He Ain't Ever Coming Back

Joe Strummer, a titan of the Clash

Like fellow punk forebears the Ramones last year, the Clash, which dissolved amid drug abuse and splintering musical agendas in the mid-1980s, found itself among the list of 2003 inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As part of the March induction, Joe Strummer, his long-estranged songwriter partner Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon were scheduled to reunite -- maybe reignite is a more appropriate word -- on a New York stage for a brief set.

"I think it's time to just get out there and show people how it's done," Strummer half-jokingly told Phoenix New Times writer Jonathan Bond in September 2001. He was pushing an album with his world-beat-savvy band the Mescaleros at the time, but his words were telling. "It depends on if you can find people to work with. That's the base of it all. If you don't have that, you suck. You need a good unit to rock with."

But as with the Ramones, who lost front man Joey to cancer in 2001 and bassist Dee Dee to drugs this past summer, death ruined the script. Strummer died December 22 in his England home at age 50. What a shame: Punks really do die before they get old.

Initial reports have Strummer succumbing to a heart attack at home in his sleep. No drugs, no overly hard living, apparently, just cruel fate. Still, there was nothing slow about the intense singer or his music. Strummer ruled hard rock.

His end was a sour final note in a musical year marked by premature death. TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, Run-DMC's Jam Master Jay, Alice in Chains's Layne Staley (damn you, Layne!) and now, no more Strummer. We roll into the new year with the same bullshit to look forward to.

The coming year will have the usual assortment of pop trends, new performers, evidence of the musical apocalypse and, of course, reminders of rock's past. Most of these time-traveling exercises, like the Santana explosion of 2000 and the Fleetwood Mac-a-thon of the late '90s, are made-for-VH1 pap. The year 2003, however, could have been different.

Call me naive, but I think a Clash reunion might have had vastly beneficial effects on a somnambulant music industry in dire need of an enema. It was time, for example, for younger rockers to stop taking them for granted. The band was so invigorating, so rebellious. Strummer and his mates helped change the very blueprint of music when they, along with the Sex Pistols, X and a few others, gave the pop world a big, fat middle finger 25 years ago.

The Clash meshed attitude, sugarplum hooks, reggae swagger and third-world political bile, and the combination has passed into subsequent generations of performers like DNA.

No one sang a "go to hell" line with as much marble-mouthed passion as Strummer -- it was his selling point, even turning a cover of Vince Taylor's 1959 rockabilly ditty "Brand New Cadillac" into snarling rebel music. His vocal delivery is now one of rock's most emulated -- walk into Fitzgerald's on a Wednesday and hear one-syllable words become four in fits of snottiness. Almost certainly, though, you won't hear any of those locals calling out cultural imperialism in Central America. If they do, they won't do it with nearly the same cerebral leanings as Strummer or Jones.

Here's another sad part of Strummer's demise. The son of a British diplomat (born John Graham Mellor) never stopped writing or producing new songs. He was never content to collect royalty checks, tap the greatest-hits millionaire's well, or license his songs to car commercials (okay, so the band did let Jaguar use the "London Calling" bass thump).

"It's a happy man that's got a new song to sing, so that really drives it [for me]," Strummer said last year. "Whereas if you were condemned to do a repeat bill, or something from way gone back…perhaps the energy would go inward or something. You need that forward explosive outward energy."

Recall that the Who's John Entwistle died in a Las Vegas hotel room on the millionth Who reunion swing. There was none of that stuff with Strummer. He wrote songs for movies like Sid and Nancy (naturally) and Grosse Pointe Blank. He released the solo effort Earthquake Weather in 1989, blasting through titles like "Gangsterville" and "Island Hopping." In the late '90s he also formed Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, which experimented with Latin and African rhythms, released two albums on Hellcat Records and played the Tibetan Freedom Concert with the Beastie Boys in 1999.

Reconciliation with Jones, whose songwriting sensibilities are punchier and whose melody on "Train in Vain" sold the Clash as hitmakers, could have been fruitful -- and important. After all, neither Strummer nor his amazing band was just another story on VH1.

 
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