One of my all-time heroes from among people I do not know personally is rock and roll icon Joe Strummer. Sadly, seven years ago today, Joe - real name John Mellor - died of congenital heart failure. This was a condition he apparently had all his life and could have killed him at any time, but he did not know about it. He was only 50 years old.
If you're having trouble placing Joe, you actually probably have seen him before. Joe was most known for being the main singer, lyric writer and one of the guitarists in a band called The Clash - one of the most influential rock bands of the last 30 years. If you've ever seen the videos for songs like Rock the Casbah, London Calling or Should I Stay or Should I Go then you've seen him in action. Before The Clash he was in a band called the 101ers, and after The Clash he acted in movies (most notably one called Mystery Train), wrote musical scores for movies, drew, and - as of the late 1990s - started a new band called The Mescaleros.
You can read more about Joe Strummer by clicking here. You can read an interview with him by clicking here. And, there are a bunch of pictures of Joe here. You can also visit Stummerville online. It's a non-profit organization that promotes unsigned bands and provides them with rehearsal space and support.
I think the thing that most appealed to me about Strummer was his absolute belief that a person can and should make his or her own destiny. He did it himself and, through success in music, delivered that same message to millions more.
Stand up for yourself, have a say, do what you think is right, question authority (a lot), operate on a human level rather than a "consumer" or "business" level, do not accept things the way they are because that's the way they are, do things for yourself, check your ego, look forward, embrace new things but know your history, know bullshit when you see or hear it, do something about that bullshit, don't blame others for your own shortcomings, learn about other cultures, don't do something just because it is expected.
These are just a few of the many things that Joe talked about, sang about and represented...at least to me. Mainly, this all hit me via his lyrics for songs he wrote and performed with The Clash. His songs from that time also introduced me also to a number of political ideas, world events and issues that I had not know about or contemplated before - for example, the value and potential of your time on this earth vs. spending all of it at work making money for someone else, the limitations of radio as a way of hearing new and interesting music, the Spanish Civil War, the Sandanistas and other rebel movements, labor strife in England, Jamaican music and culture, the false God of consumerism, and much, much more. Many of these were revelations for my American teenage mind.
In his later years, Joe continued to impress with thoughtful songs and statements that connected with my sense of right and wrong - not to mention his ability to still come out with great "toe tapping" tunes. And if all that wasn't enough, the guy ran the Paris Marathon twice and the London Marathon once, finishing both in very decent times.
While he was not a perfect human being, neither are many of us. Politicians, sports stars, musicians, spiritual leaders, business moguls and others that so many of us look up to all have one thing in common - they're all human. And with that comes some failings. Joe had his, but they were small in comparison to what he was able to achieve in music and the message he was able to disseminate while active in music for nearly three decades.
For all of the above, Joe was and is a hero to me, and so writing a post to mark the seventh anniversary of his death seems appropriate.
I was lucky enough to see Joe perform live in 1999 and in 2001 with his band The Mescaleros. While I never saw him with The Clash, seeing him up live and up close in two firery good shows was a real treat for me.
I'll finish with a few favorite quotes from Joe Strummer and a few music recommendations as I think it's what he said...either in written lyrics or words spoken off the cuff that gets his point across.
"To get output, you must have input.""The future is unwritten."
"Greed: It Ain't Goin' Anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Times Square. Without people you're nothing. That's my spiel."
"If you're out there gettin' the honey, don't go killing all the bees."
"There's no use half doing it."
"I'm not working for the clampdown."
If you want to check out some of Joe Stummer's music, there's plenty to look into. I'd recommend these three albums as a place to start:
- The Clash by The Clash
- London Calling by The Clash
- Global A-Go-Go by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros