‘Twill be the night before Christmas, and, down in the basement of Barrows Hall, in the concrete bowels of the Berkeley campus, DJ Jesse Luscious will be queueing up “White Riot” and “London Calling,” “Revolution Rock” and “Straight to Hell.”
No, it’s not another salvo in the so-called War on Christmas. Rather, it’s an annual KALX tradition, lo, these 16 years: The Strummer Show, in honor of the late Joe Strummer, best remembered as leader of the British punk sensation, The Clash.
In the manner of the greatest of rock ‘n’ roll’s greats, Strummer burned out rather than fading away. The singer/songwriter/guitarist, whose real name was John Graham Mellor, died of a heart attack on December 22, 2002. He was 50.
Jesse Luscious, known outside the booth as Jesse Townley, learned the news while on the air. As the longtime KALX DJ recalled it, “I was subbing someone else’s show when I got a phone call from a listener telling me he had died. The station had long been a supporter of the Clash and Strummer, so people thought we should know. I checked the Internet to confirm, then immediately changed gears. The rest of the show was all Strummer.”
And like that, a tribute show/holiday tradition was born.
This Christmas Eve, from 7 to midnight, Luscious will host his 17th annual Strummer Show. In the lead up, on the anniversary of the rocker’s death, he’ll do a two-and-a-half-hour show called Songs the Clash Taught Us. Think Clash covers of songs like Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves,” Mose Allison’s “Look Here,” Sonny Curtis’s “I Fought the Law,” and “Junco Partner,” the New Orleans classic also covered by everyone from Dr. John to Warren Zevon to piano maestro non pareil, Professor Longhair.
Rest assured, it won’t be all Clash. In both shows, the setlists will veer into the unexpected. Says Townley, “I try to keep it loose, like KALX itself. I mean, we’re all music nerds here, but it’s not like I’m doing a dissertation on the subject.”
And so the Strummer Show will span the man’s whole musical trajectory from what Townley calls “the almost primitive rockabilly of the 101ers to his post-Clash period in the wilderness, to his final days in the Mescaleros.” The latter was a rootsy combo that blended elements of punk, funk, reggae, ragga, and, well, you name it. You can also expect some Strummer-adjacent projects like Big Audio Dynamite, featuring Clash sideman Mick Jones, and Irish punk balladeers The Pogues, with whom Strummer toured.
It was with the Pogues, Townley says, that Strummer likely sang his only Christmas song: Shane McGowan’s “Fairytale of New York,” which starts ever-so-sweetly, all soft piano and lush horns, before slurred and sloppy come the croaking vocals: “It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank…” If you ask me (and I know, you didn’t), it’s as punk as a Christmas song can be and still be a Christmas song. And it’s great.
Granted, that may not be everyone’s cup o’ nog. But for those of you who’ve had it up to the mistletoe with the annual onslaught of holiday schlock, the non-stop shopping ads, and all the other holiday hokum, well, it may be just the ticket. A corrective, if you will. An antidote.
And sure enough, according to Townley, the Strummer Show has its fans.
“A guy called up last show and said, ‘I just want you to know you’ve become a family tradition in our house.’ Apparently his son was home from college, hungover on the couch. But there they were, dad and son, listening to the show by the tree.”
No doubt, Joe would’ve approved.