Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer
(Faber and Faber)
The Us Festival audience of 150,000 was the biggest the group had ever played in front of, larger than any of the Who stadium crowds. In the late spring evening heat of southern California, irritable from the fractious day, Joe proved anger really can be power: even though it was impossible for the spectator to dismiss the element of corporate ritualization of rebellion, Joe was in fine, hectoring form as he used his soapbox platform. He’d once said that he took his energy for a show from the last person who caught his eye as he stepped onstage, but now it was as though he had caught the eye of an entire society. “All right then,” he declared as he stepped to the microphone, “here we are in the capital of the decadent U.S. of A.” Whether from self-knowledge, masochism, or blind enthusiasm for the headlining act, the audience responded with cheers to Joe’s geographically imprecise smear. “This here set of music,” he continued somewhat ungrammatically, “is now dedicated to making sure that the people in the crowd who have children there is something left for them later in the centuries.” (If that sounds an unusual preoccupation for Joe, there might have been something at the back of his mind; for Joe had a new influence in his life, something that often draws out strange undercurrents of previously repressed emotions and vulnerability in a man, something that can lead to radical decisions: Gaby had learned that she was pregnant, a child due at the end of the year.) And the Clash pounded into their first song, the inevitable “London Calling.”
Joe no longer wore his hair in a Mohican, but had it swept back into a DA. He was dressed in a white sleeveless jeans jacket and white cotton pants; by contrast, Mick was in a silver-studded black jacket and red shirt; Paul wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with the first Clash album cover— available at the merchandising stand—and camouflage trousers. After the second tune, “Somebody Got Murdered,” Joe returned to his theme, addressing the source of the wealth that had staged the event, and, again throwing away grammatical speech constructions, taking up the issue of American consumption. “I know the human race is supposed to get down on its hands and knees in front of all this new technology and kiss the microchip circus,” he barked, before—as Joe would—delivering an uNMEntionable truth. “But it don’t impress me over much that there ain’t nothing but You Buy. You-make-you-buy-you-die. That’s the motto of America—you get born to buy it.
“And,” he added, with considerable prescience, nine years before the L.A. riots, “these people out in East L.A. they aren’t going to stay there forever. And if there’s anything going to be in the future, it’s gonna be from all parts of everything—not just one white way down the middle of the road…So if anybody out there ever grows up ...For fuck’s sake…,” he snapped, before belting into “Rock the Casbah,” their biggest ever hit in the United States. Does this make him a hypocrite? I don’t think so. Joe was the personification of Carl Jung’s view that all great truths must end in paradox—when I once mentioned that to him, he nodded with his customary sage glee, this man who, as Sean Carasov pointed out, was wired up differently to other folk.
Satire raised its head in his introduction to “Armagideon Time,” with its theme of world starvation, as he referred to a faddish diet of the time—“The F-Plan Beverly Hills reggae song.” A great performance, sweat running down his face; Pete Howard handled himself commendably on the reggae beat. “Lose five hundred pounds. Success guaranteed. Or your money back.” Then he returned to scolding the Californian audience. “Bollocks, bollocks! You don’t have to fake it. You’re paying twenty-five dollars to be out there, so do what you like. Also a lot of you seem to have had speech operations: you can’t talk or shout back. I need some hostility here. You know: aaargghhh! I need some feeling of some sort. Some collective, you know, Hey we’re all alive at the same time. As it’s Sunday tomorrow, I hope you’ll join me in this . . .” And he ran straight into the Sunday service tones of “The Sound of Sinners,” emphasizing the song’s greatest line: “The message on the tablets was Valium.”
Then—apart from throwing down the brief conundrum “The people on this stage… we’re nowhere. Can you understand that?”—Joe seemed to decide to rebuke his constituency no longer. The Clash thundered through another seven songs, until they closed the set proper with an extraordinary version of “The Magnificent Seven.”
They came back to play three encores. On the customarily epic “Straight to Hell” Joe seemed off-key, struggling with his breathing, as though his voice wasn’t holding up. But the next song gave him a break, Mick Jones taking the lead on “Should I Stay or Should I Go”; without trying to force the symbolism, hindsight lends this an enormous resonance. But on the final song at the Us Festival, “Clampdown,” with its references to the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, Joe took off again in a stream-ofconsciousness: “Nuclear power stations—don’t kid yourselves—they ain’t got any fuckin’ idea!...A nation of boneheads. Bonehead has come to pass!” Back into the chorus. And off stage. This was the biggest live audience platform Joe Strummer ever had in his life. Having as so often made it hard for himself in the first place, he ended up using it very well indeed.
There was a scuffle as the group left the stage, an altercation with the DJ, who had started to play records, preventing the Clash returning for a further encore. Mick Jones and members of the stage crew exchanged punches, Mick giving a good account of himself, according to Kosmo Vinyl. “I got in a fight with some people at the end of the Us Festival,” said Kosmo, “and Mick muscled in. He’d go down with you.” “At the Us Festival me and Mick weren’t talking at all,” said Paul. “But I saw a bloke hitting Mick, and took him out. It patched us up for the time being.”
Chris Chappel, a friend of Mick, was backstage watching the show; Chris was Bruce Springsteen’s tour manager and knew the requisite professional behavior in such circumstances: he hurried to find Bernie Rhodes to tell him about the incident. As at the Glasgow Apollo in July 1978, when Joe and Paul had been arrested, the manager of the Clash showed no interest. Then Bernie threw another agenda into the mix. “Anyway,” he said, playing a hitherto unknown card, “Mick’s not long for this group.”
Meanwhile, Sean Carasov went out into the crowd with Joe, to check on the merchandising stall, Joe suggesting ways to better display the T-shirts. “There was a lot of mumbling about Mick, and you could tell that Bernie was lobbying to get Mick kicked out. Joe told me that Bernie was trying to figure out how to get rid of him. Mick was the rock star in the group and loved the festival vibe; the others couldn’t give a shit. You could tell there was something going on—there was a bad vibe. Mick seemed oblivious to it. He was digging the festival thing.
“When they decided to work with Bernie again, I thought it was like that line from The Godfather : ‘Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.’ There was immediate mistrust. I thought it was ridiculous what he was doing. The paranoia and megalomania from him was getting worse.”
After the Us Festival the Clash went to Las Vegas for a brief break. “Bernie gave us a thousand bucks each and twenty-four hours to make our fortunes,” said Mick. “So we all hit Caesar’s Palace. I finally hit lucky on a slot machine in the airport departure lounge: fifty dollars on my way out.” “I found myself walking along the Strip,” said Joe. “It was pretty good. Then I started talking to Vietnam veterans who were drinking bottles out of brown paper bags. So I had an entertaining night.”
* * *
That summer, Ron and Anna Mellor traveled up to Scotland to visit Bonar Bridge, the first time they had been there in twenty years. Harry and Margaret Gillies, the parents of Iain, Anna, Rona and Alasdair, went to stay at 15 Court Farm Road, looking after Lulu, a cat Joe had given his parents. Ron and Anna had a wonderful time, even managing a visit to Raasay. When they stopped at a tiny village called Clashmore near Dornoch, Ron had Anna take a picture of him standing with mischievous pride in front of the village’s boundary sign, his torso deliberately obscuring the second syllable of the place name.
When Ron and Anna Mellor returned to Upper Warlingham from Bonar Bridge, Harry Gillies went to Glasgow, leaving his wife at Court Farm Road; she wanted to spend a few more days with her sister, she said. By now, Anna seemed to Joe’s cousin Gerry King to have become “a quite solitary figure, and very fragile. She wouldn’t cook anymore, and they would get pre-made meals.” Six weeks later, back in Glasgow, Margaret Gillies died suddenly of a heart attack.
For the second time in two months Ron and Anna made the long journey to Bonar Bridge. At the burial another man, fifteen years younger and several inches taller than Ron Mellor, tried to claim Joe’s father’s position on the coffin. Ron elbowed him out of the way and took up his place.
But Ron Mellor was not well himself. In 1976 the Foreign Office had put him “out to pasture,” as he described it, at the Public Records Office in Kew. Each weekday morning he would catch a train up to London Bridge station, then transfer to the tube for the journey to Kew in West London, a tiring, three-hour round trip every day. The work had its rewards: Ron Mellor was offered grateful dedications in the forewords of a number of books. After the extremely steep climb to Court Farm Road from the station, having poured himself a reviving glass of his favorite beer, Ron would sometimes theatrically pat his heart, parodying the effect the upward hike had had on him. Around the turn of the decade he had suffered a heart attack, but soon recovered. There was a history of coronary ailments on both sides of the family.
