS promote the Clash/ But it ain't for revolution, it's just for cash."
Though much is made of the Clash's revolutionary politics, they weren't necessarily intrinsic to the group's appeal in the way they were for later bands like Gang of Four. Even in the late 70's, the Sex Pistols accused the Clash of having a confusing political stance. For his part, Strummer, in early interviews, claimed to be apolitical. Though his comment is just more evidence of the reactionary impulse that made the Clash so political, the truth is that the group's songs about police brutality, racism, nuclear weapons and fighting in the streets were just as inspiring and engaging as the songs that tackled everyday pop subjects like failed relationships and the reggae-influenced fantasies of screen idols and outlaws.
Like the Ramones, the Clash loved to make music about music (often portraying itself as the new sound sweeping the radio). In "Death or Glory," the Clash leaves anyone trying to become the next Clash with the following image: a dingy basement on a dingy street emitting the muffled sound of a dragging handclap over a dragging beat. "That's just the beat of time - the beat that must go on," Strummer sings. "If you've been trying for years, then we already heard your song."

San Francisco Bay Guardian
Requiem for an icon

The sudden death of Joe Strummer came out of nowhere. "Nowhere" because that's where Strummer seemed to have been hiding for years.
It might have seemed that way only because he wasn't much of a celebrity in America -- people might have known about the Clash, but Strummer didn't try to get public attention with seedy courtroom battles or bloated reunion tours. He'd started a new band, the Mescaleros, and gone about his own thing, but I had paid him little mind since junior high.
Back then my music tastes were even more questionable, but I loved his grimy film Straight to Hell and even his 1989 solo album, Earthquake Weather, both of which made me feel more grown-up. I didn't get too deep with the Clash, who were old enough to be classic rock in my book, and by high school I cared more about new music. I was the spawn of Strummer solo, Big Audio Dynamite (II), and Havana 3AM. The cover story in Punk Planet two years ago brought Strummer back to my attention, but as an oddity camouflaged in plain sight.
Strummer's death was even more unexpected because he seemed to be in shape, unlike his old Clash bandmate Mick Jones, who had some publicized health problems and looked it. Fifty years on this earth, which is nothing, a blip, but the obituary consensus is that he achieved his greatest work 20 years ago.
A so-called death
A few years ago a fake death announcement for Lou Reed swept through the media unchecked. Reed was very much alive; he even told America so by appearing on Saturday Night Live. It almost seemed like a stunt to draw attention to whatever new project he was working on. Even if it had been a stunt, its punch line backfired by pointing out that his career peaked before he reached 30. What, the demanding consumer might ask, did he have left to give us?
Can you imagine hearing your own obituary? Your place in your field assessed with a dry reverence, a life summed up succinctly by "the enemy" no less, a journalist. Rock musicians that reach a certain age can no longer shock, only gain royal titles and secular sainthood. They may once have altered your consciousness, with or without pharmaceutical help, but that, in the end, is all. It's an asymmetrical intimacy. Still, I had something of a spiritual experience watching old Warhol footage of Reed, the unblinking lizard eyes staring across time, wondering if he'd ever realize he would become an old man who didn't even get what made him great in the first place. It sounds more cynical than it felt; it was a realization about how we end up judging ourselves the most harshly. Not that that was Strummer -- not that anyone who wasn't close to him could rightly say who he was.
The necessary but offensive nature of the "celebrity obituary" is that it's inevitably about a generation losing an icon and dealing with its own mortality. Having to fill a greater symbolic purpose, having the expectations of a public eye intruding even into death, can negate what is meant as a tribute. There is factual accuracy, and then there is the essence of a person. Strummer is an odd choice for an icon, but that was what he had become by default.
Leaving home
This story on the Spockmorgue message board from Steve Gigante, a former Bay Area resident who played in Tiny Bird Mouths and Old Time Relijun, about meeting Strummer tells more about the man than most things I've read in the past week.
When I moved to S.F. and had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Joe Strummer, I remembered two friends who I was still in contact with and asked Joe if he would give me his autograph so I could give it to them. He complied and we had an interesting conversation that went something like this:
JS: "So, your friends, what do they do?"
Me: "One of 'em's trying to be a professional boxer and the other one doesn't really do much of anything. I'm trying to get him to move out here, but he doesn't wanna leave his hometown [spoken with obvious disgust]."
JS: "Maybe he likes it there."
Me: "There's no way. That place sucks!"
JS: "Ya know, it's not a crime to feel at home where you grew up."
Me: "Yeah, but -- "
JS: "Some of the greatest people I've ever met stayed right where they were born. They didn't have to go anywhere to find happiness -- they knew it was within them. Sometimes I wish I woulda stayed where I was."
There was a long silence as we both just kinda stared at each other. It was clear he was being completely honest with me and he looked kinda sad, like he envied my friend.
JS: "So the next time you talk to your friend maybe you wanna go a little easier on him."
Then he asked if I was going to the show that night (he was fronting the Pogues at the time) and when I said I couldn't afford it he told me to come a little early and he'd get me in, which he did with a backstage pass and all.
Fame is irrelevant, especially when it comes down to something as personal as your demise. Steve's story is one of many that paint Strummer as a true and kind person, but if it turned out that he was an asshole, it wouldn't diminish the reasons why you care. I could say that Strummer kept his idealism to the end, but only he knew what that meant, and now it seems like such a small, small point.
George Chen

