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 20 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.

My latest: the leader of the free world

Volodomyr Zelenskyy paid a surprise visit to Joe Biden this week. It was really, really important.

For starters, it was the Ukrainian president’s first trip outside his country since Vladimir Putin’s war began in February. And, as 2022 grinds to a close — but as the war grinds on, Zelenskyy, and his Washington trip, reminds us of two important things.

One is about him. By any reasonable standard, Zelenskyy is simply an extraordinary human being and leader. A Russian “special military operation” that everyone expected to take a weekend collided with a wall of Ukrainian might — and Zelenskyy’s firm leadership.

For Russia, and for Putin, the war has been a catastrophe. As the New York Times reported in a special section on Sunday, “This isn’t war. It’s the destruction of the Russian people by their own commanders.”

More than 100,000 Russian troops killed. More than 300,000 wounded. More than 3,000 Russian tanks destroyed or captured. More than 6,000 armoured combat vehicles destroyed or captured. More than 300 Russian aircraft shot down.

The Russian military failure has been astonishing. As the Times reported: “(Russian troops go into battle) with instructions grabbed off the Internet for weapons they barely know how to use. They plod through Ukraine with decade-old maps, or no maps at all. They speak on open cellphone lines, revealing their positions and exposing the incompetence and disarray in their ranks.”

Zelenskyy, meanwhile, may not have won the war yet, but he certainly is not losing it. Strategically, tactically, he has defeated Putin’s three main objectives: One, he has unified and strengthened NATO. Two, he has crushed the physical expansion of the Russian empire. Three, he has foiled Putin’s ambitions to render himself a superpower on the world stage.

And, with his visit to Washington — mainly, as he candidly admits, to obtain more weapons — Zelenskyy reminds us of Winston Churchill’s trip to Washington after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, more than 80 years ago. Like Churchill then, Zelenskyy has now become the leader of the free world.

That is what the Washington trip tells us about him. But what does it say about us, in North America?

Joe Biden ends the year in a strengthened position. In November’s midterm elections, Biden kept the Senate, and he kept his opponents to minor gains in the House of Representatives. But all of that had more to do with the missteps of the Republicans — Trump, abortion, January 6, election denial, etc. — than it did with the Democratic president.

In Canada, meanwhile, Zelenskyy reminds us that our own leadership is sorely lacking.

Justin Trudeau may be ending 2022 in a better mood — thanks to a convincing win in a Mississauga byelection, thanks to his performance at the inquiry into the application of the Emergencies Act — but his main problems remain. He leads a scandal-prone government, one that is out of ideas and out of energy.

And, as much as he lusts after a Parliamentary majority, he is still far from realizing that goal. If an election were held today, he would get reelected, but he would not improve his position.

His main opponent, Conservative Pierre Poilievre, fares no better. His chosen candidate in the aforementioned byelection was crushed by the Liberals — and Poilievre bizarrely did not even bother to campaign there.

Meanwhile, an Angus Reid Institute poll released this week suggests that the new Conservative leader is much more unpopular than any of the three previous Conservative leaders. All of whom, we note, were defeated by Trudeau.

The NDP’s Jagmeet Singh? He barely rates a mention. He has permitted his party to be effectively taken over by Trudeau. He has become irrelevant.

All that, as Zelenskyy alights in Washington this week, reminds us about two important things. One good, one bad.

The good: The world has a leader like Vladimir Zelenskyy.

The bad: None of us here in North America have a leader like him.

The Ballad of the Social Blemishes, 40-plus years later

Forty-five years.

Forty-five 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 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 the same age I was in that photo, up above – I’ve immortalized the Social Blemishes in Recipe For Hate and its sequels, New Dark Ages and the just-out 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-five years: I can’t fucking believe I’m so old.

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

Gabba gabba hey!

My latest: by-elections don’t matter, except when they do

Do by-elections, which usually have notoriously low turnout, matter?

We get told general campaigns do, all the time. But what about by-elections? Should we care — and should we care that no one seems to, you know, care about them?

That legendary political muse, Dan Quayle, had the best take on it all. Said the former U.S. vice-president: “A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls.”

Well, yes. Hard to quibble with that one. Good insight, Dan.

Fewer folks went to the polls in this weeks by-election in Mississauga Lakeshore — only around 30%. But, before some political scientist starts writing wordy op-eds about the need for compulsory voting, remember: by-elections are beloved by hacks and flaks, but rarely ever regular folks. And they’re the bosses.

For instance: Toronto Centre had a byelection in October 2020. More than 80,000 people were entitled to vote. Slightly over 16,000 did. York Centre had a byelection in the same month, with about the same result: more than 70,000 were eligible to cast a ballot. Only 11,000 bothered. Democracy survived.

So, before academia gets its tenured knickers in a knot, remember: by-elections don’t ever attract as much attention ruin as general elections do. That’s normal. And it’s unlikely to change.

Mississauga-Lakeshore therefore had the standard byelection turnout, but a notable result. The result tells us a few things, participation rate notwithstanding. Here they are.

One, the Conservative Party got clobbered. The Liberal candidate — a former Kathleen Wynne government minister, and therefore not without blemish — basically massacred his Tory opponent, by thousands of votes. He took 51% to the Conservative’s 37%.

That’s notable, as noted, because that’s a worse showing than what the much-derided Erin O’Toole got when he was running things. In that race, O’Toole’s chosen candidate did better than Pierre Poilievre’s.

Wasn’t Poilievre supposed to sweep the ‘burbs and all that? Wasn’t he supposed to be the thing that cured all that ailed Team Tory?

Well, Pierre has represented an Ottawa suburb for years, winning in seven elections. But he didn’t in Mississauga-Lakeshore. How come?

His spinners, all coincidentally anonymous, insist it was because the aforementioned riding is all-Liberal, all the time.

Well, no. That’s false. Sure, Liberal Svend Spengemann represented the riding in the Trudeau era — but before that, Mississauga-Lakeshore was federal Conservative territory for a number of years.

And, oh yes, this: provincially, the riding is still Conservative territory. Just a few months ago, in June, a provincial Conservative candidate won there — by many thousands of votes. And four years before that, same result: the Tories won it, by a lot.

So, that’s all you need to know about the excuse that Mississauga-Lakeshore is a Liberal fortress and Conservatives will never win there: it’s an excuse. It’s bollocks, in fact.

What about Team Poilievre’s other excuse — duly reprinted, without attribution in the pages of the Toronto Star, because it serves both their interests — that it’s all Doug Ford’s fault? You know, that the Ontario Premier sank his federal cousins in the by-election because he’s unpopular? Guilt by association and all that.

Except, that one doesn’t wash either. When he’s been running things, in good times and bad, Ford has taken that riding handily. Twice.

Did Ford’s misadventure with the notwithstanding clause, and the general strike it would have caused, hurt Poilievre’s chances?

Again, no. Ford ultimately never used the notwithstanding clause to win a fight with an education union — and there was no general strike, either. And, besides: both those things were controversies many weeks before the by-election even got underway.

So, what was it? Who is to blame for the first real-world test of Pierre Poilievre’s leadership since he became leader?

Well, that would be what Poilievre and his caucus see in the bathroom mirror every morning: themselves. The convoy crap, the crypto-currency craziness, the whackadoodle WEF weirdos. All of that, and more, has persuaded many Canadians that, under Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative Party of Canada has abandoned the political center. And is, you know, chasing the People’s Party vote.

Which, by the by, got 286 votes in Mississauga-Lakeshore.

About which, our muse Dan Quayle might say: “Not winning enough of the popular vote? It means you are not popular.”