Long Shadows

In honor of music wednesday here, just wanted to post quickly about two albums currently in high rotation in my mp3 player, Johnny Cash's American V: A Hundred Highways, and Joe Strummer's Streetcore. In a lot of ways, these are like dead rebel rocker bookends. Cash went quietly -- he knew he was dying, and had even probably accepted that fact after the death of his wife June. Strummer died suddenly, too early, at the age of 50, right in the middle of a career resurrection that saw him embracing his earlier work with the Clash and mixing it up with new sounds and a new band, the Mescaleros.

A lot has been said about the Cash album, and it's all right on, so I won't take too much time on that one. It's a lovely album, world weary and heartfelt, accepting and wise and all that stuff you've read before. Somehow, Cash's croak of a voice sounds absolutely perfect for this suite of songs that, taken in context, almost all seem to be about death in some way. It's amazing how a train song or a relationship song, sung by somebody looking so clearly and fearlessly at his impending death, all seem to be about, well, death.

Rick Rubin, who produced the entire American series, and Cash had a fascinating relationship (they "took communion" together, on the phone, every day for the last few years of Cash's life), and the man in black couldn't have asked for a better executor of his musical estate. Although these songs weren't finished when Cash died, they're always tasteful and understated, a perfectly appropriate final note, kind of like Johnny Cash's eulogy for himself.

If the Cash album is exactly what you might hope for, the Strummer album is, for me, more than that. I had held off on buying it because I'd read that these songs were unfinished, that (like the songs on American V) they had been completed after his unexpected death. The whole thing sounded a little Tupac-y for my taste. But Streetcore turns out to the best solo album of Strummer's career, maybe the best album he'd been associated with since London Calling.

While the previous solo album, Global a Go Go, was perhaps a little too infatuated with world music, Streetcore is a more straight ahead rock album, the kind of thing you might have expected Strummer to make coming out of the post-Clash gate. The album includes a few rockers that would not be out of place on London Calling, namely "Coma Girl," "Get Down Moses," and "All in a Day." There's even a bookend to the seminal Clash song "London Burning," a mid-tempo reggae-tinged rocker called "Burnin' Streets" that includes the familiar chorus "London is burning..." (here, sung soft and slow).

These are balanced by several slower numbers that showcase Strummer's voice, including a cover of "Redemption Song" and of Bobby Charles' "Before I Grow Too Old," here retitled "Silver and Gold." This song is a revelation -- lovely and wise and tuneful. And I'm pretty confident in saying that absolutely nobody but Joe Strummer could make this ballad introduction sound totally cool: "one...two...one, two, three KICK..."

Like the train songs on American V, the lyrics sound a little different when delivered posthumously:

I'm gonna go out dancin' every night
I'm gonna see all your city lights
I'm gonna do everything silver and gold
And I got to hurry up before I grow too old
Since the whole point of this post is to jibber-jabber about how these two albums are fitting, if incredibly sad, tributes to these rock legends, and how, I hate to say it, but here goes -- even in death, they can show us a little about how to live (man, that sounds cheesy, like a Very Special Episode or something, but what can I say, listen to them and try to not take something like that away...) -- I'll let Strummer get the last word in, with a song he actually wrote for Johnny Cash, "Long Shadow."

Well I'll tell you one thing that I know
You don't face your demons down
You gotta grapple 'em Jack and pin 'em to the ground
The devil may care, maybe god he won't
You better make sure you check on the do's and the don'ts

Crawl up a moutain
To reach where the eagles fly
To show you can glimpse from the mountian top
where the soul of the muse might ride

And if you put it all together
You won't have to look around
You know you cast a long shadow on the ground

...And I hear punks talk of anarchy
I hear hobo's on the railroads
I hear mutterings on the chain gangs
It was those men who built the roads

And if you put it all together
You didn't even once relent
You cast a long shadow
And that is your testament

Somewhere in my soul
There's always rock and roll

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