|FRIDAY JANUARY 3
NEW YEAR'S DAZE
The last three Fletcher New Years were pretty complicated: for 2000 a Millennium reunion with best friends in Sydney, for '01 a mammoth party we hosted in Brooklyn, and for '02 a hellish (and necessarily sober) drive back and forth across London. So when Brooklyn band Radio 4 announced they would be headlining Brooklyn venue Southpaw this December 31st, I made the decision to stay local.
It's been a banner year for Brooklyn, and our New Year's Eve experience exemplified this. We started out at a family party further along Park Slope, where all the kids hung out downstairs watching Shrek while the adults inevitably brought the conversation round to the changes in the neighborhood these last five years: most notably the gradual conversion of 5th Avenue from crack alley to social destination. Right now, the street is a virtual goldmine for any bar proprietor with an ounce of business sense, but props have to be given to those who laid the groundwork, back when people were genuinely scared to come down here. That would include the upscale restaurant Cucina, lesbian bar The Rising, Anglo-Irish pub The Gate, espresso-performance bar Moda Vechia, and record store Somethin' Else.
The last three of these places are almost next to each other between 1st and 3rd Streets on the Avenue, and their relentless promotion of the neighborhood finally paid off this year, most notably at the spring-time 5th Avenue Festival for which local live bands and DJs replaced the usually omnipresent bric-a-brac stalls. I've had a personal fondness for Somethin' Else ever since stumbling in the store when I heard Delta 5 blaring from a cassette player a couple of years back, striking up an immediate friendship with the owner, Anthony Roman. Turned out, no surprise, that Roman was in a band. It also turned out that band was Radio 4, and as much as it's been a thrill to see Brooklyn in general gain credence, 5th Avenue in particular take off, and Somethin' Else finally manage to pay its bills, there's been a genuine home-town satisfaction these last two years watching Radio 4 go from minor punk band to international trailblazers.
Radio 4 rock the Southpaw, New Year's Morning, 2003
Their new album, Gotham!, has been noted for its heavy debt to the Gang Of Four, but then all the New York bands are mining some post-punk act or other's repertoire. (And you think us Jam fans didn't spend years living down the notion that we were listening to a bunch of Who rip-offs?) Given enough time, Gotham! becomes its own record, a diary of New York City life at the end of the Giuliani era. Written and recorded pre 9-11, it's a particularly odd (and for the band, fortunate) New York record in that it only sounded more relevant after the atrocity. With titles like 'Save Your City,' 'Calling All Enthusiasts' and 'Our Town', Gotham! has become something of a rallying call, while its lyrics about the F train to Brooklyn, murders on Myrtle Avenue, and expensive drinks at Don Hill's all display a knack for detail that is the mark of great storytellers.
I'd find it hard to say a hurtful word about Radio 4 purely from a sense of personal loyalty: I'm all for people who put their money where their mouths are, opening record stores in run-down neighborhoods and recording emotional anthems about their home town. Fortunately though, I haven't had to consider written negatives about a band I now consider my friends. Instead, I've watched with delight play an exhilarating album release party at Don Hill's, an exuberant support slot outdoors for Clinic, and more recently seen the British press jump all over them. The NME awarded them Single of the Week and wrote a hilariously glowing feature about the Brooklyn Halloween experience. Uncut just included Gotham! in its Top 50 albums of the year and has an interview to follow. And the band just concluded its debut European tour with a sold-out headline gig at London's Garage.
In every sense, Radio 4 are happening, but nothing ever happens in a vacuum, which is why you probably didn't know they had an album out before Gotham! In a bigger Brooklyn sense, 2002 was the year that electroclash swept Williamsburg (in north Brooklyn), and that neighborhood's venue Luxx became the internationally famous playground for trust fund glammies; it was also the year that Park Slope, here in south Brooklyn, finally got its own venue, when Southpaw opened in the spring. Luna, the Creation, Mooney Suzuki, Sahara Hotnights, Divine Comedy and Ocean Blue are just some of the acts I've seen grace the 5th Avenue club's stage this year.
