Joe Strummer, both in the clash and as a solo artist, was one of a very small group of popular artists who successfully use the language of outrage to exhort the people to love one another.The initial impression you got from his music was of a very angry man howling into the microphone and flailing at his guitar with pent-up fury. But when you really listen to the lyrics, you quickly understand there was a warm heart there, a man who cared passionately for his fellow human beings.
Long before Paul Simon was made a media darling for adopting the music of another culture, Strummer was doing the same thing with the reggae musicians in his own London neighbourhood. The Clash, by their example, almost single-handedly saved punk from descending into skinhead nihilism, and instead wrought a working-class, ganja-powered multiracial movement for justice and resistance.
This vision remained part of Strummer's music and vision for his entire life. On his last album, Global A Go-Go, the song Bhindi Bhagee rejoices in the rich multicultural strength (and aromas!) of his own area.
When I first saw him perform this at a special promotional concert at the HMV flagship store last year, I thought he'd written it about my street. Afterwards we chatted briefly, and I told him as much. I think the idea pleased him, since the song continued his celebration of the multicultural urban street scene that he helped nurture and that's now emerging as a cultural force in nearly every major city on earth.
Was Strummer perfect? No, of course not. In those early interviews on The New Music he was almost as incoherent as the rest of the punk artists who mumbled their way through their interviews.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go? ended up as a jingle for Levi's, and London Calling bizarrely suffered the same fate for a souped-up car. But if Strummer had been perfect he wouldn't have been human, and certainly wouldn't have been much fun either.
Through his songs, Joe Strummer taught me to have the courage of my own convictions. He showed that when evil bullshit comes down, you don't just shrug your shoulders and mutter about it to your mates; you stand up and shout no in as public a way as you can.
It was because of Strummer that I found the nerve to paint-bomb the U.S. consulate on University to protest the gruesome 1989 murder of six Salvadoran priests, their housekeeper and her young daughter by a U.S.-trained army unit. It's because of Strummer that I fought for abortion rights, for an end to apartheid and why today I fight to reform our rotten voting system.
So tonight I'll go out with my friends and lift a pint to you, Joe. You were our bard, our conscience, our inspiration.
Nick Van der Graaf is a Toronto writer, editor and activist.