Punk Pioneer Joe Strummer, 1952-2002

By Tom Sinclair
Updated January 10, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

For fans of The Clash, it seemed like a warped cosmic jest to learn that Joe Strummer died Dec. 22 of a heart attack after walking his dog. It’s not just that he was only 50 — or even that he once sang about a guitar being a ”heart attack machine.” Strummer, both on record and in live performance, was such a rabidly intense singer and ax player that he always seemed to be courting a coronary.

Born John Graham Mellor, the son of a British diplomat, Strummer spent the early ’70s living as a bohemian squatter. Taking a stage name that evoked his manic guitar style, he busked in London subway stations and fronted bands like the 101ers. But when he joined the Clash in 1976, everything clicked. Strummer once likened the Clash’s Casbah-rocking live sound to ”a mad seal barking over a mass of pneumatic drills,” but that falls short of fully expressing the visceral impact of their brutally uncompromising music.

The Clash, the quartet’s 1977 debut, remains one of the most vivid documents of the punk era. It became the best-selling import album of the ’70s, moving 100,000 copies in the U.S. before a notoriously altered version was released in 1979. That year, the band unleashed London Calling, which spawned its first American hit, ”Train in Vain,” and led to the eclectic experimentation of 1980’s ambitious but flawed triple LP Sandinista!

The Clash imploded in 1986, leaving Strummer, in the words of critic Robert Christgau, ”a man without a context.” (The group was due to reunite in March for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.) Strummer’s post-Clash work — his last album with his band, the Mescaleros, was 2001’s Global a Go-Go — felt anticlimactic almost by definition. He had embodied rock commitment so completely that no second act seemed possible.