Today, on the tenth anniversary of his death, let me tell you about Joe Strummer.
Not his life. You can find that anywhere, and hundreds of people have already done a better job than I ever could. Anyway, he wouldn’t have cared about that, it always seemed surreal to him that anyone knew about what went on in his life, what mattered to him – and that was after years of living in a tiny tour bus with a cadre of band members, friends, journalists; he was surrounded by people, always, and yet it seemed so strange to him that people cared as much about him as they did about his message.
He cared, though. About people, about music, about family; about the way things were going, politically; about the way people were being treated by others and by the world at large; about never taking himself too seriously; about always seeing that he never had anything others didn’t. See, that’s the thing about Joe Strummer, the thing that lasts after everything else is gone. After the music that defined his life and changed the face of the scene forever; after the political rebellion; after the mixing and merging of cultures from across the world; after all that, the heart of Joe Strummer is that he cared.
And now he’s ten years gone, and the standard funereal platitudes don’t work for him. You can’t say he can never be replaced. You can’t say there’ll never be anyone like him. You can’t say he left a hole in the world that can never be filled, because Joe’s real legacy isn’t music or stories or nights huddled around campfires on cold hillsides at festivals. His real legacy is that he made you want to be better. He made you want to be like him. He made you want to take a stand against everything unfair in the world; he made you want to inspire someone else to greatness; he made you want to be generous and ridiculous and kind and bizarre and caring and laid-back and wonderful. He made a thousand people like him, a hundred thousand people to fill that hole in the world. And it hasn’t stopped. Ten years on, Joe Strummer is still changing the world, making it better.
If I die one-tenth the man Joe Strummer was, it will be because of him, and I will be proud.
Let me tell you about the way Joe was with Paul Simonon, the way he made sure Paul was never left behind, even in the heyday of The Clash when everything was completely mad and nobody had any time for anything but writing and rehearsing and interviewing and arguing over set lists. Or the way Joe spent all his food money for three days buying Paul sunglasses because he was getting himself a pair and wasn’t going to leave his mate behind. Or the way Paul looked for closure for a year after Joe’s death, called him his brother, his older brother, over and over again, the way Paul missed him.
Let me tell you about the way Joe was with Nicky Headon, the way he defended him against any and all comers, regardless of the accusation; didn’t even matter if it was true, Joe wasn’t going to let anyone speak against Nick, that was a job for the people who loved him and no one else. Or the way he covered for him, giving a not-quite-false, not-at-all-true reason for his departure from The Clash and refusing to tell the real story. Or the way he carried Nicky’s picture in his wallet for years afterward, hated that decision more than any other one he’d ever made.
Let me not tell you about the way Joe was with Mick Jones, because that’s a story that can never properly be told from the outside, the way they went from strangers to friends to inseparable to hero worship to divided and then back, back to friends, because they couldn’t keep away from one another, Joe cared too much and was too lost and maybe it was too much, for a little while, but they moved on. Didn’t go back, didn’t look at what had happened and apologize, just pulled back together because it wasn’t right, not getting on, and Joe sank into quiet sadness, Big Chief Thundercloud, and couldn’t let go of any of it until he’d been back to Mick and said, this isn’t all right, let’s not do this. That’s not a story for the telling, not by anyone but the two of them, so let me not tell you about Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, but let me tell you about Joe Strummer.
Let me tell you about the way Joe was with friends and family and strangers alike, the way he’d always cram as many punk kids as he could into the green room after a show, the way he’d go down the pub with total strangers after playing, the way he’d interact with the audience, trading shirts and punches with absolute sincerity. He’d ask to buy a stranger’s jacket right off his back and no hard feelings if the other fellow said no; he’d visit relative after relative, keeping an extensive family tree in his pocket to show his friends who they all were; he’d send gifts and spend nights and share self-deprecating jokes and hug and hold and never want to leave or let go, ever, because no one’s heart was ever as big as Joe Strummer’s.
Let me tell you about the way Joe was about life, that it had to be lived and loved and embraced, that it didn’t matter what other people thought or what they told you to do, life was yours and you had to live it. He’d say, “people can do anything,” he’d say, “the future is unwritten,” he’d say, “you’ve got to be slightly stupid,” he’d say to live your life, feel what you wanted to feel, not worry about things, not hold back, not look to the past, go, be, live.
You might not realize that Joe Strummer has changed your life, but if you listen to music, then he has. If you’ve ever heard a song that mattered to you, not just for entertainment but really, bone-deep, soul-deep mattered, then he has. If you’ve ever touched into punk, reggae, ska, dub, funk, jazz, blues, soul, world, anything, if you’ve ever heard something and said, what’s that, I need more, then he has. If you’ve ever been to a music festival and sat around a campfire in the freezing rain, eating cold beans out of a tin you opened with a penknife because somebody forgot the tin opener, arguing about live performances or guitar techniques or who was supposed to have brought the blankets, then he has. If you’ve ever known anyone who’s heard his music, heard his stories, and if they’ve ever affected your life in any way, then he has.
I owe a lot to Joe Strummer, and I’d be proud to spend the rest of my life trying to be more like him, trying to care about what matters and leave aside what doesn’t, trying to love as widely and as well as he did, trying to live by his example.
(I made an album for you guys; you can download it here. If you like it, or if any of Joe’s music or anything he’s ever done has affected or inspired you and you’d like to give back, here’s a link to Strummerville, the foundation set up in his honour to promote and support new music across the globe.)