arlier this year I noticed guerrilla-stickered cartoon bubbles around London that posed the question. ‘What would Joe Strummer do'." They were trailers. it turned out. for a range of hip babygrows. But this mild absurdity e\emplilied how. almost four years since his death on 23 December 2002. the enigmatic Joe Strummer. spokesman for the punk generation and front man for The (‘lash. seems to have seeped in everywhere in eontenumrary culture. In lrvine Welsh's new novel. The Bet/27mm Secrets of I/lt' illuan ('litf/fx. he has a controversial cameo role: the excellent play {fleeting .lm' Strummcr won an award at this year's lidinburgh festival: director Julien Temple is finishing a lilm about Joe: at box set of ('l) singles of The ('lash‘s original vinyl 45s is released next month; and I‘ve finally finished writing his biography. Redemption Song: I/H’ Definitive Biography (flue .S'Irimimt'r. Why does Joe infiltrate our lives like this'.’ The answer is more complex than death simply having cemented his position. Part of the answer lies in The (‘lash's music having proved to be so timeless. (ireat truths can often be couched in humour. and the groups often hilariotIs. satirical

Joe chows down

with The Clash in

1980 (top) and leads The Mescaleros in 2000

14 THE LIST 5—19 Oct 2006

The Clash were the greatest band of the

punk era, and their leader Joe Strummer was an inspirational figure, both on and off stage. Chris Salewioz, author of a major biography of Strummer, explains why, decades on from his heyday and years after his death, the king

of punk remains a far from ordinary Joe.

lyrics l‘vacuuni-cleaner sucks up budgie'. from ‘The Magnificent Seven’ comes readily to mind). as well as the militant prophecies (time has given “London‘s (‘alling"s ‘I live by the river“ line an eerily sinister ring). spring from the internal state of its creators: highly evolved individuals who had truly had a good look at themselves. Partly through their endless Red (iuard—like debates at the Rehearsal Rehearsal studios when Joe Strummer. Mick Jones and Paul Simonon first formed as The Clash. they had assiduously endeavoured to keep their feet on the ground and m as one of punk's dietums insisted # be honest (Joe was ever consumed with angst about not being able to get enough ‘kids‘ into gigs for free. At one of his last shows. with The Mescaleros in Japan. he reprimanded a friend who suggested he

slip away after signing autographs for a third of

the ISO waiting fans. ‘This is my job!‘ Joe snapped. He was still there ()0 minutes later.).

On a very basic level. the iconic everyman of

Joe Stmmmer is an extremely good idea: in his last three years. playing with his new group The Mescaleros. he seemed on the verge of becoming

a kind of Johnny (‘ash-like elder statesman of

British roek‘n'roll. And you could still rely on Strummer to speak the truth (even when he was wrong . . .) and crystallise a situation. The lTN evening news item about his death comes to mind: it included footage from the Acton Town Hall show at which Mick Jones had memorably joined Joe onstage for the first time in IQ years. a benefit for the Fire Brigades Union. ‘(iive the firemen the money.‘ Joe barks as he‘s leaving the gig. ‘and the nurses and the teachers too.‘ Not surprisingly. Joe loathed Tony Blair and New Labour. ‘He used to wear this t-shirt that said "TLF the Tony Liberation Front: We've got to get rid of Tony Blair".~ said Lucinda Mellor. his widow. ‘He felt betrayed by this Labour govemment. When they got in. he was ecstatic. and he really felt betrayed.‘ At one point Joe even seriously considered running in the London mayoral elections.

‘There was always something of the loser about Joe.. the wn'ter Jon Savage suggested to me. ‘That goes back to his squatting days. and you can hear the suffering in his vocals. I think that's a big part of his appeal.‘

Savage is certainly on the right track. but this sense about Joe goes back further than his time in squats. The suicide of his elder brother David in July I970 irrevocably altered Joe's life. On the one hand it hardened him. Five years later he

spoke about this to his girlfriend Paloma Romano. who became Palmolive when. enraged by Joe dumping her. she founded The Slits: ‘lle told me about David he said that his brother had chosen death and he had chosen life: he had decided to go for it entirely.‘ But it also left a void from which Joe never recovered. You can feel that hurt in Joe's singing. and. sometimes when you were with him. emanating from every atom in his body. When Joe was performing. the audience was entranced by the singer's explosions of performance art. speaking in tongues. leaping onto speaker cabinets. hurling himself backwards to the stage floor. But there was always a feeling that he was performing almost beyond himself. ‘liveryone loved Joe.‘ said Clash manager Bernie Rhodes of the beatnik rocker. ‘But Joe didn't love himself.‘ ‘If you‘ve spoken to 250 people.‘ said Marcia Finer. the artist wife of Pogues-man Jem Finer. 'then I would say you’ve met 250 different sides ofJoe.'

Strummer's brother David Mellor had been a member of the National Front a reaction to this clearly informed the thinking of his younger brother. It comes as no surprise that when The Clash played the Rock Against Racism concert in Hackney’s Victoria Park in April 1978. before