Listen to this track by returning punk rock champion turned world-folk-meets-pop practicioner Joe Strummer. It’s “Willesden To Cricklewood” as taken from the 1999 album Rock Art and The X-Ray Style.
It was his first record with a new band, and a new record in general; his first since his 1989 solo album Earthquake Weather. That’s a ten-year gap, although Strummer kept himself busy with continuing soundtrack work, and work as an actor, too.
All the while of course, talks of a Clash reunion persisted. This was because the Clash had been so influential, of course. But, it was also that the demise of the band was extremely dissatisfying to most. After trying to redefine the group with new members after primary guitarist, singer, and songrwriter Mick Jones was fired, it was a question of not with a bang, but a whimper.
Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite, and put the possibility of a Clash reunion behind him. Strummer meanwhile, after the new Clash line-up imploded, found himself in a period of extended transition. In Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, he admitted to needing to get his bearings. Traveling, working on movies (Walker, Straight To Hell), cameos on stage with the Pogues, and a not-very-well-received solo record, he became something of a wanderer, just as he had been before he became a musician.
But, when at The Glastonbury Festival in the 1990s, he met musician Anthony Genn who asked him: “When are you recording again? We need you!”
“OK, then. You can help me.” And the Mescaleros was born.
And what is it that makes this song so indicative of how ready Joe Strummer was for a comeback?
To me, it is the sound of contentment itself. It made the perfect closer to a record that fans had waited a decade to hear. It is a snapshot of a walk from Willesden to Cricklewood, two working-class neighbourhoods in north London (I used to live in Cricklewood myself!). It’s the sound of someone who’s been through a lot, but finds meaning in the everyday sights and sounds of his city, and its inhabitants.
Strummer had always come off as a man of the people, and there is every indication that this is who he really was. It’s true that he’d worn many personas, including “Joe Strummer”, a name he took to replace his birth name John Graham Mellors. Before that, he’d been a dosser called “Woody” and went by that name. He’d been a hippy, and he’d been a punk who railed against hippies and their ideals.
By the late ’90s, he’d been through it all, realizing that despite different costumes and superficial rhetoric, punks and hippies were really not very different. The impulse to rebel against the powers that be was something of an important common ground. Above all, each group valued community above all else and Strummer himself had come to believe that “without people, you’re nothing.”
With that knowledge, I think he was able to write a song like this one, full of the love of simple pleasures and experiences, and finding beauty in observations one can make just by being aware of one’s surroundings and aware of other people living in a community, too. It is a calm and centered voice you’re hearing here.
I think this is how Strummer was able to write this record, and form a new band. He was ready. He knew what was most important to him; community, and family too. I think it’s this that freed him up as an artist to create new work he felt he could get behind.
His comeback would be short-lived, although he would create two additional albums beyond this one of very high quality. He died in December of 2002 of a heart attack. Apparently, he had a heart defect, and he could have died at any time. We were very lucky to have him for as long as we did, although he is gravely missed by music fans everywhere.
Learn more about him at strummerville.com, a site set up by his friends and family soon after his death. A part of the mission of the site is to celebrate Strummer’s life, but also to help out up and coming acts following in his footsteps.