Joe Strummer died quietly in his sleep on December 22, surprising to the last. As the leader of the primal punk outfit the Clash, he knew what the perfect rock band should be and lived when he could make it happen. The beat should be fast and ferocious, as hyper and relentless as the old rockabilly jitters and the new punk mania. This left no time for romance. Strummer recognized that rock had barely explored its political possibilities, and there was no reason why love-and-work tunes could not be set in English society and ripped from the headlines. Rock also provided meeting ground for black and white sounds, and Strummer grasped that the newly militant reggae would strengthen the bones of rock as the blues had a generation earlier. Finally, Strummer (born Joseph Mellor, the son of a diplomat) wanted his whole mind engaged in rock. Not so much bookish as unafraid of literature, and not so much arty as connected to cultural history, he dropped out of art school to be a squatter bohemian who made noise that scared bohemians. But it wasn’t until he saw the Sex Pistols in April 1976 that he understood punk meant you stopped caring if the audience liked you, and just got on with inventing the future.
The members of the Clash got together through manager Bernie Rhodes, a sort of junior league Malcolm McLaren, but Strummer, guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, and drummer Nicky “Topper” Headon (who replaced Terry Chimes after the debut album) plunged into a collective mission to not let the revolutionary moment pass. Paint-spattered, dressed in battlefatigues or overalls or greaseball leathers and given to stencils of militant slogans, the Clash were a new type of inmate in the punk-rock zoo, determined to play out a contradiction—idealists with no respect for anything.
Jones and Simonon were pretty boys compared to Strummer with his horrid tooth-stumps. But he had some of the rubble beauty of James Dean and Elvis, and there was always a threat on his face. He stood in the back of the group shot on the cover of their 1977 debut The Clash, but his figure was the most memorable, spread-legged and uncompromising. So was the album—advance word on it in the States was unbearably strong, and because the songs delivered the most amazing string of explosions in a year filled with them, it became the biggest-selling import of all time.
The Clash had to play rock music that set the bar out-of-sight high, and then sail right over it. For their American premier gig at Harvard Square Theater in February 1979, anticipation created an atmosphere in which anything could happen—your mind, history, the collective dreams of a nation, all could be erased with a song. The group was up to the challenge. As they ripped into “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” everyone there knew phony Beatlemania had bitten the dust.
Prime punks were also supposed to spew songs with abandon—no wasting fortunes sweating niceties in the studio or perfecting lyrics—so Strummer and company tossed off masterpiece singles like “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais” and ignored complaints that their second release, Give ’em Enough Rope, was too slick with Blue Öyster Cult-style production and on a CBS subsidiary, after all. By the time the double-LP London Calling appeared in late 1979, the cover photo’s homage/send-up of Elvis Presley’s RCA debut seemed as warranted as the title track’s reference to Margaret Drabble’s fashionable novel The Ice Age. Strummer was the political chairman of the gang and he made sure their activist program was vivid if vague: Be proletarian, pro-revolt of the disenfranchised in all nations; show reflexive distrust of authority leftist and rightist, savvy skepticism about mass media and willingness to co-opt it; call your blockbuster triple album Sandinista! Sprawling, generous, cheerfully uneven, the mid-career Clash made fans think about subjects unimagined in the Sex Pistols’ universe—or the counterculture’s for that matter.
The Clash had outlived punk and even threatened to survive the internal Strummer-Jones tensions audible between the grooves of 1982’s Combat Rock. But if Strummer was still sputtering “Know Your Rights,” his soul was closer to the spooky, uncertain “Straight to Hell.” The American Top-10 commercial validation of “Rock the Casbah” (talk about timeless, prophetic anthems) was an honorable eulogy that cost the band credibility with waves of neo-punk ideologues who damned political pop or loved it too much. Soldiering on in the shell of the Clash for Cut the Crap, Strummer’s brilliant farewell, “This Is England” proved how much he loved what he destroyed. He knew the future was finished, and seemed to have only a gentlemanly interest in his latter-day movie soundtracks and his amiable, world-punk hobby band, the Mescaleros.
Although Jones and Strummer played a reunion gig last November and there were hints the band might even tour a bit next year, around the time they will enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (like Joey Ramone, Strummer might rather die than wind up enshrined in a museum), there’s no question Strummer had little use for nostalgia. In 1999, he told The Guardian he would reunite the Clash only in desperation: “‘If I felt I had nothing left in me, we’d do it. Give ’em the hits.'” He had a more original legacy left in him. Perhaps the most acute loss with Stummer’s passing is that he never got the chance to write his own Story of the Clash. With some grace from the gods, he had the skills to run with it. Everyone knows by now what sort of raw material the band provided—great name, great sound, great songs, great men.