When Joey Ramone passed away in 2001, I honestly felt like a friend had died. The only other time I felt that way was when Joe’s heart gave out in his kitchen after one last walk with the dog. It was December 22, 2002.
I don’t have a lot of musical heroes, but Joe Strummer is definitely on the list. To be honest, I didn’t get the first two Clash albums; they were too raw, too class conscious, too…British for me to understand back then. But when London Calling came out just before Christmas 1979–wow.
It was the title track that got me, especially the bits about “nuclear error” and “the sun zooming in.” But the best part for me is the desperate, angry hoarseness in Joe’s voice as he wails about living by the river. Thirty-two years on, it still smokes.
I saw Joe perform a number of times but sadly, never with the Clash. They had broken up long before I lived in a part of the world where they toured. I had to settle for seeing him during his short stint with the Pogues and later with the Mescaleros.
I have just one Joe Strummer story from the only time I had a chance to sit and talk to him. It goes like this.
Joe was in Toronto on a Mescaleros tour. He agreed to come in to 102.1 The Edge for an interview on a Saturday morning. He showed up unceremoniously and with no pretension, carrying only a (shall we say) a very well-played guitar.
He wasn’t in the greatest of moods because he had a cold, but since so many dozens of people had turned out to see him in the studio that day, he wasn’t about to disappoint everyone.
“Give me a bucket,” he said, which he then used to dispose of some nasty phlegm. Then he grabbed his guitar and started to warm up before the on-air interview.
But something wasn’t right. Too many people in the studio. Too much noise. Joe couldn’t hear himself or if his guitar was in tune. So without warning, he stomped out onto Yonge Street, took a position on the sidewalk next to a fire hydrant and began singing at the top of his lungs. I followed him out.
Being a Saturday, the sidewalk was crowded with heavy traffic in both directions. To most people, Joe was just another busker, performing for loose change. But I’ll never forget the reaction of one guy.
As Joe was singing as if his life depended on it, this guy gave him a quick glance without stopping. About ten feet along he paused for a second, then turned away again. About five feet after that he stopped, spun around and stared for a few seconds. Then I heard him say, “Nah. It couldn’t be.” And he was gone.
Little did you know, friend. Little did you know…