Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer
(Faber and Faber)
This is how I heard about Joe’s death: Don Letts, the Rastafarian film director who had made all the Clash videos, called me at around 9:30 on the evening of December 22, 2002.
“I’ve got to tell you, Chris: Joe’s died—of a heart attack.”
“Oh-fuckin’-hell-Oh-fuckin’-hell-Oh-fuckin’-hell” was all I could say.
I poured a large glass of rum and stuck Don’s documentary about the group, Westway to the World, in the VCR. I called up Mick Jones, who in between sobs was his usual funny self, telling me how glad he was he’d played with Joe at the benefit for the Fire Brigades Union five weeks before.
“I don’t even know what religion he was,” Mick said.
“Some kind of Scottish low-church Presbyterian,” I suggested.
“Church of Beer, probably,” laughed Mick, tearfully.
* * *
I went to bed late, and although I hardly slept I didn’t get up until around 9:30. At around 9:55 the phone rang: ITN News. Could they interview me for the 10:00 bulletin? I sat down on the sofa and made some quick sound-bite-sized notes. I’m not even sure what I said. The phone rang again: The Independent wanted me to write an obituary, a long one, two thousand words, by four o’clock. I started up the computer, opening up my assorted Strummer files, pulling out quotes and phrases. Then the phone rang once more: ITN News again. Could they send a car for me to be on the 12:30 news? Call me back in a minute, I said: I need to work out whether I can do it—the obituary is what counts most. I put the phone down. Someone’s got to do this for Joe, I thought, but I don’t want to blow the obit by doing too much. I called Joe’s home in Somerset and left a message of condolence for Lucinda, his widow.
By the time the car came for me at half past eleven, I’d got a good amount done. As it always does, the TV stuff took much longer than it was meant to—they wanted to record something more for the evening news. It was 2:00 p.m. before I was home again. I still had a lot to do. But somehow time stretched, giving me many more minutes an hour than I might have expected. I e-mailed the obituary through at ten minutes to four. This is what I wrote:
The job of being Joe Strummer, spokesman for the punk generation and front man for the Clash, never sat easily with the former John Mellor. Always prepared to give of himself to his fans, he still felt a weight of responsibility on his shoulders that often made him crave anonymity, as much as the natural performer within him needed the spotlight.
But when—after a hiatus of almost a decade and a half—he returned to recording and performing with his new group the Mescaleros in 1999, it was business as usual: seemingly the same huge amounts of energy, passion and heart-on-sleeve belief that were his trademark with the Clash and that drew a worldwide audience for him and the group. After a show the dressing room or backstage bar still would be crammed with fans and friends as Joe held forth on the issues of the day, in his preferred role of pub philosopher and articulate rabble-rouser for the dispossessed. (But even here was the endless paradox of Joe Strummer: he could argue the case for Yorkshire pitworkers or homeless Latinos in Los Angeles, but if obliged to reveal himself through any interior observation, he would generally freeze. Even other members of the Clash would complain about his hopelessness at soul-baring.)
Yet when he played a show at London’s 100 Club two years ago, he was so exhausted afterward that he had to lie down on the floor of the dressing room: his Mescaleros’ set included a good percentage of Clash songs, and you worried that the frenetic speed at which they were performed would test the health of a man approaching his fiftieth birthday. In an irony that Joe Strummer no doubt would have appreciated, his death last Sunday afternoon came not from the stock rock ‘n’ roll killers of drugs, drink or travel accidents, but after taking his dog for a walk at his home in Somerset: sitting down on a chair in his kitchen, he suffered a fatal heart attack. [I later learned it was in his living room, and it was “dogs,” not “dog.”]