* * *
The Clash’s inactivity earlier in 1983 had been blamed on an alleged reluctance by Mick Jones to tour. “We were just at the point when we had to give it another shove,” Joe told me later. “There sometimes comes a time when you simply have to keep going.” On the other hand, you might feel that the Clash’s bill-topping appearance at the Us Festival indicated the goal had been achieved, and creativity always benefits from periods of lying fallow. Besides, Mick disputed the argument: “One of the things Bernie was saying was that I didn’t want to tour. But that wasn’t true at all. I wanted a different tour, of places we hadn’t been. I thought this was a chance to go to somewhere like South America.”
It seems clear it already had been decided that Mick Jones, the founder of the Clash, was to be fired from his group. But it was not Bernie who had come up with this. “Joe and I had been discussing it as far back as just after ‘London Calling,’” said Paul. “I used to have screaming rows with Mick in the studio. It wasn’t Bernie who wanted to do it. It was us. Bernie didn’t even know it was going to happen. We knew we were cutting our arm off, but we felt it had to be better than it was.”
Not that Bernie didn’t play his part in the situation—in the middle of the summer he became incensed when, after presenting Joe, Paul and Mick with a management contract to sign, Mick demanded that his lawyer read it. While this may have seemed like nothing more than sensible behavior, Bernie wound Joe up about it, claiming this showed Mick thought he was above everyone else. It might also seem extremely naïve of Joe and Paul that they did not contact a lawyer for professional advice over this legal document—and that they didn’t see Bernie’s remarks were designed to make them feel angry. “The others signed it,” said Mick, “so that put big pressure on me. Bernie said, ‘Why don’t you give your power of attorney to your solicitor. Then I can sort it out with him and you don’t have to worry about it.’ I temporarily did that. Then he went to the others and went, ‘Look, Mick only wants to talk to you through his lawyers.’ He got them all worked up. So they all started to get on my case. ‘If he’s doing that, he must have gone off his head into lawyer-land.’”
The simple fact is that one day in the last week of August 1983, Mick Jones found that—almost unprecedentedly—he had arrived before the others at Rehearsal Rehearsals, where they were attempting to write new songs. Then something strange happened. An unexpected visitor called by: Topper Headon. “It’s weird,” he said. “I was in Camden Town. I thought, ‘I’ll go and see the Clash.’ I went to Rehearsal Rehearsals, and Mick was there. I saw Pete’s kit, and I had a go, and we were jamming away. Then I said, ‘I’d better go.’ Mick said, ‘Yeah, I don’t know where the others are. I’m normally last.’”
Topper left. Mick went to a bookshop. When he returned (“Late as always,” Paul said to me, the kind of mix-up that overstands the entire affair), Joe and Paul had arrived. “We want you to leave the group,” said Joe. “What do you think?” Mick turned to Paul. “Yeah,” said Paul. “I want you to go.” “I put my guitar in my case,” Mick told me, “picked it up, and walked out.” Bernie Rhodes ran after him and pressed a check into his hand. “Like giving you a gold watch when you retire,” said Mick.
“So I left,” said Topper, “and after I’d gone the others turned up and sacked him, that same day. And he, like me, had no idea he was going to be sacked, which shows that Joe could be quite devious. I think the rot had set in before I went. They cut me out, but the cancer had spread.”
“At the Hall of Fame,” said Mick, “both Paul and Kosmo told me it wasn’t Bernie who fired me. I was really surprised because I always thought it had been. Maybe it was the same thing as what happened with Keith [Levene] where there’s a collective thought that everyone picks up on and goes, ‘Yeah!’ And then you’re done,” he chortled.
Mick acknowledged that he had not readily accepted the return of Bernie in 1981. “Joe delivered an ultimatum to me and the others, who were less resistant, that Bernie had to come back, or he’s off. I was really in Bernie’s face all the time after that. I didn’t deal with it very well. I wish I’d handled it better. I was really not being nice. He was trying, and I was shouting at him. But I was so suspicious. Riddled with it,” he laughed, “by that time.
“But when it happened it was horrible for weeks afterward. I felt I couldn’t go anywhere. Walking around at the carnival that weekend was horrible, because everybody lived in the same area. Really fucking horrible. I grew a beard. Dyed my hair for a couple of days. I wanted to change my identity. It was traumatic. It took me ages to get over it. It took all of us ages to get over it. The whole thing. Now I look back and think it was all supposed to be. That’s the way it turned out, and the way things are. Not so bad.”
