Saturday, December 29, 2007

Rebel's Requiem: The Legacy of Strummer Five Years On

By Alexander Billet

It is always bittersweet to see an artist no longer with us get the recognition they deserved in life. For Joe Strummer, the Clash-man who died five years ago last week (December 22nd) at age 50, that is exactly what’s happened. In 2007 alone, we’ve seen an exhibit dedicated to the Clash at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, a magnificently authoritative biography from friend and journalist Chris Salewicz, and the long awaited (however problematic) Julien Temple documentary The Future is Unwritten. And, of course, Strummer’s music is used to sell everything from cell-phones to cars; the true mark of a rock ‘n’ roll icon.

There’s no doubt that Joe deserves every drop of praise for his contributions to popular music and culture. But for those of us moved by his call that “anger can be power,” it’s hard to take the flash-and-fanfare seriously. The pop-music myth-makers love dead rock stars. Dead men can’t argue, and in the case of Joe, can’t protest while their legacy and message are picked apart and made safe for consumption.

This past spring’s Doc Martens ad sums it all up: Strummer, complete with halo and angel’s wings, playing his guitar atop a cloud, joined by angel versions of Hendrix, Vicious, Joey Ramone and Kurt Cobain.

It’s a trend that can easily take a much more insidious tone. Joe himself recalled how he could only weep when “Rock the Casbah” was played by US forces during the first Gulf War. This February, Rudy Giuliani had the nerve to use “Rudy Can’t Fail” as his campaign kickoff song. And none other than Tony Blair once thanked “bands like the Clash” for creating (and I am not making this up) a much undervalued source of British exports!

The irony is absolutely stomach-turning. The man who warned against “turning rebellion into money” is now turned to fodder for marketing firms and politicians.

Joe Strummer had a different legacy, and it has absolutely nothing to do with export ratios. He was an artist profoundly shaped by his time and place. In a 1970s Britain wracked by racism and unemployment, Strummer chose to put himself squarely in opposition. The newspapers called the Clash “degenerates,” “hoodlums,” “anarchists.” To young people, they were “the only band that matters,” and it wasn’t because they sold a million records or made the most money. They mattered because they were the first band in a great long while that tapped into how the majority of youth actually felt.

And how did they feel? Quite frankly, they were pissed. Comedian Mark Steel was one of many radicalized during those tumultuous years, and he’s honest about the role the Clash played: “The Clash didn’t just legitimize anger, they politicized it, giving meaning to the directionless rage that drove early punk. They celebrated multiculturalism and supported the Sandinistas; they weren’t just against, they were for. And where most adult advice involved how to earn a few bob or save a few bob, they sold their records so cheap that they threw away a fortune.”

While politicians blamed immigrants for joblessness and gave cover to neo-Nazis groups, the Clash embraced the roots reggae of the Caribbean community. It was a gesture of solidarity that would inspire countless groups, including those of the soon-to-follow “2-Tone” movement. If not for the Clash, we might never have heard of Rock Against Racism or its successor Love Music Hate Racism.

Their embrace of hip-hop a few days later came from similar motivations. “When we came to the US,” said Strummer, “Mick (Jones, guitarist/vocalist for the Clash) stumbled upon a music shop in Brooklyn that carried the music of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, the Sugar Hill Gang… these groups were radically changing music and they changed everything for us.” The band’s controversial decision to have Flash and the Five open for them at the legendary Bond’s Casino shows in NYC lent a great deal of credibility to a burgeoning genre that has shaped popular music ever since.

Their identification with working people didn’t just translate into cheap album prices. During the miners’ bitter strike against the Thatcher government, the Clash were among the many acts that lent support and played benefits for the National Miners Union. These types of events were standard fare for Strummer. One of the last shows he played with his new band the Mescaleros (where he famously reunited with Jones onstage) was also a benefit for the British Fire Brigades Union.

This might be one of the most truly outrageous things about Strummer being claimed by the likes of Blair. Joe’s entire catalog rails against Blair’s ilk. One of the last songs he ever recorded was a collaboration with reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. “Over the Border” combines the righteous swagger of reggae with a steadfast punk outrage, and directs both against the horrors of war. Strummer’s gravelly growl and Cliff’s smooth patois bounce off each other:

“They’re shedding blood over the border
So who came first to these hills?
Only the drums remember
‘Cos the hand of the drummer was stilled

Oh, will chaos and disorder
Always rain through these hills
Peace will be slaughtered by anger
And the blood of the lamb will be spilled”

