Songwriting Beyond Dylan

By Rob Patterson

Regular readers are likely to know by now that my view on political songwriting is that there’s Bob Dylan, and then there’s everyone else. But I’ve come to revise that view.

Recent ruminations and musical consideration — as well as some emails from reader George Lyne — have led me to the revised conclusion that there is Bob Dylan, and then there is Joe Strummer. And then everyone else.

The onetime lead singer and primary co-songwriter (with guitarist Mick Jones) of the 1970s into ’80s seminal British punk band The Clash was the next great political songwriter following Dylan. Lyne points out how the Strummer/Jones song “Career Opportunities” — though rather British in its 1970s “on the dole” perspective — rings as true now as then, and he has a point. But it’s in the very nature of Strummer the man and what he wrote and wrote about where I’ve found the evidence to support my new view.

I met the man twice. Once when I was invited via mutual friends to spend an evening at Electric Lady recording studio — the Greenwich Village facility founded by Jimi Hendrix — while The Clash were recording their Combat Rock album. At one point Strummer and I wound up in an isolation booth smoking a joint while he regaled me with how Hendrix had it tricked out with pillows everywhere and Indian print bedspreads over the windows to serve as a love nest where he took groupies for some fun between takes. Like me, Strummer couldn’t help being enamored with the icons of 1960s rock.

As the joint got smaller, I put it on a roach clip. After a few passes between us, Strummer paused, held the roach clip in front of him and looked at it.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“I swore I’d never smoke out of a roach clip again,” Strummer said with a droll chuckle. The former young hippie had taken on punk’s rejection of the older countercultural ways, as I had as well to a large part. Yet in time, as the Strummer documentary The Future Is Unwritten showed, he integrated both ethos and combined then with a progressive and humanist internationalism that was the ironic result of time spent growing up in the Third World as the son of a career British diplomat.

And where Dylan fused folk and rock while capturing the politicized thinking that was blowing in the wind in his day, Strummer best infused the politics of his day into punk’s revitalization of rock, and also pulled in world musical styles to take punk beyond its narrow musical focus to the next logical place.

And he strove to make sure that the musical stardom he clearly desired in his young days never separated him from who he was and his sense of political commitment. He remained a man not just of the people but among them — a regular guy with exceptional talents and perceptions.

That was obvious, in retrospect, the second time I met Strummer, one afternoon in a bar in Midtown Manhattan that was a hangout for unionists, political types and rockers. On our reintroduction, he clearly remembered me and regarded me not as a music journalist in the presence of a rock star but rather a fellow traveler in the leftist musical community. And what we chatted about wasn’t music but the poster on the wall showing the disparity of wealth in American society, sharing our Marxist analyses of the systemic injustice in capitalism. By then Strummer was both relatively wealthy and something of a star, but you’d never had known it from being around him.

He sadly died at age 52 in 2003 from a congenital heart condition just as he was reasserting himself musically with his new band The Mescaleros. My rock photographer friend Cindy Light recently sparked Mescaleros fever in me, which had been at a simmer after previously hearing the second album by Strummer’s post-Clash band, Global A-Go-Go, and seeing the Mescaleros documentary Let’s Rock Again! On finally digging in to all three of the group’s albums, I discovered a treasure trove of poetically politicized rock with worldwide influences as enjoyable and fulfilling as the more well known and by now classic music of The Clash. If Strummer had lived longer, one can’t help but wonder about the music that would have followed as well as if Strummer might have built his second band up from the grassroots to the place of prominence that what he was doing deserved to reach.

But the legacy he left us continues to speak for him: the early pummeling punk of The Clash into their experimental expansiveness of later years, and then the sadly-overlooked three albums he made with The Mescaleros, which was the next logical step after the famed and legendary Clash. And its measure reveals a politicized musicality of the highest order that as time, events and music roll on only plays better and with greater resonance.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2009

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