Of course, no venue is perfect and Southpaw frustrates both its bands with its on-stage sound, and its punters (well, me at least) when they tease us with proper wine glasses and then fill them with atrociously undrinkable wine, or promise champagne on New Year's Eve and then forget to open the bottles. But I suppose that's part of the venue's overall lack of pretension, and it can be turned to personal advantage. When I got inside Southpaw on Tuesday at five to midnight, only to find there was no coat check and I was overdressed (and wanted to hang at the front and take photos), I did what I wish I could do every New Year's: ran home, dropped off my coat and came back in time for the countdown!
Anthony Roman calling all enthusiasts
Tommy Williams gets behind the struggle
Radio 4 took the stage the moment the New Year kicked in, at which point it was also guitarist and second vocalist Tommy Williams' birthday. Their 45-minute show, drawn almost exclusively from Gotham!, showed the evident effects of the band's constant touring this year. Behind Roman and Williams, drummer Greg Collins keeps a sharp beat, while it's the relatively recent addition of furiously energetic keyboardist Gerard Garone and percussionist P.J. O'Connor that's really enabled the group to make the vital transition from punk trio to punk-funk quintet.
Radio 4 clearly draw much inspiration from their unfortunate namesakes The Gang Of
, but there's also an evident Clash influence, and the name of Joe Strummer was evoked many times Tuesday night, both on stage and off. As such, it's a shame that the band has dropped the dub reggae jam 'Pipe Bombs' (which always sounded better onstage than on the otherwise superbly DFA-produced album), while the experimental 'Speaking In Codes' also has a sufficiently different onstage sound as to could benefit from an extended instrumental passage. Maybe the band has eschewed those options to keep the energy flowing instead: the New Year's gig ended with the front row of dancers invited on stage and handed tambourines for a glorious party rendition of the pre-Gotham! single 'Dance To The Underground.' 2002 was a wonderful year for the underground, and while 2003 will present interesting challenges for those, like Radio 4, who will inevitably be going overground, we can worry about all that when the hangovers finally disappear. As a gift to open 2003, this Radio 4 broadcast was the perfect(ly) present.
THURSDAY JANUARY 2:
FACTS AND FIGURES
Joe Strummer?!! We think not.
No sooner have I praised the New York Times for posting the news of Joe Strummer's death so high up its online front page than the wife nudges me as she's looking through the Week In Review section of December 29 awaiting our return from holiday. "Um, isn't that Mick Jones?" she says of the photo accompanying an op-ed piece "No Second Acts in Punk? Says Who?", which claims to show Joe Strummer in 1980.
She's right. You'd think the paper of record would have someone on hand, even during Christmas week, to look at a picture of the Clash and know the difference between Strummer and Jones. As a misidentification in an apparent outlet of record it's only bested this year by Rolling Stone, which printed a photo of John Lennon and identified him as Keith Moon.
We can't blame the Times' piece's author Ed Ward for the photographic mistake. After all, his byline states, "the rock historian for NPR's Fresh Air
is based in Berlin." But perhaps PBS, equally proud of its apparent accuracy, should consider a new historian (and maybe I should throw away my Rolling Stone History of Rock'n'Roll, which Ward co-edited). For the mistaken Clash identities are compounded by a number of astounding errors in Ward's feature that makes me seriously concerned for the veracity of everything else printed in the paper.
"A 25-year old today wasn't even conceived the night the Sex Pistols, the best-known of the punk Class of '76, broke up," writes Ward near the top of his feature. By which he can only, surely, be implying that the Pistols broke up more than 25 years and nine months ago. Except they didn't. Almost any one who remembers anything about the punk era knows full well that the Sex Pistols broke up, or rather Johnny Rotten left the band, at the end of their first American tour, in January 1978: 25 years ago this month. So when does Ward think the Pistols broke up? For his statement to make sense, that would be the spring of 1977 - before the Queen's Silver Jubilee even kicked in.
