Death and glory

Punk legend Joe Strummer bows out with "Streetcore," a hit-and-miss farewell studded with a handful of gems.

Published October 21, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

When news broke last December that Joe Strummer had collapsed and died of a heart attack near his home in Somerset, England, it was a genuine shock to the system. For rock fans reared on 1970s punk, Strummer was a towering figure. A genuine poet with a knack for mixing pop and politics without sounding pompous (well, not much anyway), the man was a veritable demigod -- though sadly, it turned out, not immortal after all.

At least not in the corporeal sense. Artistically, it's a different story. The music Strummer made with the Clash remains a fiery testament to his intelligence and passion, and the series of legendarily bad business decisions the band made proves that its anti-capitalist stance was no mere pose. Either for political purposes or through sheer managerial incompetence, the Clash screwed themselves royally when it came to money. Songwriting and performance royalty rates were slashed to ensure lower list prices, commercially unwieldy triple albums were released, and, post-breakup, numerous lucrative opportunities to reunite came and went. Adding insult to self-inflicted injury, the Clash have yet to be honored with an intelligently annotated box set, the kind of collection, say, that a 30-something punk-rock uncle could feel good about giving to his Good Charlotte-besotted nephew for Christmas.

Maybe that's appropriate. Strummer would no doubt hate the idea of a reified Clash canon, a cherry-picked collection of greatest (or at least nearest) hits that leaves out the marginalia and glorious failures. Anyone who's spent quality time with Side 6 (Side 6!) of the masterly "Sandinista!" knows exactly what I'm talking about. Twenty years after the core Clash lineup's untimely demise, the band's weirdest tracks -- "Bankrobber" or "Shepherds Delight" or "Ghetto Defendant" -- still provide the backdrop of wild and woolly experimentation that makes the relative pop tunes -- like "Stay Free" or "Train in Vain" or "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" -- sound thrilling whenever they rise to the surface of your iPod.

As a post-Clash artist, Strummer never quite found a way to deal with the legacy of the "only band that matters" while trying to forge new musical ground. Early on, he made a stab at soundtrack work ("Permanent Record," "Walker"), coughed up a spotty solo LP ("Earthquake Weather"), and even twiddled the studio dials for ex-songwriting partner/Clash-nemesis Mick Jones on Big Audio Dynamite's fair-to-middling "No. 10, Upping Street." And the less said about the Jones-free outfit Strummer assembled and made a record with under the Clash brand name the better, of course.

All these efforts felt fitful, a series of false moves that, in retrospect, seem like the detritus of a genuine luminary casting about for that ever-elusive second act. Strummer himself seemed to think so, too. After "Earthquake Weather," the man took a long hiatus, surfacing only occasionally to perform musical odd jobs such as filling in for Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan when MacGowan himself wasn't up to the task.

When Strummer reappeared in 1999, it was with a new band, the Mescaleros, in tow. A group of relative youngsters, the Mescaleros gave Strummer the adrenaline shot he needed and, remarkably, proved capable of couching their leader's barking-seal vocal attack in a heady brew of punk and world beat: The band was especially deft at juxtaposing the occasional three-chord foot stomper with songs powered mainly by exotic polyrhythms.

Strummer was hardly infallible with the Mescaleros, but when the tunes on the group's first two records (1999's "Rock Art and the X-Ray Style" and 2001's "Global a Go-Go") worked, it was thrilling. When they didn't, you still loved Strummer for enlisting a new crew and giving it another whirl anyway. On the best track the band ever committed to tape ("Digging the New"), Strummer seemed to acknowledge the mercurial nature of his artistry, chalking it up to an imagination fired more by playing with contemporary sounds than cranking out reliable rock epics. If you want to hear "London Calling," the attitude seemed to be, go right ahead and slap it on the turntable. I'm on to something else.

That said, "Streetcore," Strummer and the Mescaleros' third and final album, opens with one surefire rocker. "Coma Girl" is a knockout punch so effortlessly great, you're tempted to wonder why the group never managed an album full of them. The track is a chiming and sophisticated mix of pop-rock crunch, reggae lilt and the rollicking pub music Strummer cut his teeth on as the leader of the 101'ers, his pre-Clash outfit.

The rest of the disc, it's true, has a hard time competing with that opener; in most respects, it doesn't even try. Because Strummer died before the album was completed, some of the tracks here are just sophisticated first drafts, rough-hewed demos gussied up with a touch of post-production finish. "All in a Day," for instance, sounds like a spirited studio jam that went on a little too long, while "Long Shadow," a loping country-folk number written with Johnny Cash in mind, comes with clunky words that could stand a closer edit. "The devil may care/ Maybe God he won't," Strummer croaks at one point, "But better make sure you check on the dos and the don'ts."

And heartbreaking though it is to hear him sing "Redemption Song," Strummer's reading of the Bob Marley classic doesn't really bring anything new to the tune. The charm here owes mainly to the live-in-the-bedroom quality of the recording, and the way the words work as a caption for Strummer's own redemptive back catalog.

But "Streetcore" has its share of keepers, too. "Get Down Moses" taps into the dub-heavy reggae Strummer always loved, with trebly, scratch 'n' twang guitars swathed in generous swells of organ, a throbbing bass line and infectiously chanted backing vocals. The sweetly melancholic "Burnin' Streets" rewinds Strummer's career with lyrics that conjure the Clash classic "London's Burning" and provides the perfect setup for the soulfully ambient "Midnight Jam." That track fast-forwards to Strummer's stint as host of the BBC radio program "Joe Strummer's London Calling" -- complete with his enthusiastic DJ musings about letting "rip on a whole different tip" and his much-loved "Indestructible Beat of Soweto" records.

That wide-eyed enthusiasm, an indestructible belief in the revolutionary power of music to change the world (as naive as that may sound), was part of Joe Strummer's DNA. It goes without saying that his career-defining work was with the Clash. Yet even when Strummer worked with subprime material, he never sounded less than 100 percent committed. As a result, "Streetcore" -- a decent disc studded with the occasional rough-cut gem -- resonates like a goodbye kiss from an old friend.

By Shannon Zimmerman

Shannon Zimmerman writes about music for the Washington Post, the Village Voice and other publications.

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