No one is supposed to die of a heart attack at 50. But more than the rest of us, Joe Strummer was not supposed to die of a heart attack at 50—though he did, apparently, on Dec. 22 in Somerset, England.
In my mind, Strummer is eternally the lean, mean, pissed-off punk rocker; a fiery ball of teeming intelligence, snide wit and righteous indignation at the head of the Clash, a band that transcended labels. For a little while in the late 1970s and early '80s, this was undeniably the greatest rock & roll band—"The Only Band That Matters," it said on the cover of one album—blending dancehall, punk and roots rock into an amplified recent history of class struggle. The point of a Clash song like "Lost In the Supermarket" or "Spanish Bombs" wasn't to understand commodity capitalism, but to change it.
The Clash made several classic albums in its brief lifetime, but one stands out: London Calling was widely and correctly hailed as the groups' masterpiece, a weapon of mass-culture destruction so potent that even upon listening to it 20-plus years after its creation, it still pumps fire into the veins, wrath into the brain and puts 10 pounds of lead in critics' pencils.
And it was Strummer who was undeniably the heart and soul of the Clash. Mick Jones brought a keen pop sense, Paul Simonon was thuggish cool, and Topper Headon produced metronomic timekeeping on drums. But it was Strummer's heartfelt political conscience, devilish countenance, roaring and rasping vocals, and amusingly rotten teeth that gave the Clash a purpose that will last.
The Clash's premature self-immolation around 1983 ranks as one of the great pop tragedies. Who knows how much more great music this band might have created? The same may be asked of Strummer. He was low-key post-Clash, doing a little acting (most notably in Jim Jarmusch's excellent 1989 movie Mystery Train), scoring some films and, more recently, recording a couple of interesting but curiously controlled albums with his band, the Mescaleros. All this simmering talent led to speculation of a Clash reunion, with such talk gaining more momentum recently as the Clash will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame next year. Now that talk will be forever stifled along with Strummer's signature snarl.
My advice? Toss back several pints with such songs as "Clash City Rockers," "Clampdown" and "Rock the Casbah" blasting away. You'll feel better; I promise.
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