That truly strange comment is then compounded by the following: "When the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten
Intoned 'No future,' it was the cry of youth coming out of school to discover that there were no jobs in Margaret Thatcher's Britain." No it wasn't. Britain was under a Labour government, led first by Harold Wilson and then by James Callaghan, from 1974 to 1979. It may fit the rose-tinted historical perspective to assume that punks were railing against a Conservative government but they weren't: by the point that Thatcher was elected in May of 1979, Sid Vicious had been dead several months, The Police and the Boomtown Rats were the acceptable face of 'new wave' and the Specials AKA had already released 'Gangsters.'
Following these clangors, I suppose the misspelling of Paul Simonon's name as Paul Simenon is almost amusing. To some, perhaps. It's an odd name, I agree, which is why I checked my Clash CDs for his spelling before committing my own tribute to the web. I'm not being pedantic here, nor am I nit-picking. I often have a go at the British music press for their failure to fact-check, considering that I've had Newsday copy editors call me at the oddest hours to ask me to identify musicians in photographs and provide references for my spelling choices. For the Times to get so much so utterly wrong in one space especially on its decision-influencing Week In Review section is excruciating. I'm looking forward to next week's paper and a lengthy 'Corrections' section. And I'm assuming the fact-checkers are now back from their holidays.
This seems the right moment for me to bring up a letter I received over the holidays about an apparent error in my Keith Moon biography. "The 74 gig at Charlton was not windy or raining," wrote George Smythe. "I was there with my late sister and I can definitely say that it was quite sunny and warm. To confirm this I phoned a very nice guy at the London weather centre who after finding out why I wanted to know became very enthusiastic (being a Who fan himself) got back to me and confirmed the top temperature that day was 68 degrees farenheight."
Mea culpa. I wasn't at the show: I was but ten years old. I attended the Charlton show in 1976 which we all remember as being sodden. So why did I report in my book of the 1974 show that "the torrential rain that day ensured that almost everyone got thoroughly soaked"? Because I relied on another apparent authority. On page 442 of my copy of Dave Marsh's Before I Get Old, the previously definitive biography of The Who, I find the following: "On May 18
at Charlton Athletic Football ground in south London
a crowd of 50,000
sat in the rain
before seeing the Who close the show. Bottles were thrown and the crowd wallowed in mud
.Everyone except Townshend seemed reasonably satisfied that the gig had come off decently despite the weather
Townshend was still miserable, because the lousy weather and the crowd's passive acceptance of the conditions reminded him too much of Woodstock."
Marsh was wrong and I didn't choose to check otherwise. Lesson learned? I hope so. Maybe, following this embarrassing error and the even more egregious ones in the Times about punk, the Clash, Thatcher and Johnny Rotten, it should be my New Year's Resolution not to believe what I read in the press. Still. Even after all these years.
TUESDAY DECEMBER 31st:
JOE STRUMMER: A TRIBUTE
Thanks for all you did, Joe. And for all you tried to do, too. And for your valiant failings, even more gratitude is due. You were a true hero. But you were always human. And that's a rare combination.
Late afternoon on Monday December 23, just before going off the grid for Christmas week, I headed to the nearest upstate town to check e-mail one last time. The bad news was waiting for me the moment I opened my browser. There, near the top of the New York Times web site front page was the shock headline: Joe Strummer, singer, guitarist and songwriter for the Clash, had died of a heart attack, age 50.
It's a fitting tribute to his influence and impact that the leading international newspaper considered Strummer's death so important. After all, over fifteen years have passed since the Clash stumbled to a halt, one embarrassing Strummer-led album beyond Combat Rock and the ouster of lead guitarist and fellow songwriter Mick Jones. In the late '80s, it was Jones who enjoyed a proper second innings with his pioneering Big Audio Dynamite; Strummer's own solo career was patchy, frequently non-existent, and though he had recently been enjoying a good run with his new group the Mescaleros, performing multicultural rock with an emphasis on Clash reggae, the most vital music of his life was behind him, and he knew it.
