Joe Strummer, gone so long, gone too soon

Joe’s message to me: “Well I love you baby, but I must be rhythm bound.”

The sticker affixed to the London Calling album shrink-wrap, so many years ago, boldly declared that the Clash were “the only band that matters.” If that is true – if it was more than record company hyperbole – then Joe Strummer’s death 18 years ago today, of a heart attack at age 50, was a very big deal indeed.

It wasn’t as big as John Lennon’s murder, of course, which came one year after London Calling was released, and shook an entire generation. Nor as newsworthy, likely, as the suicide of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in 1994. No, the impact of the sudden death of Joe Strummer – the front man for the Clash, the spokesman for what the Voidoid’s Richard Hell called, at the time, “the blank generation” – will be seen in more subtle ways.

For starters, you weren’t going to see any maudlin Joe Strummer retrospectives on CNN, or hordes of hysterical fans wailing in a park somewhere, clutching candles whilst someone plays ‘White Riot’ on acoustic guitar. Nor would there be a rush by his estate to cash in with grubby compilation and tribute discs. Punk rock, you see, wasn’t merely apart from all that – it was against of all that.

Punk rock was a specific rejection of everything rock’n’roll had become in the 1970s – namely, a business: an arena-sized, coke-addicted, utterly-disconnected-from-reality corporate game played by millionaires at Studio 54. Punk rock, and Joe Strummer, changed all of that. They were loud, loutish, pissed off. They were of the streets, and for the streets. They wanted rock’n’roll to matter again.

I met Joe Strummer for the first time on the night of October 16, 1979, in East Vancouver. Two of my Calgary punk rock buddies, plus my girlfriend and I, were loitering on the main floor at the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE). We were exhilarated and exhausted. We had pooled our meager resources to buy four train tickets to Vancouver, to see Joe Strummer and the Clash in concert. Their performance had been extraordinary (and even featured a mini-riot, midway through). But after the show, we had no money left, and nowhere to stay.

The four of us were discussing this state of affairs when a little boy appeared out of nowhere. It was near midnight, and the Clash, DOA and Ray Campi’s Rockabilly Rebels had long since finished their respective performances. Roadies were up on stage, packing up the Clash’s gear. The little boy looked to be about seven or eight. He was picking up flashcubes left behind by the departed fans.

We started talking to the boy. It turned out he was the son of Mickey Gallagher, the keyboardist the Clash had signed on for the band’s London Calling tour of North America. His father appeared, looking for him. And then, within a matter of minutes, Topper Headon appeared, looking for the Gallaghers.

Topper Headon was admittedly not much to look at: he was stooped, slight and pale, with spiky hair and a quiet manner. But he was The Drummer For The Clash, and had supplied beats for them going back almost to their raw eponymous first album, the one that had changed our lives forever. We were in awe.

Topper asked us where we were from and what we thought of the show. When he heard that we had no place to stay, he said: “Well, you’d better come backstage with me, then.”

Sprawled out in a spartan PNE locker room, Strummer was chatting with lead guitarist Mick Jones and bassist Paul Simonon, along with some Rastafarians and a few of the Rockabilly Rebels. They were all stoned, and grousing about an unnamed promoter of the Vancouver show, who had refused to let them play until he was paid his costs. The Clash, like us, had no money. That made us love them even more.

Joe Strummer, with his squared jaw and Elvis-style hairdo, didn’t seem to care about the band’s money woes. While Mick Jones flirted with my girlfriend, Strummer started questioning me about my Clash T-shirt. It was homemade, and Strummer was seemingly impressed by it. I could barely speak. There I was, speaking with one of the most important rock’n’rollers ever to walk the Earth – and he was acting just like a regular guy. Like he wasn’t anything special.

But he was, he was. From their first incendiary album in 1977 (wherein they raged against racism, and youth unemployment, and hippies), to their final waxing as the real Clash in 1982 (the cartoonish Combat Rock, which signaled the end was near, and appropriately so), Strummer was the actual personification of everything that was the Clash. They were avowedly political and idealistic; they were unrelentingly angry and loud; most of all, they were smarter and more hopeful than the other punk groups, the cynical, nihilistic ones like the Sex Pistols. They believed that the future was worth fighting for.

The Clash were the ones who actually read books – and encouraged their fans to read them, too. They wrote songs that emphasized that politics were important (and, in my own case, taught me that fighting intolerance, and maintaining a capacity for outrage, was always worthwhile). They were the first punk band to attempt to unify disparate cultures – for example, introducing choppy reggae and Blue Beat rhythms to their music.

They weren’t perfect, naturally. Their dalliances with rebel movements like the Sandinistas, circa 1980, smacked of showy dilettante politics. But they weren’t afraid to take risks, and make mistakes.

Born John Graham Mellor in 1952 in Turkey to the son of a diplomat, Strummer started off as a busker in London, and then formed the 101ers, a pub rock outfit, in 1974. Two years later, he saw the Pistols play one of their first gigs. Strummer, Jones and Simonon immediately formed the Clash, and set about rewriting the rules.

