Joe Strummer's Last Call and What NYC Musicians Could Learn
by Marc Ribot
photo: Peter Gannushkin
Many here mourned the death last December of Joe Strummer. The former
Clash guitarist, a true voice of punk resistance, died in London from a
congenital heart disease at age 50. Virtually unreported in the US media was
Strummer's history of support for labor, including his recent work with the
Fire Brigades Union during their fight for a decent national contract.
The firefighters showed their gratitude in turn at Strummer's funeral- the
procession down Ladbroke Grove was led by a firetruck. As his body was
carried into the chapel, twelve uniformed members of London's Fire Brigades
stood guard in silent tribute.
Andy Gilchrist, the 39-year-old head of the Fire Brigades Union, was a
Clash fan, and claimed to have been first politicized at their 'Rock Against
Racism' concert in 1978. Eighty thousand people showed up at that concert in
Hackney, a working class neighborhood of East London, to show their disgust
at the National Front racist affiliations of certain established British
rock figures, and to rock to the Clash.
But the firefighters' prescence at Strummer's funeral wasn't just
nostalgia: Gilchrist has gone on to lead the first U.K. union to seriously
challenge the anti-labor policies of Tony Blair's deceptively titled "New
Labor" government. In mid November 2002, Strummer played a solidarity benefit
for the union at Acton Town Hall. Former Clash bandmate Mick Jones also
showed up- their first reunion performance in 19 years- and joined Strummer
for the encore,"London's Burning." As he left the stage, Strummer shouted-
"Give 'em money. And give the nurses and the teachers money too."
Strummer's final public shout, and the solidarity performance that
preceded it, were broadcast again and again on UK television following his
death. Although the negotiations are still unresolved, the support of
Strummer and other musicians has been critical in generating publicity and
political support for the union.
The musicians playing NYC's clubs and concert venues are well situated
to play a similarly constructive role here. Benefit concerts, public
statements of support by well known musicians, the extension of discounted
club and concert tickets to striking union members- all could go a long way
towards ending the isolation imposed on workers in labor conflicts by an
almost exclusively anti-union local press.
Of course, many of the musicians who could potentially participate are
royaltied recording artists. If the AFM wants to ask for the solidarity of
these musicians, it could begin by extending a bit of solidarity of its own
by ending the shameful lack of protection for royaltied artists in the
current American Federation of Musicians phono agreement contracts (under the current phono agreements,
royaltied artists receive only one session payment per song, a pittance in an
era when artists may work on a 12-song cd for months and over 90 percent of artists never recoup any artist royalties. Incredibly, artists
working under union contract can often be ordered by the record company into
unlimited revisions of songs without being entitled to any additional pay).
The union could redesign the health and pension plans to reflect the needs of
royaltied artists, and unite with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists to make sure that all band members are represented under benefit plans.
The solidarity of royaltied artists might also come in handy closer
to home if the union ever hopes to solidify its strength in the recording
field. But solidarity has to involve real mutual support, not just its
Rock artists too, are often masters of the gesture. Many prefer the
ubiquitous and easily marketed gesture of resistance to the risks of actually
connecting with the world.
Joe Strummer was a musician, recording artist, and rock rebel whose
opposition went beyond hollow rhetoric, phony gestures of resistance, and a
rad haircut. We could use more like him.
This article was written for the Local 802 paper Allegro and
will appear in an upcoming issue.
It was based in part on an interview with Chris Salewicz, author of Punk :
The Illustrated History of a Music Revolution.