Friday, September 16, 2011

"Johnny Appleseed" - Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros

Transmission of ideas has always been something that's interested me. As a history major, I'm attuned to how the spread of concepts, the course, speed and mechanism of their journey alter both global and personal history. Writing about music also brings up this idea, because, it is by its very nature at attempt to spread both musical content and analysis. You do it because you're passionate enough about something that you feel compelled to share your opinions and passions (and also self-important enough to think they might appeal to anyone).

You Ain't No Picasso recently posted an impressive collection of Ted Leo's covers from over the years which, in turn got me thinking about how we come across new music. I've probably discovered more new artists through Ted Leo than any other musician (whether it's due to his taste or prodigious capacity for reinterpretation I leave up to you). The one that stood out in my mind was a song that always reminds me of the beginning of fall - Joe Strummer's "Johnny Appleseed". I first saw him perform it on his Living With The Living tour in Madison as a brief intro to "Timorous Me" and was intrigued. When I caught the boys two nights later in Chicago (yeah, I was that guy) the drummer, Chris Wilson suffered a mid-song equipment breakdown and Ted played the song in full to entertain us during pit-crew-like drum repairs.

There were lines about Martin Luther King and a great line about killing bees, which I was pretty sure was metaphorical, a ton of energy and did he say it was by Joe Strummer? I quickly discovered that he recorded three albums with a post-Clash band and ordered the album from my library system posthaste (because that's how I got most of music for almost a decade, God bless public libraries). Having just finished my musical gorging on golden age Clash, I wasn't really ready to here the Joe Strummer of Global A Go-Go but the lead track was clearly a corker.
What struck me first about the original was how different it sounded was from what I remembered. Ted's solo electric version made had been pure three-chord, buzzsaw punk, Strummer's album version was... well sunny. It started promisingly enough with light palm muted guitar, except rather than distorted electric, it was soft acoustic. There were shimmery organs and sprightly mandolins and a lusty "Hey!" singalong section in the chorus. It sounded like Joe had spent his post-Clash years drinking beer and hanging around a campfire and suddenly decided to record it (and I would later find that that wasn't too far from the truth). It was a song bursting with with happiness and positive energy of "Revolution Rock" only this time missing the trademark Strummer snarl. It was a great music, but this was a bit of a curveball from a punk OG.

It took a few listens for me to start really processing the lyrics, however and I realized that the old anger and skepticism was still present as ever, he had just discovered other ways than burning the song down to get that across. Strummer starts off with a soft intro strum and a pastoral scene with our title character before pulling off sharply to compare with "a lot of souls drinking from the well / locked in a factory". When he then sings "if you're after getting the honey / then you don't go killing all the bees", it's clear that the angrily determined humanist Clash esprit sounds just as good now as ever. The rest of the song looks grimly at human progress. "Look there goes / Martin Luther King / notice how the door closes / when the chimes of freedom ring" is one perhaps the most depressingly accurate description of race in America in the last 40 years that I've ever heard. By the end of the song, he notes glumly of our condition that "that sould is hard to find".

But it's the choruses that refocus and redeem the bitterness of lyrics. They're full band sinalongs with instruments exploding throughout the mix that carry you away. The words may be grim warnings but the music transforms the dire emotion into joy. It it's as if just by singing together, bashing their instruments and finding happiness in solidarity, Joe Strummer & the Mescalaros can force you to see the many things that remain good in this world seemingly despite our best efforts. That's a good thing to be reminded of every now and then.

Johnny Appleseed - Joe Strummer & the Mescalaros  Buy Global A Go-Go.
Johnny Appleseed/Rudie Can't Fail - Ted Leo

1 comment:

  1. Thoughtful piece and a great song. Consider another (musical) message transmitted and happily received.