the future is still unwritten

This is Tom Morello‘s recent article on the lasting impact of the Clash, and the late and legendary Joe Strummer:

Joe Strummer, 1952-2002

The Clash Legacy

by Tom Morello

I had the good fortune to see the Clash play at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago when I was a teenager. It was an experience that changed my life. Even before the first note was played the transformation began. I bought a t-shirt in the lobby. I was used to buying heavy metal t-shirts with lots of garish wizards and dragons on them, but this Clash shirt was different. It just had a few small words written over the heart. It said, “the future is unwritten.”

And when I saw the Clash play, I knew exactly what that phrase meant. The Clash performed with passion, commitment, purpose, righteousness, and an unflinching political fire. There was such a sense of community in the room that it seemed like absolutely anything was possible. I was energized, politicized, changed by the Clash that night, and I knew that the future was unwritten. And maybe we fans and that band were going to write it together.


Joe Strummer was even playing through the same little amp that I had in high school. They proved to me that you didn’t need walls of Marshall stacks and a castle on a Scottish loch to make great music. All you had to do was tell the truth, and mean it. I had never seen a better band before that night, and I have not seen a better band since.


The Clash were one of those rare bands that were greater than the sum of their parts, and yet the parts were amazing. Mick was the brilliant arranger and tunesmith, always looking forward musically, and pushing the boundaries of what was possible for a punk band, of what was possible for any band. Paul was just so damn cool looking, and the image of him smashing his bass on the cover of London Calling sums up the fury and beautiful force of the band. He also wove in the reggae influence that completed the Clash chemistry of three chords, a funky groove, and the truth. Terry Chimes provided the cavalry charge beats that propelled some of their early anthems, but it was Topper who made it all possible with his drumming. He effortlessly, and with great originality and skill, steered the band through genres undreamt of by their peers. But really, they had no peers, because at the center of the Clash hurricane stood one of the greatest hearts and deepest souls of twentieth century music, at the center of the Clash stood Joe Strummer.


Joe Strummer died on December 22, 2002.


But when Joe Strummer played, he played as if the world could be changed by a three minute song, and he was right. Those songs changed a lot of people’s worlds forever, mine at the top of the list. He was a brilliant lyricist who, with anger and wit, always stood up for the underdog. His idealism and conviction instilled in me the courage to pick up a guitar and the courage to try to make a difference with it.


In the great Clash anthem White Riot, Joe sang:


Are you taking over,

Or you taking orders?

Are you going backwards,

Or are you going forwards?



When I first heard that, I wrote those four lines down, put them on my refrigerator, and answered those four questions for myself every day. And to this day, I still do.


Joe Strummer was my greatest inspiration, my favorite singer of all time, and my hero. I miss him so much and I was so looking forward to him standing on this stage, and rocking with his friends tonight. And I know he was too. I am grateful though, to have the tremendous legacy of music that the Clash left behind. Through it, Joe Strummer and the Clash will continue to inspire and agitate well into the future.


In fact, the Clash aren’t really gone at all. Because whenever a band cares more about its fans than its bank account, the spirit of the Clash is there. Whenever a band plays as if every single person’s soul in the room is at stake, the spirit of the Clash is there. Whenever a stadium band, or a garage band, has the guts to put their beliefs on the line to make a difference, the spirit of the Clash is there. And whenever people take to the streets to stop an unjust war, the spirit of the Clash is definitely there.


Tonight we will honor the Clash and Joe Strummer with toasts and applause, but the best way to honor them is by putting the Clash’s philosophy into practice, by waking up each morning knowing that the future is unwritten, and that it can be a future where human rights, peace and justice come first. But it is entirely up to us.


To me, that’s what the Clash was all about. They combined revolutionary sounds with revolutionary ideas. Their music launched thousands of bands and moved millions of fans and I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without them.


During their heyday, they were known as “the only band that matters,” and 25 years later, that still seems just about right.

Explore posts in the same categories: One time, Back in History..., Punk and Politics, Punk and Protest

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One Comment on “the future is still unwritten”

  1. William A. Gilgan Says:

    This is bar none, the best ‘Past is Unwritten’ yet. Morello has nailed the philosophy of what real music is.
    Read This Post.
    R.I.P. Joe

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