I know I’ve mentioned this before; you’ll forgive me, I’m sure, both for repeating myself and for not searching the archives to locate the post or posts where I related this story in the past. But, anyway, one of my clearest memories of my late brother John was riding around in his piece-of-crap sky-blue Gran Torino listening to the Clash’s Sandinista! LP in the Summer of 1981, just after my freshman year at the University of Illinois. Specifically, I remember blasting “Hitsville U.K.,” that most un-Clash-like song that somehow was perfectly Clash-like:
It blows a hole in the radio
When it hasn’t sounded good all week …
Thus began my love of (bordering on obsession with) the Clash, a band I’d listened to for years but never really plumbed the depths of before that summer. It was the Summer of the Clash, when John and I spent a lot of time together, talking, listening to music, grousing, and getting to know each other a lot better than we did when I was younger (he was 7 years older than I), and much of that centered on our mutual love of punk’s best band.
There was always this thing about the Clash, and especially about the band’s primary lyricist, Joe Strummer. They were at once piercingly cynical and strangely idealistic, angry and hopeful, but always constructive. They never were a typical punk band and Strummer never was a typical punk. He loved Woody Guthrie and the Beach Boys (I forgive him for that), and he was one of the better reggae artists to come out of the UK in the 1970s, which is saying something:
Above all, neither he nor the Clash were static. From the outset their music roved the musical landscape from pure punk to reggae to rockabilly and R & B. It was Strummer and his songwriting partner, Mick Jones, who saw the evolution of punk to hip hop long before most white music fans had ever heard of it:
[Joe] Strummer’s unique partnership with Mick Jones, his main collaborator and lead guitarist in the Clash, brought a revolutionary sense of excitement to modern music. Strummer and Jones quickly recognized the power of rap music that was just emerging from New York City’s underground in the late seventies. “When we came to the U.S., Mick stumbled upon a music shop in Brooklyn that carried the music of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, the Sugar Hill Gang…these groups were radically changing music and they changed everything for us.”
With typical Clash inventiveness, they became one of the first white groups to incorporate rap into their music. As a tribute to the path-breaking Sugar Hill Gang, the Clash recorded The Magnificent Seven, one of their best-known and most important singles. In another example that marked the Clash’s commitment to challenging social conventions, they enlisted several New York City rap groups to join their huge Clash on Broadway tour. At the time, this was extremely controversial since it was widely believed that combining the two disparate audiences and musical genres would result in racial mayhem.
Reflecting on the group’s influence, I suggested to Strummer that hip-hop has replaced punk rock as the dominant political pop cultural force in spirit, vitality, and creativity. He responded, “No doubt about it, particularly in respect to addressing the ills of capitalism and providing a smart class analysis, underground hip-hop, not the pop-culture stuff, picked up where punk left off and ran full steam ahead.”
As with everything else they did, when Joe and Mick and the Clash turned to hip hop, they nailed it:
John Graham Mellor, better known as Joe Strummer, was born 60 years ago today in Ankara, Turkey, and died at the unreasonably young age of 50 in December 2002. It’s hard to imagine it’s been 10 years since Joe passed, but his music, and the music of the Clash, might be more relevant today than ever.
In any event, maybe my and brother John’s love of Joe Strummer and the Clash was kind of prophetic. I didn’t learn until recently that Joe Strummer and I shared something in common, something horrible and sad, and it makes my and John’s mutual love of the Clash more poignant to me:
In July 1970 [Joe’s] brother, David Mellor, had become increasingly withdrawn and ill adjusted and committed suicide in London’s Regent’s Park.
Because if you’ve read this blog, you might know that I lost my brother John to suicide in April 1991, roughly ten years after the Summer of the Clash. I say this not to be maudlin, although it is just that I suppose, but because it never ceases to amaze me how common that experience is. And in this case, it happens to be an odd, sad, awful thing that connects me to one of the greatest artists of my generation, which is comforting in a way I can’t quite describe.
Joe Strummer once said the Clash were “antifascist, antiviolence, antiracist...we’re pro-creative, against ignorance,” and that’s exactly what made them The Only Band That Mattered. Then and now.
So, anyway, Joe, Stay Free. This one’s for you and Brother John: