Well, this is goodbye. I've put it off all year, but now it arrives as a lump in the throat halfway through this final Joe Strummer album, during a cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." The late singer of the Clash used to substitute "kick it over" for "praise Jah over" in Willie Williams's reggae classic "Armagideon Time." But here he stays true to the Rastafarian grammar: "Pirates, yes, they rob I, sold I to the merchant ships," he sings. It's a corny choice of songs, a stoner choice. But Strummer gives it every fiber of his ragged voice, like Dylan bulling his way through the china shop of "Dixie" earlier this year (another slave song bluntly revised).
Strummer's performance is so disarming that I cried when I first heard it. I cried for the "question authority" and "vinyl rules" bumper stickers on his coffin last winter, for his stated belief that people who get stoned and are "into stuff" change the world, for the antiwar statements of his Clash-mates at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and for my own loss of their certitude after 9/11. These songs of freedom is all I ever had.
Like me, fans are mourning something more than Strummer. There were as many songs by Clash guitarist Mick Jones at the Triple Rock tribute last summer, and reviewers are as quick to equate the lyricist with his best band--as if Strummer weren't Mick Jones's biggest fan, or as if the Mescaleros weren't essentially making new Big Audio Dynamite records. Strummer was only as good as his best friends, I would say, and this new album, finished by some of them after his death, is more than a salvage job. With its festive suggestion of streets and crowds, Streetcore meets every wisp of the singer's familiar folk melodies with shouts of group harmony. His road ramblings get a road-ready treatment, the kind of world roots rock that Rachid Taha fans dig. There's no helping Joe Public's bullshit tendencies (the "clockin' in the neighborhood" in "All in a Day," as well as the "mutterings on the chain gangs" in "Long Shadow," strike me as the product of imagination rather than reporting). But the musicians have made the bandleader comfortable enough for a return to his adopted spiritual home of New Orleans, for a Bobby Charles cover, and its closing line, "I've got to hurry up before I grow too old." Strummer didn't know what was coming: He just sounded happy to be here.
by Peter S. Scholtes