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Being Joe Strummer – The future is unwritten

December 22, 2011

What do you write when one of your heroes bites the dust? Today, 22 December 2011, is the ninth anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer, and for me it’s a day filled with wistful memories of my (fading) youth, and at the same time happy memories that make me smile of being at some amazing concerts, and the legacy of some fantastic tunes that I’ve been singing along to for over 30 years. Still out of tune I might add. My little sister had Diana, Princess of Wales; I had Strummer and the Clash. If you grew up with the Clash you knew exactly what they stood for. He was also a great leveler – if you met someone who liked the Clash, they were all right. Strummer was an icon, a voice with attitude and intelligence.

Strummer was the key that opened the door for me about what was out there in my later, formative teenage years, giving me more inspiration than any teachers could, apart from Mr Evans my Maths teacher who I think did more for my mathematical inspiration than Isaac Newton, although the 1-2-3-4 intro to some Clash songs showed progress towards a Fibonacci series…

Strummer was everything a rebel rock star should really be. People believed in him, he inspired all from soldiers to newsreaders to miners to the unemployed. Strummer had integrity, was articulate whilst being angry, a brilliant sloganeer, and most importantly, a great soul of humanity. His restless musical curiosity gave the lie to the caricatured image of punk as a mindless two-chord thrash, while his acute lyrics set a benchmark for song-writing that tackled political and social themes. Live fast, die young – and he did.

We all have our heroes and icons, people who influenced us, shaped our thinking, stirred our passions. I have a relatively simple definition of heroes and role models: they are people you look up to and aspire to be like because of what they have accomplished, what they stand for, and how they’ve articulated themselves. Mostly, they inspire you to live life better.

There’s no question that Strummer was an explosive live performer and a great songwriter, but he is equally remembered for inspiring a generation to try to make a difference through music. He played as if the world could be changed by a three-minute song, and when I first saw the Clash play aged 16, my world was changed forever. Over the next few years, this was it, and in the first weeks of being away from home at University, seeing the Clash play at Sheffield Lyceum, October 1981 as a first year student, this was my world! His idealism and conviction instilled in me the courage to try to make a difference. This was what I wanted. Joe Strummer was my greatest inspiration, my favorite singer of all time and my hero. He sang, he played and he didn’t stop. He’s someone to be admired. We all took a little bit of Joe from those that saw him.

I think everyone should have a hero in life. Someone you aspire to be like, who you look up to. Having a hero is a good motivator because not only does it push you to keep a high standard to your own actions but also when you feel dispirited you can ask yourself how your hero would respond. Having a hero will keep you on the right course when you’re unsure of what to do, motivate you to perform at your peak and will be a source of strength when you need it.

But let’s step back a little. This isn’t a eulogy to the memory of a hero born out of some teenage angst, rather about a man who lifted my head when my head was pretty empty of knowledge and experience, who gave me social and political conscience and an attitude born from anger, frustration, a catalyst to doing something different and doing it for myself. It isn’t hero worship, and he certainly isn’t a role model I’ve carried a torch for. A hero is not a role model.

Role models are intimately connected to our experience, whereas heroes may serve as vicarious images. Role models usually fulfill our needs, whereas heroes may be a disappointment when they fall from grace. Role models are not an extension of who we are, whereas heroes may be tied to an illusion that we have about reality. You rarely hear about role models, but heroes receive a great deal of attention. From a personal development perspective regarding business, I prefer to look for role models for spiritual and psychological growth as I find they assist me in building confidence and character, and stimulate my thinking.

While I only have one hero, I find role models everywhere. They are people who exhibit some characteristic I admire and try to emulate. Thus I think it’s possible to have many different role models, each excelling in a different field.

When things get tough, I look to Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, who was known for his leadership, positive attitude and stamina. No matter how many setbacks got in his way, and no matter how exhausted everyone else in his expedition team was, Shackleton would still be out there leading from the front. So every time I feel myself flagging I think about this great man and find a burst of energy and renewed commitment.

A business role model I have is the company 37 Signals, a web applications development company based in Chicago, founded in 1998 – check out their website I admire their business attitude and philosophy as set down in two very readable books by founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson Getting Real and ReWork.  Like Strummer, they have confidence and attitude that there is a different way, and provide motivational insights throughout their writing. For example, whenever I’m feeling boxed in or hitting barriers, I recall these words regarding embracing constraints:

Let limitations guide you to creative solutions. There’s never enough to go around. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough people. That’s a good thing. Instead of freaking out about these constraints, embrace them. Let them guide you. Constraints drive innovation and force focus. Instead of trying to remove them, use them to your advantage.

There are a few other gems in the books too:

  • What you need to do is stop talking and start working.
  • Success is the experience that actually counts.
  • Be a starter. The most important thing is to begin.
  • Decisions are progress. Commit to making decisions. Don’t wait for the perfect solution. Decide and move forward.
  • Don’t make things worse by over-analysing and delaying before you even get going. Get it out there
  • The best way to get there is through iterations. Stop imagining what’s going to work. Find out for real.
  • It’s OK if it’s not perfect. You might not seem as professional, but you will seem a lot more genuine.
  • What does 5 years experience mean anyway? How long someone’s been doing it is overrated. What matters is how well they’ve been doing it.
  • Inspiration expires now. Inspiration is a magical thing, a productivity multiplier, a motivator. But it won’t wait for you.

I think that it is important to make a distinction between the heroic figures that we value and the role models that have impacted our lives. People tend to idealise their heroes and believe that they live in a world of perfection. Who can forget the candle light vigils that marked the death of John Lennon? Admire your heroes, don’t worship them.

Outside the boardrooms of Sony and EMI, there are those of us who look to music to remind us that we’re not alone, to help us make sense of a changing world, and to inspire us to believe that we can change anything if we want to. Joe Strummer’s music changed lives, and we should not forget the truly incendiary power that music can have. His intensity focused the music into something whole, and wholly his. Asked to explain what The Mescaleros, his last band, play in the song Bhindi Bhagee he said It’s got a bit of … um y’know Ragga bhangra, two-step tango, Mini-cab radio, music on the go! Umm, surfbeat, backbeat, frontbeat, backseat. There’s a bunch of players and they’re really letting go! – which of course is just what 37 Signals are doing in their own way, and we should all do with our lives.

Joe Strummer remained sincere and passionate, always has a cause to fight for – his last gig was a benefit gig for the striking fireman in London. In the audience was Mick Jones, his partner from the The Clash. Mick got onstage and they played a couple of the old tunes together for the first time in 20 years. Strummer died two weeks later. How poignant was that night. He fought against the injustices of the world, and strove to push himself forward artistically, but he will be remembered above all for the band that was loved by so many, The Clash, with his hoarse, bawling voice and choppy rhythm guitar he gave it his all, and thereby inspired a whole generation. He is sorely missed, but his music will continue to inspire.

It’s Christmas 2011, the offices and buses are empty, people are at home and Strummer is dead. All around the world, people aged between 40 and 60 are putting on Clash songs today in tribute. He said the future is unwritten,  so let’s do it, and make sure Joe Strummer lives forever.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Simon permalink
    December 22, 2011 11:02 pm

    Ian, Quality.

    Happy Christmas!

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