On this day in 2002, the world lost one of rock'n'roll's greatest frontmen, Joe Strummer. Born John Graham Mellor in 1952, he embodied the busking British folkie, squatting in abandoned high rises during the early '70s, and then joined the pub rock ensemble the 101ers. But as a member of the Clash from 1976 to 1986, Joe rounded the world, galvanizing audiences with lyrics exposing global injustice, urban poverty, ghetto criminals, institutional racism, and ruthless political machinations in fiery live performances that still boggle the mind and inspire the heart.
Effortlessly mixing the intensity of punk rock with the sounds of reggae, R&B, rockabilly, rap and even some gospel and bizarre sound collages, the Clash were the premier band of their era, particularly with their essential 1979/80 album, London Calling. Today many of the Clash's songs, like "Spanish Bombs," "Tommy Gun," "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," and "Straight to Hell," have become classics and the band has become a part of rock's mythic pantheon of legendary performers, inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame just after Joe's death.
After the Clash broke up, Joe floundered about for over a decade, performing solo at times (I saw him in 1989, a wonderful show). But he returned in 1999 with a new band, the Mescaleros, and a newfound passion for performing. They released two terrific albums, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style and Global a Go-Go. Audiences came in droves, kids too young to have seen Joe during his '70s heyday, and people a generation older who couldn't believe their old hero still had the drive, the chops, the energy of a rock'n'roller half his age. Joe was back to stay, it seemed, reinvigorated and armed with music that spanned the planet and lyrics at once tender and surreal, funny and heartbreaking.
But it was not to be. On December 22, 2002, Joe came in from walking his dogs at his country home at Broomfield in Somerset, England, sat in his living room, and died peacefully of a heart condition no one even knew he had - not even himself. He could have died at any time during his 50 years of life. Fortunately, we got many good years of Joe Strummer's intelligence and compassion, his commitment and his insight, his fury and, indeed, his personal style, and for that, I'm ever thankful.
Joe and the Mescaleros on David Letterman, 2001:
With the Clash on Fridays, 1980:
On SNL, 1982:
On Tom Snyder, 1981 (my favorite live Clash performance!)
With his first band, the 101ers, c. 1975
The Grammys tribute to Joe with Springsteen, Costello, Grohl & Co., 2003