Turning Rebellion Into Meaning – Ten Years Without Joe Strummer

Ten years after his premature death, The Clash frontman's legacy endures.

Ten years ago, on the afternoon of 22nd December 2002, Joe Strummer returned to his Somerset home after a Sunday afternoon walk with his dog. He entered the kitchen of the house he was sharing with his former wife Lucinda and their two daughters, Jazz and Lola. After sitting down in the warm room, he passed out and never awoke, the victim of an undiagnosed coronary condition that could have struck at any moment.

In the days that followed, the media became saturated by fulsome tributes that would have amused, embarrassed and pleased the complex man to which they were addressed. Not unpredictably, The Sun called him “the voice of a generation”. The Daily Mail said he shook “the very foundations of rock music”. In The Times, David Sinclair wrote, “He was one of the great English rock stars, bold and influential beyond reckoning.” Andrew Perry of the Daily Telegraph, observed that, “He was a lovely bloke, a man of the people, still angry at the world's injustices, but gentle, humble and heroic to the last.” The Daily Star labelled his demise the “saddest death of the year”.

Eight days later, close friends and former bandmates formed a private circle of grief as Joe was cremated at the West London Crematorium on the Harrow Road – around a mile from the Maida Vale squat from which his first band, The 101’ers, had taken their name almost three decades earlier. As the rain streamed down from West London’s basalt sky, the rare sense that somebody of genuine cultural significance had been lost began to spread across the wider public that had so often been the focus of Strummer’s proselytizing. The degree to which this feeling of loss travelled around the globe inarguably demonstrated that Joe Strummer had succeeded in his life’s work. He had reached people.

Today, a decade on from Strummer’s sudden and unexpected death, the feelings of affection and admiration that were so passionately expressed across that deflated Christmas period still endure. The last ten years have seen a succession of films, exhibitions and events paying tribute to him. While his vision and legacy have been preserved by the Strummerville charitable foundation, on the personal level that Joe so effectively operated on, mention of his name invariably brings a warm smile, often followed by a treasured anecdote.

The reasons why Joe Strummer was and remains so fondly regarded are as direct as his forthright message so often was. Unlike many others who carried the poisoned chalice of generational spokesman, Joe’s humanist outlook, inclusive ideals and approachability demonstrated that his words were not merely empty slogans, but keenly felt commitments that were backed by actions. Beyond this, although his lyrics and statements dealt with big issues and global dynamics, he retained the notion that real people were at the heart of every cause. “The main thing I felt was important about Joe was he had this enormous amount of compassion for other people,” recalled former Clash roadie and Zigzag journalist Robin Banks. “I thought initially a lot of that was just a pose. I was totally wrong. It wasn’t a pose at all. He really related to other people. He cared about people. He cared about the big issues and the small issues. That’s the best thing you can say about Joe.”

Strummerville trustee Damien Hirst observed that Joe was “one of the few people that when you meet them in real life become even more of a hero.” His infectious enthusiasm, belief that all things are possible and motivational energy served to energize and captivate many of those who were fortunate enough to spend time with him. “When you were talking with Strummer he made you feel like you were the most important person in his life,” related longtime Clash road manager and author Johnny Green. “He could really zero in on you. I saw The Clash quite a lot and I never tired of watching him centre mic. It was always fresh, new and exciting, dynamic every time. I never saw him coast it.”

Whenever a much loved public figure dies there is always discussion concerning the nature and importance of their legacy. This is often a nebulous concept that revolves around individuals being influenced by that performer’s output or attitude. However, in Joe’s case this is evidently more tangible. Sure, The Clash championed punk’s ‘Do It Yourself’ inclusivity and politicized a generation, introducing thousands to movements such as Rock Against Racism at a time when right-wing groups such as the National Front were targeting young people for their own ends. The band’s willingness to engage with their followers on a one-to-one basis also produced life-changing results for many. Joe continued this ethos throughout his life, inviting strangers to sit around his beloved festival campfires and turning them into friends within minutes. As Billy Bragg observed, “They generated a community, and Joe – with the campfire – he kind of brought that community together.”

While the break-up of The Clash initially led to what Joe subsequently described as ‘the wilderness years’ it also enabled Strummer to immerse himself in his wider influences, a process that subsequently bore creative fruit across his four years with the Mescaleros. These influences transcended The Clash’s politicized psycho-geography, developing into his personal form of holistic globalism. Indeed, as he came to terms with being Joe Strummer toward the end of his life, the man who had embarked upon his musical journey as ‘Woody Mellor’ thirty years earlier came to view the entire planet as one potential community and everybody in it a possible ally. “He cared enough to care, said what he thought should be said, and did what he thought should be done,” observed former Melody Maker editor Allan Jones. “He embraced the not always fashionable notion that music could mean something; make a difference, which it sometimes can… He believed.”

Joe’s belief in globalism ensured that he engaged with local people and musicians wherever he went. This often meant encouraging youngsters to get involved in music, in their communities or in anything positive. His credo was ‘do something’. It could equally involve something as simple as Joe putting his hand in his pocket to provide a homeless person with a bed for the night and some warm clothes. Whatever form his activism took, it reached out directly to people, and usually, they in turn responded.

Founded shortly after his death, the Strummerville charity was conceived as a means of continuing Joe’s attempts to enable young musicians to be heard and develop. Their mission statement clearly stated Strummerville’s intention to “provide benefits to individuals, groups and organisations to enable the production of music by creative young people who would otherwise be prevented from doing so simply because they lack the necessary funds. Our aim is to have creative workspaces called “Strummerville” in key locations around the world.” The charity’s director Trish Whelan developed a proactive approach to the organisation’s activities and would often make contact with those in difficulties whose situations she had become aware of through the media. Before long, Strummerville’s influence extended to a number of satellite projects including Jail Guitar Doors – which provides prisoners with access to musical instruments and tuition – and Camden Calling, an initiative aimed at improving the lives of homeless and vulnerable young people. Like the man whose name the charity bears, Strummerville has manifestly changed lives for the better.

Despite the enduring nature of his legacy, for many of us who followed The Clash and admired their charismatic frontman, there remains a hole where Joe Strummer should have been. Many of the social and political issues that he tackled in his lyrics are as relevant today as they were during The Clash’s heyday. If he was still with us, it is likely that he’d have involved himself in campaigns such as Occupy and opposed governmental oppression and economic exploitation across the globe. Creatively, he would have undoubtedly continued to develop along the eclectic lines evident on the posthumous Mescaleros album ‘Streetcore’ and championed artists that shared his global outlook, while remaining dismissive of those who exploit the concept of rebellion as a useful fashion accessory.

At a time when public figures are regularly being exposed for using their status as a means of exploiting people for their own gratification, the purity and honesty of Joe Strummer’s ideals shines brighter than it ever has. Perhaps the best way for anyone to mark the tenth anniversary of his passing would be to go out and do something positive, preferably for somebody who needs some assistance. As Joe often said, “Pass it on.”   

Words: Dick Porter
Photography: Julian Yewdall

‘A Permanent Record: Joe Strummer With The 101’ers / Clash / Latino Rockabilly War / The Slits’ by Julian Yewdell is available now from West Nine Publications.

This feature originally appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of Clash magazine. Find out more about the issue.

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Learn more about the Joe Strummer Foundation's work HERE.

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