This is what Joe (who wrote the song’s lyrics) did best. He cut through the rhetoric and got to the meat of what ails the planet. Strummer tragically died several months before the US went into Iraq. But his urgent plea rings even more true as his thoughts during the run-up to the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan: “Even though there are extremists in the world, if we represent the sane people of the world, then we’ve got to hold on to our sanity and not allow ourselves to get crazed with vengeance…”

Perhaps the best living legacy of Strummer lies in the foundation set up in his name. Founded by his widow Lucinda, the Strummerville Foundation exists to give young musicians the instrumental and studio opportunities they might not otherwise have. Joe was always convinced there would be another Clash later down the line, another voice in music dedicated to the dreams and aspirations of ordinary people, and Strummerville is built on that idea. Already, from London to Tuscon, Arizona, there are annual benefits for Strummerville held on the anniversary of his death. It seems that there is a large swath of musicians who owe Strummer a great debt, from Anti-Flag and Rancid to MIA and Antibalas.

This is precisely what the Blairs and Giulianis don’t get; that past the bottom line of more money in the bank account, there is a world well-worth fighting for. A world of dignity, equality and humanity. Joe Strummer fought for that world, and that’s why he doesn’t deserve to be frozen in time with the rest of the rock aristocracy; his message embalmed into a milk-toast pabulum used to sell shoes. He deserves better. He deserves to have his message listened to.

*Special thanks to Antonino D’Ambrosio, who provided much of the material for this article.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Special Announcement from Rebel Frequencies

-My article "Is Russell Simmons Playing Politics with Hip-hop?" (from this past May, appearing in Znet Commentary) will be appearing in the upcoming anthology "At Issue: Should Music Lyrics Be Censored?" to be published by Cengage Learning in the spring of '08 (visit Cengage's website at This is my first time being published in an anthology, and is needless to say, a very big step. Much thanks to everyone who has supported this blog and its mission throughout. Much more is to come.

-On that note, the recent inactivity on this site has been troubling (at least for me). But two articles are upcoming, a collaboration with Antonino D'Ambrosio on the fifth anniversary of Joe Strummer's death, the much-awaited review of the latest Saul Williams record, and much more in the new year!

-I will also be compiling a "collection" of my own. This will be in the tradition of the punk zine; made at home, photo-copied, and placed guerilla-style in unsuspecting record and book-stores. It will be a compilation of the best articles from over the past year or so. For those who aren't in the DC area and would like a copy, I'll be setting up an way to mail-order them for a small (very small) fee.

Stay Free,

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Dixie Chicks join the chorus for the West Memphis Three

Thirteen long years, several benefit albums and concerts, and this case is now finally starting to gain steam. The article doesn't mention how the prosecution used the three then-teenage defendants' black clothes and interest in heavy metal as evidence against them. If people remember, this is right at the end of the PMRC/Satanic Panic years. If you haven't donated to their defense already, then do now! -AB


by Roger Friedman, Fox News

The Dixie Chicks have a new controversy on their hands. Lead singer Natalie Maines is urging people to contribute money to a defense fund for three Arkansas men that she (and many others) believe were wrongly convicted of killing three children in 1993.

Maines writes her plea on the Dixie Chicks Web site, which has already been answered by several celebrities including, I am told, Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder, Eddie Vedder, Jack Black and Henry Rollins.

"I'm writing this letter today because I believe that three men have spent the past 13 years in prison for crimes they didn't commit," Maines' message begins.

"On May 5, 1993 in West Memphis, Ark., three 8-year-old boys, Steve Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore were murdered.

"Three teenage boys, Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin were convicted of the murders in 1994. Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley received life sentences without parole, and Damien Echols sits on death row.
"I encourage everyone to see the HBO documentaries, 'Paradise Lost' and 'Paradise Lost 2' for the whole history of the case."

Right now, Maines’ main goal is to raise money for the West Memphis 3. To that end, she’s directing fans to the Web site

Overturning convictions is more common these days, thanks to more sophisticated forensics. There are obviously now dozens of stories about murder convictions that have been overturned thanks to DNA testing.

Plays and projects like "The Exonerated," for example, have shown mistakes made by juries and prosecutors.

On the above-mentioned Web site, the wife of one the convicted men wrote on Oct. 29: "DNA testing has been conducted on dozens of pieces of evidence. The DNA results show no link whatsoever to Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley or Jason Baldwin — and all of the experts agree that, under the prosecution theory of how the crime was committed, their DNA would be present at the crime scene if they were guilty.

"Instead, the DNA results match Terry Hobbs, the step-father of one of the victims. Our new filing also includes strong evidence from Pam Hobbs (the ex-wife of Terry Hobbs and the mother of one of the victims) implicating her former husband in the murders."