Here’s someone I was sad to see go (in 2002). Joe Strummer, born this day in 1952 as John Mellor, was the main voice of The Clash and more or less its primary figurehead. Though, truth to tell, I preferred to see the band as a real band (and perhaps it was for a time) with Strummer and Mick Jones providing intertwined leadership. Strummer, though, was the one spouting most of the ideological stances that were part and parcel of The Clash view. But today I mainly want to pay tribute to him as a vocalist.
Which is why I’ve chosen a song, from the first of the six sides of Sandinista!, that was cribbed by Strummer and company from older versions of the song dating back decades. The song “Junco Partner,” or some variant thereof, is primarily in the voice of an inveterate down-and-outer—a familiar of prisons, drugs, shady deals, and, we might say, one helluva survival instinct. While not sporting any references to how politics is corrupt—both on the right and the left—or how our culture raises its airy head thanks to thugs and bombs that do our leaders’ bidding (areas The Clash generally liked to get into), “Junco Partner” puts out there—on the street—a vision of what it’s like to scrape by in the underclass. Both “subterranean”—as in The Beats—and subaltern, as in the indigenous anywhere the colonizers took all the best stuff for themselves. Which is why one feels a certain island style to the song—one suspects that the version The Clash is cribbing most closely comes with cajun flavoring. Indeed, the reference to “Angola” is the Louisiana State Penitentiary—one of the most dismal in the country—where Lead Belly was discovered by Alan Lomax. The line “I was born in Angola / Serving 14 to 99” carries the grim realities of the song lightly. An early death—at 14—is contrasted with “a life sentence”—99 years. We might assume we’re dealing with the child of an inmate, literally born in prison, or, more metaphorically, imprisoned by the conditions of a life that might be cut brutally short or extend forever. Existential prison, in other words.
The song has long been my favorite Strummer vocal because he does things with it that are wholly unpredictable, sometimes unintelligible. He mutters, he gasps, he chortles, he rasps, he drawls and cajoles and dances about the beat, keeping his eye on the bouncing ball. The song, in The Clash version, is a strut, an in-your-face proclamation and confession (“I would’ve pawned my sweet Gabriella / But the smart girl, she wouldn’t sign her name”) that fantasizes raising tobacco (i.e., being a big plantation owner) and admits to pawning everything, having once “had me a great deal of money”—the implication is that the “junco partner” has lost everything for the sake of “junk.” Yet the speaker is unabashed—and Strummer provides him an amusing voice with asides like “take a walk, take a walk” and “don’t bother me.” He begins by denigrating what we assume is his most recent sentence—6 months to a year, “ain’t no time”—since the harsh realities of his existence are a far worse punishment.
The song concludes with a variation on lines found in various other blues songs in one form or another: Let me eat when I’m hungry, let me drink when I’m dry—though here the sentiment is altered to “pour me out a good beer when I’m dry / Just, just give me whiskey when I’m thirsty / Give me headstone when I die.” The play on “giving head” is deliberate as we might assume this last verse is the speaker demanding a list of pleasures for their own sake—drink and sex, fine. But instead the notion of the inevitable end, bound up with junk, provokes the notion that “headstone” better suits the occasion. Strummer trails off on a “down the road” that refers back to the opening (“down the road, down the road, came a junco partner”) but also comments on when the headstone will be needed: down the road, which is to say, eventually.
More than anything, the song is a groove, as The Clash present it, matching the dub and reggae aspects of the album to something that might be a more straightforward blues. This gives the song its oddly bright, sly, and grinning indifference to its speaker’s dereliction. Many songs on Sandinista! champion the underdogs and the outcasts, and “Junco Partner” infuses all that with a sense of mercurial possibility, if only because one is “knocked out loaded, loaded, loaded, loaded, loaded / Wobbling all over the street.”
Strummer’s vocals in The Clash are something I prize greatly, full of a performative edge that’s both passionate and amused, it seems to me. The stance is of one perennially outside the mainstream and enjoying the vantage, despite the shittiness of the surroundings. Those dealing the hand always have the upper hand, but you can always sing while you slave. Let Joe Strummer show you how.