Death or Glory

Not just another story: Joe Strummer's dead

How difficult it is to type the words: Joe Strummer, songwriter/singer/guitarist for the Clash, is dead at the age of 50. The stomach dropped at the sight of the words coming across the CNN crawl; impossible that so vital a musician and so vigorous a man could disappear just like that. The truth is incomprehensible: From all accounts, John Graham Mellor, the son of a British diplomat, died on Sunday, December 22, of a heart attack at his UK home in the southern county of Somerset.

Strummer leaves behind his family (wife Lucy, their two daughters and another stepdaughter) and an estimable legacy as a founding member of one of the most important bands of the punk-rock era, if not the rock & roll era. Though news of his death comes as a sickening shock -- Strummer, of all punk's fathers, seemed the most resilient and immortal -- perhaps it's fitting that he died of a heart attack: No one of that era had more heart or possessed so much soul. Where so many other bands made noise to agitate and annoy, the Clash played as much to inform as irritate; theirs was the sound of a revolution that began in the garage and swept around the globe, the combat rock made by rebels who fired endless salvos at government corruption and social complacency. "The Clash sang fiercely about problems and weakly about solutions because the members were true punks, and of the devil's party without knowing it," Rob Sheffield touchingly wrote in the Spin Alternative Record Guide in 1995. Seven years on, it turns out to be a fitting eulogy.

What makes Strummer's death all the more upsetting is that Strummer, Mick Jones (who recently joined Strummer onstage after nearly twenty years to perform "Bankrobber," "London's Burning" and "White Riot"), Paul Simonon and Topper Headon were due to reunite in New York City in March 2003, when the band will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Now Strummer will be absent from the podium; on December 22, a celebration was rendered a memorial service.

The Clash
The Clash

A year ago, I spoke with Strummer about his last album with his band the Mescaleros, Global A Go-Go, and the Clash's legacy. What follows are excerpts from the conversation.

Wilonsky: This morning I read an interview you did in 1981 with Musician magazine and Robert Fripp. You talked about the feeling of creating music and how, at its best, you don't know where it comes from and about how rare those moments are.

Strummer: The whole point is to shut off the front mind and get to that point. It's, like, say a musician comes to overdub on a track. Ten to one, they always have a run-through and do all the good stuff when they're just running through it, and then as soon as you go, "Right, what am I gonna do on this track?" -- as soon as the analytical side comes in -- then everything deteriorates. It's really weird. It's trying to unlock the human mind, but it's very difficult, because if you think about what you're doing, you've already lost it.

How do you keep the analytical mind out of the emotional mind?

First of all, you have to smoke a lot of weed. [Laughs.] This seems to help, just to turn life out for a minute. Also, you have to be brave enough to let yourself go, so to speak. Say you're approaching a part in the song -- say you're overdubbing or singing on top of something -- I find as soon as fear sets in, you've lost it. You've got to trust something's going to come out of your mouth or your guitar worth having when you approach a difficult section or just don't know what to do. This is one of the big moments. When you don't know what to do, you gotta fling yourself at it with blind trust, I would say, that something's gonna happen. Even though you might not have anything prepared, you gotta get rid of the fear. You better go and have a cup of tea if you've got the fear up, because you're not gonna do it, I reckon.

Before recording with the Mescaleros, you took a decade off from recording. Does making music give you something different now?

I see it very much the same way. The only thing I really have to look out for is trying to keep this band together. That's my main task, because I think it took some putting together, this lot, and they're interesting people and great players, and everyone seems able to get on. It's very hard to find all those things at once, and so if I am worrying at all in the middle of the night, it's about how volatile these situations are. I've seen it all go belly-up before. I feel we can make a really crackin' number of albums in a year or so if we keep it together.

Does that layoff and the rejuvenation after make you think differently about why you do what you do and what you get out of it?

Next Page »