“Gates of the West” in the East Village Celebrating Joe Strummer, The Clash at benefit concert
August 25, NEW YORK, NY – There’s this story about Joe Strummer from the band’s 1980 show in San Francisco, right on the heels of a grueling UK tour for London Calling. This was The Clash’s breakthrough album for the U.S. market, and Joe, the story goes, was distressed about the setup in the 2200-seat theater the band was set to play. It was a couple of hours before doors, and Joe wanted the manager to remove the seats up front. “Don’t you see,” he said, “people will fuckin’ destroy those chairs, rip ’em right out. They come here to dance, and that’s what they’re gonna do. I don’t wanna see kids smashed up against the stage in front of me just because there’s not enough room to dance.”
The manager pointed out that people had purchased tickets for seats, so what happens if they get to the venue and they’re upset that there are no seats? Not to mention, these seats are bolted down, and there’s not enough time to remove them. But Joe was not deterred. “You tell ’em Joe Strummer took ’em out so they could dance. If they’re upset, we’ll give ’em a free T-shirt or somethin.'” He even offered to help the crew remove the chairs. The manager relented, the front rows of chairs were removed, the show went on — and many more after that.
“Tough but tender” — that was the subtitle of the 1980 Rolling Stone article recounting this story. I never got to experience one of The Clash’s live shows, but I believe this description.
Last Christmas, a friend gave me a book filled with evocative black-and-white photos of The Clash as captured by Pennie Smith, each image accompanied by clever captions from the band members. The photos span the spectrum. Some show the guys on stage; in others, they pose for portraits — fiery passion and aloof coolness. Then there are the offstage, everyday captures — Joe sewing a button onto his shirt, Paul hunched over bowl of chili at the diner counter. What’s extraordinary about these moments is how ordinary they are. Through Smith’s photos, I see how Joe Strummer really was that guy who would have willingly gotten down on hands and knees to help unbolt rows of seats so that the kids would have room to dance.
These are the stories that every fan longs to be a part of, and the moments that every photographer longs to capture. But the digital age has strip-mined the landscape of documentation. Everyone at shows has smartphones (unless Jack White has locked yours in a Yondr pouch), and every band produces a constant stream of behind-the-scenes Instagram stories at their publicists’ urging. Content is quickly generated and just as quickly discarded.
The same brave new world confronts music-makers themselves. Spotify is emblematic of the increasingly attenuated connection between musician and fan, and between songcraft and the compensation necessary to make this a sustainable venture. And it comes amidst what feels like the disintegration of the democratic experiment, as executive orders are issued via tweets and the sheep vote for the wolf that promises to eat them.
In such mad times — a state of the union that Jesse Malin adroitly captures in “Fox News Funk” — the need for punk rock both as art and ethos is greater than ever. As Joe once said, “people can change anything they want to.” The belief in this indomitable human spirit and the need for community was made evident by the crowd that packed into Bowery Ballroom on Saturday night to witness an all-star roster of musicians who, like the audience, seemed to be having a helluva good time as they played into the wee hours.
The benefit show, styled “Gates of the West,” was in part a birthday party in memory of Joe Strummer, who would have turned 66 this year. A year ago, Jesse Malin and Jeff Raspe (music director at NPR-affiliate WBJB) had this idea — why not gather some friends to play Clash songs and raise money for a good cause? Summer Strummerjam was born, with all proceeds going to the Joe Strummer Foundation, which supports musicians and music programs, and Music & Memory, which provides music therapy to help folks struggling with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive challenges reconnect with music-triggered memories.
Saturday night started off with Mercy Union, a new four-member band headed by Jared Hart of The Scandals and Benny Horowitz of The Gaslight Anthem, who warmed up the crowd with a preview of their propulsive rock. Uni took the stage next, channeling the spirit of Bowie with Jack James’s iridescent delivery bookended by Charlotte Kemp Muhl (bass) (who, along with Sean Lennon, forms The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger) and David Strange (guitar).
