Joe Strummer at 50: As Punk as It Gets

So I was arguing with an old coot not too long ago on a message board, a guy who claimed he’d lived through the punk explosion of the 70s, which apparently made him a punk Yoda of sorts in his own mind. I came up around the tail end of all that stuff, so I guess I’m at the very least a pseudo-coot, but far from a yoda of any sort.

Anyway, the coot made some sort of comment about an artist “not being punk,” which prompted the age-old question, “What IS punk?” My coot foe was talking about Joe Strummer in particular, whining about how “sad” it was to see the man in his later years having to promote himself and one of his shows on a boardwalk in Atlantic City, as chronicled in the amazing film about Strummer, “Let’s Rock Again.” To this guy, Strummer had betrayed what “punk” was all about; he’d stayed in the game too long, stayed past his prime, should’ve just burned out and disappeared after “Combat Rock” instead of tarnishing his legacy by, at nearly 50, creating his own fliers for shows and basically becoming a carnival barker trying to get people to show up at a small club to see his new musical project. This, from a guy who once rocked Shea Stadium with a band once called “the only band that mattered.”

Before I get to the gist of my response to this grizzled hack, let me throw out one of my favorite phrases for your consideration:

“The revolution becomes the institution.”

I don’t know who coined the phrase, but it’s one that’s stuck with me for many years. I think the first time I heard it, in fact, was in an interview with Bono back in the 80s. The idea is, most revolutions start with grandiose and justified ideals of freedom, justice, fairness, overturning a corrupt system, etc. And then, once the new group takes power, it’s … “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

That’s what happened with punk. That’s what this so-called “punk connoisseur” didn’t grasp, even after all these years.

We can all argue where the genesis of punk started, but let’s go the safe route and cite the godfathers, the Sex Pistols. Here’s their first appearance on U.K. television.

Can you imagine seeing this come bashing through your television after a performance of “Muskrat Love” by Captain and Tennille?

Here was the vanguard of the revolution, and there was no one better equipped to lead it than Johnny Rotten. He was brilliant, he was biting, he was a leader others rallied behind, specifically other bands like … The Clash.

In fact, when Strummer first heard the Pistols, he decided to quit his current band immediately. THIS was the musical movement he wanted to be a part of. Weeks later, The Clash was ready to blaze their own trail.

Now, I’m not going to turn this into a punk history lesson, as that’s not the overall point of this piece, and most of this is common knowledge anyway, so pardon this brief contextualization of a much more multi-faceted subject as I try to get to that point.

Basically, bands like the Pistols and the Clash formed out of pure, noble motives: they were tired of being spoon-fed corporate-drenched music and culture, they were sick of the bloated excess of legacy acts like the Stones or Zeppelin who were considered almost akin to gods. They were tired of feeling that if they weren’t virtuosos with an instrument, they had no business being on a stage and writing songs. Punk was the ultimate DIY manifestation. These young bands had no corporate support in the beginning. Whatever metaphorical hills they would take, they had to take by themselves. The passion of this movement took communities by storm, inspiring others of like minds to get up and do something. It launched a thousand musical ships, most of which sunk quickly, but a few of which weathered the storm.

But then, something happened … “the revolution became the institution.” Suddenly a movement that was all about being true to yourself, expressing yourself in the way you wanted to, dressing how you wanted to, playing the music that moved you, etc., became yet another rigid set of rules to be defined by.

“Do THIS, and you are punk.”

“Look like THIS, and you are punk.”



Here’s a pretty interesting piece from 1979 talking about the “fall” of punk. Some interesting comments from the “old guard” the punk revolution sought to dethrone, as well as a telling comment from John Lydon saying he “refused to be a pantomime or a puppet,” which contributed to the breakup of the Pistols and his own disillusionment.

By 1979, the punk “institution” was firmly in place. Big labels swooped in, signed up anything with a safety pin in its nose, anything that sought to “shock” solely for shock’s sake. Sure, a lot of great music still refused to fall through the sifter, but much of it was now pre-packaged, fabricated, forced, the very thing punk was initially intent on destroying.

The revolution was the institution.

People like John Lydon thumbed their noses at what was now expected of them. Lydon went on to confuse fans by forming another revolutionary band, Pil, which sounded nothing like the Pistols. The Clash were also never interested in confining themselves to the now expected punk package, something they proved when releasing one of the greatest albums of all time: “London Calling.” It featured a song called “Wrong ‘Em, Boyo” that stunned some fans who only wanted the full guns blazing, “punk” version of the band.

“How dare they use a saxophone on this song? That’s not punk!”

The revolution had … you know. (I hate saxophones, by the way, but that’s beside the point.)

Sadly, the band eventually imploded, but Mick Jones and Joe Strummer continued creating unique, often revolutionary (especially int the case of Jones’ B.A.D. project) stuff.

But for many, especially young people growing up long after the initial fires of punk were sparked,the word “punk” was now part of the lexicon. It immediately conjured predictable images of crazy hair, spikes, leather … of crazy, shock-driven behavior. In short, it was another easily-classifiable category to put someone in, to judge someone by.

But in my estimation, and what I think held true for many of the pioneers of this movement, punk was not defined by anything: age, clothes, musical styles. At it’s heart, it meant one thing and one thing only: being true to yourself. Whatever form that took. Whatever age that realization found you.

A bloated Rotten battles horrible camera work to explain in 2011.

And that brings us back full circle, to the coot fight. And I guess now’s as good a time as any to show the footage in question. In 2002, Joe Strummer had a new band, The Mescaleros. They released three albums, each one better than the last, before Joe’s untimely death. But there was no big label support behind them, no corporate arm. They were on a relatively small label, and they had to promote themselves when the need arose.

And Joe Strummer, now nearly 50 years old, had no problem whatsoever doing just that, as this video shows:

So yeah, the initial knee-jerk reaction is not unexpected: “Wow, what happened to this once great icon? Look at him, out on a boardwalk, making up his own fliers and handing them out to people personally, most of whom don’t know who he is. How pathetic. How sad.”

How lazy to think that way.

Here’s a man doing exactly what he did as a young person trying to promote his new band The Clash. Here’s a man who loves his music, loves what he does, loves his band, ego-less, willing to do what it takes to spread the word about his art. Here’s a man totally comfortable in his own skin, making EXACTLY the music he wanted to make with the people he wanted to make it with. Here’s a man DOING WHAT HE LOVED, on his own terms, refusing to give a crap about what some dumb kid or aging hipster thought was or wasn’t “punk.”

So, to that old coot, Joe Strummer chortles at you from the grave. Then ignores you. From the grave.

THIS is punk.

In fact, THIS is as punk as it gets.

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