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From Charles to Strummer: a Cajun classic in silver and gold

May 14, 2017

One, two. One, two, three, kick! 

 

By the time Joe Strummer recorded Silver And Gold in 2002 he had been an ex-member of the Clash for the best part of two decades, even taking into account the Mick Jones-less 'dodgy Clash'.

 

The transition from 'punk rock warlord' to … what? … had been anything but easy. Strummer’s post-Clash output was a patchy mixture of melodically sparse garage rock, film soundtracks – his largely instrumental work for Alex Cox’s Walker was the highlight – and silence. Searching for direction, he spent time in Andalusia, appeared in cult movies and presented a radio show for the BBC World Service. He also got married and left London for Somerset.

 

It was only with the formation of a new group, the Mescaleros, in the late 90s that Strummer seemed to regain his feet. Two albums were generally well received, he was touring and he appeared to be enjoying life as a musician again.

 

I’m gonna go out dancing every night 

I’m gonna see all the city lights 

And do everything, silver and gold 

I’ve got to hurry up before I grow too old

Silver And Gold was not a Strummer composition. Originally entitled Before I Grow Too Old, it had been recorded way back in 1960 – as a B-side – by Fats Domino with prominent brass over his characteristic rolling piano. 

 

But it was actually composed by Bobby Charles, a man whose songwriting career began with See You Later, Alligator, a top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic for Bill Haley & His Comets in 1955. Charles had recorded his own version previously but as so often in his career his song only really took off in the hands of another artist. When he met his hero Fats Domino and offered to write for him, the pianist invited him to New Orleans. Charles said he had no transport to get to the city, to which Domino replied: 'Well, you’d better start walking.' That was the inspiration for Walking To New Orleans, one of many collaborations between the two.

 

Charles was a Cajun, born Robert Charles Guidry in Abbeville, a small town south of Lafayette, Louisiana. His aversion to touring meant that his songs were always better known than the man himself, even when, having been busted for marijuana possession, he fled to Woodstock in upstate New York and ended up making music with The Band and Dr John. It was there that he recorded his own rendition of Grow Too Old for his self-titled 1972 album.

Joe Strummer’s version is slower and stripped back. Scott Shields’ harmonica and his old busking partner Tymon Dogg’s violin, which had been a largely unwelcome presence on the second Mescaleros record, subtly accentuate Strummer’s delivery. It’s no surprise that around the same time Strummer had been participating in Johnny Cash’s last recordings

 

I’m gonna take a trip around the world 

I’m gonna kiss all the pretty girls 

And do everything, silver and gold 

And I’ve got to hurry up before I grow too old

 

For the Clash’s more literal-minded fans, fired up by songs such as 1977 ('No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones') and I’m So Bored With The USA, it came as a shock and even a betrayal when on their first US tour, the group made clear their reverence for the American rock tradition, even taking Bo Diddley along as their support act (the veteran guitarist reportedly earned more than the headliners). 

 

'When you’ve been into American music as long as I have, to go there and ride across the country on a bus is a real trip,' Strummer said. 'To go to places you’ve only heard of in songs is fantastic.'

 

Strummer’s eclectic post-London Calling career and his pre-Clash history with retro-rock 'n’ rollers the 101ers make the short, sharp shock of his punk period seem almost like an aberration – but what an aberration!

 

I do a lot of things I know is wrong 

Hope I’m forgiven before I’m gone 

It’ll take a lot of prayers to save my soul 

And I got to hurry up before I grow too old

Bobby Charles had southern Louisiana seeped into his bones, his gentle drawl the authentic sound of the swamp. In his early days, Chess Records had been surprised to find their new signing was a white man and had to hurriedly rethink a planned tour of the black 'chitlin’ circuit'. After his northern sojourn he returned to the familiar surroundings of Louisiana. His luck was worthy of a blues song. Having earlier split from his wife, his house burned 

down; another, on the Gulf coast, was subsequently swept away by a hurricane. He ended his days as something of a recluse living in a trailer just outside Abbeville. 

 

In fact, Charles, with his impeccably rootsy backstory as a white man immersed in black music, was just the sort of figure Strummer – who struggled to live down his boarding school past and in his pre-Clash days went by the name of Woody in homage to Woody Guthrie – would have loved to be. And maybe by 2002 he was almost there.

 

When he was laying down tracks for the third Mescaleros album, Strummer had no idea that he would not live to see it released. He died of a heart attack aged 50 in an armchair at his home three days before Christmas. The wistful reflection on mortality that became the last track on his posthumous Streetcore album instantly gained an exquisite poignancy. 

 

OK, that’s a take.

 

 

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