We arrived at the Middle East and went inside. The party had already started but you could tell people had been keeping one eye on the door, because when we walked in, everyone turned and stared. Some people came over to talk to Joe and I went off to find my friends Jay and Robyn. The place was packed. It seemed as if the whole room was half pretending to have conversations and half watching Joe's every move. He meant a lot to the crowd in that room.
Everyone was polite at first and gave him time to get a drink, say hi to friends. Then they began to slowly pounce. A loose circle formed around Joe as people informally lined up to talk to him. Robyn, Jay and I hung in the back, watching. It was amazing to see all these tough guys, with tattoos and muscles to spare, become like kids in front of Joe. Smiling nervously, showing him pictures, telling him stories, hanging on to his every word. And he was so gracious. He touched them on the arm, looked straight into their eyes. He was truly interested in everyone. I have seen many people fake being nice to their fans, go through the motions. I've also seen a lot of people not even bother. Joe was not a fake. He never rushed them, he asked questions. He really fucking cared. I remember a bunch of people, including Todd from H2O, showing him their Clash tattoos, which is one thing Joe seemed a bit overwhelmed by. There were a lot of fucking people with Clash tattoos. I don't think he expected that.
At some point, when the crowd lightened up, Joe spotted me in the corner and came over. I introduced him to Robyn and Jay and they talked for a bit. Jay took a picture of me and Joe and Robyn took a picture of Jay and Joe. This was probably not the best idea. Once people saw the picture-taking commence, everyone wanted one. People rushed over with cameras and it got pretty claustrophobic. I pushed away from the crowd and ran into Joe's manager. He and Lucinda were looking kind of nervous. He grabbed me. "Listen, I think this is a bit much for Joe, he hasn't done this in awhile. It's getting kind of crazy. We're gonna bail and go to another bar. You should come, but I'm asking you not to bring anyone else. We want to keep the crowd down. I guess there's a VFW hall around the corner, so we're going there. You know where it is?" I nodded.
"Okay, meet us there in a little while. Make it casual. Don't bring anyone though, okay?"
I finished my drink and found Robyn and Jay. I told them what Joe's manager said. Jay had work in the morning and was getting ready to bail anyway. They left and I wandered off to find the VFW hall.
I got there the same time as everyone else and we all walked in together. There were a few veterans sitting at the bar. It was a long hall filled with cafeteria-style tables and bright with fluorescent lighting. As we were filing in, someone asked the bartender - "Okay if we drink here?" The bartender, an elderly black man, glanced over at the couple bottles of alcohol behind the bar.
"Sure, as long as I have alcohol left." Then he took a long look at us.
"I know who you are. You..." He pointed to Dicky and some of the Bosstones.
"You're all in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. And you..." He pointed at Joe.
"Well, you're Joe Strummer from the band the Clash. I don't know what you're doing in my hall on a weeknight in the middle of Cambridge, but welcome." He said this very casually, and turned back to pouring a drink.
We all sat down at the tables. There were quite a few people there considering the attempts to keep it small. I talked to Julie Kramer and Angie C, two disc jockeys from WFNX, and Tim's brother Paul. Joe sat at the other end of the table. Kevin from the Shods, who was an obsessed Clash fan as any other (I had once heard about him smashing a bottle over someone's head at a party after the person complained that they should shut off the Clash), sat next to Joe. Kevin took up most of Joe's ear for the next hour or so. The next day Julie and Angie joked on the radio that Kevin was practically sitting in Joe's lap. Joe didn't seem to mind, though.
The crowd thinned out and they turned the lights down. It was getting late and everyone was pretty well lubricated. The bartender went in the back and opened a set of doors. There was a room in there, with a dancefloor, a little stage and a disco ball. There was a DJ booth. Who would have thought? Tim and I went back to check it out. He said, "Man, this would be a great place to have little bands play, you know? Like punk bands just starting out? We should talk to this guy about promoting shows here." He went over to talk to the VFW guy.
Someone put music on and turned on the disco ball and colored lights. Joe came in with some people and everyone started to dance. He was trashed. He was spinning around and boogeying and dancing up a storm. He was getting belligerent - "Come on you fuckers, dance!!" He was grabbing everyone, swinging them around. Everyone was laughing. It had to have been nearly 5 in the morning.
I stood against the wall and watched for a long time. The weed had worn off long ago and I was drowsy and warm from the alcohol. The lights were flashing off the disco ball. I was standing in a VFW hall in Massachusetts watching Joe Strummer and a bunch of drunken rockers whoop it up and dance away the night to blaring pop music. It was a brilliant sight. I took a deep breath and one long last look, emblazoned the scene onto my eyes, into memory. I turned, and without saying goodbye to anyone, walked up the stairs and out into the cool dawn light.
The next morning I overslept. I'd set my alarm cause Tim said maybe we'd have breakfast with Joe. It never went off and I grabbed my phone as soon as I saw the time. I had three messages from Tim. He was taking Lucinda and Joe record shopping and they wanted me to come. Where was I? They were doing the photo shoot and Tim needed me to help hold stuff. Wake the fuck up. They were going to be hanging out for awhile, I could still make it. I called Tim. "Yeah, you missed it. I just dropped them off at the hotel. They're leaving later today." Now I'd not only missed having lunch with Joe, but I fucked up getting to go record shopping with him. I knew I'd regret that for a long time, but that's the way things go. I thought of the previous night and smiled. It was a perfect night anyway and I'd always have that. I went back to sleep.
The issue of Rude International with Joe on the cover and Tim's interview sold out in about a week. It was our top-selling issue, we had absolutely none left. People really dug it, which made me happy.
A few years later I was living back in NY and Joe's new band the Mescaleros came to town. As luck would have it, my friends The Slackers were opening for them at Irving Plaza. I went down early and was able to catch soundcheck. It was the first time I heard Joe's voice through a live soundsystem. I was born in 1977, robbed of the chance to see the Clash through the fate of showing up in the world a little too late. But as soon as I heard Joe sing, with the Mescaleros' muscle backing him, it didn't matter so much. I knew it was probably nothing like seeing the Clash in full force, but it was my little piece of glitter anyway.
The show was packed to the hilt, as it was the first time in many years that Joe played New York, and among others in attendance were the Beastie Boys, Matt Dillon, Joey and CJ Ramone, Tim Armstrong. The crowd, I was happy to see, was mostly full of older Clash fans, trading war stories, anxious to see Joe perform again. The Slackers played a tight, energetic set, revving up the crowd and turning up the heat. I was front row center (where the fuck else) when the Mescaleros burst onto the stage.
The show was amazing, half Clash songs, half Mescaleros material. The crowd went wild and I had to bail out from the front after getting smashed in the head too many times by over-enthused men flailing their meaty arms about. My little brother came with me. I had gotten him a photo pass and he took pictures in the pit next to Bob Gruen. He was 18 and as a proper older sister, I had raised him on the Clash. It was a great experience for him.
After the show, it was off to Niagra, a bar on Ave A in the East Village. Tim Armstrong, BJ Papas (the rock photographer), Chris LaSalle from Hellcat Records, Joey and CJ Ramone, Johnny from Clowns for Progress (who co-owns Niagra), a lot of people were there. Someone took a picture of Tim, Joe, Joey, and BJ that ended up in Rolling Stone the next month. I sat down at the bar with Vic Ruggiero and Marcus Geard from the Slackers and Agent Jay (Stubborn All Stars, King Django). Jay had played with the Slackers that night.
