Non-fiction by Douglas Menagh
I was watching the rock doc The Future is Unwritten alone in my apartment on the east side of Manhattan when I heard Joe Strummer say the words, “People can change anything they want to, and that means everything in the world.” I’d been a massive fan of The Clash for a while by that point, but it wasn’t until I started learning more about Joe Strummer that I felt a great turning in my heart.
It was February 2018, and I was particularly down on my luck in the middle of an unsuccessful job hunt after finishing my MFA. I was unhappy and heartbroken over the state of the world, but for all of my privilege, I was on the sidelines and wasn’t making a difference. Learning that Joe was unhappy and went through wilderness years after The Clash broke up, losing his band and his parents, gave me a renewed sense of determination in finding purpose at a time I felt like all hope was lost. “I had to restructure everything,” Joe said. “I had to really disassemble myself, examine all the pieces, and put myself back together.”
Joe Strummer’s regret over firing guitarist Mick Jones from The Clash touched me in a way that made me realize that I had let ego get in the way of past relationships. There was something in the way he took ownership of his mistakes that gave me the strength to take ownership of mine. “Getting rid of Mick must have been an ego decision,” Joe said. “I don’t hesitate to say that.” The truth is, I had grown cold and distant to people I had cared about. Hearing him speak, I realized that and wanted to change.
Inspired by Joe, who used his music to bring awareness to social justice issues, I started applying for jobs in education. I figured that teaching could be a way to make a difference in the lives of others. About a month afterwards, I interviewed for a substitute teaching position at a school in downtown Brooklyn. I had never worked with kids before, and while substitute teaching wasn’t what I had in mind as a career prospect or “a real job,” I was open to this opportunity that came my way.
There was something about being in this school in the red brick building, sunlight shining on Brooklyn, that affected me. It wasn’t unlike the way Joe had affected me that February. I liked to think that Joe would have approved of me getting into teaching, that by trying to make a difference in someone else’s life, I could begin to set things right. I didn’t know it then, but the experience would change me. Joe made me want to be a better person, but this school and those students made me want to teach.
Joe Strummer’s redemption song that awoke in me a desire to find my own. Before Joe died, he was able to make amends with Mick Jones and play a show together. Joe Strummer said, “It’s time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time.” He’s the reason I reached out to some exes then and took ownership of my mistakes. Joe is the reason I try to be on good terms with people who were important in my life. I’m still trying because of him.
In December 2019, still working at the same school, but now enrolled in a graduate program in education, I was assigned to teach a lesson of my own design. When it came time for me to design the lesson, I chose to teach about The Clash and how their music was a reaction to the social climate of the late 70s. My goal as an educator in teaching that class was to get out of the way and let the students connect with The Clash. I showed them videos of the band playing “Garageland” live, and while I had hoped that they would get into the music, I was shocked that some hummed along and bounced their heads. When I asked the class about Joe Strummer’s performance, one student got up to imitate Joe’s movements. My heart sang.
When I first heard Joe Strummer say people can change anything they want, I didn’t know if he was right or not. Hoping he was, I tried to change and be better than who I was. I’m still trying to be a better person, but I’m proud of who I am in part because of Joe, and I know now that he was right.