But the importance of that music, that band, can't be and, thankfully, judging by the international outpouring of genuine sorrow, hasn't been overstated. The Clash were one of the most influential bands of modern times, that much is hard to dispute, but they were also something of a cultural Rorschach test in that they meant so many different things to so many different people. To some they were the proto-political punk rockers, a street-fighting gang of working class Londoners that genuinely craved a social revolution. To others the clash city rockers were corporate players in combat fatigues: the last gang in town was the first to sign a major label deal, and the group that proclaimed itself so Bored With The U.S.A. was the first to conquer American AOR radio.
Some remember the Clash for the definitive punk statement that was their eponymous 1977 debut album; others for their continual appropriation and redistribution of urban ethnic musics; and others still for their straight-to-the-gut radio-friendly anthems. There are those who look on the double album London Calling and then the triple album Sandanista! as pioneering musical adventures, value-packed experiments by a band willing to take tremendous risks and there are those who saw those self-same epics as the visible degeneration into rock cliché of punk's greatest hope. Some people never forgave the Clash for breaking up at the peak of their global success; some never forgave Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon for then continuing the band, albeit briefly, without Mick Jones; and some (probably the same people) never forgave the Clash for refusing to reform, not only because every other group from the punk era seemed to have done so, but because the Clash remained close friends throughout, which made us convinced, Goddamnit, that they still had the chemistry if only they'd get on stage together and test it.
The truth is, there never was a single truth to The Clash. They were a glorious white riot of multi-colored contradictions. Like almost all revolutionaries, they talked it better than they walked it - but they still walked it better than most of us ever dreamt of it. They inspired us, they excited us, they denied us, they frustrated the hell out of us and whatever emotion they charged us with, Joe Strummer was at the center of their passion play. Strummer was blessed with a commanding stage presence, an earnest offstage demeanor, and a famously gruff vocal delivery, but most of all, he came to us equipped with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that, combined with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and an unending quest for experience, made him a natural leader of men. But he led more than just the Clash; he led thousands of us on an adventure for which we are eternally grateful and forever changed.
"There never was a single truth to The Clash. They were a glorious white riot of multi-colored contradictions. Like almost all revolutionaries, they talked it better than they walked it - but they still walked it better than most of us ever dreamt of it."
How was I changed by Strummer's Clash? I read about them before I actually heard them, that much I know. Their photos were everywhere during the early, sensationalist days of punk rock: with their slogan-stenciled clothes, their wildly-spiked hair and their wide-legged confrontational stance, they made ready copy. They also made scary copy. The Clash frightened people. For while it was The Sex Pistols who lit the touch paper of the British punk revolution, it was the Clash who carried the flaming torch, eagerly looking for past relics to burn and a new generation to fire up.
I heard the Clash's first single shortly after its spring '77 release and their invitation to a 'White Riot' sounded so dangerous, violent and distant that I didn't think I wanted to be a part of it. As such, I didn't immediately hear the accompanying debut album. Flash forward six months, however, and punk had broken the mainstream: my friends and I were readily buying records by whichever "new wave" band appeared on that week's Top of the Pops. (The Clash never appeared on the show.) One late summer Friday evening and I was listening to Capital Radio and its evening new release show: surprisingly (given that the Clash had recently recorded a song assailing the station), the third Clash single 'Complete Control' sneaked in among that week's half-dozen new 45s, and I still recall turning up the volume in instinctive reaction to one of the most exciting sounds of my life.
Those power chords more caustic than even Townshend's strongest riffs; the lyrics in the verses that emitted an anger I now wanted to understand; the brief, simple and brilliantly effectively high-pitched Jones solo in the middle, to which Strummer sneered sarcastically "You're my guitar hero"; the sinister "I don't trust you, do you trust me?" vocal in the breakdown; and then the ever-increasing energy of the finale, those classic Clash backing harmonies intoning "Control, Con-Control", while Strummer sang "This is Joe Public speaking
This is your punk rockers" as he railed and wailed seemingly against everything and everybody. . .
