Classic Music Review: Streetcore by Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros

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I’m not much of a celebrity hound, so I don’t often cry when I hear the news of a celebrity’s passing. I may take some time to reflect on their contributions to human culture, which in turn may move me to tears, but I hardly ever cry when I first hear the news. The process of taking your average human being and transforming them into a celebrity is an act of distortion, and if there’s one quality I prize above all in relationships, it’s authenticity. I don’t know how to relate to a distortion.

Oddly enough, I do cry when I hear of the deaths of innocent people I’ve never met, so this isn’t “I have to know you to give a shit about you.” I can relate to people who aren’t distorted through the prism of fame; it’s harder to see the real person behind any celebrity, given the filters of publicity and hype.

The one time I did cry from the get-go on hearing the sad news was when I learned of Joe Strummer’s death in December 2002. I was in LAX waiting for the home-for-the-holidays flight when I overheard a conversation between two fellow travelers sitting behind me. I spun around and interrupted them with, “What did you say about Joe Strummer?” and one of them replied, “He died. It was on the news this morning.” The shock caused me to spin violently away from them and burst into tears. I remember people looking at me with concern or annoyance, their misshapen faces contorted through a cascade of tears. The crying jag continued through the boarding process and throughout the flight. I looked so perfectly pathetic that the airline attendants offered me free booze, without bothering to check my ID (I’d only just turned twenty-one).

I’ve reflected on my reaction from time to time, especially when other famous musical artists have passed into the great beyond. When I learned of the deaths of Bowie and Prince, I was very upset but didn’t shed any tears until I listened to their music and appreciated the extent of the loss. The fundamental difference is that Bowie and Prince seemed “larger than life,” while Joe Strummer always felt real and accessible to me. If I had run into Joe Strummer in a bar somewhere, I can imagine plopping my ass on the stool next to his and immediately engaging in delightful conversation on a wide range of subjects while we smoked up a storm. This was a man who studiously avoided the ridiculous trappings of stardom and who voluntarily took a cut in his royalties to fulfill his vision of Sandinista! He wrote and sung about things that mattered to me and validated my self-image as a common citizen of the world who cares about that world and the people in it. He poked fun at pretense, challenged unthinking authority and stood up for those left behind by unfeeling bureaucracies and politicians. Joe Strummer was the living validation of some of my most cherished values.

But more than anything else, it was the spirit of the man that made him so very, very special. From a technical perspective, he was never a great singer, but he more than made up for his vocal deficiencies with an undeniable élan that could charm even the most dogmatic musicologist. His openness to a variety of musical traditions always manifested itself in genuine enthusiasm for the music and the culture that produced it. While most of us live our lives defensively and protectively, Joe Strummer lived his life like a great improv comedian, saying “Yes!” to every offer.

What upset me the most about his passing was it happened way, way too soon. David Bowie left behind a solid body of work that will live for centuries. Joe Strummer still had a lot of gas in the tank when he died, and I ache to think about the music I’ll never hear, and the fresh, restorative perspectives he always provided.

Streetcore is proof positive that Joe Strummer still had it and then some.

Due to a combination of disputes with Sony and what he described as his own laziness, Joe Strummer had been essentially out of the music business for ten years when The Mescaleros produced their first album. Rock Art and the X-Ray Style feels at first like an extension of late-period Clash with longer songs and reggae sensibilities, but the arrangements are much more complex and layered, displaying the multi-instrumental talents of the band. The marvelous closer, “Willesden to Cricklewood,” demonstrated that Joe’s lyrical talents had not atrophied during his absence. The second album, Global a Go-Go, corrects the faults of that massive sprawl known as Sandinista! by giving us a thoroughly enjoyable guided tour through the world music scene.