Jesse Malin & band — Derek Cruz (guitar), Catherine Popper (bass), Randy Schrager (drums), Christine Smith (keys), Danny Ray and Indofunk Satish (horns) — played a full set that bridged the punk abandon of The Replacements with lyrical narratives of drifters and dreamers. Liza Colby and Kia Warren added harmonies, and in a moment of mischief, Jesse took off his signature newsboy cap and placed it on Cat, who played on, brim of hat obscuring her eyes.
The trio of openers would by themselves have comprised an excellent show, and the evening was only getting started. The two-hour set of Clash songs that followed featured a list of guest artists that barely fit on a single page — the setlist is below, and it included Tommy Stinson (The Replacements), Cait O’Riordan (The Pogues), H.R. (Bad Brains), Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie), and Binky Griptite (The Dap-Kings), all backed by Jesse’s band, blazing their way through The Clash catalog.
After the show, some of the guest performers shared memories of The Clash. Kris Gruen recalls running about town at 2am trying to keep up with his his dad (photographer Bob Gruen) and Joe — the latter told Kris that the night is always young. Felice Rosser weaves a beatnik poet-esque narrative that starts with sitting in the recording studio listening to Topper putting down fills for “Tommy Gun.” Willie Nile, Drew Stone, and Matty Hoboken also mused about what this music means to them.
These are special stories. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Drew Stone: The Clash were in town playing a really small venue so me and a bunch of my juvenile delinquent trouble-making punk / skinhead friends went down to hang around and see if we could sneak in. The show was long since sold out and besides we didn’t have any money.
As the band started playing we could hear the opening chords of “London Calling” drifting out from the venue. At that moment the road manager for The Clash, Kosmo Vinyl, approached us and asked why we weren’t inside. We told him our situation and he told us to follow him. He walked up to the people that were running the front door and launched into a tirade demanding that we ALL be let into the show for free because “These are the real people that should be inside seeing The Clash, these are OUR people.”
After he threatened to pull the plug on the show, they let us into the venue and we proceeded to tear it up and have a great time. I’ll never forget it for as long as I live, and to this day, when I have a film screening for one of my films or if we are playing a show, I always go outside right before it starts to see what juvenile delinquents might be loitering about and get them into the venue. It’s fucking important to me that they are in the show. Like Joe Strummer said: “Without people, you’re nothing.”
Willie Nile: In the present era of spineless leaders and jackboot wannabes, it’s comforting to think of Joe Strummer and The Clash and listen to the music that they made. It continues to give me faith that things will get better. They are beacons of light in a too often dark world. Long may they reign!
Felice Rosser: When I was working at CBS Records in Paris in 1978, super boss Jenny Bier suggested I go to London to see The Clash play at Hammersmith Odeon, and by the way, stop by the studio where her friend Sandy was producing “Give Em Enough Rope.” Uh, yes, okay.
I bought a six-pack of beer for the band, went, introduced myself to Sandy Pearlman, engineer Corky Staziak, Mick, Joe, Paul, and Topper. I sat on a couch in the control room watching Topper put down the tom fills for “Tommy Gun.”
I danced to a reggae song with Paul, and asked Mick out on a date. He said, “I barely know you,” and declined. Still, I was happy. Joe was very focused, he said hello and shook my hand, then went to the lounge to work on words. It was my first time inside a recording studio. Sitting on the couch, trying to be cool, listening to Topper do those tom fills over and over again. I think I drank the whole six-pack myself.
Oh, and yes, the killer show at Hammersmith the next day. The minibar in my hotel room that I didn’t touch for some reason. Bringing all this with me to celebrate Joe at Bowery Ballroom Saturday night: London. Grosvenor House. Lager and lime. Gin and tonic. Dunhills or Kents. Fish and chips. Pickled onions. Ladbroke Grove. Endless tea. Got any Rizzla? Roll your own. Love and light. Love you always, Joe.
