Sunday, 6 September 2015

Joe Strummer, we hardly knew ye

           A wave of melancholy swept over me when I played Joe Strummer’s version of The Minstrel Boy on SiriusXM last Saturday morning. It was the last song of my Celtic Crush show and I was in the midst of putting the studio in order for the next host.

I was surprised, to say the least, for though Joe was a friend and like many I mourned the passing of The Clash leader, still, that was over twelve years ago and life moves on.

            His Minstrel Boy featured prominently in the movie, Black Hawk Down. The song obviously lends itself to marital issues for I used it myself in Black 47’s Downtown Baghdad Blues. Then I remembered a night in Paddy Reilly’s back in the early 1990’s when we’d talked about the transforming power of old Irish melodies.

            Joe was familiar with a lot of Irish music and was aware of Thomas Moore who wrote The Minstrel Boy.

            The most famous Irish poet, singer, and songwriter of the 19th Century, Moore was a friend of Robert Emmet and Lord Byron. A diminutive bantam-cock of a man, Thomas Jefferson famously mistook him for a child, which probably led to Moore’s distaste for the slave-owning third president of the United States.

He cared little for Daniel O’Connell either dismissing the Liberator as a demagogue; nonetheless, Moore held an exalted place in Irish society, for The Minstrel Boy was the national anthem of its day – particularly to the millions forced to emigrate during the Great Hunger of the 1840’s.

There wasn’t an Irish saloon in the world where glasses were not raised to its soaring melody, while the toast was often a vow to return home and finally rout the perfidious English invader. The Irish on both sides in the American Civil War chanted its stormy lyrics and the Fenians sung it when invading Canada.

Without losing any of the song’s essence Strummer’s version is distinctly contemporary – dry-eyed and defiant; and as I listened I remembered the first night the Prince of Punk strolled into The Bells of Hell.

David Amram, Pierce Turner and I were gathered around Al Fields who was ripping it up on the perennially out-of-tune piano. Al was a fiery player, especially when fueled by a vodka-based concoction he labeled “kerosne.”

Strummer sidled into our group and without the least pretention joined in the raucous merry-making. He was enthralled by Al’s playing which was heavily steeped in Stride, Boogie-Woogie and other African-American styles.

Much later that night Al took me to one side and inquired if I’d ever heard of The Clash? Would they be like The Rolling Stones, he wondered. I told him that if one were to stretch a number of points there were indeed similarities.

This brought a mercenary gleam to Al’s eyes. He confided that Strummer had invited him to play on a track from the next Clash record and wondered if he might demand the then dizzying fee of $500. I told him to go for it but be prepared to accept $100 along with the glory.

The next night Al showed up ordering doubles of kerosene. He’d been paid “his worth,” he smirked, but he might have to see a doctor. Since he always stomped to the beat while playing, the producer had insisted he perform with his shoes off; consequently Al had strained an ankle. The dangers of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle!

All of these memories came flooding back as Joe’s brilliant reimagining of The Minstrel Boy washed over me in the sterile studio.

Given the quantities of kerosene I saw Al imbibe in both lean and flush times I doubt if he’s alive today. Thomas Moore is definitely long gone to meet his maker, but The Minstrel Boy lives on.

Joe Strummer walked away from The Clash when they were about to become the biggest band in the world. True to his Punk ideals he refused to be limited by other people’s expectations. Instead he swept the dust off a stagnant anthem and returned The Minstrel Boy to us – alive, vital, and dangerous – the way Thomas Moore always intended it to be.

Ah, Joe, we hardly knew ye.

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