The Petchary was quietly inspired on New Year’s Eve, after watching two television programs. They each featured an incredibly creative young man – two “bright sparks” from opposite ends of the musical spectrum, and each in their own way more than just a star – more like a comet that stays for a while, a smudge of light in the sky.
Joe Strummer was born John Graham Mellor, the son of a British Foreign Service Second Secretary and his Scottish wife, in Ankara, Turkey. He and his brother were sent to a “posh” boarding school in England at an early age. He read widely, got three A levels, picked up the guitar, listened to the blues and African music, loved Woody Guthrie. He experienced loss – his brother committed suicide in London’s Regents Park. He got expelled from art school, played in London tube stations and worked as a gravedigger for a while. In the early 70s in London, it was seen as cool and ultra-rebellious to live in a “squat,” and so Joe did. One of his first bands, the 101ers, was named after the number of the house they squatted in.
By the time he co-founded the punk rock band The Clash, Joe did not sound so posh. The band played its first gig in 1976 in a Sheffield pub, and the rest is the decade-long history of a band that grabbed the increasingly self-indulgent London music scene by the scruff of its neck and shook it till the stuffing fell out. They screamed, they spat, they bellowed, they raged; they even played reggae, with their mentor, the inimitable Mikey Dread of Harlesden fame – Dread at the Controls. Joe’s voice was urgent and angry. His lyrics were delirious, powerful and fell like rain. Then they took the United States by storm, and caused a riot in Times Square.
A SAMPLE OF JOE’S LYRICS…
From “Dizzy’s Goatee”:
And now ain’t the time to hit the station
Crowded with the ghosts of the Be Bop Nation
‘Tranes of thought and times of tones
Sometimes a little wistful cigarette smoke blowing
The President blew so that Bird could live
And each along the wire could give
The sunglass vision and the golden clef
And the ghetto rod divine which notes are left
To “Shouting Street”:
Oh let me rock it out on shouting street
And borrow money from me neighbours
Oh let me rock it out on shouting street
In fifty seven flavours.
To “Leopardskin Limousines”:
It’s your Chinese year of the animal
And it must be one that preens
Those firecrackers going down the hill
Signify the end of our dreams
It’s gonna be so beautiful
In those Leopardskin Limousines
When they spread you out in white
All over Harpers and Queens.
Stunning lyrics, a wealth of words.
But what of Joe? After the demise of the Clash (a common tale of too much success and not knowing what to do with it) he went on burning. The Clash was very political, of course (their 1980 album was called “Sandanista“), and Joe continued to espouse left-wing, anti-racist causes, while writing, writing, writing, acting, and searching.
But he had his personal crises – when told to go away during a falling out with fellow musicians, he did just that and completely disappeared for a while. He had a few so-called “wilderness years” – but most creative people have those, a kind of recharging perhaps. Then he formed his own band, The Mescaleros, which played an invigorating mix of world music, punk, rock, jazz, funk and more. Call it post-punk or something, if you will.
Joe’s last gig was at Acton Town Hall in west London in 2002. His former Clash sparring partner, guitarist and songwriter, Mick Jones, joined him on stage for the first time in twenty years to play the band’s song “Bank Robber.” Just one month later, Joe returned home from walking his dogs and was sitting on the sofa reading the paper when he died, at age 50, from a heart attack. He had a congenital heart condition that no one even knew about.
The interesting – and moving – thing about Joe, out on his own, was his gradually emerging sense of community, of humanity. This developed into the concept of the campfire – a place to share, to create, to play and sing together. But hold on a minute – the old, hard, cursing Joe, who despised hippies… doesn’t this sound a bit like, well, New Age hippie stuff? Yes, he is even quoted in the remarkable documentary I watched, “We’re all old hippies at heart.” But going soft he was not. He believed fiercely in the campfire as another creative process.
The fire burned all night. And Joe was often the last one sitting by it, at dawn.
The campfires have continued in his memory, ever since.
Joe’s cry was, “Remember, you’re alive!” He lived truly in the moment – which was the Petchary’s New Year thought in an earlier blog. Seize the day.
More about the second great creative spark, in my next post.
Meanwhile…Remember, you’re alive.
- Behind the music: Joe Strummer’s spirit lives on through his charity (guardian.co.uk)
- 10 Best Early Punk Albums (mademan.com)
- New Year thought (petchary.wordpress.com)