Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Spirit of Strummer

Five years ago it was a lot easier to find crude hagiography dedicated to the late, great Joe Strummer. It’s still easy, but the proliferation has slowed a bit. The music industry and all its merch-hungry incarnations loves that Strummer is dead, because it gave them the long-awaited opportunity to make a buck off of his name and image without as much worry about the man himself objecting. The industry may be kind to its living conformists, but it knows very well that the money to be made is off the dead rebels.

Now, with the ten-year anniversary of Strummer’s untimely death upon us -- he died a few days before Christmas of a rare and undiagnosed heart condition -- the output isn’t quite as everywhere as it was even a few years ago. Part of it is likely that Sony and the rest ran out of stuff to release. The Clash’s catalog was fairly deep, but not that deep. Strummer only released four full albums of material by himself (with the Mescaleros and the Latino Rockabilly War). And you can only do so many reissues until people stop paying attention. Some time after the release of the Live at Shea Stadium album, the companies realized there wasn’t a hell of alot more they could do past the run-of-the-mill t-shirts and such.

There’s another possible reason that we haven’t heard as much from Joe by the way of the industry lately. And that’s because in this age of vicious austerity and explosive struggle rocking the planet, Joe’s work is probably more relevant than at any other  time in decades, and certainly more than any time since his death.

It’s just a hunch; but it’s a widely known truth that capitalists will sell us the rope we use to hang them. However while shouts of riots, strikes and revolutions can be easily brushed aside during periods when not much is happening, they’re a lot harder to dismiss when they’re actually happening. And well, they are. What’s more, we know for a fact that the rich and powerful are scared shitless by their existence. A soundtrack is the last thing they feel they need to provide us.

Think about the world that the young John Graham Mellor entered into as he began to morph into the Telecaster toting missionary known as Joe Strummer. Britain wasn’t so much an empire anymore as it was an empty concrete shell wrapped in the Union Jack. Recession and depression, racial scapegoating prodded on by a racist elite, revolutions popping off abroad, complemented by a rash of strikes and riots in everything from mining to film processing labs.

And yet, if one enduring trait could be found in Strummer’s songs -- from the raw punk anthems through incorporations of reggae, soul, hip-hop, bhangra and calypso -- it would have to be a righteous optimism. A sober honesty about how nasty and brutish the world could be tempered by the steadfast faith that those of us suffocating the most under the boot might have what it takes to win it all back.

Some people have said that this is why Strummer was the consummate “global citizen.” In his biography of the man, Redemption Song, Chris Salewicz recalls the altar at the front of the church festooned with all the flags of the world. It was befitting for a man who at once loved the rock and roll and boogie-woogie of the United States, but also convinced his bandmate Mick Jones to retool his “I’m So Bored With You” into “I’m So Bored With the USA.” So little tolerance did he have for the Yankee dictators of the world.

Yes, Joe was born in Turkey, grew up in Mexico and travelled around as a kid thanks to his diplomat dad, but many of his closest friends recall behavior from him that was stereotypically “British.” By that same turn, he was a man who loathed those who wore their “Britishness” as a badge of authority -- like the National Front and other racists -- and sympathized with the likes of Victor Jara, the Sandinistas and Caribbean immigrants taking on the police at the Notting Hill Carnival.

He wasn’t just an internationalist, but a bottom-up internationalist, which is a crucial distinction (after all, the likes of Tony Blair and George Bush, as well as others of an even more liberal sheen, are perfectly willing to bomb the hell out of other nations in the name of “internationalism”). To him, it was the people that made it all tick. The one quote that seems to sum this up came from an interview he did not long before his passing -- a quote that’s become probably one of his best-known:

I'd like to say that people people can change anything they want to; and that means everything in the world. Show me any country and there'll be people in it. And it's the people that make the country. People have got to stop pretending they're not on the world. People are running about following their little tracks. I am one of them. But we've all gotta stop just stop following our own little mouse trail. People can do anything; this is something that I'm beginning to learn. People are out there doing bad things to each other; it's because they've been dehumanized. It's time to take that humanity back into the centre of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed... it ain't going anywhere! They should have that on a big billboard across Times Square. Think on that. Without people you're nothing.

From Willesden to Cricklewood, from Tottenham to Tahrir

Now think of how many Clash songs came to mind when London exploded in an uprising against poverty and police repression last summer. If you’re a particularly socially engaged reader, you can probably think of a whole number that were posted on your Facebook wall in reference to the riots: “London’s Burning,” “Guns of Brixton,” “Career Opportunities.” Something about the place-specificity of the band’s lyrics and the chaos of the sound just made sense in relation to the fire and rage gripping Britain’s streets.

There is something particularly satisfying in ruminating on what Joe might think of the rebellions gripping the Middle East and Arab world at this moment. Plenty of conservatives have taken the lyrics of “Rock the Casbah” as proof that the group was keen to some kind of “Islamic despotism.” And there’s a certain logic to this if you’re listening to the song in the context of all the never-ending sabre rattling over Iran. Whether willful misinterpretation or not, lots of cheerleaders for empire have used the song as a kind of cultural rallying point.

That was what happened when a few smartasses wrote “Rock the Casbah” on the side of a missile headed for Baghdad during the first Gulf War. Upon hearing that this had happened, Strummer was said to have cried. According to some friends, he pondered whether he supported the imminent invasion of Afghanistan after the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001. It didn’t last very long, though; within a few months he was telling author Antonino D’Ambrosio that there was no way he could support such a venture:

When I first met Strummer in 2002, one of the first things we discussed was the suppression of countervoices as the United States banged the drum for war, made the Patriot Act law and established the Department of Homeland Security. He understood that there was a very real -- and frightening -- possibility that music like his would not only be censored but held up as subversive or dangerous.