More than it typified them, 'Complete Control' exemplified the Clash. Their triumphs and tragedies, their contradictions and confrontations, all can be summarized in those three minutes and twelve seconds that stands as one of the great singles of all time. Lyrically, 'Complete Control' was an attack on the Clash's record label CBS. (Mark Perry famously stated that punk died the day the Clash signed to CBS, and he had a point in that the self-proclaimed revolutionaries sold the movement short when they signed to the biggest recording corporation out there. Then again, had they not done so, they would never have had cause to write 'Complete Control'; it's one of the many fabulous dichotomies of the Clash story.) CBS had released 'Remote Control', the weakest (read, most apparently commercial) song off the debut Clash album as follow-up to 'White Riot', only for it to flop, disastrously, during the same summer of '77 that all the other punk leaders hit the charts. The Clash responded by writing a song about the experience, and insisting that CBS release it. The label obliged and it became an immediate punk classic. I heard it played in a Manhattan bar just two weeks before Strummer's untimely death, and it once again put my hairs on edge.
It was only after I was so affected by 'Complete Control' that my surrogate big brother Jeff, who at three years my senior had already helped foster my devotion to Crystal Palace and The Who, while turning me onto Mott The Hoople and Bob Marley along the way, taped the first, self-titled Clash album for me. He did so with the recording volume at distortion level throughout, and I in turn played that distorted cassette at full volume on my brother's stereo whenever I had the house to myself. As a suburban middle class 13-year old, I can't pretend that I experienced the same social-political conflicts as The Clash sung about but then Joe Strummer was no ghetto child either.
The son of a diplomat, Strummer had been born John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, in 1952, and had been educated at public schools (i.e., private schools), and as if these weren't harmful enough credentials, it was noted that he was already an old man 25! having formerly trod the pub-rock boards with his largely covers band the 101'ers. In the absolutist days of 1977, these were serious charges indeed, but for the legions of Clash fans who, like myself, could claim neither poverty nor an immunity to the music that had passed before, Strummer's total conversion to the punk cause (which came about after witnessing the Pistols live in 1976) was inspirational. With his social, musical, and political commitment, he proved that punk was an attitude, not a birthright. Besides, you only had to listen to him sing to know he meant every word.
Strummer was blessed with a commanding stage presence, an earnest offstage demeanor, and a famously gruff vocal delivery, but most of all, he came to us equipped with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that, combined with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and an unending quest for experience, made him a natural leader of men.
I listened to that first Clash album so many times I memorized its chords as well as its lyrics. 'Deny,' 'Cheat,' '48 Hours,' (all of which were dropped from the American release) 'Career Opportunities', 'White Riot,' 'I'm So Bored With The U.S.A.,' 'Garageland'
any number of those songs remain forever embedded in my memory. One stands out for entirely different reasons, however. With 'Police and Thieves,' their six-minute cover of a Lee Perry composition, the Clash confirmed that punks could play reggae. For kids like myself, growing up in South London, attending school in Kennington, traveling every day through Brixton and assimilating more of the reggae vibes and rasta culture than our parents may have desired or suspected, 'Police and Thieves' was as much a musical milestone as 'Anarchy In The UK.' When the three of us Tenison's third years who formed Apocalypse began rehearsing on Railton Road, the Brixton front line, in 1978, we self-consciously covered 'Police and Thieves' right down to the guitar solo. There's an evident irony in a trio of white teenagers covering another bunch of white boys' version of a song written by a mad Rastafarian about political strife in Jamaica , but we were as sincere in our love of the Clash's take on reggae as they were with the Jamaican originals.
The Clash's love affair with the genre saw them promote reggae from album track ('Police and Thieves') to b-side ('Pressure Drop') and onto an a-side: '(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais' is another of those Clash songs that sounds as remarkable and revolutionary now as it did then, the first genuine punk reggae single. Strummer's vocals were famously unintelligible and I've never bothered to fully decipher this song, preferring the half-meaning of the occasionally pronounced couplet. Strummer sings about "the first flight from Jamaica," how "the British army is waiting out there" and that "white youth, black youth better find another solution." He talks cryptically of how "punk rockers in the UK, they won't notice anyway," that "the new groups are not concerned with what there is to be learned," before challenging, "Huh, you think it's funny, turning rebellion into money?" This last line provoked some snickering from those who thought the Clash were spending too much time raising their profile in the States rather than manning the barricades in the increasingly chaotic UK, but again that's just part of their glorious contradiction. It doesn't diminish 'White Man's visceral power one iota.
