Joe Biden accepted his party’s nomination as the democratic candidate to be the next president of the United States. Come with me, he implored a convention and a nation, come with me out of the darkness.
“I’ll be an ally of the light, not the darkness,” he declared.”
A few days later, multiple generations of artists gathered to commemorate another Joe, the man born John Graham Mellor and better known to the world as Joe Strummer. It was part of A Song For Joe and benefit supporting independent music venues for Save Our Stages. (Watch it at joestrummer.com)
It would have been his 68th birthday and still seems that he is with us—and would surely be in sync with current events had he not succumbed to a congenital heart defect and passed at the much too young age of 50.
No doubt Strummer the chronicler, commentator and historian, would have been mesmerized with the state of our world. The same week Biden vowed to win the White House, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned in what seemed like an episode out of the Cold War that had ended during Strummer’s lifetime. Whereas Strummer opined about the Chinese repression of Buddhists, he’d surely have a field day about the mass incarceration of more than a million Uigher muslims in re-education camps.
“Joe stood up for things,” film director Jim Jarmusch reflected behind dark shades that hid a well of emotions for his late friend. “Joe stood up for things. He stood against racism, fascism and against ignorance. I find myself asking, ‘What would Joe say? Joe what should I do?’ Often I get an answer.”
“I would love to know what lyrics he’d be writing about what’s going on now,” Ray Gange, a veteran of Rude Boy reflected wearing a “Clash Crew” t-shirt. “You listen to so many of his lyrics and they’re more relevant now than when he wrote them.”
Strummer, who snarled his way through “Clampdown,” denouncing “evil presidents,” would have had a field day with Donald Trump. Trump’s dystopian world view and embrace of authoritarianism is everything Strummer stood against. Surely Strummer would have had something to say about voter suppression and the use of law enforcement at elections as the president has proposed.
But “anger can be power,” Strummer implored in a call to arms for collective unity. We all know Strummer wrote his own manifesto enumerated in three articles of “Know Your Rights,” his own bill of rights.
Joe Biden who often traveled by train as a Senator from his native Delaware to the nation’s capital, Is known for his regular guy, everyman personality. In many ways the anti-star Strummer was struck from the same stock.
“Joe loved meeting people,” photographer and friend Bob Gruen shared, “He loved listening and understanding what people were thinking. He could talk for hours to strangers he met in bars. You’d need sunglasses because it would be nine or ten in the morning when you got out of a bar with Joe.”
Josh Cheuse was standing in a phone booth outside the dark room of his junior high school when he called Electric Ladyland studios to see if he could photograph the Clash. Kosmo Vinyl answered the phone and said he could come by. He soon found himself on the couch next to Alan Ginsberg while Strummer asked him what rhymed with pity, kitty, city and shittty as he wrote “Ghetto Defendant” on the fly.
Cheuse recalled how Strummer sent him into vocal booth with a camera as a decoy to distract Mick Jones who was recording “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Strummer and Joe Ely came up the back of the studio to scare the singer.
“And of course Mick just turned and very cooly said ‘Split,’ much to Joe’s dismay,” he recounted. It stayed on the record along with Strummer and Ely’s backing vocals sung in Spanish.
Cheuse admitted he’d never thought years later he’d have to direct a memorial video to Joe, calling on friends Dr. Revolt and Zephyr to create a mural on New York’s lower East Side. During the broadcast it served as the backdrop for event organizer Jesse Marlin to ask for help to save music venues devastated by the pandemic.
The mural, which attracts tourists from all over the world, is a permanent memorial to the man who embraced and later owned the city. One only has to look at Gruen’s photos of the Clash atop the Empire State Building and crossing over the Brooklyn Bridge. In the weighty pink book The Clash, Pennie Smith’s two-page spread of Joe standing alone on Eighth Avenue endeared him as one of the kings of New York.
My memories are vivid. When the Clash hit the stage at the Palladium a few months before the release of London Calling, it was the greatest rock and roll moment of my life. I’d never witnessed (and have never since) or felt anything as intense as those moments. There were the matinees and nights at Bonds on Broadway when the Clash exceeded crowd limits and the fire department almost shut down the venue. There was Combat Rock perfectly staged at the Pier in the backdrop of the Intrepid World War 2 destroyer. And then there was the band’s historic stand at Shea Stadium with The Who. It went off in the rainy cold Fall air without any of us realizing the end of the Clash was soon coming.
As Congress and the president debate relief for Americans displaced in the pandemic, perhaps they should listen to article two of “Know Your Rights. “you have the right to food money.” At the benefit, a slew of young and old artists donned acoustic guitars to give new folk life to “Bankrobber,” “Police and Thieves” and.”Spanish Bombs.” You could almost read Woody Guthrie’s words emblazoned across them in invisible ink: “This machine kills fascists.”
The echoes of history were replayed in the girl group Hinds’ corner sing-along of “Spanish Bombs” perfectly made for a ukulele. Richard Dudanski of the Strummer’s old pre-Clash band the 101ers, gave a birthday salute to his old friend. On the ground in Granada where he has lived for the last thirty years, the wind blew into his video but not distracting one of Strummers greatest locales.
The Spanish Civil War and its resulting dictatorship don’t seem so ancient anymore.They provide a mirror to today. Strummer’s references to nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and inside Russia might feel from another era but the ecological disasters mirror today’s climate change and the lightning strike fires enveloping California.
In his later years, Strummer looked like he had somewhat of a resemblance to John Lennon. If he didn’t exactly fit the image, he certainly sounded like him.
“It’s time to take humanity back into the center ring,” Strummer was caught on film saying. . “Without people you’re nothing. That’s my spiel.”
For Shepard Fairey, quoting Strummer means trying to choose between a plethora of lines he can quote at will. But his favorite quote is that “the future is unwritten.”
“It reminds me everyday not just of our privilege but our obligation to use the tools at our disposal to make the world what we want it to be.”
It’s a theme another Joe could adopt, even one running as the democratic candidate for president of the United States.