Context matters, though, and for that same reason, “Rock the Casbah” has a much more prescient meaning now in light of the uprisings gripping Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and the like. The way that these millions of young Arabs are rocking their own Casbah is probably the kind of thing Joe would have loved. And perhaps wrote a few songs celebrating too.

There’s likewise something quite striking in Strummer’s fear of censorship (which he also covers in “Rock the Casbah”) nowadays, when things like the Patriot Act seem quaint in comparison to the likes of the National Defense Authorization Act, the detention of whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and the hunt for Julian Assange. In some ways, the world has become an even scarier place than when Strummer passed away. But, as Michael Franti of Spearhead reminds us, “The underlying message that you get from Strummer’s music is the world can be a terrible, scary place but it is worth fighting for.”

People can change everything

It seems almost idiotically obvious to point out that there are countless punk bands who took a cue from Strummer’s rebel stance. Lots of these acts adhere to a blueprint of punk rock that Strummer himself was rejecting as early as the songwriting for London Calling.

The musical palette was even wider when he emerged from his “wilderness years” and got the Mescaleros together. The three albums that Joe put out with this group are punk and aren’t at the same time. The rebel attitude and pride at being dangerously down-and-out were there, but the songs are at one turn dub, the next folk, the next just straight-up rock and roll.

“We exist in this kind of nether world beyond MTV where only hipsters venture,” he told interviewer Dan Grunebaum in November of 2001. And it’s true; most of today’s music industry wouldn’t touch a genre-bending figure like Strummer or a band like the Clash with a ten foot pole. However -- and this is quite interesting to this writer -- today’s “hipsters” don’t really exist in the way they did in 2001. Whether Joe was talking specifically of skinny jeans and Lucky Strike cigarettes isn’t quite clear, but while the underground sensibilities remain, economic crisis has fractured this most post-modern and rootless of sub-cultures.

What makes this germane is that while so much of the Pitchfork style has drifted into a snide, upper-middle class elitism, what remains of “indie” culture is core of disaffected and cast out youth trying to survive a world of recession, debt and enough systemic existential threats to boggle the mind. Much like Strummer’s own contemporaries when the Clash first got together in the mid ‘70s.

This is almost certainly why the sometimes isolated torch-bearers of aesthetically radical politics have looked to Strummer’s work for inspiration -- and even a template at times. “Straight to Hell” is definitely a brilliant song, but it’s not exactly one of the Clash’s better-known. That didn’t stop M.I.A. from sampling and twisting it around into her smash-hit declaration of war from the Third World: “Paper Planes.”

More than just a smart use of sound, “Paper Planes” seemed to almost turn “Straight to Hell” inside out. From a western indictment of western empire and the thousands “Amerasians” left fatherless by GIs in Indochina, M.I.A. managed to transform it into a confirmation that the denizens of the developing world (perhaps including a few of the Amerasians) are indeed a threat... to those looking to loot and plunder their towns and homes.

There’s an added bonus in M.I.A.’s use of the Clash’s music. In a 2000 interview with Punk Planet’s Joel Schalit, Strummer lamented how so much of the mainstream narrative of hip-hop’s early years overlooks the role that the Clash played in it:

Don’t forget that our entry into hip-hop culture was back in 1980 with "Magnificent Seven." It was a huge hit in New York that summer on WBLS [the primary ‘urban music’ radio station, and the only that played any rap back then]. I want to point that out because we always get passed over in these hip-hop histories.

Seven years later, albeit in a rather roundabout way, Strummer’s work was finally getting its due vis a vis hip-hop.

That kind of acknowledgement isn’t hard to miss in political hip-hop if one knows where to look. One of this year’s most notable releases has been Sorry To Bother You by the Coup -- whose frontman, Boots Riley, also did a cover of “Paper Planes” with Street Sweeper Social Club a few years back. Anyone who searches online for images of “Boots Riley Strummer shirt” is bound to find a pic of Boots wearing an olive green military style shirt with the word “Strummer” stenciled on the pocket.

As the story goes (and this has been verified by Boots himself), the shirt once belonged to Joe himself, who years ago gave it to Billy Bragg, who then gave it to Boots. The symbolism couldn’t be more poignant or perfect. There, in a nutshell, is where Joe Strummer’s legacy is really living. It’s living in the many artists who aren’t just looking to “do something different” in their music, but are looking to the world first and allowing it to change them before they pick up a microphone. So much better may their art move others to change this tortured, beautiful world of ours.

First published in Red Wedge


E Creely said...

Brilliant essay, thank you. I love Joe Strummer and what he stands for- he was a big part of my political awakening the arid desert of righteous conservatism known as Orange County, Ca.

There is one thing I've always wondered: with all that he did to show support for and illuminate the roots of popular struggles for civil liberties and human rights in Chile, Nicaragua, the Mid East- all that- it's interesting to me that the struggle for civil rights in in the north of Ireland-as well as the history of British militarism on the island- never got a mention from him, in his songs or, as far as i know in any interview where he discussed his political views. If I'm wrong, please correct me....

Alexander Billet said...

It's true that Srummer never mentioned anything about Northern Ireland in his songs. Not sure why that is. But he did wear an H-Block t-shirt at one of the Rock Against Racism gigs they played and did speak in support of the hunger strikers around the same time. Unsure on what exact year this was, but D'Ambrosio mentions it in his book.

Joe also did recall in some later interviews his experiences of playing in Belfast with the Clash during the height of the Troubles. There are some quite stunning photos taken of them walking near some of the checkpoints and blockade walls separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. According to him it was a rather surreal experience.