I think of Joe Strummer, on some level, not unlike the way I think of John Lennon — as a bundle of contradictions who found himself the “spokesman for a generation” and grew from an angry, confused kid into an intelligent, articulate, thoughtful artist. He was flawed, he was human, and he didn’t try to pretend he was anything more or less than that. But he did try to use his influence to better the world in some way, and he made some great music while he was at it.
My first Clash album was Combat Rock. Maybe not the best place to start. Almost everyone would tell you to grab London Calling first, and I’d say just as strong a case could be made for the sprawling madness of Sandinista. But it did the job as well as any gateway drug and made me a fan when I was thirteen.
I’m not about to try and write some ambitious piece about Joe’s life and the music he made with and without the Clash. There’s a lot of information on the internet for anyone who’s interested. There are a handful of well-made documentaries out there. There was one moment in one of those films that really resonated with me, though, and it still does.
I was watching Westway to the World on TV ten years ago when they were showing it on MuchMoreMusic, back when they would play Roxy Music videos at two in the morning and had a bit more credibility than MuchMusic. A lot of people have been critical of the film, because it doesn’t fill in all the blanks and assumes the audience knows a bit about the band and the time in which they existed. I enjoyed it. I liked that there was a lot of great music and vintage performance footage, and I liked that the band members were onscreen telling the story themselves.
The bit that got to me was right at the end. Joe, who was animated and charismatic through the whole film, had the last word. His body language changed and his tone shifted to something more resigned. “Whatever a group is,” he said, “it was the chemical mixture of those four people that made the group work. That’s a lesson everyone should learn — don’t mess with it! If it works, just let it. Do whatever you have to do to bring it forward, but don’t mess with it. And we learned that…bitterly.”
They’re simple words, but I felt them in my gut. A few years later, after I had a band with its own peculiar kind of magic and it all fell apart, I understood what he meant in a deeper way. When you have a band, or an artistic collective of some kind, and it works, that’s something special. Something to cherish. The stars don’t align like that too often. It only takes one rift, or one person to turn into a bag of douche or leave the group, and the whole axis shifts.
We’ve seen this happen countless times, with bands where the original singer leaves, or the drummer dies, and the band either keeps going or reforms later on with an ill-fitting replacement. I can’t think of one example where it’s worked out well. A lot of money gets made, sure. But the magic is gone, and the music that comes out of it is either embarrassing or underwhelming. Most of the time it’s both of those things.
There’s a point behind bringing up Joe.
Tomorrow is something CJAM has dubbed Joe Strummer Day, when their programming does its best to tie Strummer’s life and work in with reports on homelessness and poverty in the Windsor and Detroit area. I was asked to contribute something. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come up with anything, but after throwing away the idea of a cover of “Straight to Hell” (too obvious), it came to me out of the blue. I knew what I had to do. Shooby-dooby-do.
Back when I was watching Westway to the World in 2000 as a short-haired, clean-shaven Johnny, I liked the song “Bankrobber” a lot — maybe more than anything else I heard in the film. Because of the lack of exposition, I was left to assume the song was on Sandinista, so I went out and bought the album. But “Bankrobber” wasn’t there.
It’s not on any studio album. It only shows up on a few compilations, none of which were readily available at the time. Now, of course, you can find just about any piece of music in crummy compressed form on YouTube, just as long as Sony Music or some other soulless entity hasn’t taken it down so they can keep dancing the corporate bullshit dance.
Today you can find “Bankrobber” on YouTube in a few different forms. The strange thing is when I first heard the song there was something weary and beautiful in it that grabbed me. Now I find I don’t like it half as much as I used to. It’s still a cool song, but it’s not something that would get me to run out and buy the album I think it might be on anymore. I’m not sure what happened there.
In most cases I’m not a big fan of artists transposing cover songs into another key when they sing them. If you can’t sing the song in the key in which it was written, in my opinion you have no business singing it at all unless you’re going to do something really drastic with the arrangement and really make the song your own. Then I think it can be justified.
I’m not one to cover other people’s songs much anyway. But when I do, I like to try to put my own spin on the song without transposing it at all. This time I thoughtIi would do something different. If you tune in tomorrow, maybe you’ll hear it on CJAM at some point, if someone deigns to play it. If not, you can hear it right here.
If it reminds you a little of a song of mine off of AN ABSENCE OF SWAY called “Will Work for Food”, that’s not quite an accident. I was toying around with a different take on that song, playing with the rhythm, shifting it around a bit, and playing it on the Martin 00-17 half a step lower than I did the first time around. Then I started singing the words to “Bankrobber” and this happened.
I recorded it this afternoon. While I could have done a better mixing job, I don’t have the patience or the space on the mixer to take another crack at it. I’ve been recording so much stuff, I’ve maxed out everything and need to mix a bunch of things and get them off of there to free up some space. So this is as good as it’s going to get for now. I like the song in its original key and could have kept it there, but I also kind of like what I did with it here, giving it a new pair of slippers.
What’s really interesting to me is this: when you get rid of the reggae rhythm and the dub effects and really concentrate on the lyrics, it becomes clear just what a good folk song is hiding in there. The words are even kind of relevant to the whole poverty/homelessness theme, though it wasn’t planned that way. Just a happy accident.
This is probably the closest thing I’ve done to a CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN-sounding song in a long time, aside from the absence of vocal multi-tracking. I kind of went out of my way to do that just for fun — right down to the skeletal kick drum/tambourine rhythm, which isn’t the kind of drum part I seem to play much anymore.
Also, the end-of-the-month progress report will be along shortly. There’s a good chance it’ll show up on Christmas day. And that’s just funny.