As the founder of the Clash, Mick acknowledged he had always perceived it as his own group. “So it was weird, being kicked out of your own group. Later I realized how pointless was the fuss and the pain that I went through over Combat Rock: no one really remembers now how high the hi-hat was or the cymbals. They only remember that it did really great, and everybody benefited from it. So all that pain was for nothing. The original is very contemporary. But the real record is better, so lasting. It turned out all right for everybody. I shouldn’t have put myself through all that grief.”
Kosmo Vinyl was in a greasy-spoon café opposite Rehearsal Rehearsals when Mick crossed the street from the studio and entered. “He said, ‘They’ve sacked me.’ It’s one of those days you play around forever. I was shocked. He wore gloves, Mick, and he had his guitar in a case. He got in a taxi. Did I know they were going to sack him? No. But if Joe was here he’d say he’d been left no other option by me and Bernie. I can honestly say I did not know that Mick was going to get fired, but I would later say to myself, ‘What did you think was going down?’
“My curse and my blessing is that I can understand both Bernie and Mick,” Kosmo said to me late one freezing December night in the Dublin Castle on Manhattan’s West 72nd Street, where he now lives. Significantly perhaps, he doesn’t say “Joe and Mick.” “I fall on both sides of their civil war. Civil wars have more atrocities and bloodlust than anything.” As we talked “Death or Glory” came on the jukebox. “Speak of the devil and he shall arrive,” laughed Kosmo, sadness in his eyes.
The news pages of the September 10, 1983, edition of NME carried a press release: “Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon have decided that Mick Jones should leave the group. It is felt that Jones had drifted away from the original idea of the Clash. In future, it will allow Joe and Paul to get on with the job the Clash set out to do from the beginning.” The same edition carried a rebuke from Mick Jones: “I would like to state that the official press statement is untrue. I would like to make it clear that there was no discussion with Strummer and Simonon prior to my being sacked. I certainly do not feel that I have drifted apart from the original idea of the Clash, and in future I’ll be carrying on in the same direction as in the beginning.”
Is it not when Mick Jones leaves the Clash that the legend of the group is truly born? For now their story takes on every dynamic of life: betrayal, arrogance, art. A further problem was removed for Joe: although the egalitarian concept behind the cosongwriting credits of all members on the last two albums had been admirable, Joe had told Kosmo he regretted the Clash cowriting credit, because it diminished his and Mick’s reputations as songwriters. “Joe was fiercely proud of his writing,” said Kosmo.
The one fundamental flaw in the firing of Mick Jones was something no one seemed to have thought out, an indication of the corrupted thinking that lay behind this entire egregious act: with the exception of Topper’s “Rock the Casbah,” it was Mick who wrote almost all the music—getting rid of him was madness. “We didn’t think,” said Kosmo. “‘Anyone can write a punk rock song!’ That was our mistake.” By dumping Mick, a problem may have been solved for Joe, as he perceived it, peering out of the narrow chink in his personal doorway that week. But another was about to be introduced. What the surviving members were as yet unaware of was that Bernie Rhodes believed he had a solution to this: he would take charge of the music. After all, his former cohort Malcolm McLaren had become a musical artist in his own right with hit singles like “Buffalo Gals” in December 1982 and “Double Dutch” in July 1983, as well as his Duck Rock album the same year.
Artistic development often comes at the expense of other areas of the personality: the requisite drive can have its roots in deep personal damage, the kind of painful experience that ultimately can deliver the gift of wisdom. As singer with the 101’ers, Joe had come to punk rock from a different direction than almost everyone else in the movement, a slightly older guy than the other players, and perhaps therefore more anxious about the passing of time. In firing Mick Jones, Joe committed one of those acts of amputation with which he seemed to have become almost comfortable. Mick was a man of the collective, someone who loved the idea of a community, a great idealist who valued loyalty. Like a lion with his pride (perhaps an apposite word), Joe also liked the idea of a gang—so long as he stood out as king. “I remember the day Joe sacked Mick,” said Pete Howard. “I hadn’t heard from them since we got back from America. Joe called me up. He’s almost threatening—‘I’ve sacked him. Are you with me?’”
* * *
Across the world people were shocked by the departure of Mick Jones from a group in which they had invested a large part of their lives, and in whose apparently against-the-odds success they had taken much comfort. “When it did happen for me,” said Marc Zermati, remembering when he heard about it, “it was the biggest catastrophe in rock ‘n’ roll history. That was the end of it, the end of rock ‘n’ roll. The last big rock ‘n’ roll band is the Clash. After that rock ‘n’ roll was just counterfeit. I was really fucked up and depressed about it. But then Paul asked me to choose. ‘You have to choose: it’s us or Mick.’ I said, ‘Sorry, it’s Mick.’
