To honor the tenth anniversary of Joe Strummer’s untimely death, NPR offered a short and respectable segment on the continued relevance of The Clash, and two tracks in particular: “London Calling” and “Rock the Casbah.”
The key themes of these tracks, technology vs. nature, and tradition vs. modernity, respectively, maintain “Joe Strummer’s Life After Death,” according to Tom Vitale, who also interviews biographer Chris Salewicz and members of The Hold Steady, who hold forth on the influence and ethics of Joe Strummer. (In the responses, of course, Clash fans take issue with offering such esteem to The Hold Steady.)
I note “ethics,” here, as I was reminded repeatedly during the assembly of Stealing All Transmissions of the impact of Joe Strummer on so many friends and new acquaintances. When I mentioned the project over brunch, a new acquaintance pulled out his iPhone, where an image of Strummer graced his screen. Another friend might as well have added an “s” to a WWJD bracelet, as he noted, “Whenever I’m at work on a new project, I ask myself, ‘What would Joe Strummer do?'”
And for good reason: from the origins of The Clash to his last emphatic strum (with rare exception), Strummer forged anger into power, demanded that we recognized the currency of our age, and exalted us to deal with it. He modeled democratic human agency in aesthetically and politically effective ways, and–with much help from his bandmates–set it to a danceable beat.
So, dear reader, if you were to share my preference for either “White Man in Hamersmith Palais” or “Magnificent Seven” over the songs selected by NPR, I still agree with their selection of “Rock the Casbah” as one of The Clash’s most important tracks. Neither of the previously mentioned tunes invite musical homage of the order of Rachid Taha’s spirited cover. (Let us do no more than mention 311’s cover of “White Man,” as a matter of convenience and decency.)
As Clash devotees know, Topper Headon brought the musical track to Strummer’s attention and, inspired by recent crackdowns on rocknroll in Iran, I believe, Strummer dashed off the lyrics. The narrative takes on especial meaning for my most recent spins of this track, as I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ *God is not Great,* which elaborates four key points, with poignant (and terrifying) examples from the west and the east: religion, misrepresents the origins of humanity and the cosmos and, in turn, these origin myths produce in their adherents maximum servility and maximum solipsism, and dangerous levels of repression of sexuality. (I have no evidence that Strummer and Hitchens shared a smoke or a spliff, but their takes on these ideas seem sympatico.)
In “Rock the Casbah,” Strummer uses the opening verse to take the piss out of manager-provocateur Bernie Rhodes, and then subjects traditional society, Muslim-style, to the first principle of Strummer ethics: it could be otherwise. Strummer imagined the possibility of liberation through funk bombs (“that crazy Casbah jive”), and imagines that even the jet fighters might be vulnerable to conversion to the faith of rocknroll.
Coda: In Chuck Pahalniuk’s Diary, his 2003 novel, the anti-hero suggests that an artist can only paint her own face and, once she realizes as much, she’s free to paint anything she wants. “Rock the Casbah,” in turn, may also be read as a celebration of non-sanctioned music in general, and an elegy for the struggles faced from 1977-79 by The Clash themselves, who–by the time “Casbah” was released–were within shouting distance of the mountaintop of rocknroll.