1. The Clash version
He was passionate, kind, uniting, decent, restless, ruthless, funny, flawed, full of hope and rage. We bloody need him right now.
2. London Calling version.
White Riot scared me. I knew/know every word of White Man In Hammersmith Palais. That Rock Against Racism gig was one of the most energising of our young lives. I loved that second, evil-Yank-produced, hated-by-NME album. I loved doing my own falsetto version of Police And Thieves one snow-filled night, walking along Ridge Road with friends.
I loved Paul Simonon. But Strummer was my hero.
3. Sandinista (dub) version.
A couple of years ago I put one of those word cloud things on my website. Five words stood out as being used the most: ‘love’, ‘hero’, ‘clash’, ‘story’ and … um … ‘Enfield’. I realised at that moment that I’d spent a huge amount of energy writing and thinking about the past, trying to find meanings in it that might help bring me fully into the present. I’d written endlessly too, I realised, about the inevitable disappointments men’s search for heroes brings – and about the traps and freedoms stories and love offer us.
Johnny Rotten was never a hero, not for me. While I was trying to navigate my poorly-drawn, minor character through the unfolding stories and myths of 1970s Enfield, he was too scary, too different, too scratchily, sarcastically other. And I suspected he wouldn’t like me very much. Paul Weller, meanwhile, definitely was a hero, his malicious Woking a cracked mirror to my grey, messy-hard Enfield, but his sneer masked a confused idealism, his sheer Englishness could be narrow and dark and exclusive and seemed to offer solace without hope. As with Rotten, Weller dismissed America and the American. And – I suspect – vague, meandering grammar school kids.
Which brings us to Joe Strummer: the most English and, I’d suggest, the most American of the three, the one who best merged the individual with the collective. The one who – in one of my stories at least – would definitely have welcomed me as his mate.
He started by scaring us, by twisting our liberalism out of shape. Us wish-we-were-punks loved I’m So Bored With The USA –
Yankee dollar talk
To the dictators of the world
In fact it’s giving orders
And they can’t afford to miss a word
– because it echoed the simplistic stories we were all writing about The Real Evil Empire. But the half-hour gob of that first album – as punk in places as anything by The Pistols – also hinted at the space and hope and expansiveness and freedom and nuance of everything The Clash subsequently did. Stuff that was America(n). Stuff that was Jamaica. Stuff that was The World and Mexico and LA as much as it was Notting Hill and Enfield and Woking. Stuff that channelled and shaped Mick Jones’ pop sensibility and Simonon’s immersion in reggae and dub. Stuff that rewrote our culture.
I’ve just been wondering where exactly I was in Strummer’s story, what part I played. In one version of my own, I’m a hippy. An angry, America-loving, contradictory hippy. And that’s what Strummer was too. He saw the price of everything and the value of everything. Watch him in The Future Is Unwritten. Listen to Coma Girl, to his version of Redemption Song. Humour. Trust. Suffering. Belief in a better society, in the individual and the group overcoming The Man. Belief in you and me. In one, shared, story.
4. The Clash (remastered) version
In most of my autobiographies, I’m me. I’m never, ever Weller or Rotten in any of them. In at least one, though, I’m Joe Strummer.
Happy birthday Joe.