While political, they also knew how to put together good old rock’n’roll. Strummer and Jones effectively became the punk world’s Lennon and McCartney, churning out big hits in Britain, and attracting a lot of favourable critical acclaim in North America. Some of their singles, ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’ and ‘Complete Control,’ are among the best rock’n’roll 45s – ever. Their double London Calling LP is regularly cited as one of history’s best rock albums.

After the Clash broke up, Strummer played with the Pogues, wrote soundtrack music and formed a new group, the world beat-sounding Mescaleros. He married, and became a father. But he never again achieved the adulation that greeted the Clash wherever they went.

Strummer didn’t seem to care. When I saw him for the last time – at a show in one of HMV’s stores on Yonge Street in July 2001, which (typically) he agreed to give at no cost – Strummer and his Mescaleros stomped around on the tiny stage, having the time of their lives. They didn’t play any Clash songs, but that was okay by us. Joe Strummer’s joy was infectious, that night.

As the gig ended, Strummer squatted at the edge of the stage – sweaty, resplendent, grinning – to speak with the fans gathered there. They looked about as old as I was, when I first met him back in October 1979. As corny as it sounds, it was a magical moment, for me: I just watched him for a while, the voice of my generation, speaking to the next one.

I hope they heard what he had to say.

The Ballad of the Social Blemishes

Forty-four years.

Forty-four years ago tonight, the Social Blemishes – me, Ras Pierre, Rockin’ Al and a few others miscreants – took to the makeshift stage in the gym at Bishop Carroll High School in Calgary for the first-ever performance of a punk band in our hometown. In all of Alberta, too.

We were opening for local luminaries Fosterchild, and we were terrible. But we were hooked: maybe this punk rock stuff would never win us fame or riches or groupies, but could there be any better way to alienate our parents, teachers and peers? Nope.

And, besides: it was fun. Case in point: we even got our picture in the Calgary Herald, up above. The guy on the far left (ahem) was John Heaney, who went on to be Rachel Notley’s Chief of Staff; beside him, Ras Pierre, now a multimillionaire engineer in Alberta (and my best friend, still); Yours Screwly, in shades, homemade Sex Pistols T-shirt and (seriously) a dog collar; Rockin’ Al, a standout stand-up comedian and performer; Allen Baekeland, later a Western Canadian DJ (RIP); Pat O’Heran, an award-winning Hollywood filmmaker; and, behind the skins, Ronnie Macdonald, another successful engineering technologist type, but in B.C.

Me and Ras Pierre would leave the Blems to form the Hot Nasties – and Al and Ronnie would go on to the Sturgeons or the Mild Chaps or Riot 303. Along the way, one of the songs we wrote, Invasion of the Tribbles, was to be covered by British chart-toppers the Palma Violets. Another one, Barney Rubble Is My Double, ended up covered by Nardwuar and the Evaporators. And Secret of Immortality was to be covered by Moe Berg of Pursuit of Happiness. Not bad.

Anyway, because I’m going to taking a dirt nap any day now – or so says one of my sons, now older than I was in that photo, up above – I’ve immortalized the Social Blemishes in Recipe For Hate and its sequels, New Dark Ages and Age of Unreason. Meanwhile, The Ballad of the Social Blemishes is a song about our departed-too-soon former manager, Tom Wolfe, and came out on Ugly Pop Records – the video, showing rare Blems footage, is here.

Forty-four years: I can’t believe I’m so old.

The only solution is to continue acting like I’m seventeen.

Gabba gabba hey!

We won.

My latest: my winners in 2021

Ah, 2021.

Like its immediate predecessor, the unlamented 2020, this year has been a real bastard.

Just when you think some degree of normalcy may return — just when you begin to hope that maybe, just maybe, things are going to get a tiny bit better — the merciless and relentless monster that is the virus throws us another curveball.

A happier Christmas at the tail end of 2021? Dream on. Choke on some Omicron, losers.

Oh, and here’s some extra Justin Trudeau, for dessert.

Misery loves company, goes the cliche, but the misery visited upon us by COVID isn’t in any way alleviated by the fact that all of us are experiencing it. We’re all kind of miserable, nowadays, and wondering if we are going to go through the entire Greek alphabet, naming the latest iteration of the virus. For years.

Well, not all is lost. Amidst the the death and destruction and despair, there are some tiny, shining lights. Like diamonds in the proverbial rough, or wheat in the chaff. Or whatever.

Last time out, we chronicled the losersof the year — in Canada, essentially our entire federal political class. This time, here’s some winners — the ones who, often unnoticed, are making our collective existence a bit better. A bit easier to hold onto.

Kudos to them, and to all!

Laurie Garrett, Journalist. Did you know there is a person who predicted everything we are going through, almost two decades ago? Did you know that she wrote a book called “The Coming Plague” that saw all of this coming and — like Cassandra, the prophet of Greek mythology — was kind of ignored? Well, not entirely.

American journalist Garrett won a Pulitzer Prize for her writings about epidemics and pandemics. But Garrett foresaw all of the current pandemic — although maybe not the name of it or Donald Trump (and who could’ve foreseen him, who Garrett correctly terms a “foolhardy buffoon”).

