Lost In The Supermarket with Greg Wells
Joe Strummer died today. It hasn’t stopped raining yet and may never stop again. Long before I ever dared venture into the mystery of my first punk club Joe strummer was there. Many a year before I ever dared publicly to call myself an anarchist Joe Strummer was there. Through all of the dead end jobs and broken loves Joe Strummer was there. Sitting and living alone in the world at age fifteen wondering what if any point my life had, Joe Strummer was there. Today he is no more.
In youth we blow our heroes up in our imagination to epic proportions. They can do or say no wrong. They become larger than life, untouchable, unimaginable as real human beings. You lie awake at night envisioning yourself to have the skill or ability or charm as them, actually believing that if you study and dissect your heroes long enough and intently enough that one day you too can be idolized and adored far and wide. Uncovering punk rock shattered all of those childish dreams for me in a single December night, thirteen years ago.
I was hanging out at the local pool hall/teen center trying my best to look like I knew what I was doing, like I belonged. My pesky stepbrother had come along with me and was killing any opportunity of that happening. I recall leaning against a wall in the far corner when over the loudspeakers came a primal roar of guitars, indiscernible lyrics and energy that nearly floored me. Was it the opening band? No, it was a record already a dozen years old by a band I had only known as being a weird, funny looking MTV band from my childhood in the early 80s. The sound and fury was so fiery and full of angst that I felt as if my whole world had been turned upside down. The band was The Clash, the vocalist ranting about guttersnipes and riots and police and being soooo bored with the USA was Joe Strummer. The album was their self-titled 1977 debut, and it changed everything.
Being that I lived in a tiny little town of 20,000 it took awhile longer for me to uncover and embrace the local punk rock undercurrent, which I really only stumbled onto thanks in large part to my mom moving two blocks away from the then epicenter across the Ohio River in Louisville’s East End. When I was eighteen I got my first car, an ‘82 Mazda GLC I bought for $300 saved from working fast food five nights a week. On the weekends I would drive aimlessly back and forth across the city with the full arsenal of Clash records at my disposal plotting and planning, dreaming the impossible dreams.
Joe Strummer made everything seem possible. He was an anti-hero who set out to change the world and did. There were great political bands long before The Clash, as well as great punk bands, The Clash were the first and most memorable political punk band of their or any generation. Sure Crass and Chumbawumba had a more cohesive anarchist vision, sure Rage Against The Machine sold more records, but everything begins and ends with The Clash. They were the first to play concerts and propagandize against the growing English Fascist movement. They were the first to sincerely explore and adapt their musical approach to include elements of reggae, world beats and hip-hop in its infancy. Their breakthrough 1982 hit “Rock The Casbah” warned of the potential devastation of the West meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, sadly enough the song sounds timely today. They even named their 1980 triple album “Sandanista” in support of the insurgent rebels in Nicaragua. Joe Strummer’s ability to transport the frustration and apathy and doom of his dreary London resonated just as strongly with those in the crumbling urban core or the isolation and hopelessness of suburbia. His message universal, his music timeless.
In the past few weeks since he was stricken with a fatal heartattack at age fifty, I’ve had countless conversations with those who are reeling from his loss. One of my friends said that the world feels emptier knowing that he was no longer in it. As cheesy as that sounds, I totally echo that sentiment. He went on to say that it’s sad knowing that he’ll never get the chance to tell him how much of an impact he had on his life. This got me thinking about regrets and not speaking up to those who inspire us and fill us with passion and how much more alone we all are when we let this fear strangle us.
I don’t think Joe Strummer lived with this fear and I think we are doing his legacy and ourselves irreparable damage by not quite getting around to all of those passed conversations and unrealized dreams. At age fifteen, when life seemed utterly hopeless, Joe Strummer taught me that we can and do have the ability to shape, define and claim our history and our future in any way we see fit. It’s unfortunate that it takes loss for us to realize our own internalized fears, but that’s usually how we do our best learning, on the edge of breakdown.
I’ve spent a lot of time on that edge in the past couple of years with two close friends taking their lives in the past two winters. The fear I’m grappling with this time around is one of the scariest of all, the fear of lost innocence. I remember how wide open and limitless life seemed when I first heard the Clash forever a go. Everything seemed urgent, inevitable, now I realize it’s not about instant gratification, but about the ride along the way. Joe Strummer rode life for all it was worth and died with no regrets, I only hope I’m so lucky.
The latest issue of my zine, Complete Control is now out. This issue has stories on sexual assault, loss of a loved one to suicide, a cryptic story of decapitation here in Richmond and a smattering of political theory.