Go easy, step lightly, stay free
On Aug. 21 of last year, a birthday party of sorts was held at the top of a hill in the gypsy quarter of Granada, Spain.
About 200 friends, family members and former bandmates of Joe Strummer gathered to honour the former Clash frontman in his home-away-from-home, on what would have been his 51st birthday.
The only person missing was, of course, Joe himself. Strummer died on Dec. 22, 2002, at his home in England, of a congenital heart defect.
Still, on that summer night in Spain, a loving group of musical friends called Los Amigos --- which included former Clash guitarist Mick Jones, Pogues multi-instrumentalist Jem Finer, 101'ers drummer Richard Dudanski --- paid tribute to their mate with a set of Clash tunes and Strummer faves.
The party lasted well into the night, stretching till dawn. Most who were there felt Joe would have liked it. They said it was his kind of vibe --- troubadourish, bohemian and decidedly low-key. It was definitely not a garish memorial gig.
(Am I the only person who felt uncomfortable watching Bruce Springsteen, Little Steven Van Zandt, Dave Grohl and Elvis Costello play London Calling at the Grammys last year?)
At the time of his death, Strummer had been working on an album of new material with the Mescaleros, the group he formed in the late-1990s after a long hiatus from recording following the ultimate dissolution of The Clash in 1986.
Though he released a 1989 solo album, Earthquake Weather, and toured with The Pogues as a temp replacement for Shane McGowan in the early '90s, Strummer was content to be a family man for the best part of a decade.
His re-emergence in 1999 with Rock Art & the X-Ray Style was a reminder --- at the height of mall-punk bedlam --- that punk rock had older, more worldly roots.
As one of the genre's originators, Strummer was lionized upon his return to public life by those who realized his contributions to popular music.
Rancid's Tim Armstrong almost immediately signed his boyhood idol to his Hellcat Records imprint. The Mescaleros toured Europe and North America and Joe was no longer a forgotten man.
The Mescaleros released a second album in 2001 and, afire with enthusiasm, Strummer began working on and recording another project almost immediately.
In the spring of 2002, he spent several weeks in Los Angeles, working with producer Rick Rubin and country legend Johnny Cash. Strummer not only wrote a song (Long Shadow) for The Man in Black, he also recorded Bob Marley's Redemption Song with Cash --- and the song is now a posthumous hit single and video for both men.
Almost typically, Strummer seemed to dodge the spotlight even with his death.
It came in the wake of news that The Clash had been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (one of his last communications was apparently a fax to Clash bassist Paul Simonon about what songs they might play at their induction) and at the height of Strummer's renewed creative powers.
The new Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros album, Streetcore, which was finished by the band and released in September of last year, is the essence of the man --- even without the benefit of rose-tinted nostalgia.
It's a roiling, rocking amalgam of singer/songwriter doggerel, modern beats, world music hues and Strummer's strained yet warm and loving voice. Joe wasn't the greatest of singers, by any stretch, but he had a gift for music and feel for lyrics that's lacking in many more talented than he was.
Alas, Streetcore is Joe Strummer's swan song.
But it's not his farewell. Strummer didn't know he was going anywhere, so his last recordings abound with life and are unadorned by any overarching sentiment.
This weekend's tribute to The Clash and Joe Strummer is being put on by The Farrell Brothers, Brat Attack, the Barrymores and late addition Johnny Sizzle, and it won't be an overly sentimental affair, either.
Like the revellers who gathered in Spain to remember their friend last summer, these local bands simply want to remember a hero and an influence, and to play the music he made that inspired them. By doing so they hope in turn to inspire their audience to dance and celebrate the life of a true original --- a man Tim Armstrong celebrates in song as "the great Joe Strummer."
I'd like to think Strummer would enjoy this party, too. It's local, rootsy and heartfelt. Just the way he liked things.
By John Kendle