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An Appreciation: Joe Strummer

Private school prefect who rocked the Casbah

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

By Desson Howe, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Joe Strummer wasn't Joe Strummer when I met him.

That was in the late 1960s, in England. He was John Mellor, a thin-lipped, sarcastic prefect sitting in his study. The younger students had big collective rooms for their homework. But prefects had private rooms, which they'd share with one or two senior colleagues. He was older than I was -- 17, I suppose. I was 11 or so, a new student at the City of London Freemen's School in Ashtead, Surrey, and a so-called "grub." I had been sent upstairs to summon him to "prayers," the boy boarders' nightly session of Our Fathers and so forth.

"It's prayers," I said, with no idea I had just transgressed the code. You never ran into a prefect's study unannounced. At this British private school, the prefects had an almost mullah-like presence. You had to do anything they told you. Some, I found to my distress, used that authority for physical and emotional cruelty. By blundering into his inner sanctum, I was asking for trouble.

Mellor looked up from his desk. Stared at the ridiculous "plebe" in school tie, short trousers and blazer before him. Curled his top lip and said: "Knock on the door, you crud."

I had to close the door and knock again. He waited a long time before telling me to enter. I opened the door and told him again.

"I bloody heard you the first time," he said.

Unlike the other prefects -- I can still see their dour expressions, pale skin, zip-up boots and pink shaving bumps -- Mellor had a fantastic, surrealistic and absurd sense of humor. And at the boarder gatherings, in which we stood in hushed, military lines before our housemaster, Mellor played to the gallery -- the grubs. We were so grateful. Prefects never gave us the time of day, except to beat us or force us to polish their shoes.

John Mellor was the one with the implied twinkle. Always playing pranks, mind games. Not as cruel as the others. Always funny. I suddenly remember that he once wore a T-shirt with a heart on it. It said: "In case of emergency, tear out." I never imagined how much it would hurt to think of that now.

"Howe, you're in for the high jump," he thundered one night, after catching me talking in the dormitory after lights out. I was shaking. Even Mellor could be like the rest of them, at times. This was going to hurt.

Solemnly, he made me stand in front of my bed. Withdrew a leather slipper from his foot and told me . . . to jump over my bed. End of punishment.

He used to make me sing the Rolling Stones' "Off the Hook." Every night. My voice hadn't broken yet. I sang it like a choirboy. ("Sittin' in my bedroom late last night," I squeaked.) It broke him up to hear my rendition.

He made me recite the names of the band members. Who plays bass? Bill Wyman, I told him. What about the drummer? Charlie Watts. Right, he said. Who's your favorite band? The Rolling Stones! Not the poxy Beatles.

In this POW camp of a place, John Mellor was my Hogan.

We had graduated by the late 1970s when we learned he had formed a group called the Clash and, even better, become punk rock's hard-sweating leader. And he'd changed his name to Strummer. Joe Strummer. What a laugh.

But what music he played! Bloody brilliant. Forget the Sex Pistols -- they were just a spitting, guitar-thrashing Kings Road gimmick. The Clash were the real kings. "London Calling" was, and remains, one of the great rock albums of all time. Come on. Sing with me now: "Rudie can't fail, oh-no!"

After he left school, I didn't see John for years. My family immigrated to America in the 1970s, so I followed "Joe Strummer" along with the rest of his American fans. Formed a band in 1979 with my friend Ken Cobb, who had become a big fan of the Clash. One of our cover songs was "London Calling."

I talked my way backstage at a Clash concert in the late 1970s, when they played at the Ontario Theater on Columbia Road. There he was, with that curled lip again. He didn't seem to remember me that well. But he was gracious. And I met the other members of the band: Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Topper Headon. Bo Diddley was walking around backstage as well. Thick fingers festooned with rings. Bloody hell, I thought. John Mellor's got Bo Diddley opening for him!

And then came the most meaningful reunion of all. It was just last October at the 9:30 club, when Ken and I went to watch Joe Strummer and his last band, the Mescaleros, kick off their American tour.

He played such sublime music from his latest album, "Global a Go-Go," a world-music-loving classic of its own. From the new album, the high point was "Bhindi Bhagee," a lovely song with South African-style lead guitar, about a bloke from New Zealand who comes to the singer's neighborhood searching for a restaurant that serves the quintessentially Brit dish, mushy peas. And he played almost every classic a Clash and Strummer fan could ask for.

I realized what was so great about his songs: He didn't care if they made sense. They were beautifully, achingly personal. You got him or you didn't. We got him, all right. And we were lucky enough to get backstage and meet him afterward.

Someone pulled a curtain back, and there he was again. Older. Wiser. And now he seemed to remember me. No more curled lip -- he was smiling. He'd taken off his shirt because he was so hot. We sat there with him for hours, just talking. Others came around too, including Ian MacKaye of Fugazi. And I realized in a palpable way, he wasn't my John Mellor. He was everyone's Joe Strummer.

With other well-wishers, we migrated to another room, drank and spoke about so many things. I told him everything I could remember about the old days at Freemen's. He laughed. Joked into my ear.

Finally, it was time to go. Our wives probably thought we were dead. I handed Joe my card. He told me to visit him at his farmhouse one day. Beautiful countryside. Shame about the telephone towers. It wasn't going to happen, the visit. But it was a heady thought. I imagined seeing him at his front door, a straw in his mouth, Wellington boots on. Waving.

That's where he died Sunday. At home with his wife, Lucinda, and his three daughters. Whom I've never met. I can sense a powerful, silent wave of appreciation from fans around the world.

Maybe Ken and I will raise more than one single-malt whisky to Joe, to John, and to whoever he's become. We'll play the music, of course. Talk to other fans. That's what you do. I don't care if I don't go to another concert again, Ken said Saturday night, the night before John died. It'll be nothing compared with our night with Joe Strummer. Bloody well right, mate. Bloody well right.

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