The premature deaths in the past year of Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer ought to be enough to make the most pious among us angry at The Man Upstairs. In our prefabricated popular culture, these three stood out not only as artistic pioneers but also as icons of uncompromised integrity. They reached into our souls because they spoke from their own.
Together with his mates in The Clash, Joe Strummer reinvented rock ‘n’ roll in the late 1970s by combining punk energy with musical artistry and angry but intelligently politicized lyrics. As the political folksinger Billy Bragg correctly notes, “Were it not for The Clash, punk would have been just a sneer, a safety pin and a pair of bondage trousers.”
While never mega-successful commercially, The Clash remain an unanswerable rebuke to those who demand a wall between art and politics. The angrier their songs about imperialism, inequality and institutionalized violence, the higher they soared musically. And while Clash lyrics necessarily simplified issues–they were not, after all, writing essays for The Nation–rarely did they oversimplify. On Sandinista!, for instance, “Washington Bullets” is actually a backhanded compliment to Jimmy Carter for refusing to intervene to save Nicaragua’s Somoza.
But The Clash were more than just rhetorically political. They remained permanently indebted on their royalty statements because they demanded that the triple disc Sandinista! be priced at the cost of a single LP. Strummer would have slit his own throat before setting ticket prices at a Stones-style $350. (“Sir Mick”–whose knighthood would also make Strummer wretch–even bragged about the big bucks to Forbes.) It wasn’t for lack of vision or commitment that Strummer and the band failed to overthrow the structure of a music business that thrives on “turnin’ rebellion into money.” They fought the law, and the law won.
Warren Zevon fought cancer, and he won. Well, the cancer won too, but not before Warren taught the rest of us a lesson in death with dignity. After he got the bad news, Zevon thanked his friends, hugged his family and created–working in fits and starts as his health would allow–his finest record since his self-titled major-label debut back in 1976. This self-educated son of a Mormon mother and Russian-Jewish gangster father was perhaps the most casually literate lyricist in rock this side of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. How many writers, of any kind, can find inspiration simultaneously in the work of Rilke, Stravinsky, Philip Habib and Boom Boom Mancini?
Zevon’s passing, Ry Cooder observed, was “unbelievably sad and unbelievably brave.” Brave because Zevon kind of got to attend his own funeral–Huck Finn style. Letterman devoted a whole program to him; Springsteen chartered a jet to appear on the album; Dylan played three of his songs in one show. Sad, because Zevon was too sick to make it to the end of the Dylan show. And because the guy who wrote “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”–a party animal’s paean to imagined immortality–went to bed too early, for once, decades after he had beaten back his various demons and addictions.