A Man of Principle

 Joe Strummer..... R.I.P (21.8.52 - 22.12.02)

THE FUNERAL (30.12.02)

" I can only speculate about the capacity of the West London Crematorium located in a corner of the wonderfully ramshackle cemetery off Harrow Road - possibly the first "commercial" burial ground in the capital. No doubt, though, that several hundred of us crammed into the building both to mourn the passing and celebrate the life of Joe Strummer. I had hesitated about making the trek through the driving rain from beneath "the Westway", immediately outside Ladbroke Grove tube station after the funeral cortege of six or seven cars had gone past several the dozen of us who gathered to bid farewell. A postal worker from Essex, a gay anti-militarist who had travelled from Edinburgh; a woman who immediately clocked me as soon as I exited the station and knew why I was there. We had been milling about, exchanging pleasantries and anecdotes for half an hour or so, sipping the occasional beer or the content of a spirits bottle until we collectively snapped to attention at the sight of the funeral hearse." Is that Paul in the front seat?"
Many of us stood numb, slightly disorientated, a German woman burst into tears and was inconsolable. Some shuffled towards the tube station; others sought shelter and a measure of comfort in the pub. But many of us moved inexorably past the canal towards the cemetery. Just as I went through the gates I caught sight of a woman with a boy of eight or nine in tow. As we splashed through puddles and trudged through mud, I struck up a conversation, having clocked the Clash badge on her coat. A swift rapport developed as we marched past the rows of graves with plinths and markers bearing Greek and Cyrillic inscriptions. The woman, named Jeanette, had been a Clash fanatic who somehow wound up a West London neighbour and confidante of Joe's during "the wilderness years". She remarked that "Joe would have loved this weather in this place - it would have reminded him of a Fellini film."While her son, Cameron, posed a number of questions we arrived at the edge of the crematorium to find an honour guard of some 30 to 40 fire fighters, members of the Fire Brigades Union, there in recognition of Joe's last London gig with The Mescaleros - a benefit for their increasingly bitter struggle with the New Labour government on 15 November 2002. To the side I spied four fire engines. The exterior of the crematorium was itself festooned with flags from nations around the globe, adding a bit of colour midst the otherwise bleak winter's day.By the time Jeanette, Cameron, I and a good few others entered the crematorium the funeral service had begun. The man presiding over the ceremony, which was secular, had a somewhat pompous delivery but a wonderfully resonant voice. He had the air of a Church of England vicar about, but referred to his earlier career as a professor of baroque music. He spoke at some length about Joe's remarkable career and his generosity before inviting Paul Simonon to the microphone to deliver a brief, entertaining anecdote about a summer's day in 1976 when he and Joe had gone to buy these amazingly trendy sunglasses just after Paul had been thrown off the dole and Joe had cashed his cheque from the Social. The tale was an illustration of Joe's generosity and culminated in the two of them strutting about in cool shades while having very little to eat for the ensuing week. Then came the first music - " White Man in Hammersmith Palais ". Some of us gently swayed to the coarse reggae, while others quietly sang along to one of Joe's most astonishing lyrics. Tears streamed down my cheeks and those of many others within my immediate field of vision. Two women, both Scottish and relatives of Joe's on his mother's side of the family, moved to the front. One of them attempted to speak about Joe but nearly broke down; the other read a striking poem, "Hallaig", by the Scots Gaelic bard Sorely MacLean - one of my favourite 20th century poets. She also alluded to Joe's love of the flora of the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye with which he became acquainted in the later years of his life. Another Strummer track followed: the voice was, of course, instantly recognisable though the tune was not initially. It proved to be " Coma Girl ", a song that he had recorded in Wales only days before his death and had been performing during a tour with The Mescaleros. By this stage, I felt as if I might be in some sort of trance; a man kindly distributed a card bearing a photo of Joe, presumably taken near the Somerset farmhouse where he had been living since the mid-1990s. The
dashed into the rain to ensure that the fire fighters, who had stood with such disciplined patience each received a copy, which on the back bore an image of Joe's notorious battered Telecaster.The next speaker was the US actor, Dick Rude, who had appeared with Joe in a couple of Alex Cox films and had been working on a documentary film about Joe and The Mescaleros in recent months. I found his speech, though heartfelt, rambling and disjointed. My attention wandered briefly until I heard the magical strains of " Willesden to Cricklewood " that segued with a Strummer-like sense of the absurd into the offbeat country song, " You can't roller-skate in a buffalo herd ". The vicar-like figure had in the meantime made a reference to the first law of thermodynamics, but I swiftly realised that my knowledge of physics was inadequate to judge if he knew his stuff. At the conclusion, actor Keith Allen read in a strong, clear voice the words Joe had penned for performance at the Nelson Mandela anti-AIDS benefit that had been scheduled for Robben Island, South Africa (the place of his imprisonment for nearly 30 years) on 02 February 2003. The words hit home and I thought that this counts as some of Joe's most potent poetry. We strode and shuffled variously out of the chapel to the sound of Lee Marvin's impossibly gruff, off-key bass tackling " Wandering Star " - a wondrously appropriate choice. I saw various acquaintances and comrades, including Geoff Martin, who had been the MC the night of the benefit gig at Acton Town Hall. We spoke briefly and agreed to meet at the Paradise bar............

 Jeanette, her partner, Cameron and I then set off for the wake at the Paradise, a slightly tarted up watering hole that featured a collecting box for the FBU behind the bar. I spoke briefly with Mick Jones and met his mother, showing prints of the shots I had taken on the night at Acton where he had, of course, appeared for the encores of " Bankrobber ", " White Riot " and " London's Burning " with Joe and the band. He asked for a set of prints, while the copies I had with me were given to Luce, Joe's widow. I even met a social worker (Joanne) from my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts, who had flown from Logan airport on Saturday to be at the funeral - and she struck me as a perfectly sane, decent person. Though I was only able to stay at the Paradise for little more than an hour, I drew consolation from the warmth of people who had gathered in an open and egalitarian way to commemorate the life of a man who had touched most of us quite deeply, however well we did or did not know him personally. Having initially hesitated about attending the funeral, I knew that I had made the right choice."
 

Peace and solidarity in 2003 - George Binette

 

(The author can be contacted on : grbinette@hotmail.com)
 
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