I don’t remember the first time I truly listened to Joe Strummer.
It may have been when I heard “Clampdown” off the band’s seminal 1979 album, London Calling. The song warns young men of the inherit soul-crushing nature of capitalism and reminds them that they — not the government, not The Establishment — have control of their lives.
“Let fury have the hour; anger can be power — do you know that you can use it?”
That line was my driving force in 2016, during the height of the presidential primary cycle. At the time I was volunteering for Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist and agitator of the status quo. I found parallels between Sanders and Joe Strummer of The Clash: Both were champions of socialism and the proletariat, and both were vocal critics of injustice and the oligarchy.
Though The Clash became my soundtrack during that tumultuous political year, the band hung with me long after Sanders lost the primary, Hillary Clinton lost the general and Donald Trump became our president. With each passing day of of Trump’s presidency, their words have carried more weight. “If Adolph Hitler flew in today, they’d send the limos in anyway” from “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais” has repeatedly walked circles in my head. Many days I’m left wondering, “What the hell would Joe Strummer think of this mess?”
My knowledge of The Clash and Joe Strummer was limited before 2016. Now I laugh at the novice listener I was. To say I’m a fan is an understatement. Every album, documentary and book from the band and about the band has been consumed.
I know the band came from working class roots, and even though Joe was from an affluent family, he squatted in houses and wore hand-me-downs because he related to society’s underdogs. “I saw it as an empty lifestyle,” Strummer said about wealth.
I know the plight of the working class meant a great deal to each member of the band, and they made themselves accessible and relatable to their fans, particularly Joe who enjoyed talking left-wing politics with complete strangers in a bar. Throughout their career they kept their ticket prices low and invited fans to hang backstage.
I know that Joe’s brother was flirting with Nazism and committed suicide, and that the National Front movement was a concern for the singer. The band performed at the iconic 1978 Rock Against Racism concert in protest of growing Nazism and anti-black racism in England. (Side note: The Rock Against Racism concert was prompted by Eric Clapton proclaiming during a 1976 concert that England was becoming “a black colony” and that the government should “send them all back.”)
I know that Joe regretted breaking up the band and four weeks before he died of a massive heart attack at the age of 50 he performed with Clash mate Mick Jones. They had discussed getting the band back together.
I’ve often questioned why I’ve found such comfort in Joe Strummer’s words. If 2017 was The Year of the Woman, shouldn’t I be listening to and holding up creators of my own gender? Not only were The Clash not known for being public advocates for women (they weren’t known for being enemies of women either), but a young Strummer was not particularly well-mannered when it came to the opposite sex. According to Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer, in his early years, he was a philanderer and a horn toad unafraid to hit on mates’ wives and girlfriends. Strummer also wasn’t always respectful to his long-term partner and the mother of his two daughters, Gaby Salter. (From every account he loved and valued his daughters, Jazz and Lola, and his second wife, Lucinda, and developed a strong relationship with his ex after they parted ways.)
But a 34-year-old American woman can find kinship with a deceased British man even though they share nothing in common except a deep love for progress and the human condition, right?
I listen to Joe Strummer because his anger gives me power. Singing and fist pumping to The Clash’s loose, fast and guttural tunes are a mental and physical release — a release from the overwhelming stress of our growing political instability. I listen because his words remind me that our leaders will let us down, governments are not always to be trusted and anger is righteous.
The beauty of The Clash is that you can take any of the band’s lyrics and they will be pertinent in the Trump era.
When Joe warns “There ain’t not asylum here; King Solomon he never lived ‘round here” in “Straight to Hell,” he could be referring to the millions of immigrants Trump wants to rid of or ban from America.
When Joe reminds us that “Murder is a crime….unless it’s done by a policeman or an aristocrat” in “Know Your Rights,” he could be talking about the never-ending list of unarmed black men and women who are killed by the police.
When Joe tell us that “All the power is in the hands of people rich enough to buy it while we walk the streets too chicken to even try it” in “White Riot,” he could be speaking about the millions of Americans who are too afraid to question authority.
This is why Joe Strummer — and Mick Jones and Paul Simonon and Topper Headon — will always stay relevant. (The other three band members deserve their own essays.) Unlike many of their peers at the time, what the band wrote is everlasting. Even though society has evolved since the band’s heyday, injustices will always occur. The words “The future is unwritten” may appear on the cover of Combat Rock, but the elite and The Establishment will continue to abuse their power; society will continue to abandon their compassion and empathy.
“People are out there doing bad things to each other,” Strummer once said. “That’s because they’ve been dehumanized. It’s time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed — it ain’t going anywhere. They should have that on a big billboard across Times Square. Think on that. Without people you’re nothing.”
And with Joe’s enduring words and the timeless music of The Clash, we must remember it is up to us to stand up for what is right. We must stand up for the working class, stand up for immigrants, stand up for people whose skin color is different from our own and stand against the people in power who want to keep us down.
It’s time for our fury to have the hour.
Our anger can be power.
Don’t we know we can use it?
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Great piece. Joe is my hero as well. Heroes are hard to come by.