When Joe Strummer died last December, it wasn't hard for me to listen to old Clash records or his newer material with the Mescaleros. In fact, his passing made me realize, posthumously, just how solid an album his last offering, 2001's Global-a-Go-Go, really and truly is.
I don't think I really paid attention to the life-is-short-so-keep-exploring-new-things mentality that Joe expressed so fervently in "Mega Bottle Ride." And the heart-wrenching "Bummed Out City" certainly took on new meaning as well.
But it wasn't necessarily a sad feeling for me. Maybe because I felt like I was rediscovering that album in a completely different light or something; it was almost cathartic and, well, joyous for me. Not that I reveled in his death, quite the opposite: I reveled in and celebrated his life.
Even while traveling to London for the first time this summer, I wasn't overwhelmed with sadness as I walked past the clubs the Clash played so many years ago. I didn't break down when I bought a bootleg of Strummer's last show, the infamous gig where he played a few old Clash tunes with Mick Jones (the first time those two shared a stage in over 20 years).
That said, when I popped in Streetcore, his last recording, for the first time a few weeks back, I came about as close to letting the floodgates open as I had at any time since his passing. I really don't know a better way to describe it, but it felt like I was listening to a ghost. One hell of a ghost, mind you, but a ghost nonetheless.
There's probably no better way to describe Streetcore than this: it is an incomplete record. After dribs and drabs of recording over the course of 2002, Strummer never had a chance to oversee the final production of the album. Who knows what would have been left off, added on, or completely remixed if he'd been around to finish the project.
When listening to the album those first few occasions, I had that empty feeling I expected to feel after his death. I began asking "what if" questions: What if he had more time in the studio? What if he had some fan-damntastic tune stuck in his head that he never had the chance to put on tape? What if he wanted to redo the vocal tracks on the cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" to bring more power and emotion to the song?
I hate asking "what if" questions, because we won't ever know. And I think that's why I struggled with this album. It has so many promising moments, so few -- and I would say hardly any -- flaws, that I just can't help but think, "what if he saw it through?"
In that sense, it's not really possible to write an analytical review of Streetcore. It's an unfinished product, although Mescaleros members Martin Slattery and Scott Shields did an admirable job covering the gaps and putting it together. The material is there, it's strong, not completely polished, but certainly deserving of release.
But I can't listen to this album without thinking that something is missing. I can't really put my finger on it. Maybe it's just knowing that I'll never get to hear these songs live. I don't think that's it, though, as there's a lot of tunes by a lot of artists I'll never hear live. Maybe it's the simple realization that this is it. Unless there's some amazing back catalog of unreleased Mescaleros material, this is all we're gonna get from Joe. And that saddens me.
As for the album itself, wistful tunes like "Burnin' Streets" and "Ramshackle Day Parade" are among the most reflective and honest songs in Strummer's catalog, and the more uppity tracks "Get Down Moses," "Arms Aloft" and "All In a Day" match up with the best of Global-a-Go-Go.
"Coma Girl," the first single from the album, is as catchy as anything he's written, and appears to be a bit of a tribute -- at least musically -- to the late Joey Ramone. When I first heard the opening chords, my mind immediately drifted to "I Wanna Be Sedated." How ironic that besides Streetcore, one of the last recordings Strummer made was intended for a Ramones tribute album.
And another cruel twist: his reflective acoustic tune "Long Shadow" was originally intended for Johnny Cash. In fact, the song was written and recorded on the spot at Rick Rubin's house with Cash's guitarist Smokey Hormel.
Perhaps it is "Long Shadow" that serves as the most appropriate epitaph for both Strummer and Cash. "Well I'll tell you one thing that I know / You don't face your demons now / You gotta grab 'em Jack / And pin them to the ground / The devil may care / maybe God he won't / You gotta make sure / You check on the do's and the don'ts," Strummer sings.
And, of course, one can't forget the last line: "Somewhere in my soul / There's always rock and roll."
There you go -- you can't say it any better than that. Right now Strummer's soul is in Rock n' Roll Heaven, while we're left wondering what could've been.