Joe Strummer, gone so long, gone too soon

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 15 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.


This is an act of war, actually

‘Hundreds’ of Canadians held by China raises the stakes for Trudeau’s government

OTTAWA—Around 200 Canadians are currently detained in China for a variety of reasons, the Star has learned.

The staggering number paints a worrying picture of what is at stake for the federal Liberal government — and for many individuals abroad and their families here — when it comes to dealing with Beijing’s newly aggressive posture towards Canada.

Federal sources have told the Star the number of those currently detained stands at about 200.

Global Affairs Canada has not yet responded to the Star’s request for clarification of how many of those occurred since tensions heightened.

But sources told the Star up to three arrests a week is common, often involving dual Canadian-Chinese citizens (China does not recognize dual citizenship), in cases of drunkenness, drug use, other kinds of criminality, alleged visa violations, with only a small number considered political cases. Still the broader picture of those who remain in detention right now is alarming.


Kinsella’s year-end Hill Times’ political winners and losers

The year-end political winners and losers column is as clichéd, hackneyed and overdone as it gets.

But no one ever accused this writer of being, you know, original.

So, heretofore and herewith, 2018’s political winners and losers, all jumbled together. Some are found in both categories, so pay attention, Virginia.

Justin Trudeau: winner and loser. Canadians still like him (see: polls) but aren’t sure he’s a grown-up yet (see: India). Also: just when you think he’s weak internationally (see: India), along comes Trump et al. to make him look like a genius. Just when you think he’s weak domestically (see: no pipeline, no electoral reform, no First Nation empowerment, no big legislative achievements), along comes Messrs. Scheer and Singh to make him look like a Parliamentary giant. Just when you think he’s weak ethically (Aga Khan, the grope thing, etc.), along comes serial scandals elsewhere – mainly from the U.S. – that make him look like a saint. The Ronald Reagan of Canadian politics: you know he’s repeating someone else’s talking points when he’s talking to you, but he does it so well, you don’t care.

Andrew Scheer: winner and loser. Like Trudeau, the Conservative leader’s got pluses and minuses. Positive stuff: the economy is faltering, voters are moving right, Trudeau is less popular, and Scheer’s strong on fundraising and GOTV. Negative stuff: Mad Max splits the conservative vote, NDP are cratering, provincial conservative friendly fire, Andy’s still Blandy.

Jagmeet Singh: loser. Ran an amazing leadership campaign. Was impressive as deputy leader of the Ontario NDP. And then…what happened? His caucus distrust/dislike him, his party’s members are dispirited, and he’s about to lead the New Democratic Party to disaster. If Singh loses that Burnaby by-election, no amount of flattering GQ profiles will save him. Worst federal party leader since Stockwell Day, hands down.

Jane Philpott: winner. Considered by Canada’s indigenous leaders to be sincere, effective and focussed.

Carolyn Bennett, er. Um, considered not to be Jane Philpott. Remind us again why we need two ministers for one department?

Doug Ford: winner. About a year ago, the party he leads was leaderless, riven by division, and mired in a #MeToo scandal. About 140 days after that, Ford was elected Premier of Canada’s largest province with a massive majority. Like him or not, Ford is a winner, and he and his capable team have upended the electoral formula in Canada. The Barney Rubble of political Canada, and that’s a complement, Wilma.

Dominic LeBlanc: winner. The best communicator in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. Likeable and liked. Vulnerable on patronage, but remains the guy to see if your cousin needs a fishing licence without filling out lots of forms and whatnot.

Melanie Joly, loser. The worst cabinet minister in the history of Confederation: rendered our 150th anniversary celebration a debacle; her Netflix deal was a fiasco; and she forgot to mention “Jews” on the side of the new Holocaust Museum. After her historically-bad run in Heritage – where she made Bev Oda look like Margaret Thatcher, and Stockwell Day seem positively Churchillian – Trudeau tried to hide his friend in Tourism, where she would be kept away from sharp objects and hard surfaces. Her presence in cabinet is an ongoing source of rage on the Liberal backbenches. Super-duper loser.

Jason Kenney: winner and loser. He was a gay-hating, abortion-loathing social conservative mouth-breather, but now he wants Albertans to believe he’s become a SNAG, sensitive new-age guy. No one believes it for a minute, but he’s going to win anyway.

John Tory, winner. Toronto’s mayor – on whose 2018 campaign, full disclosure, this writer toiled – won 65 per cent of the vote against a tough and credible opponent. That’s a feat no federal leader has achieved, ever. As mayor of Canada’s biggest city, he has more clout than any MP and any minister. Likes me, which is a major plus, though puzzling.

Francois Legault, loser. How does one lose by winning? By willingly and needlessly becoming an anti-Muslim, anti-anglophone bigot the day after the election, that’s how. This guy is going single-handedly revive separatism – the desire for the rest of Canada to separate from an increasingly-intolerant Quebec, that is.

Pablo Rodriguez, winner. Smart, charming, affable and a welcome antidote to the calamitous Joly era. Winning praise from Heritage stakeholders for his deft handling of cultural issues in an era when culture has become a major hot button. One to watch.

Svend Robinson, winner. And he doesn’t even have a seat yet! Still remembered as the most effective Parliamentarian in generations. Will he return from Europe to run in this writer’s old stomping grounds, in Burnaby North Seymour? Hope so. His party, and Canada, could benefit from Svend’s svengali touch. The Socialist Family Robinson say: Svend, come home!

Trudeau’s backbench, winners and losers: There is a lot of talent behind the Liberal leader, dutifully (but morosely) clapping every time Trudeau repeats Butts/Telford talking points. But their talents go unrewarded. Some are reaching the conclusion that they will never get into cabinet, and are getting decidedly restless. Watch for more floor-crossings and acts of rebellion in the New Year. Could get bouncy.

We could go on, but editor Kate Malloy (another winner) says the Hill Times (in its 20th winning winning year!) doesn’t have the space.

So, to our winning readers and subscribers, we say thank you – and happy holidays!