Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer
(Faber and Faber)
Red Hand of Fate 
On January 30, 1979, the Clash flew to Vancouver in Canada for a couple of days’ rehearsal, before playing their first date of the Pearl Harbor tour—as their invasion of North America was almost inevitably named—in the town. “I flew up to Vancouver,” said Bob Gruen. “I remember everyone being really nervous about whether they would be searched at the border. Would the band be harassed? They all psyched up for it.” “Everyone had emptied their pockets of millions of knives et cetera that they thought were not allowable,” said Paul Simonon. “Then no one even looked at them at immigration,” said the photographer. After the tour bus stopped for the night in Seattle, where Topper Headon paid tribute to actor Bruce Lee at his graveside, the party woke to the grim news that Sid Vicious had overdosed in New York and died. In a state of some shock they continued down the Pacific coast to San Francisco. In an inspired move by CBS publicist Ellie Smith, Joe would record the entire trip in diary form for NME. He definitely now appeared the spokesman—and therefore leader—for the group. Their first show in the United States, at the Berkeley Community Center on February 7, was an utter triumph—in fact, every concert sold out once the tour was announced. The pre-show introductory music was “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” by local boy Sly Stone. “There was no gobbing,” said Paul. “That was a big plus, because clothes tended to last longer. I suppose people were trying to figure out what the whole thing was about from what they’d read in the press about punk groups in London.” “The first show was a blast,” confirmed Bob Gruen. “The place was full of happy, dancing people. The Clash was more than your average good-time band. You not only had a good time but you also thought about issues that bothered people. Things were serious and there was a lot to be angry about, but there was also a lot to have fun about. The force of the music made it sound like a battlefield, a clash. The lights were always flashing, like explosions.”
The next afternoon the group traveled with the photographer to a flea market in nearby Sausalito. “I found loads of bits and pieces there,” said Paul. The group purchased assorted leather jackets and vintage pieces of Americana. Afterward they drove to nearby Mount Tamalpais, where, sitting up on its heights, they could see for miles over the Pacific and back inland.
That night—much to the anger of Bill Graham, promoter of the official Berkeley show—the Clash played another date, a gig for the homeless at the Geary Temple in what had been the old Filmore West (ironically, it had been established by Graham at the height of flower power). The second show the Clash played in the United States was a benefit—right from the start, they nailed their colors to the mast. On this, his second visit to San Francisco, Joe met a political radical named Mo Armstrong, formerly a member of Daddy Longlegs, an American group that had moved to England in 1970. “He’d become very left-wing,” said Joe, “and he gave us the info, which was quite hard to find, about the Sandinistas. It was the sort of thing they weren’t interested in printing in The Sunday Times. A bunch of Marxist teenage hooded rebels oust one of your favorite dictators? The establishment didn’t want to know about it.”
At the request of both Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, an opening act on the tour was Bo Diddley. “I can’t look at him without my mouth falling open,” confessed Joe. Caroline Coon had tracked Bo down in Australia. His fee was more than the Clash would earn on the door—initially, he refused to play any of his classic songs because he didn’t own the copyright to them. Paul remembered, “Bo Diddley used to sit up all night and put his guitar in the bunk instead. Which was unusual.” On the video system on the bus, rented from Dolly Parton, there were endless viewings of the first Star Wars movie. When the bus was pulled over for speeding, the officer demanded that everyone get down from it. “Well, I have to tell you,” said the man behind the wheel, using his wits, “we got Dolly Parton asleep in the back.” Reverential at the mention of the Queen of Country, the cop rescinded his order and waved the vehicle on.
In Los Angeles the Clash played at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, just blocks from the Pacific. Another triumph. Robert Hilburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times that it was “one of the most exhilarating rock shows in years.” He spotted—how could he not?—the onstage strength of Joe Strummer: “The band’s strongest visual lure on stage spits out the lyrics with such alarming intensity that a life insurance salesman would think twice about writing him a policy.” The show was most notable for a postgig incident that has entered Clash legend. Assembled with the local Epic hierarchy for the kind of self-congratulatory photographs beloved of the record industry, the group suddenly cut and ran, walking straight out of the room, to the bafflement and apoplexy of the company employees. Joe explained this act to Billboard magazine: “If you let them you’ll have no soul left, and if you have no soul you cannot make records. We’d rather make our records, even if they don’t make the Top 100.”
