To me, “Johnny Appleseed” is as epic as anything he’d ever done with the Clash. Strummer’s voice is still beautifully ragged around the edges, which is his trademark. And it showed that he’d got on the writing train again, just before his sudden and surprising death the following year at the tender age of 50. The posthumously released Streetcore, more the rock record than Global a Go Go, showed that he was just hitting his stride with the Mescalaros as a band, which is a bittersweet truth in an age where musical heroes are not just wanted, they’re needed.
Never prolific, Joe Strummer made up for a relatively sparse body of work by making it eclectic. The reviews of this 2001 record with the Mescalaros removed the need to have a “don’t expect the Clash” label on every copy sold. Even so, I think this record was hurt by those kinds of expectations. Still, the single “Johnny Appleseed” was certainly one that got my attention, being as it was imprinted the voice of a man who’s music I’d grown up hearing, although in a different (yet welcome) musical idiom which is a sort of folky-internationalist fusion. I love the acoustic feel that seems to be almost country-sounding yet still retaining the energy of rock.
It’s not as if Strummer hadn’t dabbled in cross-pollinating musical genres before. Strummer had given up strictly defined punk rock for years. I’d argue that even London Calling isn’t a punk record. For one thing, it betrays a love for the folk musics of the world too, although perhaps its reggae flourishes were camouflaged due to it being in the middle of 1979 when a lot of bands were embracing reggae and ska. So, I don’t think Strummer’s efforts here are much further afield.
On my long list of movies to see is the recent The Future is Unwritten, a documentary about Joe Strummer by one time Sex Pistols collaborator Julian Temple. Besides being in the Clash, Strummer himself was an interesting figure of contradictions apart from his role as co-frontman – he was a middle-class former hippie and son of a diplomat named John Mellors who transformed himself into punk rock year-zero flag-waver Joe Strummer, proceeding to play the part as if no one was looking. He would go onto inspire other bands of course and have a varied career as a solo artist, record producer, film score composer, and sometime actor.
I was lucky enough to see Joe Strummer play the Glastonbury Festival in 1999 with the then-newly assembled Mescalaros. I remember feeling that everything was right in the world, watching him as he was, virtually unchanged by the passage of time, cranking out the same fiery balls of musical fire as I’d heard sitting around a cheapo cassette player with friends in the eighth grade, listening to the magically alien sounds of the Clash. Strummer was a rock star in the best sense. He made you realize that it was possible to see to your own transformation, that worlds could be crossed by strumming a tune.