Happy 62nd Birthday Joe Strummer, Wherever You Are!


When I was living in L.A., one of the things I realized was how easily one could become desensitized to the thrill of running into celebrities. Prior to that, whilst living in Chicago and playing a lot of gigs around town, I'd gotten to meet a lot of well-known musicians and comedians, so I was already well-versed in the fine art of "pretending to not be all that impressed by having a mini-moment with someone famous".

Of course, in most cases, I wasn't pretending. As much as your average starstruck Trekkie may have geeked out in the presence of Colm Meaney at the corner Starbucks, he was just one of many "famous" folks I saw on an almost daily basis.

So when I found myself sitting across from Joe motherfucking Strummer in a crowded concourse at O'Hare airport awaiting the flight that would take us both back to L.A., I wasn't so much starstruck as respectful of the guy's privacy. Plus, I was exhausted.

I had come to Chicago a couple weeks prior to begin work on my next album and, after ten straight 17-hour days in a windowless recording studio, I could still hear the relentless THUMP ...THUMP of my producer isolating the kick or snare drum for the gazillionth time.  So when Joe reached across and tapped me on the shoulder to ask me the time,  I didn't so much hear him as see him pointing at my wrist.  I responded by slipping the watch off my wrist and handing it to him.

I then pretended to go back to sleep.  When I opened my eyes a few seconds later to let him know I was just kidding around, he playfully began to slip the watch onto his own wrist and we both began laughing.  He may have said something like "I get more watches this way," but I admit to not always being able to decifer those tricky British accents.

Long story short, the flight got delayed and I found myself trying to pass the time as best I could.  I tried reading one of the books I'd brought, but finally gave up and wandered into one of the lounges and took a seat at the bar.  A few minutes later, Joe fucking Strummer walks in and, upon seeing me at the bar, waves at me and makes a beeline for the chair next to mine.

This time, he introduces himself ("I'm Joe by the way") and for the next couple hours, we converse amid a sea of humanity that cheers and jeers along to the Bulls game that is on every TV screen in the joint.
At no point did anyone come up to him and ask for an autograph, or even do a double-take, which I find kind of surprising because even if he wasn't Joe fucking Strummer, he looked just about as cool as you could look sitting in an airport lounge.

Never once during our conversation did I let on that I knew who he was, or try to steer the conversation towards music.  To me, it felt like he enjoyed the idea of two anonymous strangers having a chat about God-knows-what and I didn't want to spoil that.

And then I heard those infamous guitar scrapes and soon "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" was playing in the lounge.  I hadn't even noticed music was playing up until that moment and I could see Joe stop for a moment. I briefly wondered if someone associated with the establishment had recognized Joe and was playing the song intentionally as a way of saying "Look who's here", but it turned out to be a radio station that was playing over the speakers.

For the duration of the song, Joe was quiet.  That's the thing I remember the most.  The minute the next song - Men At Work's "Who Can It Be Now" - he picked up the conversation right where he'd left it.

The guy knew his world politics and talked excitedly about his favorite dictators and the vicious ways in which they'd risen to power.  He also talked about American cars - the classic ones - and food.

When it came time to head back to the gate to catch our flight, we both paid our bills and walked back to the boarding area.  Though we would be on the same plane for the next four hours, we sat in separate sections and I did not see him when I got off.

That's okay though, I'd had my moment with one of my heroes.  It was a perfect moment, too, because it wasn't about who he was, or how I got to hang out with someone famous, it was about meeting a cool guy in an airport and having an actual conversation that didn't seem like an interview.

A year later, he would die suddenly and I would find myself wishing I could remember more of what we talked about.

Joe Strummer would have been 62 years old today and, in the twelve years since his death, I must say that I've missed hearing the music I know he would have made, but, more importantly, I've missed his perspective on things.  This, after all, was one of the few guys in the whole damn world who seemed to have it figured out.

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