The Seattle Weekly
Up in Heaven
Joe Strummer: 1952-2002.

Why should we assume people get worse [with age]? I think you should just get on with it. Look at Paul Newman. And the Sufis think people get better, y'know? Every day is a new day, so I just look forward to it. And you can't walk around with expectations anyway. I don't like to know where we're going, actually. Because you always end up somewhere interesting. If you have a specific aim or target, and then you arrive at that point--whatever, the creation of a project--it's like, boring! There's no fun in that somehow, is there? There's no surprise in it. There's no chance in it. This [career] is a construction of chaos, really.

--Joe Strummer, N.Y.C., October 2001

On Dec. 22, 2002, former Clash frontman Joe Strummer's chaos theory--or, to put it more clinically and accurately, a heart attack--caught up with him. While early media coverage suggested that he passed away in his sleep, the latest report from the BBC indicated that he "collapsed at his home in Somerset [England] after taking his dog for a walk. . . . His wife, Lucinda, is said to have tried to resuscitate him on the kitchen floor but was unable to revive him."

In a weird, admittedly morbid, and perverse sense, this is perfect. No doubt Joe himself, sitting up on high somewhere this very moment, is chuckling over the ludicrously middle-class nature of the circumstances surrounding his demise, this irascible, uncompromising punk firebrand decidedly not going out in a classic blaze of rock death glory. No fiery auto crash. No messy blood-and-syringe overdose. No onstage electrocution. "Bit of a cosmic giggle 'ere, innit?" Strummer remarks, as he passes Joey Ramone a heavenly spliff. . . .

But make no mistake, the glory's there for Strummer--born John Graham Mellor on Aug. 21, 1952--just the same. Within hours of word of his death hitting the airwaves and the Internet, tributes and testimonials flowed from the famous (Bono called the Clash "the greatest rock band. They wrote the rule book for U2") and the not-so famous (the fan Web site Strummer News would log over 15,000 condolences from all over the world for its cybercard at Plans for memorials and tribute concerts got under way at points across the globe, including one in New York City where a huge candlelight gathering ultimately was held the night of Dec. 26 at one of Strummer's favorite East Village haunts, Niagara (Avenue A and 7th Street); fans would continue to flock to the site throughout the weekend, toting candles, photographs, flowers, and other symbols of their grief and affection.

Meanwhile in London, a spokesperson for Strummer's family requested that in lieu of floral tributes, money should be donated to the forthcoming Nelson Mandela SOS concert in South Africa, which is being staged to raise funds for AIDS campaigns in Africa. (Strummer, who was slated to appear at the Feb. 2 multiperformer concert along with Bono and Dave Stewart, had already penned the song ?" in Mandela's honor.) At press time, no public statements had been made by any of the ex-Clash members, while on the official Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros Web site (, a posting, dated Dec. 23, read simply that "Joe Strummer died yesterday. Joe is survived by his wife, Lucinda, two daughters, and one stepdaughter. They request privacy at this harrowing time. . . . Our condolences to Luce and the kids, family, and friends."

