Anyone that knows me, even if they don’t know me all that well, knows that music is important to me but like anything that begins as an interest, grows to a hobby eventually cuts teeth and becomes a full blown obsession that bites hard enough to draw blood – it began somewhere.
And for me, it was Joe.
I remember the day I met him. It’s a story I’ve not shared with many people though I had a handful of my friends with me when the blessed event occurred so I’m sure if they tried to remember the day we were rummaging through the bins behind Weybridge high street in the blistering sunshine of August 2003, they would recall the cream colored suitcase I dragged from the depths of a bin situated behind Oxfam.
I sat on the floor, wearing a Cypress Hill t-shirt that had belonged to my then very not estranged father sifting through hundreds of cassette tapes full of music I’d never heard of. I had a cigarette hanging out of my mouth, the sweat from my top lip soaking it limp. On my head, a backwards Ferrari baseball cap – also my fathers. I had hair down to my waist and my eyes hadn’t yet began to burn out, they were big and brown and bright and wet. It’s one of the surest signs that I am beginning to feel my age now, the constant dryness of my eyes and how dull and sometimes lifeless they look in photographs. Not then. Then I was all eyes and mouth and stupidity.
I was a few days into my thirteenth year, a number that, rather ironically, has always been good to me, and when it hasn’t been good, it sure as hell hasn’t been boring.
That suitcase proved to be a turning point in my life, a key stone if you will. Inside that case I found a lot of friends I still love spending time with now – Tom Waits, Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, George Clinton, Tom Petty, Eddie Vedder, Chuck Ragan, James Hetfield, Jake Burns, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy, Ian MuCulloch, Iggy Pop, Ian Curtis, Billy Corgan, Brad Roberts – but in among them all there was one guy, well a group of guys really, but one guy in particular that nudged a sleeping part of me awake, ever so gently and changed everything I thought I knew about myself.
That guys name, as you’ve probably guessed – Joe Strummer.
When I say that Joe Strummer changed me, it wasn’t just because of the obvious things that the great mans name conjures in the mind of anyone worth their musical salt. Joe Strummer acted as a gateway drug to the musical love of my life and the man that to this day still prevails as the figurehead in my musical identity, and for that, Strummer will always have a very unique and treasured piece of my heart.
Joe Strummer gave me none other than Bob Dylan.
It’s a tenuous link for people that don’t know either musician particularly well but somewhere in the depths of my one two three four punk beginnings, a seed was planted and from that seed grew a bridge between the two worlds of punk and folk music, and now, as a twenty seven year old that spends almost as much time talking about music as I do listening to it, I know that there is no difference between the two.
They both taught me to fuck the system and to do and say and be who and what I wanted because nothing that I ever did was going to impress anyone. They both taught me the power of a movement and the concept of changing the world. They both taught me to shout, sometimes to shout really fucking loud, when the time called for it but, especially in Joe’s later years, the value of quiet contemplation and the mediation of peace. And in it all they both reassured me that yes, it was okay to not be liked by everyone, and yes, it didn’t matter if people didn’t understand me because with them, and with the people that understood, it was safe to be myself, a secret club of weirdos infatuated with people who couldn’t really sing saying things that shouldn’t really have been said. At least at the time.
The link between the two would later become one of my greatest musical loves in his own right. That mans name is Woody Guthrie and without that man, neither Strummer or Dylan would have picked up a guitar or put pen to paper and the world would remain unchanged by their music or the stories they had to tell. I found Joe on a tape that I pulled out of a bin behind Oxfam, who led me to Woody (I read an article that said that for a time, Joe liked to be referred to as “Woody”) and Woody led me to Bob who was then, and still is, my favorite musician of all time. I even make him a birthday cake each year on the 24th May because…well, I just always have.
And all three of these great men who made me who I am today, isolated me more from my peers than any other idiosyncrasy that came before or after them. I ended up alone with all of three of them and a record player (this was in 2004 when most peoples parents had even thrown out their record players to replace them with iNonsense) hanging on their every word, shadowing their chords on my guitar (that was always missing a string, something that didn’t really matter when mirroring any of their tunes) until my fingers bled – young and angry and aware.
My friends loved music, don’t get me wrong but none of them understood music the way I thought I did. I was outspoken and brutal in my annihilation of the bands they loved. I have publicly trashed bands that I now love – My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Simple Plan, Sum 41, Puddle of Mud, Drowning Pool, Disturbed, Slipknot, Stone Sour – all bands that my friends loved and I loathed because they didn’t make sense to the confusion of intelligence, drugs and depression that Joe and Bob managed to comfort me in. I’d make my friends watch black and white documentaries and they’d ask me why my shoes didn’t match or why I was only wearing one earring or why none of my clothes matched or why I didn’t have an iPod yet and I’d just stare at them with the dead eyes of a kid that had woken up too soon, forced to shamble through my life feeling like the outcast that my heroes told me it was okay to be.
I was born thirty years too late and I never really got over the injustice of that. It eventually made me bitter and sometimes, quite cruel. I’d slam other people for not being able to read me a rote of Black Sabbath albums in chronological order and if you ever came near me wearing a band shirt, you best be fucking sure you’ve got an opinion on that difficult second album that people either love or loathe because if you don’t you’re going to get shredded in seconds. And if you didn’t know who originally sand All Along the Watchtower, or worse, you did and still preferred the Hendrix version – well, motherfucker I might have just broken a bottle and gone for you with it.