Neither of his parents had lived to a ripe old age. Joe Strummer, who earned his sobriquet from his crunchy rhythm guitar style, was born in Ankara, Turkey, in 1952 to a career diplomat. Christened John Graham Mellor, he was sent at the age of ten [nine] to a lesser public [i.e., private] school, the City of London Freemen’s School at Ashstead Park in Surrey. He had already lived in Cairo, Mexico City (“I remember the 1956 earthquake vividly; running to hide behind a brick wall, which was the worst thing to do,” he once told me) and Bonn. Strummer’s father’s profession of career diplomat didn’t arise from any position of privilege—quite the opposite, in fact. “He was a self-made man, and we could never get on,” said Strummer. “He couldn’t understand why I was last in every class at school. He didn’t understand there were different shapes to every piece of wood, different grains to people. I don’t blame him, because all he knew was that he pulled himself out of it by studying really hard.”
All the same, such a background was not especially appropriate in the mid-1970s punk world of supposed working-class heroes, which may explain why Strummer always seemed even more anarchic than his contemporaries. Mick Jones, like Strummer a former art-school student, discovered Joe when he was singing with squat-rock R&B group, the 101’ers, and poached him for a group he was forming called the Clash, becoming his songwriting partner: matched to Jones’s zeitgeist musical arrangements, Strummer’s lyrics were the words of a satirical poet, and often hilariously funny—one of his first creative contributions on linking up with Mick Jones was to change the title of a love song called “I’m So Bored with You” to “I’m So Bored with the USA.” Verbal non sequiturs were a specialty: his gasped aside of “vacuum cleaner sucks up budgie” at the end of “Magnificent Seven,” inspired by a newspaper headline on the studio floor, is one of the funniest lines in rock ‘n’ roll.
Strummer had one brother, David, who was eighteen months older than himself. By the time he reached sixteen, the younger boy had become accustomed to his brother’s far-right leanings—he had joined the National Front—and to the fact that he was obsessed, “in a cheap paperback way,” with the occult. Was it this unpleasant cocktail that led David to commit suicide? Whatever, it was clearly a cathartic moment for his younger brother: Joe Strummer often seemed overhung by a mood of mild depression, a constant struggle.
After dropping out of Central School of Art (“after about a week,” [he lied about this]), he threw himself into the alternative world of squatting. Moving for a time to Wales, he spent one Christmas on acid listening to Big Youth’s Screaming Target classic and so discovered reggae. One of the main themes propagated by the Clash was the rise of a multicultural Britain; in the group’s early music reggae rhythms jostled with an almost puritan sense of rock ‘n’ roll heritage; as the group progressed, it osmosed and absorbed Latin, blues and early hiphop sounds, with Strummer’s never-less-than-heartfelt lyrics making him a modern-day protest singer, in a tradition stretching back to Woody Guthrie.
Positive light to the darkness of the Sex Pistols, the Clash released an incendiary, eponymously titled first album in 1977, the year of punk, a Top Ten hit. With Strummer at the helm, the group toured incessantly: at a show that year at the University of Leeds, he delivered the customary diatribe of the times: “No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones… but John Lennon rules, OK?” he barked, revealing a principal influence and hero of his own. The next year, after a night spent at a reggae concert, he wrote what he himself felt was his finest song, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” a blues-ballad that opened up the musical gates for the future of the group. In that song, however, was contained the seeds of a paradox that would become more and more uncomfortable for Strummer: one line spoke of “new groups… turning rebellion into money.” Through writing such outsider lyrics, he became a millionaire; his problem was one common to many radical figureheads: how do you remain a folk hero when you have succeeded in your aim and are no longer the underdog? Touring the country that summer of 1978, the group’s concerts were shot for a feature film, Rude Boy, directed by David Mingay and Jack Hazan. “He already seemed to be suffering terribly from the notion of being Joe Strummer,” said Mingay. “He wasn’t exactly lying back and having a great time. Joe was always full of contradictions, one of which was that he managed to be both ultra-British and anti-British at the same time.”
With London Calling, their third album, the group achieved commercial American success. Sandinista!, a sprawling three-record set, followed. When it became clear that the album was commercial folly, Joe Strummer demanded the return of their original manager, Bernard Rhodes, a business colleague of Malcolm McLaren and someone with whom Mick Jones had always had an awkward relationship. With Rhodes’s sense of wily situation-ism powering the group, the potential disaster of Sandinista! was turned into a triumph after the group played sixteen nights at Bond’s in New York’s Times Square. The group were the toast of the town, and only a big commercial hit stood between them and superstardom.
