Ten years since he left us, Joe Strummer still matters

22 Dec 2012 @ 5.07 pm
| Opinion

Joe Strummer: died on December 22, 2002
John Tomsett pays tribute to the man he considers the most important influence on his life


I know exactly where I was when I heard Joe Strummer had died. My sister texted the news; immediately I turned on Radio 2 to hear London Calling blasting out. He died on 22nd December; I found out on the 23rd and on Christmas Eve I went into York early, bought all the broadsheets, sat in Betty’s with a coffee, read his obituaries and wept.

Incredibly it’s ten years since Joe Strummer died.

The single most important influence on my life was, and still is, Joe Strummer. I know that seems an extraordinary thing to write, but it’s true. Strummer’s determination to succeed and his appetite for hard work shaped my view of the world and how I lead my life. My eldest son is, predictably, called Joe; how I got that past committee I’ll never know.

Strummer’s work hard/play hard approach to living liberated me to do my studying, become a top amateur golfer, and be a teenage rebel. It was a bizarre mix – Sussex Junior golf champion and committed punk rocker; I ended up being a state secondary school headteacher to boot!

In my work as headteacher, Joe Strummer still drives everything I do. I have a portrait of him above my desk. I think my job is about putting humanity back into the centre of the ring; our school’s values are Respect, Honesty, Kindness, a set of values to which, I think, Joe Strummer would subscribe. I am very clear indeed about whose side I am on – the students’.

Being a headteacher is my way of inspiring young people and shaping the world; Strummer did the same thing but in a much more glamorous way! I tried playing guitar about four years ago and failed miserably, getting stuck at Yankee Doodle Dandy. My son Joe plays effortlessly, and even though he’s currently into rap, I sometimes hear the odd Clash riff emanate from his room.

There was/is nothing quite like being in the mosh-pit as the Clash began their set. The first live track I heard them play was Clash City Rockers. Those opening chords growled out across the Brighton Top Rank and the surge of energy was raw, elemental and purifying.

I still love the mosh even now; I saw From The Jam recently and lost my glasses through an elbow to the temple mid-way through Going Underground. I reckon Bruce Foxton must have been in middle-aged despair when my fellow-moshers stopped and helped locate my missing specs.

I last saw Strummer and The Mescaleros at the Leadmill in November 2002, the penultimate gig before he died. The band finished with White Riot and Strummer thanked us for coming. On the bootleg CD my southern-accented shout of Sttrrruuuuummmer! is clearly audible just before they begin White Man. I bored friends for a long time afterwards with that one.

My two sons quite like the Clash. We sometimes sing Stay Free together in the car, with me turning the sound down when Mick swears. When he was 12 I took Joe to Mick Jones’ Rock and Roll Public Library underneath the Westway, but the Portobello Market Rastafarians were a bit scary for him and he wanted to get back to the Apple shop in Oxford Street.

The trouble is, as Helen Love points out, The Clash were 30 years ago. My attempt to interest my boys in The Clash is the equivalent to my dad, in 1978, encouraging me to listen to Pee Wee Hunt’s 1948 hit Twelfth Street Rag. That said, when I hear London Calling blaring out in the sixth form common room my hope that my boys will like the Clash re-ignites!

Joe Strummer was never afraid of hard work. His mantra, No output without input, is the age-old parents’ moan at teenagers, You only get out what you put in, repackaged for the 70s punk generation. He probably worked his hardest on stage, with his Strumguard the only thing stopping him from bleeding to death from a hole in the arm. When I practised golf for seven hours a day, my hands bled and I strapped up my bloody fingers like Strummer did his arm.

This week one of our students, Luke, became for me the epitome of Strummer’s work ethic. Luke has always worked tirelessly; he is one of the most determined students I have ever encountered in my 25-year career. He commits himself to every initiative he undertakes and shows real grit when he meets with difficulties. Of anyone I have taught, Luke deserves to be successful.

Well, this week we heard he has secured a place to study at the University of Chicago; moreover, he has been awarded a scholarship in excess of $250,000! There is no output without input.

There has been a great deal about Strummer in the media this week. My favourite piece was Strummer and Me, a play by Colin MacDonald on Radio 4. There is a line at the end of the play that resonates: “He stood up, he spoke out. He wasn’t unique but he was some man and I am in his debt.”

For me, and thousands like me, he was no ordinary Joe.