Matty Hoboken: Joe’s music with The Clash changed the course of my life — no doubt about about it. My first band, The Fundamentals, used to cover a bunch of songs from London Calling, and when we got signed to MCA and ultimately dropped, I felt first-hand the truth and struggle that is expressed in songs like “Complete Control.” It was a joy and thrill to get to sing his words and share the positive musical experience with Jesse and co. His spirit is alive — rock on!
Kris Gruen: I have several memories of Joe, Mick and the band — earliest of which from the band’s formative visits to NYC when I was just four years old. My dad had fallen in love with them immediately and become good friends with Joe at that time.
They were nice and deeply inspired guys, which matters to little kids, and easily detected by little kids when the spirit is genuine. I can tell you my instinct was just as sharply tuned for the degenerate junkies, wannabe posers, and opportunistic bums that haunted the scene in those days. Joe and his band were joyful and full of true power.
I would often see Joe at 2 am, when I was tired as hell from trying to keep up with Dad all over town. Joe always told me to stop complaining and get it together. He said I needed an immunity to whatever ailed me, that all nights are always young, and hanging out and connecting with as many people as possible was the gig.
At this year’s Gates Of The West, Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello made a last minute appearance. He told me about the time he met Joe, right where we were standing in the stairway backstage at the Bowery Ballroom. His eyes were wide and shining, and he listened as much as he talked, and at the end of our conversation, he slapped me on the shoulder and demanded,
more than suggested, “Stay strong, brother!”
That was the spirit right there. Joe is invoked by those of us he shaped — pure, infectious rock ‘n roll leadership. We’ll be doing our best to keep it up.
UK friends: Gates of the West heads to London later this week. Jesse & friends will be playing at Dingwalls on 7 September. Special guests will include Craig Finn and Tad Kubler (The Hold Steady), and Joey and Jakob Armstrong (SWMRS, Mt. Eddy).
A handful of tickets are still available here. The show is sold out, but a second London date (18/9 with Chuck Prophet) has been added. The full list of UK/EU show dates is here.
Gates of the West – Bowery Ballroom – Setlist
1. Coma Girl – Jesse Malin
2. Lovers Rock – Cait O’Riordan (The Pogues)
3. Hateful – Tommy Stinson (The Replacements)
4. Lost In the Supermarket – Tommy Stinson
5. Complete Control – Matty Hoboken
6. I Fought the Law – Frank Iero (My Chemical Romance) + Evan Nestor
7. Safe European Home – Drew Stone
8. I Am Not Down – Liza Colby + Kia Warren
9. Gates of the West – Jesse Malin
10. The Equalizer – Felice Rosser + Susan Mitchell
11. Janie Jones – Kris Gruen
12. White Man – Joe Hurley
13. Should I Stay Or Should I Go – Uni
14. Brand New Cadillac – Don DiLego
15. Rock the Casbah – Amanda Cross
16. Police & Thieves – HR (Bad Brains)
17. White Riot – Matty Carlock
18. Johnny Appleseed – Eugene Hutz (Gogol Bordello)
19. London Calling/Brand New Cadillac – Nufolk Rebel Alliance (Pedro Erazo of Gogol Bordello & Leo Minimum Tek of Outernational)
20. Stay Free – Jesse Malin
21. I’m So Bored With the USA – Acacia (The Advertisers)
22. Groovy Times – Joseph Arthur
23. Straight to Hell – Binky Griptite (The Dap-Kings)
24. Hitsville UK – Cat Popper
25. Guns of Brixton – Jared Hart (Mercy Union)
26. Tommy Gun – RB Korbet
27. Police On My Back – Willie Nile + Johnny Pi
28. Train in Vain – Adam Weiner (Low Cut Connie)
29. Armageddon Time – Steve Wynn
30. Keys To Your Heart – Suzi Gardner (L7)
31. Rudie Can’t Fail – Jesse/all