Books

Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer

Edited by Antonio D'Ambrosio

Nation Books, $16.95

"In fact, punk rock means exemplary manners to your fellow human beings." Joe Strummer said that. And, as is pointed out in one of the many pieces selected for this collection about the former voice of the Clash, this philosophy will probably take a lot of people - punks included - by surprise. For these folks, punk is nothing if not a raised middle finger. But for Joe Strummer it was a do-it-yourself ethic intended to not just tear things down, but find a better way of living.

As the Clash's lead singer and primary lyricist, Strummer stood at the vortex of what proved to be the last best fusion of politics and art in the 20th century. The Clash was famously known as "the only band that matters." For once, record label hype actually rang true. The band, of course, flamed out and politics, in spite of the Clash's best efforts, didn't really improve. The art that remains, though, is still formidable.

Let Fury Have the Hour collects 25 essays and interviews that trace Strummer's trajectory from upstart snarler to icon. In the midst of what many saw as a career resurgence, Strummer died suddenly two years ago because of a heart condition. This loss overshadows the book.

For Strummer, by all accounts offered here, was that rare artist who was truly concerned about communicating with his audience. He genuinely believed that art could make a positive difference in peoples' lives and he was committed to breaking down as many of the barriers standing in the way of that as he could. He also had a tremendous appetite for different sounds from around the world, as well as for the history of struggles for liberation. These predilections helped him and his bandmates forge an aesthetic that elevated the Clash's music beyond easy categorization, giving it a stylistic sweep and depth that is still a model for the upside of global reach.

Strummer was an inspiration for people who came within the raspy sound of his voice. Luckily for this collection, more than a few of these turned out to be writers. This is a consistently well-chosen grouping including a nice mix of chestnuts like Lester Bangs' oft and justly reprinted account of travels with the Clash across England, as well as early raves by the likes of Mikal Gilmore and Greil Marcus. There are also more recent recollections by Amy Phillips on Strummer's influence on women in punk, Charlie Bertsch and Billy Bragg on the man's legacy and Not4Profit dealing with Strummer's inclusive way with different cultural currents.

There are several accounts of chance meetings where Strummer was gracious in a way not usually associated with public figures of any kind, let alone rock stars. This is both inspiring and sad - adjectives that describe this book's cumulative impact. Strummer was an artist that transcended his time. He was also a decent guy. The space he left behind is still vacant.

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