Joe Strummer: 1952 to 2002
And we thought West Texas was wild.
The year was 1978 and our band had just landed in London. We were fresh out of the honky-tonks of West Texas, with the wind in our hair and cowshit still on our boots. We wondered where in the hell we were and how we had come to this strange little country. Everything we expected was there; mysterious black cabs driving on the wrong side of the road, pallid people in muted colors carrying umbrellas and queuing up in long lines for some obscure reason. Little did we know something else was happening, beneath the surface, that we never expected to find.
When we arrived at the venue, we were told there were some gentlemen waiting to speak to us.
Backstage, in the foyer of a hallway, were three guys with short greasy hair, a gleam in their eye, and a purpose in their presence. They appeared to have just escaped from a maximum security detention center.
We wondered to ourselves if these were the ‘gentlemen’ to whom the supervisors were referring, but, seeing no one else there, we walked up and said hello. They introduced themselves, quite politely, as Joe, Mick and Paul from a band called the Clash. Joe Strummer asked us about Texas, about Laredo and El Paso, about Buddy Holly, Charlie Feathers and the Bobby Fuller Four. He appeared to know more about our own backyard than we did.
After the show the guys asked if we wanted to go out for a pint. They took us around the town to places with hidden entrances in the backstreets of London. Places with names like Dingwalls and the Hope & Anchor Pub. It didn’t take long to notice that something was going on here. A new vision of London suddenly appeared.
We went out every night for the next few days. Strummer and I had many of the same interests and we talked for hours about music, films and poets. We shared an interest in a Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, who traveled with the persecuted Gypsies and was relentlessly pursued by the notorious Spanish Civil Guard. We wished that Lorca could have been recorded singing around the campfires with their guitars.
Joe Strummer — who died December 22 of a heart attack at his home in rural west England — was a curious man. He was interested in everything. He was curious in what made things work and why they didn’t. He wanted to know what it was that made music from Jamaica Intoxicating. And what made rockabilly Uncontrollable. He was curious about how words could be used. And the power of those Words. To express an idea. To bring about change.
He wanted to know what people were feeling who were living in oppression. And what others were thinking who were out of work. He wondered why people were judged by the color of their skin. He wanted to know about the ones who were silenced by those who controlled the Power. He was curious about Love and what brought about Hate. It was within this very curiosity that he discovered the power of Music. He would never whine about his own condition. Instead, he listened. And as he listened, he heard the World.
He became a Mirror who reflected the thoughts of those without a Voice. He heard their cry for Freedom. He heard their desire for Equality. He reflected it back to the world in the form of a Howl. Not the howl of a wolf in the wild. Rather, the howl of a man obsessed with Justice. Howling down the Highway, windows wide open, at 100 mph.
He was a man in love with life. He cared little for things like money and power. Those things had been cast upon him simply because he spoke his mind.
When the Clash first came to the United States the following year, they called and asked if we would show them around Texas and maybe do some shows together. They wanted to go to places not on the beaten path that the promoters recommended. Places like Laredo, Lubbock, and El Paso. What about Wichita Falls and Langtry?
After a rowdy but disappointing show in Hollywood, Strummer came up to me with the observation that the parking lot was full of limos and Mercedes Benzes. He asked, in his typical curious way, why would this crowd come to hear songs of unemployment, social injustice and dissatisfaction?
Joe Strummer was a voice of the people. Like Woody Guthrie and Nelson Mandela before him, he distilled his generation’s frustrations and turned them into a prophecy of hope. He used every muscle in his body to speak their will, and an entire generation danced in ecstasy as his words painted a picture: Someday the poor will be fed, the sick will be healed, and the downtrodden will rise to the mountaintop.
Joe Strummer was a gentle soul with a Howl the size of the World.
And in this present crazy world, we will sorely miss his Voice.