In New York City, deep in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village, stands a wall with a man painted on it. The words ‘Know Your Rights’ stand out at the bottom of the mural, and above the man’s shoulder it says ‘The Future is Unwritten.’ The man is Joe Strummer, and the mural, painted in 2003, stands to remember and protect the person who gave meaning to life with his music.
In the eight years since Joe’s death, it’s not just the music that is remembered, but also the man who made it possible, and the fact that even today, all over the world, his music is still making an impact.
The legend of Joe Strummer is something completely different to a lot of wilder rock star tales. Of course there are sex and drugs and violence – but there are also unspeakable amounts of friendship and courage, vibrancy and life.
On December 22 2002, the world lost a punk legend. Three days before Christmas, Joe Strummer sat down in his living room after walking his dogs and suffered a fatal heart attack.
His life left a legacy, a memory, and a legion of dedicated fans proud to call him their spokesman, their idol. And he is as relevant today as he ever was before.
When Joe Strummer died, the world felt a sting, but it left no one incapable of making sure his name and his legacy would live on and continue to help people, just like
American musician Steven van Zandt spoke about Strummer’s death on his ‘Tribute to Joe Strummer and the Clash’ radio show. ”Friendship, brotherhood, family, strength in numbers, protecting each other, fighting the good fight together, against racism against fascism, fighting for liberation… embodying liberation itself.”
“Joe Strummer is gone. Long Live The Clash.”
Even today, eight years after his death, Strummer’s name and legacy are carried on by his friends and family who dedicate their lives to supporting the charity he invested in before he passed away.
Strummerville: The Joe Strummer Foundation for New Music was set up by Strummer’s wife Lucinda in 2003. Their website, which was set up by Strummer himself before he died, describes their mission as “to reflect Joe’s contribution to the music world by offering support, resources and performance opportunities to artists who would not normally have access to them.”
Trish Whelan, a working member of Strummerville says, “Basically we are a registered charity that gives opportunities to people, through music, who would not have access to such opportunities.
“In practice,” she says, “this involves us providing rehearsal spaces for free or at very discounted rates for musicians.”
“We provide bursaries for bands to help recording; we support like minded projects like Billy Brags Jail Guitar Doors, some music projects in Afric, recording facilities in Bogota.”
Their aim is to reach any genre and anybody who has a passion for music, just like Joe Strummer did – and the support they get is endless.
“We are aiming to hold his legacy in the work that we do,” says Whelan. “We are strongly supported by Mick Jones and have collaborated on projects involving his Rock & Roll Public Library and Strummerville.”
The revelation that some of today’s biggest bands went to the Strummerville foundation for help means that the work, legacy and life of Joe Strummer is still relevant in the music heard today.
Bands like Mumford and Sons, Crystal Castles and The Dead Pixels all got their start in a Strummerville rehearsal space. And they’re not alone. At least a hundred bands from all over the world have made a dent in the music industry through Strummerville, and the list is only growing.
The Clash provided the world with music that was educated to the point of intelligence.
In his article ‘The Joe I Knew,’ Billy Brag commented that, “it was The Clash that struck the strong political stance that really inspired a lot of people, and within The Clash he was the political engine of the band.”
Every song was written with a clear knowledge of the world around them – there were no soppy love songs, no naïve approach to politics and no fluffy take on the life of rock stars. They lived in the world of the people around them. They sung about the hardships of the everyday life of the poor, working class and struggling musicians. This is what separated them from the pack.
The Mayor of London, Ken Livingston exclaimed, “Joe Strummer was a man who wasn’t afraid to voice his beliefs.”
“A passionate, vocal, sincere ‘olde’ punk. The Clash produced a contrast to the nihilism of the Sex Pistols, and educated an audience about the realities of the state. Music has lost one of its true rebels.”
It was the Sex Pistols who initially inspired Strummer towards the punk scene.
While touring with his band the 101ers, a straight rock and roll outfit from the squats, the Pistols opened for them at the Nashville, and Strummer remembered in Pretty Vacant: A History of Punk that “they came out with like, I don’t fucking care if you like it or not, this is it. If you don’t like it, piss off.”
Joe Strummer was always all about the music. In Chris Salewicz’s book Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer, Salewicz remembers Strummer telling him about the first time he heard the Rolling Stones cover of Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away. “That’s the moment I think I decided here is at least a gap in the clouds… And that’s the moment I think I fell for music,” he said.
“I think I made a subconscious decision to only follow music forever.” And he did.
The legend of Joe Strummer runs deep in the heart of everybody who was lucky enough to be alive to see or meet him, or those who have grown up listening to the Clash and everything he did after.
The Clash’s road manager, Johnny Green spoke about Strummer to a London newspaper the day he died. “Joe’s greatest legacy,” he said, “is that he made a generation of people think for themselves.”
“He didn’t quite manage to change the world, but he changed the way people looked at it. It’s a sad day – but what a life.”
Since 2006, Revolution Rock has been much more than just a track from the London Calling album. Organised by a legion of dedicated fans, and in association with Strummerville: The Joe Strummer Foundation for New Music, Revolution Rock is a night dedicated to everything Joe Strummer and everything Clash.
Held annually in Sydney and Melbourne, the night aims to remember The Only Band That Matters, their front man, and what he did for music. All proceeds made by the night also go towards Strummerville, and helping make the world a little better for musicians.
Joe Strummer was a man of the world. His passion for his music carried him through the decades as one of the truest, most renowned rock stars – and most people don’t even realise the work he’s done.
We know that, even in death, his work continues to provide millions of people with hope, and love and life and music. And he’s still helping.
Nothing sums up the legacy of Joe Strummer quite like the UK Independent’s ‘Culture Clash’ article. So here it is.
”He wrote intelligent lyrics, the Clash played real instruments and they had something brutally honest and exciting to say. Their records sounded brilliant. Strummer could, of course, have spent the past decade traipsing round the world’s stadiums with a reformed Clash making piles of cash. Instead, he chose to perform to fresh audiences in cramped clubs with his new group, the Mescaleros. That’s a testament to his devotion to his music. So this Christmas, Rock the Casbah.”