On the morning of Dec. 23, I tuned in the car radio and happened to catch the tail end of a news item. Through the crackle of static came, “. . . and later we remember Joe Strummer of the Clash.”
There is a peculiar sort of emotional frisson that accompanies shocking news, especially a death. It is a weird kind of high that is quickly transmuted into a sickening comedown. I had to wait another 40 minutes, suffering the interminal whine of politicos duking it out with cant, until confirmation came.
Their voices reminded me of the time when I first saw Strummer play live. He held up a small transistor radio to the microphone, out of which spilled British politicians discussing the latest IRA outrage, followed by a news report detailing the carnage. “1, 2, 3, 4...” and the band crashed in, three guitars like sonic razors cleaving the smoke.
It was 1976 and the Clash were playing their first gig in London. Their set was followed by The Sex Pistols in all their ragged glory. I was 19 and transfixed. This was it! I had taken my little bother Kevin down to the 100 Club, driving the 70 miles south from Northampton. He too was gob smacked. We decided to form our own punk band there and then. To this day, that gig remains the single most exciting live event that I have ever witnessed, and the future trajectory of the Clash, soaring on the wings of passionate idealism, forged the standard for all time.
I saw Strummer several times following that incendiary event, with the Clash (always wildly exciting), as a sometime member of The Pogues and later, with his great band, The Mescaleros. The last occasion was in San Diego at the 2002 Hootenanny. I saw him in his trailer before he was about to go on. He was extremely sick with a heavy dose of the flu but still gracious; he waved me aboard whilst seated on the shotgun side like a pirate king in his pilfered quarters. He gave an unbelievably spirited performance that day-leg pumping and fist punching the sky, the bastard had me pogoing like it was '76 all over again.
“You've got a big heart, Joe!” I told him afterwards. He shrugged and grinned that lopsided greaser grin and then sat on the damp floor for over an hour, signing record sleeves and posing for photos with fans.
I had first met him in 1989. He turned up, out of the blue, at the KCRW radio studio in Santa Monica where I was recording a live session with Max Eider and Owen Jones (poached from The Jazz Butcher). Jones is a massive Clash fan and it was highly amusing to see his reaction as he turned around to face the soundproofed window, only to be confronted by a maniacally grinning Strummer. This, seconds before the start of our set.
Afterward, we went out for some drinks with Joe and a great time was had by all. The following night we played at The Roxy Theater on Sunset Strip. Again, Strummer was there. Post-show, he invited us back to his hotel to meet with his “cousin José” (neat tequila gold). We became well acquainted with this distant Mexican relative and before long, Strummer was imparting wise words of advice concerning instruments. He strongly objected to my choice of guitar, an Ovation acoustic with a plastic back.
“The thing is Dave, you've got no bassist so you really need that bottom end, yer know? All yer hear with that fuckin' Ovation is, ‘thwackey, thwackey, thwackey' and that ain't no fuckin' good! What yer need is The Big Wood! Do yer know what that is?”
“No? Well, I'll tell yer!” he continued. “The Big Wood is like a big old fuckin' Gibson or a Gretch or a Guild, something with a bit of soul to it, a big jumbo chunk of fuckin' wood and none of that fuckin' plastic shit! You look at any of yer serious guys-Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Van fuckin' Morrison-they all got the Big Wood.”
“Now Barre!” Strummer yelled to our tour manager at the time (at this point, Joe is literally on his knees). “Barre, will you promise me something? Tomorrow morning I want yer to drive down to the fuckin' river, then I want yer to take those fuckin' shit Ovation guitars and throw 'em in it! Then take him down to Sunset and get him sorted with the Big Wood! Right!”
Right! We did and it made all the difference in the world.
That last time I saw him in San Diego, the first thing he said to me was, “You got it, right? You got The Big Wood?” (I hadn't seen him since '89!). I gladly answered in the affirmative.
I also “got it” in a sweaty little cellar dive in Oxford Street in 1976 and I am never going to let it go.
Thank you, Joe.