Streetcore was to be the next release, and the band had gone pretty far in the recording process when Joe passed away. While Joe never got a crack at the final mix (about which there was some grumbling from fandom) and some of the tracks are first-take vocals, band members Martin Slattery and Scott Shields did a superb job with the mixing and the mastering. Their work on Streetcore succeeds on many levels, but most importantly, Slattery and Shields’ production allows Joe Strummer’s irrepressible, undying spirit to shine through. Joe’s vocals sound as strong and confident as they did on London Calling, and the inclusion of two Joe-and-acoustic-guitar songs give Streetcore an unusual sense of intimacy, as if you’re hanging out with Joe in the living room while he plays some tunes he picked up on his travels. While the general consensus describes Streetcore as Joe Strummer’s return to his rock ‘n’ roll roots, the diverse influences that formed Joe Strummer’s approach to music still remain, giving the rock-oriented pieces greater richness. There’s also more than a touch of American country-western music, appropriate for a record where Joe continued to explore his combined wonder and exasperation with the United States.

Streetcore opens delightfully with “Coma Girl,” a melodic-harmonic rocker with deftly-executed rhythmic changes and gorgeous energy. The opening of the song is absolutely thrilling, with Joe’s voice soaring with total commitment over the spare accompaniment of a rough electric guitar providing a tension-building rhythm. Whenever I hear Joe sing those opening lines, I want to scream out, “Oh, man, have I missed the fuck out of you!” The bass enters subtly on the third line, but interestingly enough, avoids duplication of the main rhythm while foreshadowing a brief shift to a reggae beat in the transition lines (“And the rain came in from the wide blue yonder/Through all the stages I wandered”). All this is a build-up to the driving chorus, with its catchy tune and energizing harmonies. This pattern will repeat itself throughout the song, leading to the let-it-the-fuck-out closing choruses. While the pattern has enough variety to keep the listener interested, Joe varies both phrasing and melody throughout the song to give it added spice.

The lyrics are based on Joe’s frequent visits to the Glastonbury Festival, and the song has become something of a festival anthem since Bruce Springsteen opened his set with “Coma Girl” in tribute to Joe back in 2009. However, the lyrics could easily be applied to the vibes at any American outdoor music festival or a Dead concert (“I was crawling through a festival way out west/I was thinking about love and the acid test”). Here in the “wide blue yonder” Joe encounters the Coma Girl, “Mona Lisa on the motorcycle gang,” an alluring and mysterious figure completely fixated on excitement in the present tense. Nothin’ like a babe on a motorcycle to send guys and discriminating gals into a coma! The last verse establishes her presence as the woman in charge (fuck yeah!) while cleverly synthesizing a series of symbolic images from rock rebel culture:

As the 19th hour was falling upon Desolation Row
Some outlaw band had the last drop on the go
‘Let’s siphon up some gas let’s get this show on the road’
Said the Coma Girl to the excitement gang
Into action everybody sprang
The oil drums were beating out doo-lang, doo-lang

Joe Strummer was the embodiment of the rebellious spirit that drives great rock ‘n’ roll, and  “Coma Girl” is a great rock song because it captures that ethos so beautifully.

Way back on Sandinista! Joe tried his hand at preachin’ to the masses with “The Sound of Sinners,” with mixed results. He does much, much better with the more melodic pattern and hot groove of “Get Down Moses,” a mesmerizing, ass-shaking experience. Part anti-drug message and part biting commentary about the modern irrelevance and ineffectiveness of ol’ time religion, Joe is in superb voice and the band is in top form. I just love listening to this arrangement with its diverse instrumentation providing unexpected splashes of color over tight percussion and heart-melting bass. And I really love the line, “Sayin’ the truth crystallizes it like jewels in the rock, in the rock,” something we all have to remember in these horrible days of alternative facts and orange-haired frothing at the mouth.

