So another hero has fallen. John Graham Mellor, born in Ankara, Turkey, on Aug. 21, 1952. Later to be respected, loved and known as Joe Strummer, vocalist/guitarist for punk-rock legends the Clash (and, more recently, fronting the Mescaleros). Slated for induction along with his former Clash bandmates into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March. Dead of a heart attack on Dec. 22, 2002.
But if you need a capsule bio of Joe Strummer you’re consulting the wrong journalist. I come not to eulogize, but to conjure a man who has inspired me for a quarter-century.
I was privileged to interview him last year while the Mescaleros were on tour for their superb album Global A Go-Go. The conversation we had in the dressing room of New York City’s Irving Plaza was more than enlightening. In a few hours the Mescaleros would put on a fire and brimstone dub/worldbeat/pulpit-rock show, but for the moment, Strummer was putting me straight on things. This ranged from his take on Clash nostalgia (proud of the legacy, no truck with sentimentality) to how he felt to be a road warrior again despite pushing 50 (“You get your juices going, you meet and you talk to people — it’s a very stimulating experience in total, y’know?”) to his avid hunger as a lifelong music head. (At the time he had a recurring show on the BBC and he reveled in turning people on to new or obscure tunes.)
My most abiding memory is when I uttered the dreaded phrase “spokesman for a generation.” Strummer, who’d been nursing a cold and was sipping herbal tea in between deep drags from his roll-ups, fixed me with a glare, walked over to a trash can and hocked up a noxious-looking wad of black goo, then barked into my face.
“I’m not a spokesperson! Never was to anybody. They can hose off, man. I mean it. That’s a load of horseradish. I’m happy to get that box [pointing to guitar] and figure out something to do with it. I get rid of my opinions! Because some clever guy said, ‘If you have opinions, you cannot see.’ Meaning that opinions will kind of horse-blinker you to see the truth about any situation [cackling, with evil journalist-baiting twinkle in his eye]. Opinions aren’t worth the paper they’re written on!”
Amen, Brother Strummer. Of all from the class of ’76, Strummer was the one that I could imagine actually making a raucous-yet-dignified 70-year-old.
To crib a line from the Mescaleros tune “Cool ’N’ Out” — “God sure baked a lot of fruitcakes, baby.” The loaf God served up this past Christmas tastes like shit, however.Fred Mills is a freelance writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org