By chance I realized that today marks the ten-year anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer, enigmatic and iconic leader of the Clash. Because I’ve been going through a bit of a personal Clash revival over the past few weeks, Joe and his death had been on my mind, but I thought it was already past, not this close to Christmas.
Not to make an “Elvis” comparison, but I can remember where I was when I got the news 10 years ago, which is sitting at the computer of my old home office in TN, where it popped up on some news feed or other. At the time I was going through a huge Clash phase, and so naturally the news was quite upsetting, even surreal, though not as devastating as it had been to so many aging punks who had lived it first hand. I read a lot on the man in the following days, and as a result his legend grew within me.
However, the years in between found me sorta turning my back on the Clash, especially Joe himself, and a big part of that was seeing the 2007 documentary The Future is Unwritten. It’s a great piece of film making, but I walked away feeling disillusioned, and that Joe Strummer, who for so many was “the real deal,” was actually a bit of a jerk until he was about 40, where maturity and experience finally kicked in and made what he was preaching an actual part of his life.
Now that’s a rather broad and admittedly uninformed statement, and there are tons of well-documented accounts before and after the Clash where Joe was, well, a pretty good Joe; but there were other instances documented in the film that left a bad and bewildered taste in my mouth. And so I walked away from the Clash…with the exception of the (UK version of) debut, because it is the real deal, and wondered why I still held on to all those albums.
Still, his loss to the music community, to a groundbreaking movement and to an entire era cannot be understated or glossed over, and the world was certainly a touch dimmer with his passing.
But time heals all wounds, and a decade later a lot of folks can look back on the life and career of Joe Strummer with fondness over tears, appreciate what he brought to music (which is a rather staggering impact despite a somewhat slight output) and the changes he was attempting to bring about in a chaos-driven society as a whole. Looking on the web, I’ve found a few other “ten years after” tributes, folks lamenting the state of things both musically and geo-politically now that he’s gone, etc, etc. Honestly, I’m not sure things would be much different if he were 60 today and had given us three or four more albums as fantastic as the posthumous Streetcore. In the 70s and 80s he may have turned a few minds for the better, but in the end he was just preaching to the converted, telling us what we already knew, but in a way that was more brazenly punk-articulate, and because it was Joe talking, you listened.
Sadly, it looks like the world is forgetting Joe and the Clash. I was picking up the kids at preschool two days ago and Fox’s teacher (I’m guessing in her late 40s/early 50s) made a big deal about my London Calling shirt. She asked some under 20, seemingly “cool” guy what he thought about the Clash and he said, “Is that a 60s band?” Oh well…
As for myself, I have “forgiven” Joe for whatever it’s worth. In the end, the music speaks louder than any individual moment captured on film, or the recollection of someone “who was there” twenty-five years after the fact. The Clash was a truly great band, and Joe Strummer as their peerless leader was about as great of a front man as anyone before, during or after. I hate that he’s not with us here today, not just because of the music, but because he represented the spark that lives in every heart hoping in change for the global better.