We get a nice shift with “The Long Shadow,” a song Joe originally wrote for Johnny Cash, whose work he deeply admired. Joe extended a Southern California vacation to hang out with Johnny during the recording of American IV: The Man Comes Around simply because he loved hanging out with The Man in Black. The unforeseen meeting of these two greats did result in the Cash-Strummer duet of “Redemption Song,” but we’ll get to that in a minute. In truth, “The Long Shadow” is a tribute song where Joe emulates Johnny’s singing style with obvious gusto (and a faux-Western drawl). I find it hard to imagine Johnny Cash actually covering the song, especially with lines that are so Strummer-ish like “And I hear punks talk of anarchy.” Even so, I enjoy listening to Joe adopt the primitive style of country-western singers and strummers, and as was true with everything he did, he put his whole heart and soul into the effort. The song’s epitaph is a fascinating admission of a man who spent a good deal of his life exploring the music of diverse cultures, and expresses something I’ve recently come to appreciate about myself:

Somewhere in my soul
There’s always rock and roll

When I’ve been away from rock for a while, it’s the emotional equivalent of nicotine withdrawal on a transatlantic flight: I simply have to have it and have it NOW! In Joe Strummer’s case, I think he was self-aware enough to know that his voice and orientation towards life was best manifested in the driving rhythms, nasty guitars and the inherent fuck-the-authorites character of rock ‘n’ roll. When it came to rock ‘n’ roll, Joe Strummer was The Natural.

This is vividly demonstrated on the next track, “Arms Aloft,” the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll number in the Strummer repertoire since “Clampdown.” This explosive number starts in an entirely disarming manner with a static beat leading to the first verse, where Joe sings over a guitar playing a pattern of selected high octave notes from the simple F-C chord pattern. The relative quiet reflects the mood of the lyrics, where Joe is singing to a friend going through one of those “life’s fucked me in the ass without lube” moments and can use a little empathy from a fellow traveler:

Sometimes there’s no star shining
Scouting the edge of the universe
Sometimes you can’t see a horizon
Between the ocean and the earth

The guitar then shifts to a fuller but still subdued version of the F-C pattern, joined by a solid bottom of bass and drum. After two rounds, Joe re-enters with a slight sneer in his voice to indicate that he ain’t buying this poor-me shit—“And just when you were thinking about slinking . . . ” and the guitar pattern collapses into a perfectly out-of-nowhere, delightfully devilish F#5 on the concluding word, “. . . down.” Now Joe is ready to drive this baby home with “I’m gonna pull you up! I’m gonna pull you ’round!” Then WHAM! We get full, deep thrust in an explosion of driving rock ‘n’ roll with Joe’s voice squeezed through a filter to emphasize the shift. The words that burst out of the sonic sieve are a timeless reminder to everyone that when things are going bad, we all have the tendency to shade everything in a negative tint and behave as if we’re acting out our parts in a disaster movie with no hope of rescue. “Fuck that!” responds Mr. Strummer:

May I remind you of that scene
The spirit is our gasoline
May I remind you of that scene
We were arms aloft in Aberdeen
May I remind you of that scene
Let a million mirror balls beam
May I remind you of that scene

Shit, man, I’m ready for the post-fuck cigarette after the first verse and chorus! Fortunately, I have a very large appetite for orgasmic experiences, and “Arms Aloft” is the fuck buddy who never quits. Driven by an exceptionally strong bass pattern, the second verse is dedicated to us common people who have to work for our daily bread. Save us from our self-pity, Joe!

And you say living ain’t nothing but hassles
In a Manila envelope frame
And driving coal all-night to Newcastle
It’s getting to be a repetitive strain
And just when thought you were going down the drain

May I remind you of that scene
The spirit is our gasoline

After a fabulous instrumental bridge of sliding, twisting, cascading guitar effects, the band dials it down just a smidge to clear the way for Joe to step up and remind us, “I’m gonna pull you up, I’m gonna pull you out!” and “Arms Aloft” shifts into a hard-driving fade until the band collapses from sheer exhaustion, having left it all on the bedsheets and then some. My favorite line in the fade is “We got all this and Bird and Diz,” referring to the legendary Bebop heroes who pushed musical boundaries to the limit with virtually no hope of commercial success. It would have been a hell of a lot easier for Parker and Gillespie to forget about expanding musical boundaries, get a steady gig with a big band and play the dance music people wanted to hear. Why didn’t they do that? Because the spirit was their gasoline, just as it was for Joe Strummer.

