‘Can I buy your coat?’ my night out with Joe Strummer

It was Alan McGee‘s fortieth birthday party in London.

The club was hot and packed and I was sweating in my resplendent brown plastic coat when there was a tap on my shoulder.

”Sorry about the brush off at that festival’ it was Joe Strummer. Our paths had crossed a few months previously at some European festival we were both playing. I had said hello but Joe was engrossed in writing a set list and writing a set list was important business for the then Mescaleros frontman.

He was lost in a world of classic songs that had signposted my generation, no wonder he was engrossed. That was some responsibility. Titles were crossed out and moved around, discarded classics and new songs fighting it out.

The set list looked endless. Keep it fresh! New songs, covers, Clash classics and some of the new stuff he had been recording on those fine later albums all made up the set that he played later on which sounded great. The post Clash Strummer may have seemed lost but by this point in time he was hitting first gear again and the Mescaleros’ blend of Latino world music and punk rock with touch of electronica sounded great. I love those later albums and the gigs. The greatest of which was the Brixton gig right at the tail end of his life. The gig was a blinder, we stood next to Mick Jones who was dancing throughout with a bug grin on his face telling us how great it was and the post gig party was like a Clash reunion with a lot of the old faces turning out, old faces with the kind of lines earned from too much rock n roll and tales of excess of danger from living to close to the beating heart of rock action. This was one of this egret all nighters when all possibilities were there and a real reunion of the hat wearing old punks and high decibel revolutionaries and rock n roll romantics. You couldn’t mix it up with a Coldplay aftershow!

We went to see Strummer several times when he came through town. I loved the way he reworked the old songs, slowed them down, dug out new grooves and added even more emotive power to them. There were the great covers of stuff like ”Blitzkrieg Bop’, tributes and statements of intent; this was a musical powerhouse that oozed life and soul power. The Clash stuff always sounded incendiary and his croaking voice still cut like a knife and there were powerful moments like when the whole audience joined in for the customary sing-along with ‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’ which was becoming the national anthem of punk, a punky reggae party that was switchblade sharp and with great lyrics that perfectly captured a moment.

”I love your jacket, can I buy it’ Strummer croaked through the side of his mouth like a celluloid bad guy, ”how do you want for it?’ I couldn’t sell the jacket. It was a cold night and it was the only jacket I owned plus it was a really cool jacket, cracked and creased fake leather, it did the job. Strummer didn’t back off and the price went up but as skint as I was I had to say no.

Not disappointed the conversation switched to rock n roll and we talked about great records, yelling over the sound system about the Beatles and the Stones and punk rock before switching to world music like the Greek rebel blues of rembetika or other righteous folk musics of the world, nodding and agreeing on a playlist from heaven and declaring English punk rock of the seventies as a true folk music of our times.

We then talked of rock n roll madness and mutual muckers like Bez from the Happy Mondays and Joe’s current music with the Mescaleros before hallucinogenic drugs entered the conversation.

”Have you ever licked the back of a toad’ gnarled Strummer. I knew he was talking about the hallucinogenic toads that Bez had apparently smuggled back into the UK. Whether Joe had dome this himself was imposable to tell over the racket but he seemed very fascinated by the process. We both knew that Bez had some sort of interest in the Toad experience and talked about then intensity of tripping. The conversation careered along these lines from lysergic madness to great rock n roll clothes to records that changed your world. It oozed an intense passion and a fierce lust for life and all it’s possibilities with interruptions as Strummer said hello to anyone who walked past and he really did seem to remember everyone’s names as he was famous for doing.

Deep into the night he made one more attempt to buy my coat, but I had to walk back across London and the cash would not have kept me warm.

Sadly Joe is no longer with us but the coat is still around, a more cracked and creased around edges but still cool as fuck like Joe himself was at the time.

RIP joe.

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  5. hallucinogenic toads? You mean you don’t get that backstage at a Coldplay gig?! I suppose if they were gluten-and-fun-free you might, passed around by Chris ‘rock n’roll? Only if it’s macrobiotic’ Martin, and his gawky Sloane Ranger mates.

    Great article about a great great man. The author’s pretty good too.

  6. Nice wee read.i seen Strummer & the mescalaros twice supporting The Who in Glasgow.it was bedlam down the front of the Secc during the mescalaros set.The Who should’ve stayed in the dressing room

  7. My memories of Joe start when I met him in New York City, on Broadway! That was in 2001.
    A friend of mine worked on the Late Show, a TV variety show, and he phoned me to say the the Mescaleros would be the musical guests that night. I let work early, and as I was headed uptown to the TV studio, who should I see standing at the crosswalk, the man himself! I walked up, stuck out my hand and introduced myself. I told him what my friend had told me on the phone, and Joe said, in that famous gravely voice, “Yeah, Wheezer cancelled!” I doubt if that’s how they got the gig that night, but it was just like Joe to poke a bit of fun at himself and the entertainment business.
    As we walked up the street, I couldn’t believe my luck. I was strolling along the Broadway with the man, just as natural as you please. “Clash on Broadway” indeed!
    A great man, greatly missed.

  8. Fabulous story John if that Brixton gig is the same one I was at and in the mosh it was the last time I have that far forward in a seething throng of gleeful people it was a memorable and bruising night

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