I was angry…could you tell? Angry that these people had been forgotten, that no one my age even knew who they were or what they did, the paths they paved and the ships they sank in order for their regurgitated bullshit to spit out of their tinny headphones and fill them with what they thought was joy. The audacity, man. The inability to listen to any of it, the incredulous looks on their faces when they’d ask – how do you listen to this? And oh, how they’d WINCE when Dylan hit the harmonica or when Strummer and the lads descended into madness.
I didn’t need them. My friends didn’t need to like my music and I didn’t mind being the weirdo because I knew that Joe or Bob would have been the weirdos too and anything that made me feel closer to them even if it took my further away from reality, was fine by me. It sounds petulant, immature and that’s because, well, fuck people – I was thirteen! And my life was falling apart. I started using harder and harder drugs, found out what all the fuss with sex was about and realised very quickly that I was smart enough (and charming enough) to get away with anything at school or college. Minimal effort, maximum results. So I was weird but I was interesting and that was enough to keep me a broad scope of friends for most of my life, even if it never did make me feel any less alone.
Then, one day, five years later almost to the day that I pulled that cream suitcase full of mix tapes, I stood in Hyde Park waiting for Bruce Springsteen (one of the living and accessible members of the Suitcase Saviors) to come on. A few bands played, none of which really peaked my interest so I studied the crowd looking for like minded fellows and coming up blank. I was surrounded, with no hint of exaggeration, by a sea of middle aged men. There I was, a seventeen year old kid in yellow converse and a Grateful Dead tee, standing in a crowd of thousands of people and I couldn’t see one other kid that looked even a little like me. I’d never felt more out of place and more in my element.
Microphone feedback from the stage brought my eyes up from the crowd and there standing on the stage as it started to rain was a man in a white t-shirt. His arms were covered in tattoos and he had a hat sitting at an awkward angle on his head. He mumbled something into the microphone and then something happened, something so unexpected that it literally took my breath away – I heard my favorite band for the first time. Instantly I tuned my ears into the mans words and through his rough, raw voice that sent goose bumps shooting across my skin like fireworks, I heard this lyric –
” And I carried those songs like a comfort wherever I’d go, they was there when the summers was high, there when she left me alone, saying ‘the soul is hard to find‘ ”
The other thing that people will know about me, should they know me, is my ability to recall lyrics and in this particular moment of my life, this particular super power came into play and writing these words now I can still feel the watery sensation in my gut when I realized that this stranger on the stage opening for Springsteen was singing about Joe Strummer. The song went on to reference Camden Town (where The Clash kicked off) and the phrase “the excitement gang” (Coma Girl) and literally repeating “the last gang in town” from a song of the same name by the band in question which is off of the album “Give ‘Em Enough Rope” which just so happened to be the album that I found in the suitcase that day. All of these things all clicked together and before I knew it the song was over and the man was singing about an old white Lincoln like my stomach hadn’t just swallowed my heart.
I spent the rest of the evening not really paying attention to anything, not even really Springsteen, because there was this guy, a young guy, a guy young enough to be considered the same age as me or at least the same generation, and he was singing about the things that mattered to me, emulating the people that mattered to me and I was instantly infatuated with him and his band. I went home and googled as much of the songs lyrics as I could remember and there, in front of me, was a picture of the man that had opened for Springsteen with the same wonky hat on his head.
The man in the hat? His name is Brian Fallon.
And the band?
The song was called “I’da Called You Woody, Joe” and it when I read the title I still remember smiling like a damn fool at my computer screen. The patch above is from the first album (that happens to be the album that “I’da Called You Woody, Joe” is on) I ever bought from the band that began as strangers, impostors at a Springsteen gig and ended up becoming as much as part of me as The Boss himself. Finally, I thought then as I do now – a band for MY generation. Here was a crew of guys, ten years older than me but still very much kids when I too was a kid, singing about things that I cared about. And when I went to my first Gaslight gig I didn’t feel out of place or out of touch or robbed by the years that I missed on account of not being born yet – I stood shoulder to shoulder in a room full of people my age, and plenty of people older and younger too, and we all shouted the lyrics just as loud as the person we were standing next to because they mattered just as much to all of us.
So, yes, even though there are much bigger Clash fans out there than me (I had a boyfriend once upon a time that had actually SEEN them LIVE more than ONCE!) but for me, the value of this patch and it’s meaning extends far beyond one band or one genre, however defining that band or that genre are because like I said – Joe was my gateway drug. He taught me to keep my music as varied as my opinions and to defend it’s greatness with the same ferocity that I would my opinions.
And in a strange, foggy way, he led me to the greatest musical loves of my life and now, knowing that he’s gone, that he’s been gone for as long as I’ve loved him (he died the year before I found the suitcase) I’d offer thanks for the incredible music he made, with The Clash and his other bands, but more so for the doors in my mind, and in my heart, that he opened. Joe Strummer is still without a doubt one of the most influential people in my life because he taught me that I don’t have to be angry all the time.
Just when it matters.
And that music, like life, should never be allowed to stagnate. To take chances with bands I’ve never seen before or heard of, to listen to at least four or five albums before I write them off, to look for the invisible string that ties together all musicians and artists and writers and creative souls – inspiration.
Thanks for the music, lads.
And for continuing to inspire me in the most unlikely of ways.