It’s music, baby! Live it the fuck up!

The contrast between “Arms Aloft” and “Ramshackle Day Parade” couldn’t be greater: one is a song of spirit rising from the ashes, the other a song of spirit crushed by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Over a gentle background of echoed piano and touches of synthesizer, Joe opens the song by depicting the cinematic innocence of America at the start of the new century:

Muffle the drums
The hope of a new century comes
Was it all the amphetamine presidents
And their busy wives
Or did Manhattan crumble
The day Marilyn died

All your life, dreamer of dreams
Somehow connected with the silver screen
Half closed eyes, you realize
Loving the life that is paradise
In the Technicolor fade

JFK and Marilyn were America’s fantasy couple, one the symbol of active masculinity (cloaking Addison’s disease and a degenerative back condition), the other the glamorous sex symbol par excellence (cloaking natural mousey brown hair and lifelong depression). The tendency towards naive fantasy that characterizes the American psyche was further fueled by the end of the Cold War and seemingly unstoppable economy: TV pundits talked constantly about “the new American century.” 9/11 destroyed not only the precious lives of three thousand people but the American fantasy of continuous progress and unbridled optimism. The parade of people walking home on the Brooklyn Bridge after the horror of that sunny day was the cruel opposite of the celebratory ticker tape parades of the past:

This is the ramshackle day parade
Of all those lost, unborn, and unmade
And whose heads got filled with a neon lava
And remain buried underneath this road
Taking the freight elevator
From the incinerator

The ironic line “Bring out the banners of Stalingrad” describes a Pyrrhic victory, and given the continuing decline of the United States in the years following 9/11—masked temporarily and only superficially by the Obama years—the image of a “victory” that causes you to sacrifice everything you stand for is entirely appropriate, given where America is today. “Ramshackle Day Parade” is a haunting and challenging song, brilliantly arranged and executed.

My friends (hah!) over at Pitchfork didn’t think much of Joe Strummer’s version of “Redemption Song,” claiming it “verges on comedy.” Oh, my goodness! I guess if you’ve only got fifteen minutes and a limit of 800 words to write a piece for the moronic music consumers who read your shit, you need to keep your snark skills sharp! Perhaps if Mr. Hartley Goldstein had eliminated the TWO OPENING PARAGRAPHS ABOUT HOW HARD IT IS TO BE A MUSIC CRITIC, he might have had some room to write more intelligently and perceptively about Mr. Strummer’s work. As it is, he only mentions half of the songs on the album and blames both Joe Strummer’s widow and Rick Rubin’s production for Joe’s poor showing on “Redemption Song.” To say I believe Mr. Goldstein misses the point would be the understatement of all understatements, so allow me to politely offer an alternative viewpoint to that lazy prick’s senseless meanderings.

No matter what Joe Strummer did in his career, no matter how many musical avenues he explored, and no matter how complex and rich his arrangements could be, all his songs are Everyman songs that anyone who learns a few simple chords can play. The two acoustic numbers on Streetcore allow us to hear Joe without The Clash or The Mescaleros filling in the spaces. All we get is Joe Strummer, armed only with his acoustic guitar and his gravelly, wandering voice. Does his performance on “Redemption Song” come close to any of Richard Thompson’s acoustic masterpieces? Fuck, no! What comes through is his spirit, his passion for human freedom and his deep respect for a great song. That’s good enough for me! Still, I wish they could have included the Cash-Strummer duet instead—the combination of Johnny’s sadly fading voice as he makes one of his last recordings and Joe Strummer’s respectful counterpoint is incredibly moving. Both would be gone within the space of two years, but when I hear that recording, it inspires me with the hope that I leave this mortal sphere singing, no matter how old and creaky I sound.