Despite the Clash’s endless railings against CBS in London, the group’s actual relationship with the company was more complex. Almost every time I went into CBS’s headquarters in Soho Square, members of the Clash could be found there, having sociable chats—especially with publicist Ellie Smith. With much of their income frozen pending the conclusion of litigation with Bernie Rhodes over their management contract with him, the record company was keeping the Clash going—this even extended to the dishing out of large amounts of promotional records, knowing only too well they would be immediately sold at the nearest discount store, bearing out what Muff Win-wood said of Maurice Oberstein’s strategy to make it appear as though there was constant conflict between the company and the group.
Caroline Coon had an even-handed vision about the lost Santa Monica photo opportunity. “Part of the punk ethic was to refuse to be in any way gracious to anyone from the record company who came backstage,” said Caroline. “My charm helped a bit, especially when we ran out of money halfway through the tour, and I had to go on my knees to the record company and ask for more cash to finish the tour. But they did it because the Clash were playing fantastic gigs that were absolute sellouts.”
In Cleveland on February 14 the group played a benefit for a Vietnam vet named Larry McIntyre. “This guy called Larry McIntyre lost both his legs in Vietnam,” wrote Joe in his NME account, “and when he went for a swim one day in the pool near his flat all the other residents banned him from the pool on the grounds that it was too disgusting . . . so we agree to play a show for him, helping his legal costs, but we don’t get to meet him because, having forgot his name, I referred to him over the PA as ‘the guy with no legs.’”
The tour moved on to Washington, D.C., and Boston. Joe’s old friend from Newport Art College, Allan Jones, a senior features writer on Melody Maker, came from London to cover this section of the tour. “The sound quality may have improved slightly,” he wrote, “but Strummer’s vocals are still buried, the lyrics almost entirely lost. And looking at him, all criticism of his increasingly stylized performance seems so much waffling. He still can’t successfully change chords on the guitar while singing; he still sings with more conviction (even when, to some ears, it’s misguided or confused) than most of his bleating contemporaries; he still resorts to mere bellowing when his passion gets the better of his control.”
When they arrived in the capital, Allan offered another telling vignette of life with the Clash: “Mick Jones has a map of Washington. He decides he would like to go sightseeing. Now. It is 4:00 a.m. Jones wants to go to Arlington, the military cemetery where there burns an eternal flame in memory of John Kennedy.
“‘Great,’ says Strummer. ‘Let’s piss on it and put it out.’”
The Clash hit New York the day before their Manhattan show. Joe disappeared that night with Susan Blond, the Epic publicist. The next day he whispered in Johnny Green’s ear: “I’ve done something awful. I went out for the night with Andy Warhol.” “That was the night before we all went to Studio 54: he went on his own with Warhol,” said Johnny Green. “The rest of us all went to some scuzzy place. But Joe’s always had a penchant for things like that, for going into a world.” (Years later Joe spoke to Q magazine of this Warholian experience: “They were inspecting me as if I was an interesting coal miner they’d picked up on the highway.”) On the tour was Barry “Scratchy” Myers, formerly the DJ at Dingwall’s. “The Clash played at the Music Machine in Camden, and I was the DJ. Johnny Green came up to me and said that Joe really liked what I was playing.” After accompanying them on their last U.K. tour of 1978, he was brought over to the States with the group; Johnny Green remembered a quirk of Joe’s character over Scratchy that seemed as off-kilter as his visit to Studio 54. “People would go to Joe with a problem. But they didn’t necessarily get the response they expected.” When Barry Myers bought a flight case matched to the atomic pink of the Clash’s kit, and found it had been scrawled on with anti-Jewish slogans, he became very upset. Topper (whose behavior could mutate out of his benign Stan Laurel persona into something more akin to Freddy Krueger—when he was using the heroin he was increasingly fond of ) and Robin Crocker were the culprits. Myers was distraught. “He went to see Strummer. Because he’s the leader, innee?” said Johnny ironically. “And Joe went, ‘Well, that’s your fuckin’ problem. Sort it out yourself.’ Barry was then even more distraught about this. Joe was quite consistent in turning up that piece of advice over the years. People would go to him with a serious problem, and he’d say, ‘Sort it out yourself.’ They would never ask the others—always Joe. They might have done better asking Paul. But he wasn’t the Leader, was he?”
Joe later outlined his laissez-faire philosophy: “Making like you’ve got the answers to everybody’s problems—it’s impossible. Everybody must sort out their own problems: that’s the key to everything. You sort one problem out and get the will to go on and sort another one out. You can’t expect any help, I don’t think.”