“Suddenly everything falls apart, part of the rock ‘n’ roll story very often. I was expecting them to be more clever, as human beings, because Joe as a human being should have understood. But he wanted to be the leader.”
When the Clash had played at Bond’s, Don Letts had observed how much the emergent hiphop had influenced the group—most of all Mick Jones: “Joe could make the cultural and social connection, whereas Mick would make the musical connection, almost to the point where it was too much for Paul and Joe. Mick had a great foresight to see where contemporary sounds were going. They say he was driven out of the band for rock-star behavior, but I maintain that we need a bit of rock-star behavior. Who else is going to do it? Mick can be a difficult bastard. What did Joe say? ‘Elizabeth Taylor on a bad hair day.’ Though you can’t fault Mick for trying to boldly go where no rock band had gone before. It was great when they did the reggae stuff and the hiphop, and the Latin rhythms coming off the street.
“In the Clash Mick didn’t have any backup, whereas Joe did from Bernie. Bernie gave that madness some shape and form and made it seem like it was an intellectual decision. Joe was goaded on by Bernie, that’s how I see it. It has to be said, that was one of Joe’s faults—he could be directed by a manager, and also by women sometimes. He’d tell you one thing and then he’d go in the next room and somebody would say something that was the opposite and he’d be there, agreeing with them, and he’d hope that the two of you wouldn’t meet.”
Like Marc Zermati, Don Letts was obliged to personally feel the brunt of the Stalinist revisionism taking place. “When Mick got kicked out I was still in America working on Clash on Broadway. I got a phone call from Paul saying, ‘We’ve had to get rid of Mick. If you are going to stay friends with Mick you can’t really stay friends with us.’ I felt really bad for Paul. Paul was obviously made to do this call. I said, ‘Sorry, Paul, but the very fact you’re saying that is a decision in itself. So if I don’t see you for a while so be it.’ We didn’t speak for a while, and I stayed friends with Mick.
“It seemed like the sort of thing that Joe would always do anyway. Just as success is about to embrace him, he’d make a left turn and destroy it. I don’t know what that was about.”
* * *
Five years after Mick Jones was kicked out of the Clash I sat down with Joe in Notting Hill and he told me what he thought had gone on between himself and Mick. “I mean really, he was pushed out by a power struggle. Bernie convinced me and Paul that we should get rid of him. We went along with it. Because even Mick’ll tell you he was being extremely uncooperative and it was no longer a pleasure to see him. It was very difficult to get anything done. So we thought we’d try and carry on without him, which obviously proved to be a mistake.”
Although the triumph of topping the bill at the Us Festival had been the zenith of the group’s success, the shows opening for the Who appeared in Joe’s eyes to have led to the disintegration of the Clash. “If there is a message in the music, it reaches beyond a kind of accepted gig format. It must somehow connect with the real life that people are leading. Stars do not lead real lives, and that’s why I’m glad we came to a halt and the whole thing fell apart. Because I couldn’t really see any future ahead of us if we were going to become like the Who. I watched very closely at those gigs at Shea Stadium and Oakland Coliseum and those places, because I could see in five or six years that would really be the only place we could expect to be at. That would be the definition of everybody’s success. That’s what you’re doing this for. But I thought, Well, what is that? That’s nowheresville! That isn’t living. Standing there singing the songs while it got bigger and bigger toward the end, for some reason I began to feel worse and worse. It’s to do with what those songs are saying. It was all right when we were part of the audience, part of a movement. Like in the Electric Circus in Manchester, somehow it was real. But once it became thousands of miles removed from that I began to freak out. It had become a parody of itself. Perhaps there’s only a certain amount of times that you can actually play songs before it becomes meaningless. Or kind of ridiculous.”
In 1995 Joe expanded on the firing of Mick Jones in a conversation with his friend, the actor Keith Allen. “Do you regret that?” Keith asked him.
“Yeah, of course. You see I hadn’t understood what the game was. The game was that Bernie had decided to become an artist. What I didn’t spot that I should’ve spotted was that Malcolm had become an artist, releasing albums, and Bernie decided he wanted some of that. He knew he wasn’t going to get any with Mick Jones in the group, because Mick was the sort of musical director. Bernie stepped in and stupidly I allowed that to happen. I mean, that was the end. It’s my fault about the end, definitely. But then maybe the idea had run its course.”
* * *
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.