Joe and the Mescaleros get back to ass-kicking rock with “All in a Day,” where the constant refrain of “Hey, hey!” presents the listener with the overwhelming urge to join in. It’s a great dance number with some nice breaks to let the listening audience throw in a few exuberant shouts. It’s followed by the majestic “Burnin’ Streets,” an update of “London’s Burning” a quarter of a century after the first Clash album hit the U. K. shelves. Joe is in particularly fine voice here, supported by a nicely flowing arrangement highlighting acoustic guitar and Mellotron. Not much had changed in twenty-five-or-so years, but the passage that surprised me highlights Joe Strummer’s lack of tolerance for guns in a civilized society:

Too many guns in this damn town
The supermarket, you gotta duck down
Baby flak jackets on the merry-go-round

I’m thinking, “Compared to the gun-crazy USA, what the fuck are you talking about?” I remain eternally grateful that the NRA hasn’t extended their satanic claws to England’s green and pleasant land, praise the fucking lord and don’t pass the fucking ammunition.

Joe Strummer spent part of his out-of-the-industry years as a BBC disk jockey in a programme appropriately titled London Calling. You can find recordings of his shows in the BBC archives or on YouTube, and I highly recommend them. I mean, can you imagine a better disk jockey than Joe Strummer? His natural curiosity and deep knowledge of world music made him a perfect fit for the job, and exposed a lot of people to music (including me) that I would never have heard anywhere else.”Midnight Jam” is essentially an extended instrumental with snippets from Joe’s programmes, riffing on the music he’s spinning. While that doesn’t sound like much, the combination of that unmistakable voice and solid backing makes for a compelling listening experience. My favorite “line” is “Since the last programme I’ve been around the world touring with a group—you name every jail in Germany, I’ve been there.” The line is both a reaffirmation of rebellion and a final nod to The Man in Black, who made some of his best recordings in prisons.

Streetcore ends with the third acoustic number, “Silver and Gold,” Joe’s cover of the Fats Domino-Bobby Charles song originally titled “Before I Grow Too Old.” The two original versions share a New Orleans feel, differing largely in the tempo—Bobby skips through the song at a decent clip while Fats takes it slow and easy. Reflecting his late fascination with voices from the American heartland, Joe turns the piece into a Western tune, replete with harmonica and Tymon Dogg on the fiddle. Obviously, the song’s lyrics take on more meaning because of his sudden death, but I think if had Joe lived to a ripe old age, this song would be remembered as an anthem to his commitment to live life a certain way: at breakneck speed, and if you break a few rules along the way, fuck it.

Oh, I do a lotta things, I know is wrong
Hope I’m forgiven before I’m gone
It’ll take a lotta prayers to save my soul
And I got to hurry up before I grow too old . . .

Heh, I’m gonna go out dancin’ every night
I’m gonna see all your city lights
I’m gonna do everything silver and gold
And I got to hurry up before I grow too old

Joe sings the song with almost boyish sincerity, and when you realize this is the last thing we’ll ever hear from Joe Strummer, it hits you with a combination of terrible sadness and irresolvable frustration that he died way, way before his time.

At a time when several Western countries are turning the clock backwards to pursue the discredited  ideology of Nationalism that gave us decades of war, the life and work of Joe Strummer reminds us that there is an alternative to fear-driven self-destruction: the celebration of human diversity and inclusion. Through his endless curiosity about different cultures and the music of those cultures, Joe Strummer was the model world citizen, actively chipping away at the real and imagined borders that divide us. I am certain he would be absolutely astonished to return to the world of today and see that its inhabitants have responded to fear by splitting apart instead of coming together . . . and I’m equally certain he would respond forcefully with songs that expose the absurdity and validate the humanity. Streetcore is the final gift from a man who lived life to the fullest and had complete confidence that the human spirit could survive the worst tendencies of the human race.

The spirit, after all, is our gasoline.

One response

  1. Rock’n’roll, Reggae or Punk – Joe Strummer as a godfather of the mix of styles!

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