The New York show, the most exalted event on the entire tour, was at the Palladium. “A bit like the Rainbow,” Joe wrote in NME. “With all the traveling we was pretty knackered. During the sound-check I overheard a Yank talking to his mate: ‘Wow, these guys have had it. They can hardly stand up, never mind play!’” It was one of the most significant dates the Clash ever performed; not only was the ubiquitous Andy Warhol in attendance, but also the cream of the downtown underground: Nico, Debbie Harry, David Johansen, John Cale and Lenny Kaye were all schmoozing backstage. For the Clash this was a seriously prestigious night that set up the group for the manner in which they would springboard out of the city to national American success. “By gig-time the place was packed,” wrote Joe, “and all the top liggers in town were there. We were plenty nervous. Halfway through the show I checked the audience and became convinced that we were going down like a ton of bricks. But like they say it’s a tough town and by the end of the day we managed to whip it out and give ‘em some of our best.”
Back in Britain from their barnstorming sprint around the United States, the Clash was coming down from the high of the tour. Among other things, they were still broke. But the making of Rude Boy was still in progress; David Mingay and Jack Hazan realized the live sound they had recorded was not up to scratch. Accordingly, six weeks were booked at Air Studios, which overlooked Oxford Circus slap in the middle of London, in March and April 1979; Bill Price, who had engineered the sessions in January, was hired. The Clash was to be paid for this by Michael White, the film’s producer: the cost of re-recording the Rude Boy music would more than double the budget of the film. “We were very lucky,” said David Min-gay, “because they had time on their hands. They were worrying about management, but they were liking it because they were on their own. Joe was thinking of going back to Bernard; I thought they should go back to him. They were short of cash; they said no one was paying them. Mick was a little awkward. He would turn up late, but when he arrived he did everything very fast—so in fact he didn’t need the time that the others did.”
On the sixth floor above Oxford Circus, Mick and Joe would sit out on the window ledge, their legs dangling free below them. “They were very happy there,” thought David Mingay. “Kate Bush was recording in the next studio. She would make tea for them—they loved it. George Martin, whose studio it was, would be booming, as you imagined he had to the Beatles: ‘Hello, boys. How are you all?’”
But tensions existed. Mick would badger Paul about his bass playing, replacing him on the instrument if he wasn’t fast enough. Mingay stressed Paul’s visual appeal: “Paul made the group look great: without him they would have been rather un-good-looking.”
The film director thought that all was not well between Mick and Joe. “There was a jealous feeling between the two of them at that point. Joe was taking off into being something of a superstar and Mick would be worried whether he would be considered the same. Mick was always caught talking to those kids who love guitars. Joe had the press buzzing around him and they weren’t talking to Mick enough, even though Mick might be giving more interesting answers, because Joe’s message was fairly monosyllabic. He was considered the prophet of his generation, which is weird, because Mick had more to say of interest, was always available and calm, and he could face failure, which Joe couldn’t. Hubris was a threat for Joe—he was a performer who would soak up success and manipulate his own success.
“But the real flavor of Joe was innocent and amusing. He could talk about serious matters in an original way. He would rehearse political opinions all the time, with a slightly bizarre twist. Joe was reticent, shy-appearing. He would never rush to hold forth. He did love to be like Humphrey Bog-art occasionally. He’d make these sardonic statements—he possibly was being rather spiritual, but didn’t put it into words. Whereas Mick seemed a straightforward, left-wingy, devoted person who was not at all insecure about his so-called working-class credentials and his aspiration to live in the best surroundings he could manage. But I don’t think Mick was an anarchist, whereas Joe maybe was—rash, compulsive and self-destructive behavior and crises all were part of him.”
The time in Air Studios had set the juices of the group flowing. Johnny Green and a roadie named Baker found a rehearsal room in Causton Street, Pimlico, near Vauxhall Bridge, and the group booked it for the next five months. Known as Vanilla, it was at the rear of a garage, the kind of premises you might see in American gangster films as heists are planned. With pleasure, this cinematic aspect of Vanilla was noted by Mick Jones. It was not a bad metaphor. Here, hunkered together with no visible means of financial support, the Clash would rigorously write and rehearse the new songs that would emerge as London Calling, which time would judge one of the finest rock ‘n’ roll albums ever made after it was released in Britain at the end of that year. Retreating into their own resources, untrammeled by management or record company demands, they would connect with their creative core, taking a leap forward in material, philosophy and image.