In spring 1978, I finally saw the Clash play live when they headlined the first Rock Against Racism/Anti Nazi League festival in Victoria Park in Hackney, to which tens of thousands of us marched many miles from Trafalgar Square. Between the pulling power of the Clash and the historic weight of the occasion, around 70,000 people turned up that day. So many of the British punk bands made a lot of noise about making noise, only to come across as provincial, even cartoonish, on stage. The Clash never had that problem. They always looked like rock stars. They were imbued with so much self-created myth and so much self-evident confidence, they had such an intrinsic understanding of presentation and performance, it was always apparent that they'd escape the punk stranglehold.
They did so with Give 'Em Enough Rope, the long-awaited second album that overly exuded the influence of its American producer Sandy Pearlman. Around that time, I threw my lot in with The Jam, and I came to absorb Paul Weller's distrust and dislike of The Clash (which stemmed from a co-headlining tour in 1977 that the Jam were either pushed off of or pulled out from), paying Strummer's gang less respect than maybe I should have done. Then again, The Jam were delivering perpetually brilliant singles on their way to becoming Britain's undisputed punk survivors while the Clash were veering wildly in consistency as they spent ever more time in the States. I've still never understood why Strummer and co. covered 'I Fought The Law' but it only emphasizes that for human fallibility, the Clash were infallible.
So it continued. I bought London Calling as I had the previous albums, and its greatest moments remain great to this day. But I passed on Sandanista! Nowadays, I recognize that triple set as the sound of an open-minded band embracing the new language of the American street, those exciting days when hip-hop was emerging out of disco, punk and electro - but it was ruined both then and now by appalling filler. Yet still the Clash could deliver to the jugular. There was 'Bankrobber' one of the greatest reggae singles ever to make the British Top 10 and there was Combat Rock, laden with radio hits and the album that put the Clash over the top in America. At which it promptly went pear-shaped: drummer Topper Headon developed a heroin addiction that saw him booted from the group's most lucrative American tour, and Mick Jones developed American rock star syndrome that saw him booted at the end of it. There followed that subsequently denounced brief continuation without Jones, several retrospectives, a box set, a long overdue live album, and a superb documentary ('From Westway To The World' directed by former Tenisonian, Roxy club DJ and B.A.D. member Don Letts), but the Clash no longer existed in the present tense.
Over subsequent years, when I would think of what I remembered the Clash for, it was as much for their attitude as their music. They fought the fiercest battles of all the punk bands, even if they were occasionally misdirected. There were the arguments with CBS that inspired 'Complete Control' and their insistence that Sandanista! be sold at single album price. There was their increasingly pointless refusal to appear on Top of The Pops, and their admirable decision to honor all tickets for a run at Bond's in Times Square in, I think, 1981 for which the venue was so heavily oversold that they ended up playing something like ten nights in a row. Whenever I recall these battles, I imagine Strummer as the instigator, the intransigent one. He had that air about him that suggested he wouldn't back down. Yet equally, he was known for his ready warmth, his keen spirit, his immense warmth. Even though I never met him, I always felt like I knew him.
In April 2002, Joe Strummer and his new band the Mescaleros played five nights at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, his only American shows of the year (which makes them his last American appearances ever). I attended with my English neighbor Paul who had grown up in Bristol round the same time as I'd attended school round Brixton. I noted on this site that, physically, Joe came on "like an ageing boxer unwilling yet to retire from the ring." But emotionally, he appeared in great spirits, and if politically, he was more restrained than the young punk who set out to change the world, then musically, he seemed no less keen on traversing the globe than ever. But he concluded the night on firm ground, with a New York trilogy that included 'Blitzkrieg Bop': Joey Ramone, Strummer's American compatriot in the punk movement, had died a few months earlier, and though that singer's death had not been unexpected, we were all still feeling the loss of a punk icon who was known, like Strummer, as an all round good guy.
