Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Almost exactly 30 years ago, I began hearing the Clash' "London Calling" album on WXRT, the local "prog rock" station. They rotated the title track, "Train In Vain," "Lost In the Supermarket," and a few other tracks into their mix. I was hooked for life.
Over time, different tracks would grow on me and become, for a while, my favorite-- "Hateful," their song about drug addiction, "Spanish Bombs," about the Spanish Civil War, "Death or Glory," "The Card Cheat," even their song about the ill-fated actor Montgomery Clift, "The Right Profile."
Eventually I started exploring their earlier stuff, just as they were branching out with the Sandinista! album-- the album was a crazy hodge-podge, where the group explored all kinds of genres-- I was checking out their earlier material. You could see the maturation in their political thinking. And then the impossible happened-- with Combat Rock, they had a top ten album and a couple of huge hits ("Rock The Casbah" and "Should I Stay Or Should I Go"). The fact that my favorite band had hit it big sank in to me the summer of 1983 when I took a cross country Greyhound bus trip to see my parents, who were living in San Jose, Calfornia at the time. We had a layover in San Antonio, Texas. I left the bus station to walk around downtown San Antonio and came across a group of teenagers hanging out near a car, the Combat Rock album blasting.
And then suddenly it was all over. Personality conflicts split the band up. Mick Jones had some big hits with Big Audio Dynamite, but Strummer lay low. Then, he formed the Mescaleroes and began touring. He and Jones reconciled and even did some work together.
In the 2000 documentary "The Clash: Westway To The World," Strummer expressed regrets that stupid personality conflicts wrecked the band. He realized, in retrospect, that something magical and important had gone on.
In the summer of 2002, my friend Viktor Zeitgeist was at a festival in Northern California, enjoying X, the Blasters-- and Joe Strummer and the Mescaleroes, among other bands. After the Mescaleroes' set, Viktor came across Strummer hanging out with some fans, drinking a beer and chatting with them. He bought Strummer a beer and joined him. Viktor told Strummer about this friend of his in Chicago who had "kept the faith--" that his friend taught kids in the ghetto and still fought the good fight. He bought a Mescaleroes poster and asked Strummer to sign it for him.
He was talking about me. When he gave me the poster a few weeks later and told me the circumstances, I was really moved that one of my heroes thought that what I had done was heroic.
Just a few months later, on December 22, 2002, I got the news that Strummer had died of an undiagnosed heart ailment. He was only 50 years old. I was grief-stricken, particularly since another of my heroes, Joey Ramone, had died only a year before.
I try to keep a little of Strummer alive in my heart. I try to keep fighting the good fight. I keep trying to help people. I remember a review of a Clash album in the early eighties. The review said something to the effect that while the album was not going to cause the revolution, it would be a damned good soundtrack to the revolution. I'm glad for what Strummer and the others did. When it seemed like a tide of cynicism, self-interest and apathy was sweeping the United States, it heartened me to know that others were seeing the state of things the way I was. Strummer's music gave my tribe a voice and still does. I miss Joe Strummer, and guess I always will.
My favorite Clash album is still "London Calling," but over the years my favorite Clash song has come to be one from their self-titled first album: "White Man In Hammersmith Palais." I've included a live clip of the Clash doing that song.