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Transcending Cool 

Loss of Joe Strummer leaves musical void

"I'm standing at a sale of the shoes of bankrupt men/I just had to buy a pair to show life can live again" -- from "Nitcomb" by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros

Odds are you've already read a couple other stories on Joe Strummer by now and don't want to read another. That's your choice. This is just my take on Joe Strummer, and it's similar to Billy Bragg's. He walked it like he talked it. That, my friends, may be the hardest thing to do in life. Joe Strummer came from means -- his father was a British Foreign Office clerk -- yet he didn't shirk the fact and try to act like he was born in the Mississippi Delta. In fact, he once went missing for a few weeks and eventually turned up in Paris, where it was said he was having a go at "being a bum." Didn't suit him. Bohemian, maybe, but no bum. Joe Strummer didn't beg anybody for anything. He had street credibility by being a man who wouldn't bullshit you. That sort of thing transcends cool, you see.

I came to Strummer rather late -- Combat Rock, to be exact. It was the end of the glorious reign of his band, The Clash, which some called "the only band that matters." Frankly, they were mattering less and less by the time Combat came out, but the sound of Strummer's voice was so damn direct that I was utterly fascinated.

To this day, his is the voice (along with Elvis Presley's) that I think of when I think of rock & roll. It was supple and honey-coated even when locked in a lyrical sneer, and it exhibited through its very vibrations a depth -- a goodness -- that a nihilist like Johnny Rotten would never achieve.

Granted, my musical idols, depending on age, have also included folks like Ronnie Van Zant. Growing up in Union County, NC, you didn't hear a lot of punk rock, unless some rock station happened to spin "Rock the Casbah" for the umpteenth time. Frankly, I didn't understand all that much what Strummer and his bandmates were raging against, but I could tell that he meant it. Same with Van Zant, another tell-it-like-it-is, no-bullshit guy who knew that masks were only for Halloween. Take "em or leave "em both, but they spoke the truth.

Exploring the Clash's back catalog was a years-long process for me, but one that opened me up to some considerable music vistas. The band's snapshots of musical forms such as dub and reggae, and, perhaps more importantly, the culture that produced them, were guides -- travelogues, if you will. Strummer knew early on the power his band possessed to influence (check out the sales of old military uniforms and boots once The Clash traded in the leather). As the band explored, they played with indigenous musicians -- partly out of idolatry, and partly to expose the music and the (inevitably black) people that played it as being worthy of your attention -- not only as musicians, but as people.

After The Clash's breakup, Strummer busied himself with acting and musical one-offs until returning to touring life with a new band, the Mescaleros, in 1999. The band's highly underrated debut, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, continued Strummer's musical goal to mix all sorts of exotic influences together into a seamless whole. That it sounded exhilarating as opposed to a diluted mess is a credit to Strummer's sheer musical ability. The hardest thing to cook, most chefs will tell you, is fusion cuisine. If you don't prepare it just right, it'll taste ridiculous.

A second album, Global a Go-Go, followed. "It's music for people who are beyond the parameters of the demographic fascists who decide what sells and what gets advertised and what gets on the playlists," Strummer said of the album. Strummer was now tired of telling people to think for themselves and decided it was just as important to play for them. Strummer and his band were arguably more responsible for the use of "punk rock" as an adjective than anyone. In Strummer's case, "punk rock" was deciding not to play punk rock anymore.

But were they -- the Clash and Strummer -- "punk rock"? Is a three-record set about government overthrow punk rock? Is hiding your (arguably) all-time best single ("Train In Vain") in the run-off groove of your record punk rock? Is breaking up soon after your biggest Stateside hit punk rock?

You bet your bondage gear it is. Inevitably, we'll soon see all sorts of 20-something Paul Mitchell-enhanced "punk" stars eulogizing Joe Strummer in the pages of Rolling Stone. You'll hear "Rock the Casbah" more than usual. Maybe -- just maybe -- somebody will start a punk band, or be a little more tolerant of others not like themselves (perhaps being willing to change is the ultimate punk rock, no?).

Joe Strummer was the kind of guy who could make you take rock & roll seriously. His music made you hopeful, even if you weren't sure why or how or even what you were hopeful for. He played rock music for a living and, by all accounts, died happy.

Joe Strummer is dead. We need him now more than ever.

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