It will long be the fate of fans of Joe Strummer’s brilliant music — and his equally brilliant politics — to experience a touch of melancholy as the Christmastide swells.
The heart and soul of The Clash, the pioneering punk group that became the greatest rock-and-roll band of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Strummer died from a heart attack last December 22 at age 50. Strummer’s death came as a shock. But it was not just the shock of losing a radical artist who, as his last albums with his group the Mescaleros illustrated, still contained much creative juice. It was also the shock of recognition. Though Strummer always resisted the “voice of a generation” label, his death confirmed him as that voice.
When it was silenced, the sense of loss was dramatic. And it has not lessened much with the passing of a year. Indeed, as this Christmas approaches, Strummer’s voice is coming at us from many new directions. And it sounds as good as ever.
Over the past year, Strummer has been well remembered. A fine new book, The Last Night London Burned (Ethical Threads), provides a tremendous amount of biographical detail, as well as haunting photos from Strummer’s last London gig, a November, 2002, benefit for striking public workers in London. It is a fitting visual tribute to a man who never wavered in his commitment to economic and social justice, or in his willingness to use his music to advance the fight against racism, exploitation and needless war.
But the greatest honors accorded Strummer over the past year have not taken book form. Rather, they have been accompanied by guitar chords. Strummer’s legacy has been noted again and again by rockers who understood that their fraternity had lost one of its greatest members. Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and an all-star band performed The Clash’s “London Calling” at the Grammy Show in February. There have since been tribute concerts in Britain, Spain, Italy, Australia and, tonight, in New York. Dozens of artists have recorded cover versions of Clash songs and Strummer’s solo tunes — the December issue of the British magazine Uncut offers two CDs featuring more than two dozen of them — and reissues of Clash albums are appearing at a steadier rate than they ever did during Strummer’s lifetime.
What is remarkable and exciting, however, is that new Strummer tracks continue to surface. The release this month of the five-CD “Cash Unearthed” collected of previously unreleased Johnny Cash tracks features a poignant version of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” on which the late country singer and Strummer trade vocals. And the October release of “Streetcore,” Strummer’s last CD with the Mescaleros added a number of exceptional new songs to the Strummer catalogue.
The best of these is a reflective track, “Long Shadow,” which Strummer wrote as a tribute to Cash. Now that both men are dead, it is as fitting a memorial to Strummer as it is to Cash. When Strummer sings, “You cast a long shadow and that is your testament,” it is haunting because the words ring so true.
A year after his passing, Joe Strummer still casts that long shadow. The sense of loss remains palpable this Christmas season. But, with new Strummer songs continuing to appear, there remains, as well, a palpable sense of possibility.