Media pundits, for once caught without the safety nets of their "ready rooms" (code name for where newspapers maintain extensive files of pre-mortem celeb obituaries), penned genuinely heartfelt and spontaneous memorials themselves. The one written by Milo Miles in the Village Voice seemed to best sum up Strummer's legacy with the Clash:

"[Strummer] knew what the perfect rock band should be and lived when he could make it happen. The beat should be fast and ferocious, as hyper and relentless as the old rockabilly jitters and the new punk mania. Strummer recognized that rock had barely explored its political possibilities, and there was no reason why love-and-work tunes could not be set in English society and ripped from the headlines. Rock also provided a meeting ground for black and white sounds, and Strummer grasped that the newly militant reggae would strengthen the bones of rock as the blues had a generation earlier. . . . Strummer was the political chairman of the gang, and he made sure their activist program was vivid if vague: Be proletarian, pro-revolt of the disenfranchised in all nations; show reflexive distrust of authority leftist and rightist, savvy skepticism about mass media and willingness to co-opt it; call your blockbuster triple album Sandinista! [The] Clash made fans think about subjects unimagined in the Sex Pistols' universe--or the counterculture's for that matter."

Funny how things work out. In November, the Mescaleros had completed a hugely successful U.K. tour (at a London show, Strummer's erstwhile bandmate Mick Jones turned up for a three-song encore of Clash tunes) and were set to start working on their next album. The four ex-members of the Clash themselves had already been tapped for a March induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and were rumored to be planning a one-off set at the festivities. And Strummer, while remaining firmly anti-nostalgist and anti-reunion cash-in, had clearly come to a comfortable reconciliation with his storied past, liberally sprinkling Clash material into Mescaleros set lists.

Indeed, over the past three years there has been a massive upswing in awareness of and popularity for all things Clash, and by extension, Strummer. Sony issued a live Clash album and remastered the band's entire back catalog; an outstanding Clash documentary film (now available on DVD), Westway to the World, appeared; and the Clash received the prestigious Ivor Novello Award in 2001 for "Outstanding Contribution to British Music." (One sour note was struck earlier this year when the Clash approved, for a reported fee in the neighborhood of $500,000, the 45-day use of their signature song, "London Calling," in a TV ad campaign for Jaguar cars. This caused no shortage of gritted teeth and mutterings of "sellout!" among Clash hardliners. In an online chat, Strummer defended the decision, saying, "We get hundreds of requests for that and turn 'em all down. But I just thought Jaguar . . . yeah. If you're in a group and you make it together, then everyone deserves something. Especially 20-odd years after the fact. It just seems churlish for a writer to refuse to have their music used on an advert and so I figured out, only advertise the things you think are cool. That's why we dissed Coors and Miller. We've turned down loads of money. Millions over the years. But sometimes you have to earn a bit, so everybody gets some.

SO--WHAT BEFITS a legend most? At the time Strummer uttered the quote at the beginning of this article, he was pushing 50 but thoroughly on top of his game and enjoying a fruitful new phase in his long-standing rock 'n' roll tenure. The Mescaleros' superb second album, Global a Go-Go had come out on Hellcat/Epitaph about a month earlier, and interviewed by yours truly in his dressing room a few hours before a sold-out show at N.Y.C.'s Irving Plaza venue, Strummer was the very image of sanity and health (if you don't count a cold and bad throat picked up while on the road). In fact, he was downright feisty, fielding my questions with the fire and spunk of someone at a debating match, not another I've-answered-all-this-before rock-mag grilling. He was also quick with the wit, at one point derailing some of my more anal archival queries with a good-natured, "Don't you want to know when the Clash are going to get back together?"

My most abiding memory from our conversation, however, is of when I innocently uttered the phrase "spokesman for a generation." Strummer, who'd been sipping herbal tea and sucking on throat lozenges in between taking deep drags from his roll-ups, fixed me with a glare, walked over to a trash can and hocked up a noxious looking wad of black goo, then barked into my face.

"I'm not a spokesperson! Never was to anybody. They can hose off, man. I mean it. That's a load of horseradish. [Pointing to guitar] I'm happy to get that box and figure out something to do with it. I get rid of my opinions! Because some clever guy said, 'If you have opinions, you cannot see.' Meaning that opinions will kind of horse blinker you to see the truth about any situation. [Cackling, with evil journalist-baiting twinkle in his eye] Opinions aren't worth the paper they're written on!"

He was right. Free your mind, and the rest will follow. An outspoken, big-hearted, enlightened rock 'n' roll patriarch to the end--that's the Joe Strummer I'll always remember. Veteran rock photographer Bob Gruen, who published a book of his Clash photos in 2001, recently posted the following brief but heartfelt testimonial on his Web site. I think it's fitting that it be the last word here.