If the record can be seen as a harbinger of change for the Clash, a broader shift was being experienced across the country. On May 3, 1979, a general election was held in Britain and Margaret Thatcher, the leader of the Conservative Party, was voted into power as the United Kingdom’s first woman prime minister, the beginning of an eighteen-year reign by her party that would change the face of Britain, with complex consequences. On election day the Clash—ever happy to act as agents provocateurs—released The Cost of Living EP, made up of the tunes recorded in January: “I Fought the Law,” the remake of “Capital Radio,” “Groovy Times” and “Gates of the West.” The EP reached number 22 in the NME charts. The group had a further connection to NME, however. What was not made public was that Joe Strummer had been the subject of a death threat from the Red Hand Commandos, a splinter group from the Protestant Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the result of Joe having written his personal election manifesto in NME and also of having worn the H-Block T-shirt at the Harlesden Roxy gig in October 1978. At the NME a letter addressed to Joe was received. Handwritten in black ink on cheap paper at odd, ugly angles, as though an attempt to disguise the writer’s identity, the anonymous letter was a death threat. “It had the air of a blackmail note,” said editor Neil Spencer, who opened the envelope. “I nearly chucked it in the bin but there was something about it that made me think I should take it seriously.” “It all came about because Joe made a comment in the NME, ‘Troops out of Northern Ireland,’” Mick Jones said. “Which wasn’t such a terrible thing to say. The Daily Mirror said that.” Members of Special Branch visited the group at Vanilla. They verified the authenticity of the letter: this was indeed a serious warning from an authentic terrorist organization of intent to murder Joe Strummer—the man who only a year before had appeared at the Hackney Rock Against Racism show wearing a Red Brigades T-shirt (which caused Joe’s own comprehensive and substantial Special Branch file to be opened). “I think the Irish death threat is a big event, life-changing,” said Kosmo Vinyl, who would very shortly be working with the Clash. “Joe was put on an assassination list by the UDA. I think Joe’s militancy became more subtle after that. He put his thoughts into the writing of his lyrics instead.”
As though notions of karmic retribution were alien to his way of thinking, Joe was soon back in his own role of hatchet man, something that seemed to be becoming a habit. At the beginning of May, Caroline Coon flew to New York to set up another U.S. tour for the Clash. When she returned, Joe told her she wasn’t needed anymore. Joe later admitted she had advocated well for them and had been very keen; he also confessed he hadn’t wanted her to do the job in the first place. Caroline had taken on the task—to which she refused to append the word “manager”—only because she wanted to help the Clash, knowing they were in crisis and their hardwon success could so easily unravel. Caroline Coon moved to Los Angeles to work in the film business before returning to her earlier love of painting.
Joe Strummer would respond to business crises by becoming a sort of Clash corporate executive, wielding his verbal ax, and then return to being the squat-king slacker. For someone so concerned about the misuse of authoritarian and goverNMEntal power, it was an extraordinary way to behave. But many things about Joe Strummer were extraordinary.
Managerless, the Clash was also broke. Their assets had been frozen pending a settlement of the conclusion of the legal wranglings over the group’s management contract with Bernie Rhodes. Through the summer months they steamed on, writing and honing new material. On July 5 and 6 they played a pair of “secret” gigs in London, at the small Notre Dame hall off Leicester Square, trying out new songs. These included “London Calling” and “Rudie Can’t Fail,” as well as the only live performances ever of “Hateful” and “I’m Not Down.” “Lovers’ Rock” and “Revolution Rock” were also essayed—“appealing eulogies to reggae song styling, but both appallingly trite, lyrically speaking,” carped Chris Bohn in his Melody Maker review.
The previous week an interview with Joe had appeared in NME by Charles Shaar Murray, a distinct volte-face from his “garage band” review of the Clash’s “Screen on the Green” show. Joe plugged “our film. It’s called Rudi [sic] Can’t Fail. Ray Gange is the boy from nowhere.” He described the attitude of the Clash to their alleged management crisis: “You could say that us and PIL are working in a Jamaican kind of way: we do what we feel like, soon come, but there’s still that burning question—‘What the fuck are they doing?’ It’s got to be answered, and that’s why we’re gonna get hold of some guy in America to do the American end and we’ll handle things here ourselves, or maybe we’ll work with someone we know.
“We’re working on quite a wide front. We got all these things cookin’ and we’re trying to bring ‘em to the boil. We’ve had our fill of bullshit, and now we’re back to the drawing board. We’re really fucked, but I don’t think we’re fucked enough to quit. We’re way beyond that.” In the interview, in Finches pub on Fulham Road, near where he was living with Gaby, Joe told the writer about the group’s state of play: “I’m a man whose knees are dusty from begging on record company floors. I got no pride—but I wanna survive and I want the Clash to survive. The only thing that we got is the Clash.
“We’ve got some crazy ideas like… some LPs, like a Bee Gees LP, will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to make, so they’re gonna cost— what is it now?—six quid soon. Suppose a group came along and decided to make a 16-track LP on two Teacs, which dramatically diminishes the cost factor called ‘studio costs.’ Suppose you presented that tape to the record company and told ‘em that it cost just those few quid to make. So even when they’ve added their mark-ups and a cut for him, you can still get a fucking LP for two or three quid. So why can’t that be cost-related?”
