Here’s your black & white “test pattern” of the week:
On that night almost twenty-five years ago, Strummer was the very picture of galvanized rage. In profile at the microphone, his face was a harrowed skull knitted with tendons and bulging veins, streaming sweat and spewing spit. His eyes were either twisted shut in a burlesque approximation of anguish, or wide open, staring agog over the heads of the crowd to some spot a hundred miles away, at some horrible vision of the future that conditioned the whole existence of punk rock. He looked like he was going to have a heart attack.
He was – the whole band were – a vision of terror and violence and discipline and resolve, the scarred but heroic last-ditch defenders at some barricade that, in retrospect, probably only existed in our minds.
Joe Strummer, refugee from the British bureaucratic middle class, baby boomer and world music fan, was forever burned into my memory drenched with sweat, eyes agog, pointing with his guitar-pick at some looming, awful thing somewhere behind the crowd that pulsed up and down in front of him like uneasy water at the edge of a dock.
Strummer once provoked a bit of deserved outrage by sporting a Red Brigade t-shirt onstage, the kind of sloppy appropriation of radical imagery that plagued punk in those days. On the other hand, he wrote “Tommy Gun”, a rejection of terrorism and its fashionable supporters, that only suffered lyrically because the music that delivered it – all power chords and parade ground drum rolls – sounded even more furious:
“You’ll be dead when your war is won / But did you have to gun down everyone?” “I’m gonna get a jacket just like yours / An’ give my false support to your cause.” “I see all the innocents, the human sacrifice / and if death comes so cheap, then the same goes for life!” The message – clear enough on the page – got a bit lost, and we all just stood there, a bit overwhelmed. “Tommy gun. Fuck, yeah!”
I like to think it was this Strummer – still, at heart, the son of a foreign service diplomat – who was quoted in the aftermath of 9/11: “I think you have to grow up and realize that we’re facing religious fanatics who would kill everyone in the world who doesn’t do what they say. The more time you give them the more bombs they’ll get.”
It’s nice to read that a quarter of a century gave Strummer the words he always seemed to lack in interviews way back then, but then, maybe, he knew that the stakes were a lot higher now than then, and so there’s no time to fumble with words.