Writes Gruen, "I'm in shock over the sudden death of my friend Joe. He was the strongest of men, a real inspirational leader, a guy who never seemed to tire of listening to people and talking to them, learning and teaching all the time. He had true compassion for everyone he met. He was the nicest and also the most fun loving person I have ever known."

San Diego City Beat
For Joe Strummer (1952-2002) by David J.

On the morning of Dec. 23, I tuned in the car radio and happened to catch the tail end of a news item. Through the crackle of static came, ". . . and later we remember Joe Strummer of the Clash."
There is a peculiar sort of emotional frisson that accompanies shocking news, especially a death. It is a weird kind of high that is quickly transmuted into a sickening comedown. I had to wait another 40 minutes, suffering the interminal whine of politicos duking it out with cant, until confirmation came.
Their voices reminded me of the time when I first saw Strummer play live. He held up a small transistor radio to the microphone, out of which spilled British politicians discussing the latest IRA outrage, followed by a news report detailing the carnage. "1, 2, 3, 4..." and the band crashed in, three guitars like sonic razors cleaving the smoke.
It was 1976 and the Clash were playing their first gig in London. Their set was followed by The Sex Pistols in all their ragged glory. I was 19 and transfixed. This was it! I had taken my little bother Kevin down to the 100 Club, driving the 70 miles south from Northampton. He too was gob smacked. We decided to form our own punk band there and then. To this day, that gig remains the single most exciting live event that I have ever witnessed, and the future trajectory of the Clash, soaring on the wings of passionate idealism, forged the standard for all time.
I saw Strummer several times following that incendiary event, with the Clash (always wildly exciting), as a sometime member of The Pogues and later, with his great band, The Mescaleros. The last occasion was in San Diego at the 2002 Hootenanny. I saw him in his trailer before he was about to go on. He was extremely sick with a heavy dose of the flu but still gracious; he waved me aboard whilst seated on the shotgun side like a pirate king in his pilfered quarters. He gave an unbelievably spirited performance that day---leg pumping and fist punching the sky, the bastard had me pogoing like it was '76 all over again.
"You've got a big heart, Joe!" I told him afterwards. He shrugged and grinned that lopsided greaser grin and then sat on the damp floor for over an hour, signing record sleeves and posing for photos with fans.
I had first met him in 1989. He turned up, out of the blue, at the KCRW radio studio in Santa Monica where I was recording a live session with Max Eider and Owen Jones (poached from The Jazz Butcher). Jones is a massive Clash fan and it was highly amusing to see his reaction as he turned around to face the soundproofed window, only to be confronted by a maniacally grinning Strummer. This, seconds before the start of our set.
Afterward, we went out for some drinks with Joe and a great time was had by all. The following night we played at The Roxy Theater on Sunset Strip. Again, Strummer was there. Post-show, he invited us back to his hotel to meet with his "cousin José" (neat tequila gold). We became well acquainted with this distant Mexican relative and before long, Strummer was imparting wise words of advice concerning instruments. He strongly objected to my choice of guitar, an Ovation acoustic with a plastic back.
"The thing is Dave, you've got no bassist so you really need that bottom end, yer know? All yer hear with that fuckin' Ovation is, 'thwackey, thwackey, thwackey' and that ain't no fuckin' good! What yer need is The Big Wood! Do yer know what that is?"
"No? Well, I'll tell yer!" he continued. "The Big Wood is like a big old fuckin' Gibson or a Gretch or a Guild, something with a bit of soul to it, a big jumbo chunk of fuckin' wood and none of that fuckin' plastic shit! You look at any of yer serious guys---Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Van fuckin' Morrison---they all got the Big Wood."
"Now Barre!" Strummer yelled to our tour manager at the time (at this point, Joe is literally on his knees). "Barre, will you promise me something? Tomorrow morning I want yer to drive down to the fuckin' river, then I want yer to take those fuckin' shit Ovation guitars and throw 'em in it! Then take him down to Sunset and get him sorted with the Big Wood! Right!"
Right! We did and it made all the difference in the world.
That last time I saw him in San Diego, the first thing he said to me was, "You got it, right? You got The Big Wood?" (I hadn't seen him since '89!). I gladly answered in the affirmative.
I also "got it" in a sweaty little cellar dive in Oxford Street in 1976 and I am never going to let it go.
Thank you, Joe.
David J is a musician, artist and writer living in Encinitas. He was guitarist for Bauhaus and frontman for Love and Rockets and is currently a solo musician. You can see more of him and "Big Wood" when he performs at 'Canes with Nina Hagen on Jan. 29.