Joe Strummer: 10 years gone
In the spring of 2002, Strummer recorded a version of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song with Johnny Cash at Rick Rubin’s house in LA. On the West Coast tour that followed, he wrote one of the finest songs of his post-Clash career, Coma Girl, inspired by his 16-year-old daughter Eliza. The band also filmed a live special for the cable network HBO, and Strummer was offered his own music show on the VH1 channel. Momentum was building.
Drummer Luke Bullen recalls Strummer expressing regret about all the years he had wasted, but also feeling vindicated by The Mescaleros. “He seemed really happy with the final line-up,” Bullen says. “He was very creative, always scribbling lyrics. I never got the sense it was a finite thing, he was just following his instincts and seemed really excited about working with young musicians. He never gave anyone the impression of being the boss.”
Back in Britain for an autumn tour, The Mescaleros played a benefit for the striking fireman at Acton Town Hall in West London on November 15, 2002. Nobody knew, but it was to be their final London show, and one of their last ever gigs. By coincidence, Strummer’s former Clash buddy Mick Jones was in the audience and found himself drawn onstage to play on Bankrobber, followed by explosive encore versions of White Riot and London’s Burning.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but it was fate,” Jones recalls. “It wasn’t planned in any way. I didn’t think I was going to be playing that night, I just went along. I wasn’t exactly pushed onstage physically, but it just felt right.”
The Acton show marked the first time Strummer and Jones had played live together in 19 years. It was also the last time they would ever share a stage.
Strummer had already begun work on a new album when he died suddenly at his Somerset home on the afternoon of December 22, 2002. He was just 50, killed by a congenital heart defect that could have claimed him at any time. A third and final Mescaleros album, Streetcore, was released in 2003. Although inevitably scrappy and incomplete, it does include fine tracks like Coma Girl, the Biblical reggae-rock shuffle Get Down Moses and Long Shadow, a gravel-voiced alt‑country ballad the singer wrote for Johnny Cash.
Cruelly, Strummer died on the cusp of a major career comeback, his profile higher than at any time in the previous 15 years. In March 2003, The Clash were due to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. In February, a stellar supergroup featuring Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl paid musical homage at the Grammy awards. After his death, rock magazines that sniffed at interviewing Strummer during his Mescaleros days suddenly put him on the cover and hailed him as a lost rock genius.
“People didn’t really realise how important Strummer was,” argues Alex Cox. “It only kind of popped out when he was no more. He really was a great artist.”