Much of Strummer's set that night at St. Ann's drew on the Clash's reggae repertoire, much to Paul's and my own delight. (You can view video clips from those concerts here.) Back home, I rapidly returned to that part of their recording career. I started taking their dub-heavy compilation Black Market Clash with me to my DJ gigs; I played 'Pressure Drop' and 'Armagideon Time' at Shout!, and '(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais' at both Death Disco in London, where I was informed that it was already a house anthem, and at the 24 Hour Party People party in Manhattan. 'White Man' showed up on my favorite soundtrack of the year, Me Without You, and on the new New York scene, I heard other DJs frequently drop 'This Is Radio Clash!', 'Rock The Casbah' and 'The Magnificent Seven'. Again, here was the beauty of the Clash, that so many differing parts of their legacy spoke to so many different people. Official recognition of their influence was just around the corner: in early 2003, the Clash, those most belligerent of punk rebels, are to be inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, and there was widespread anticipation that the Clash would perform onstage again, if only as part of the post-Induction jam.
That can't happen now. It's maybe the only silver lining we can take from the overhanging cloud of Strummer's tragically premature departure. Don't get me wrong: I'd love to have seen the Clash play together again. But I wouldn't want it to have been at the ultimate black tie celebration of corporate conformity. And who's to say that the band felt any different? Towards the end of 'From Westway To the World', Don Letts asks the Clash about reforming, and they all dismiss the idea out of hand. That was then, they say. We did all we could. We achieved more than we ever hoped. We said our piece. Anything else is just a trip down memory lane for pure commercial gain. However much it pains me not to hear them play again, I think they were right.
(I am surely not the first to notice this eerie coincidence, how last year the Ramones were inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, only for singer Joey to die shortly before the event. This year it was the Clash's turn, only for Strummer to pass away shortly beforehand. Next year's punk icons may choose to refuse the award for the sake of their front man's health.)
With his social, musical, and political commitment, Joe Strummer proved that punk was an attitude, not a birthright. Besides, you only had to listen to him sing to know he meant every word.
So my Christmas, like yours no doubt, was ruined by the news of Strummer's departure. But the fact that I was off the grid allowed me to file away the sadness for a few days and enjoy this life for all it has to offer us. Then on Saturday 28th, I went back on line and there it was again: Strummer's death all over my e-mail, the obituaries pouring in across the web, the tribute concerts and club nights already having taken over the New York City calendar. I read the reports, felt the universal sorrow, got back in the car and put on the second of my Story Of The Clash CDs I've been keeping in my portable carry case since seeing Strummer live last April. '(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais' and 'London's Burning' sounded incongruous up in the snowy Catskills mountains; I'm a long way removed these days from the south London school kid who first heard those songs a quarter century ago.
But they're a part of me wherever I may be; they're a large factor in who I became. So when 'Complete Control' came on I emitted a youthful cry for how its explosive violence still enthralled me, even when all around me was cocooned in sleepy post-Christmas whiteout bliss. And following that cry of excitement, I found myself crying for real. I pulled the car over and let the song play through, singing along to those final harmonies as I had when I was a kid - while simultaneously searching for some way to quell the tears. I don't know if I was crying for the loss of Joe the person, Joe the punk rock icon, or the Clash; I suspect that my tears were for something less tangible and more personal, a sad acknowledgement of mortality, the realization that those I grew up listening to are dying on me now - and for a further loss of innocence too, the understanding that I can never be a teenager again, that however much I love music, I'll never have a similarly life-changing experience to match that of hearing 'Complete Control' for the first time.
I don't believe in the afterlife. I think once we're done here, we're done here and that's that. I believe all we can aspire to is making the most of our time on earth and hoping that our souls live on through our children and our contributions to our culture. By those criteria, Joe Strummer will always be with us. Thanks of all you did, Joe. And all you tried to do, too. And for your valiant failings, even more gratitude is due. You were a true hero. But you were always human. And that's a rare combination. You'll be sorely missed. And forever remembered.
Tony Fletcher, December 31st 2002. A happy new year to all.