In another interview, with Dave McCullough and Gary Bushell of Sounds, both of whom were willfully unimpressed with the group’s new material and with punk in general, Joe continued this theme, making a prophetic remark that would have an adverse effect on the finances of the Clash—although it would enhance their reputation and legend. “There will be no six quid Clash LP ever. Why don’t ya ring up the other bands and get them to say that?”
Such paternal favor toward the fans might have been appreciated by a surprise visitor to Notre Dame. As Joe told the audience, among them was Ron Mellor, his father, the first time he had seen his son perform with the Clash. (When Don Letts’s Punk Rock Movie premiered at the ICA, Iain Gillies learned of the pride behind Ron Mellor’s cynical mask of indifference. “Ron and Anna laughingly told me the tale of a trip of Ron’s to Heathrow Airport to pick up a diplomat friend who was returning from somewhere overseas. The friend started regaling Ron with tales of recent diplomatic doings. Ron hushed him and said, ‘You can tell me all about this later. There’s somewhere I have to go.’ Ron drove straight to the ICA, where Don Letts’s Punk film was showing. When they got to the ticket counter, they were told it was sold out. Ron’s highly ranked friend let loose both barrels of the Empire. ‘Do you realize who this man is?’ he demanded of the ticket seller. ‘This is Joe Strummer’s father!’ Two ICA office armchairs were rolled into the front row of the cinema and Ron and his friend watched the show compliments of the house.”)
The Notre Dame shows served as warm-up dates for a concert eight days later, in which the Clash returned to the Rainbow, a defense fund benefit following a racist attack by skinheads on a pub in Southall in West London. The Clash was supported by the English reggae group Aswad and the Members (whose singer Nicky Tesco was now living with Joe’s school friend Annie Day). The political events behind the Rainbow shows bore a weighty significance, only increasing the status of the group. Apart from a cash-raising festival in Finland the next month, the group regimen that summer was hardly ruffled. “We lost Bernie and we sort of crashed,” Joe said to me. “And I think this is where we proved ourselves. We stayed in some shithole in Pimlico for five months, day in and day out, and then we just bowled into Wessex and knocked off London Calling in about three weeks.”
Filming on Rude Boy was complete. David Mingay went down to Vanilla to remind the group of their promise to write a song for the end-title music. Joe pretended they’d forgotten about it. But they already had the tune, “Rudie Can’t Fail,” a song that used the faster reggae rhythm of the late 1960s. It was one of the Clash’s best tunes, a timeless number, written especially to link up with the Rude Boy title. “It was written about Ray being a drunken idiot,” Mingay said, “and Joe particularly put that line in—‘drinking brew for breakfast.’ Myself and Jack Hazan went there to hear what they were doing. They delivered it on time, efficiently and professionally. They weren’t rebellious in any way where their work was concerned.”
When the two filmmakers visited Vanilla, Joe was working on the vocals of another new song, “Death or Glory.” While filming Rude Boy, Joe had told David Mingay of his love of Casablanca, the 1942 cinematic masterpiece starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, a regular treat on television. “Death or Glory” has intriguing lyrics, cynical, world-weary, perhaps revelatory. Joe makes both a statement of intent and a comment on the reality of that intent. Is Joe considering himself in the marvelous second verse? “I believe in this, and it’s been tested by research / That he who fucks nuns will later join the church.”
The song misquotes Casablanca, a takeoff of the film’s famous set-piece song, “As Time Goes By,” and its lines “It’s just the same old story / A tale of love and glory.” “He admitted to me that he had twisted it around from ‘As Time Goes By,’” said David Mingay. “I think he was always worried—or at least romantically interested—in the idea that it should all end in an intensity that could cause death, as had happened with Sid Vicious. That for the icon of being a rock star to really work it would have to die, to die young.”
The line “He who fucks nuns will later join the church”—clearly not taken from the lyrics of “As Time Goes By”—always seemed greatly significant, Joe speaking of his own dilemmas and internal difficulties: the anarchist squatter who in some way regarded himself as a failure or traitor for having broken with his past and joined the Clash—where a different form of conformity was called for. In his battle with himself, Joe couldn’t win. Don Letts said, “The problem with Joe is that he sees everything in terms of black and white: always one or the other. He doesn’t realize that there are all these shades of gray in the middle. He’s beating himself up over that.” But most of that was yet to come. It would grow much larger before it was fully visible.
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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.