John Graham Mellor would have turned 65 on August 21, and around the world, fans have been celebrating the birthday of the man known as Joe Strummer of The Clash with concerts celebrating his music and raising money for deserving causes.
At Asbury Park’s Stone Pony on Aug. 19, local radio personality and indefatigable scene presence Jeff Raspe of 90.5 the Night (WBJB-FM) hosted Summer Strummer Jam 2017, featuring a headlining set by Queens rocker Jesse Malin and an all-star Strummer salute.
Raspe explained from the stage that the Joe Strummer Foundation had encouraged these concerts, with the directive that some of the proceeds go to local charities. (The Asbury event benefited Music & Memory, an organization that provides music to Alzheimer’s patients.) Nine other Strummer Jams took place around the country on Saturday night, but Raspe, grinning broadly, told the packed Stony Pony crowd that he was pretty sure they were seeing the best.
And the jam — which followed sets by folk-rocker Matty Carlock, singer/songwriter Kris Gruen, Asbury rockers the Vansaders and Malin’s band — more than lived up to the hype.
Strummer once described the Clash’s best sets this way: “There were those nights when it burns, when you cease to be anybody at all, you are just part of something, your hands take over, you don’t know what you’re doing or saying … it BURNS.” Bands can cover the Clash with affection, with nostalgia, or with camp, but the best way is to just let loose and let the songs take over, and that’s largely what the Stone Pony saw.
Daniel Rey, a veteran of Jersey’s infant hardcore scene in the ’80s and now a respected producer, channeled Strummer’s passion with a fuming, frothing version of “Janie Jones,” while Carlock — fairly reserved during his own set — revealed the fruits of an adolescent spent in New Jersey moshpits with his physical reading of “White Riot.” But both of those powerful performances paled next to Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickle’s ferocious takes on the Clash’s anti-fascist “Clampdown” and their anti-record label screed, “Complete Control.”
Former Bongos frontman Richard Barone, shirt unbuttoned and hair swept up in a punky wave, delivered a hard-edged rendition of “Rock the Casbah,” Doug Zambon of the Vansaders provided a punky take on “Tommy Gun,” and Ted Leo (born and bred in Bloomfield) led the crowd in a fiery “Death or Glory” followed by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros’ Dylanesque “Coma Girl.”
Craig Finn and Tad Kubler of The Hold Steady — who have written their share of songs about wasted youth – added their infectious bonhomie to the Clash’s anti-drug track “Hateful” and the Mescaleros’ “Johnny Appleseed.”
You might have thought Bruce Springsteen had walked onstage when the Pony erupted for Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon, who led the ensemble through “Rudie Can’t Fail.” (see video below) The night ended with everyone coming back onstage for singalong versions of two of the Clash’s most beloved anthems, “London Calling” and their cover of Sonny Curtis’ “I Fought the Law.”
The 20-something Carlock (who, Raspe noted several times, grew up just down the road in Middletown) opened the night with a solo acoustic set that revealed an earnest singer/songwriter with strong Jersey roots. Songs about parking lots and drives down the Parkway were followed by a singalong version of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” Gruen — son of iconic rock photographer Bob Gruen, who was in the audience snapping photos — drove down from New England to perform a short set of songs he said Strummer loved, while reminiscing about meeting Strummer during photo shoots with his dad.
The Vansaders — a Capital-R Rock band from Asbury Park — delivered a slick, professional set that teetered between the traditional Springsteen/Southside Johnny Asbury sound and more modern emo/country outfits like Social Distortion, with Gaslight Anthem-ish songs celebrating their youthful carousing in their hometown.
Malin, still boyish at 50 and clad in his traditional newsboy outfit, brought his band — including Catherine Popper on bass and Christine Smith on keyboards — for an hour-long set that ran through the breadth of his solo catalog. Highlights included “Turn Up the Mains,” introduced as “a song about how you can love your country and hate your government.” Malin remembered how he got to meet Strummer when Strummer was replacing Shane MacGowan as frontman of The Pogues at a New York date, then performed a powerful version of The Pogues’ “If I Should Fall From Grace With God.”
“I gave Joe my ticket and he autographed it ‘Love It to Life,’ and I named one of my albums that,” Malin told the crowd.
Strummer, who died at age 50, never got to live out that motto, but clearly his music endures.
Proceeds from the night will go to both the Joe Strummer Foundation and a NYC charity called Music & Memory, which supplies Alzheimer’s patients with iPods filled with the music of their youth.
“There are people who can’t even recognize their loved ones faces anymore,” Raspe told the crowd. “But then they hear this music, they remember, and they can be reached.”
For information, visit musicandmemory.org.