Having foretold exactly what happened to us, what does Garrett now say about the future? One, we will never go back to what was “normal” before. 9/11 changed everything, she says. COVID will, too. Two, the battle will go on for three years, minimum — and we haven’t even hit year two, yet. Three, the virus will never go away unless all of us are vaccinated — not just us solipsistic types outside the developing world. If all of us aren’t protected, then none of us are protected.

Anthony Fauci, Doctor. When the aforementioned foolhardy buffoon, a.k.a. Trump, is saying COVID will go away in the Spring of 2020 — and when he is counselling people to inject themselves with bleach, to kill the virus that didn’t go away — how does one keep one’s cool? Anthony Fauci, somehow, did. Must’ve been the Jesuitical education (which, um, this writer shares). The Brooklyn-born Fauci is chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden and, previously, served in that sort of role to many presidents. Including George W. Bush, who awarded Fauci the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Throughout the grim and grinding early days of the pandemic, Fauci was a voice of reason and calm — but he never sugarcoated the magnitude of the threat we were all facing, either. In my family, Fauci is regarded as a modern-day saint. Because he is.

Doug Ford, John Horgan and Francois Legault, Premiers. None of them are perfect — Legault, in particular, is presently presiding over a racist purge of Muslims, Jews and others who wear religious symbols while employed by his xenophobic government — but these three political leaders became popular, and mostly stayed popular, by being human. Not by getting right every pandemic-related decision. But by showing their heart, and mourning the loss of every one of their citizens. They’ll all be handily re-elected as a result.

You folks. It’s been hard. It’s been gruelling. Job losses, depleted savings, shredded futures — but you are still here, fighting, and I (for one) am grateful that you are. We need you around, you know? So keep on that mask, get vaccinated, get your booster, and look out for each other.

Because, whether you realize it or not, you’re a winner in 2021, too.

My latest: how to know who Justin Trudeau really is, in the place where his soul is supposed to reside

Pretend, for a moment, that you are a big wheel in the federal government. Prime Minister, even. Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, too.

Pretend you are running a government that styles itself as feminist.

Would you then permit someone to run for you, as a candidate, who said he was looking for a girlfriend to do his “cleaning, folding, cooking?”

Your government proclaims it is anti-racist, too. Would you take that same candidate after he’d mocked the way Chinese-Canadians speak?

Your federal political party says it’s against homophobia and sexual assault, too. Would you accept that guy into your caucus, after he joked that men’s tennis “sounds exactly like gay porn?”

How about after learning that he would like to “accidentally sexually assault” someone? How about then?

You’d still take him? Okay, let’s say you are considering which MP to give a big raise and make the Parliamentary Secretary for Crown-Indigenous Relations. Would you hire that same guy, after he wrote that “every skinny aboriginal girl is on crystal meth?”

You wouldn’t, would you? No. No decent, sane person would. When a man makes that many racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Indigenous remarks, you wouldn’t hire him for any task, would you?

But you’re not Justin Trudeau. And Justin Trudeau did indeed promote Jaime Battiste — the Liberal MP for Sydney-Victoria, N.S. — to what is a junior cabinet minister post. Gave him a big raise, too.

And made him one of the most powerful elected people in Ottawa — on the Indigenous file.

Now, governments don’t usually reveal themselves in grand, sweeping gestures. Sometimes they reveal themselves — their absence of a soul, say — in the little things. Like promoting someone like Jaime Battiste to help oversee Indigenous issues.

In a way, it isn’t really surprising.

I mean, this is the prime minister who solemnly promised to bring clean water to Indigenous reserves — and then just didn’t.

This is the prime minister who said he’d clean up the poison in the ground at places like Grassy Narrows — and then mocked a young woman who came to an exclusive Liberal event to talk to him about Grassy Narrows, telling her “thanks for your donation” as security men threw her out onto the sidewalk.

This is the prime minister who said he wanted a day for Truth and Reconciliation with Indigenous people — and then lied about where he was on that very day, and jetted out to B.C. to hang out in a millionaire’s mansion. On a beach where he likes to surf.

This is the prime minister who pushed his minister of justice and attorney general to stop the prosecution of one of his party donors — a donor who was facing corruption charges on a massive scale.

And then, when that minister — a proud and respected Indigenous leader named Jody Wilson-Raybould — refused to obstruct justice, he kicked her out of the Liberal Party. And when another respected female cabinet minister named Jane Philpott spoke up to defend Wilson-Raybould, he kicked her out, too.

That’s who this prime minister is. That’s who he is, in his soul. In his essence.

A man who claims to be a feminist, but isn’t. A man who professes to oppose all racism and homophobia, but doesn’t. A man who says he wants reconciliation with Indigenous people — but will never attain it.

In his words and his deeds, we all know who Justin Trudeau is.

He’s the prime minister who recruited, and promoted, Jaime Battiste — a jerk, a creep, who says that “every skinny aboriginal girl is on crystal meth.”

That’s who Justin Trudeau really is.

No pretending.

— Warren Kinsella was a Ministerial Representative on Indigenous files across Canada under Jean Chretien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper