Joe Strummer and Selling Out
I was at the old Chicago Comicon back in 1989, walking the corridors of the old Ramada-O’Hare hotel with my old pal Timothy Truman when an intense fan grabbed Tim by the arm.
“How could you,” the fan said, and I paraphrase. “How could you sell out?” He sported a gaze of disappointment and hostility. Tim didn’t ask what he was talking about. He knew. He had started supplementing his income by working for “the majors” – at that time, DC Comics. Not that First Comics and Eclipse Comics were any less corporate with many of the evils associated therewith; DC and Marvel were just bigger and better at it.
“Hey, I wanted to do a tribute to Gar Fox,” Timothy replied, and I continue to paraphrase. “I liked doing it.”
The fan staggered off muttering about things like big business and working for the man and such. I’m about as Red Cat as they come in comics (with the probable exception of Mark Badger), but I understood one thing: if you want to work on a corporate-owned character, you’re going to have to work for the corporation, and (as Martha Thomases noted earlier today) by their rules. That’s how gravity works.
I thought of that story from 18 years ago as I was watching Julien Temple’s new documentary about musician Joe Strummer, The Future Is Unwritten. Truman and Strummer have a lot in common. Both are musicians. Both are artists. Both are writers. Both are quite comfortable expressing their personal beliefs. Both are among the best at their game.
Strummer, in case you didn’t know, was the honcho of The Clash. I won’t get into the “who’s the most important punk rock band ever” debate, or the “what is punk” debate. When pressed (which isn’t often), I usually say “the MC5” and let it go at that. But The Clash was highly influential. And they kicked serious ass with a strong political point of view.
Ultimately, The Clash broke up and Strummer went into a short depressive tailspin, brilliantly revealed in Temple’s documentary. The hardcore fans, of course, wanted The Clash back and doing pretty much the exact same thing they had been doing for a decade. So when Strummer found what he really wanted to be doing at that moment in his life – solo work and, most notably, Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros – some of those hardcore fans accused him of selling out simply because he didn’t continue the exact same political beat of The Clash.
That’s the difference between a Performer and an Artist. You don’t have to like the Artist and you can miss the Performer, but at the very least you should respect the Artist’s commitment to self-expression in real time.
Strummer died in late 2002. His death was noted in punk and rock circles, but since he died of natural causes (congenital heart failure; that which did Bobby Darin in) the media glossed over his passing.
Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is a brilliant look at the artist-as-human. If you like his work or that of The Clash, so much the better. But even if you haven’t heard of him, check out this movie. I’m sure it’ll be playing on IFC; they released it here in the States.