That came in 1982 with Combat Rock, a huge international success, selling five million copies. Strummer bought a substantial terrace house in London’s Notting Hill, yet seemed to feel obliged to justify this possession by explaining that it reminded him of the houses in which he used to squat. By 1983, the Clash had begun to disintegrate; first, heroin-addicted drummer Topper Headon was replaced; then, extraordinarily, Mick Jones was fired, Strummer having gone along with Rhodes’s perversely iconoclastic desire to get rid of the founder of the group. New members were brought in, but the Clash finally fizzled out in 1986.
Strummer’s sense of guilt over the sacking of Jones developed to a point of almost clinical complexity. In the late summer of 1985 he asked me to go for a drink with him. After much alcohol had been consumed, he suddenly announced: “I’ve got a big problem: Mick was right about Bernie [Rhodes].” He had finally realized he had been manipulated. He caught a plane to the Bahamas, where Mick Jones was on holiday: an ounce of grass in his hand, he sought out the guitarist’s hotel, and presented him with this tribute, asking to get the Clash back together. But it was too late: Jones had already formed a new group, Big Audio Dynamite; although Joe Strummer ended up coproducing BAD’s second album, his own plans came to nothing.
A familiar figure on the streets and in the bars of Notting Hill, Joe Strummer was mired—as he later admitted to me—in depression. He tried acting, with a passable role in Alex Cox’s Straight to Hell (1987), and a minor part in the same director’s Walker (1987), for which he also wrote the music; he made a much more significant impression in 1989, playing an English Elvis-like rocker in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. That same year he released an impressive solo album, Earthquake Weather, and toured. But apart from briefly filling in as singer with the Pogues, he was hardly heard of again. For a time Tim Clark, who now manages Robbie Williams, attempted to guide his career. “He was obviously in bad shape,” Clark told me. “He’d turn up for meetings the worse for wear. You could see he was going through a bad time, but you also felt there was probably no one he could really talk to about it.”
After moving out of Notting Hill to a house in Hampshire—he had become worried about his two daughters, he said, after one of them found a syringe in a West London playground—he subsequently split up with his long-term partner Gaby [Salter]. Remarrying in 1995, to Lucinda Tait, and moving to Bridgwater in Somerset, Joe seemed to find a relative peace. He formed the Mescaleros and began recording again, releasing two excellent albums, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style (1999) and Global a Go-Go (2001), that title a reflection of his interests in world music, about which he presented a regular show on the BBC’s World Service. Strummer was once again touring, incessantly and on a worldwide basis: he was playing to sold-out audiences, with a set that contained a large amount of Clash material. “All that’s happening for me now is just a chancer’s bluff,” he told me in 1999. “This is my Indian summer ...I learned that fame is an illusion and everything about it is just a joke. I’m far more dangerous now, because I don’t care at all.”
One of Joe Strummer’s last concerts was at Acton Town Hall last month, a benefit for the Fire Brigades Union. Andy Gilchrist, the leader of the FBU, was apparently politicized after seeing the Clash perform a “Rock Against Racism” concert in Hackney in 1978, and had asked Strummer if he would play the Acton show. That night Mick Jones joined him onstage, the first time they had performed live together since Jones had been so unfairly booted out of the Clash. “I nearly didn’t go. I’m glad I did,” said the guitarist, the poetry of that reunion clear to him.
Bitterly critical that the present Labour government has betrayed many of its former ideals, Joe Strummer was delighted at the show for the firemen; a smile came over his face at the idea that, if only tangentially, his former group was still capable of causing discomfort for those in power. His death, however, comes as a deep shock. After considerable time in the wilderness, Joe Strummer seemed to have reinvented himself as a kind of Johnny Cash-like elder statesman of British rock ‘n’ roll, a much-loved artist and everyman figure. “I still thought he’d be doing this in thirty years time,” said his friend the film director Don Letts.
* * *
Excerpted from REDEMPTION SONG: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz, published this week by Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2006 by Chris Salewicz. All rights reserved.
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