We were pretty wasted by the time Joe made his entrance. He came roaring in, stinking drunk, hugging everyone. "Hello! Hello!" He came over to Vic, Marcus and Jay. "The Slackers!" He yelled, and hugged them. He practically threw them on the ground. "You guys were fabulous, amazing. Such a great show! You know," He said, more seriously, "I was really nervous tonight before I went on. I thought - man, I can't fucking do this. I don't know if I can pull this off. And then I went out to watch you. And you guys were so wonderful, the energy, the music, it was so incredible. It made me happy and it gave me strength, and I thought, I can do this. When I saw you, I wasn't nervous anymore. I couldn't wait to get out there and play."
The guys were caught off guard at Joe's outburst, his enthusiasm. They shook his hand. "Thanks, man!" Joe spotted me. "Hey there."
"Hey, I'm Margo, we met... I dunno if you remember..."
"Of course I do! In Boston! How are you? Great to see you!" Big hug. We were old friends.
Joe carried on like this for awhile, tumbling all over everyone. He was shouting, everyone was shouting. Joe's energy was infectious. It got pretty rowdy and after awhile Lucinda came in to fetch Joe. She was kind with him, but firm. "Come on Joe, everyone's going back to the hotel. We have to go with them, they need the keys. Say goodbye, let's go."
"I want to stay!!" It was pretty obvious Joe had a bit too much to drink. Lucinda was smart, if she left him with us, we'd have egged him on all night. After a bit of prodding, Lucinda finally corralled Joe and dragged him off to the hotel, but not without sloppy hugs all around and shouts of "Goodnight! Goodbye!" from Joe. When he was gone, we all giggled and continued drinking late into the night.
I saw Joe play with the Mescaleros two more times. Once in Boston, and then again in NY. Each show was a different experience, each a great live set. After I heard of Joe's passing, I didn't listen to any of his music for a few days. I thought it would be very hard to let something that had always filled me with so much joy, for the first time fill me with so much sadness. Last night I went to a tribute night at a bar in NYC. They showed a film of one of the Mescaleros performances in Brooklyn from a few months ago. Afterwards they popped on the Clash video collection and Agent Jay spun reggae. Watching the performance and videos, I realized how incredibly lucky we were to have this man's life so well documented, for us to have been part of his world, and he part of ours.
Most of the music out there today is banal and useless. Even the stuff that's passably witty, the stuff you can shake your ass to and have a good time, is really nothing more in the end than a fleeting laugh. Little of it means anything. None of it has the power to change the world. We have lost many of the people who did change the world. Joey Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, to name just a few. They changed the way we think, the way we felt. They affected us so deeply that they were, at their best, able to unite people across class, geographical, and racial divides.
Music is one of the most potent mediums of expression we have. It has gotten to the point where all we seem to be able to express is our desire for sex, money, and expensive commodities. The NY rock scene has become a parody, a circus of designer clothing, designer drugs, and designer personalities. Calling bands like the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs the torchbearers of the Velvets/ Television/ Voidoids/ Dolls/ Ramones era NY music scene is a fucking insult to the original scene. The scene that only ever got any mainstream recognition within the last few years, when everyone started taking notice that half the bands on the Top 40 lists were citing these bands as their main influences.
Most of these bands never saw any money, little fame. Sum 41 probably made more money last year than Johnny Thunders or Dee Dee Ramone ever made in their lifetimes. If all it takes nowadays is putting together a passable melody, looking fashionably anorexic, and dying your hair black to be a renowned band, well that's a damn shame. But these people will never light a fire around the world like the Ramones, the Clash, and the Beatles did. These people will never show alienated kids who feel scared and alone that they have a voice. That even if they don't have the right clothes, don't come from a happy, well-to-do family, don't look like the models in the magazines, it doesn't mean they aren't worth anything. That they can make a difference.
Right now, when we most need it, we get nothing from our musicians on any topic other than who's a hater, who's a player, and what they were wearing when they did it. The Clash truly were, as they say, "the only band that mattered". Joe was in many ways the beating heart of that band. Ever since his heart stopped suddenly on December 22, the silence has been deafening.
-- December 31, 2002