Can I ask you a strange favor? On Monday night, December 22, go outside with your kids, or your friends, or your neighbors, and start a bonfire. Use a big barbecue cover or a garbage can cover as a base if you are on your front or back lawn, so you don’t roast a hole in your yard. Or wander down to the river, or the beach, or a hill, or a parking lot, and make a serious bonfire. Be careful—and follow any local fire codes—but make a whopping fire. I am not kidding. Really and truly, a bonfire, outside, under the stars, or in the chilly mist. And when it is going well, when it’s leaping and steady and warmer than you remember bonfires being, stand around it with your friends or your loved ones, and tell stories, and laugh, maybe have a beer, maybe even sing a little. Sing whatever you like. It doesn’t have to be holiday fare. It can be anything. Me, personally, I am going to stand around a small bonfire on our front lawn with my lovely bride and our sons and the house wolf, and sing “From Willesden to Cricklewood,” my favorite of all the songs Joe Strummer wrote, for December 22, all around the world now, is Joe Strummer Day, and people in many countries will light fires and tell stories and sing songs, in memory of a decent soul, gone too soon.
He died on that day in 2002, on his couch in his house in Broomfield in Somerset, England. He had just walked his dogs. He was only 50 years old. He had finally come to some kind of a peace with his painful childhood, and the surge and smash of tremendous fame as the leader of The Clash, and the stumble and crash of his love life, and he was happily married, with two beloved daughters, and leader of a new band that played mostly gentle intricate music, and his favorite thing to do was gather friends and family and make bonfires and stand around the fire telling stories and laughing and singing. He made fires in his back yard in England, he made fires on the beach at his house in Spain, he carried firewood to outdoor music festivals to start bonfires, and he loved to wander around from fire to fire at festivals, carrying children on his shoulders and making new friends. He thought that sitting around bonfires telling stories and laughing and singing was an ancient lovely crucial human act that we should get back to more often than we do.
I think he’s right. When we sit by the cold plastic fire of television and computer and tablet screens, we sit there alone. But telling stories while staring into a live and leaping fire is a rich and holy and lovely—and social—act that we should do more often than we do. So do me a strange favor on Monday night, if you can: make a fire outside and stand out there for a while with people you like, shivering and laughing, telling stories. Maybe have a beer and tell five stories each. Sing a couple of songs and startle the neighbors. It’ll be fun and crazy, and I would not be at all surprised if you find yourself moved, in some strange way. Think of it as a way to say hey to Joe Strummer, who was a good man, much missed; but think of it too as a way to honor what he cherished and savored in his own life: the way standing or sitting together matters, and telling stories matters, and laughing matters, and singing matters. That’s Joe Strummer’s true legacy, I think, more than the records he sold; and that’s what I will be thinking of on Monday night, by a fire in Oregon, very far away from Joe’s house, but quite close, I think, to Joe.
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