Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer
(Faber and Faber)
In November 1988 Joe moved to Los Angeles with Gaby, Jazz, and Lola. As he had told me that summer, it was the moment to make a record of his own. He booked three months at Baby O Recorders, where he had made the Permanent Record soundtrack. The musicians were a version of the Latino Rockabilly War: Zander Schloss on lead guitar and vocals, Lonnie Marshall—a new recruit—on bass and vocals and Willie McNeil on drums. It must have been a hard decision for Joe to finally stop putting off the inevitable next step, but it was also a logical one; things had been successfully building ever since the Walker album; there had been Permanent Record, the Pogues tour, the Lone Star Rockabilly War tour, and the small detour into acting in Mystery Train. While making Walker, followed by the spurt of Permanent Record songs, Joe had rediscovered his voice. He had learned how to write songs on his own, without the musical input of Mick Jones. Contrary to what he had vowed in 1986, Joe Strummer’s first solo album would not be called Throwdown or be produced by Mick Jones. Its name was Earthquake Weather, with Joe himself at the production helm, though the title, which carried its own in-built sense of brooding, dangerous power, was still to come to him. Working in Hollywood on his own record was a move to virgin territory for Joe. The Clash had never recorded in L.A.; there were no memories, good or bad. There was a freshness in the step of his broken boot when he was in the city, touched like everyone by its seductive, warm whispers of fecund possibilities.
Joe and his family rented a small house off Fairfax in the Russian section of West Hollywood. He had decided—for the meantime, at least—he was going to make his home in Los Angeles. (A year later he told Sounds about his experiences of life in L.A.: “There are people that successfully go out there and live, but they always look like an expatriate colony. And there’s always something a bit sad about standing in an English pub on Sunset Strip where everything has been carved deliberately trying to look like a boozer.”)
While recording, Joe confided to Mark “Stebs” Stebbeds, the engineer, that he was thinking of moving permanently to New Orleans. “Gangsterville,” the song that opens the record, contains the line “I’m going to New Orleans—gonna buy me a prayer.” “He was still giving himself a raw deal most of the time,” said Gerry Harrington. “We were having breakfast at the Chateau Marmont. I’d bought a copy of Q magazine which had a feature, ‘The 100 Dumbest Things Ever Done by Musicians,’ which included Joe doing a runner from the Clash and going to France. They wrote: ‘Joe Strummer always spoke in capital letters.’ He read that. He goes: ‘Yes. I DO ALWAYS SPEAK IN CAPITAL LETTERS.’”
The Clash and its spin-offs were temporarily out of fashion. BAD’s record sales were dwindling, though they would pick up in the next decade. Yet this was the climate in which Joe would release his first solo album. To try to tune him in to contemporary sounds, Gerry Harrington had a tactic: “Every time I found a great new record, I’d want Joe to hear it so he could see he could be better himself. When ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ by the Waterboys came out, I thought it was a great song. I played it to him. He said, ‘The problem is he’s saying what he feels. Bob Dylan doesn’t say, “I walked through a door.” He says, “There was smoke in the air.” He doesn’t say the obvious. This guy’s hitting it on the head. It’s just not interesting.’ I’d never thought about it that way. Joe always cut right down to the essence. Except when he didn’t. I also wanted him to hear Lou Reed’s New York album. But he didn’t want to be daunted while recording by a great work that he was going to have to equal. He goes: ‘Lou Reed? Is it really great?’ ‘It’s fucking great.’ He goes: ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ I said: ‘This guy’s ten years older than you. He’s found a way to write older, more mature rock music and get a lot of people to listen to it. You should check it out.’ ‘I don’t want to hear it, man.’” It is worth noting that for much of the end of the 1980s Joe’s favorite record was Paul Simon’s Graceland, a clear influence on the way he was to integrate more ethnic sounds into the rock ‘n’ roll structure of the Latino Rockabilly War. Graceland was an interesting choice, for here Joe was taking a politically incorrect line. Simon had gone out on a limb, using South African musicians when there was a ban on working with artists from the apartheid-riven nation. But Joe felt that through Paul Simon’s record people in the Midwest became acquainted with the true art of South Africa, gaining information about the iniquities of apartheid. (In a more pronounced politically incorrect moment, Joe declared to Stuart Maconie in NME that a rush of pride secretly ran through him when English soccer hooligans ran amok attending overseas matches; he himself admitted that he had overstepped the mark and contacted Maconie to tell him this.)...
* * *
Joe’s production method was pretty much the same hands-off approach he had used on the Walker soundtrack. Although he was credited as the producer of the record, the songs were arranged—often in Joe’s absence—by Zander Schloss. “Joe was involved with the structure of the songs, but after the basic tracks were cut he left it to the band to finish them,” said Mark. “I think in doing that the guys in the band who weren’t as experienced as Joe, and didn’t have the same history of recording, became a little self-indulgent. Some of the songs were great in the way they came out, but I think other ones took a wrong direction and perhaps could have had a little more Joe Strummer influence. We wouldn’t see him for hours at a time, and he didn’t really know what was on the record until it was time to mix it.”
Joe’s customary disappearing acts often concerned his need for input for his lyrics. “When it was time for him to sing and the lyrics weren’t written,” recalled Mark Stebbeds, “he’d have a favorite cabdriver he would call, and the driver would drive him round the city for a couple of hours. I can’t tell you how the lyrics he wrote related to what he saw out there on the street, but somehow it would obviously stir up his juices. Joe kept a mild state of mellowness going on, smoking English joints, which weren’t heavily laced with pot. He had two kinds of pot: he called them ‘work pot’ and ‘after pot.’ But the stuff in the studio was quite weak. He didn’t drink much. Sometimes he would get some brandy. He was very much into the whole Latino thing, so he would get Mexican brandy, horrible stuff, but he would drink it because the owner of the studio was Mexican and he figured it was the least he could do.”
A few times Joe slept in the studio, locked into the building, until it was opened up again the next morning. “He would take the couch cushions and throw them on the floor and sleep in the studio,” Stebbeds remembered. Life at Baby O was not dissimilar to that at 101 Walterton Road. “He had these motorcycle-type boots,” Stebbeds continued, “the heel was falling off. People would bring him replacement boots: ‘Here, have a pair that actually work.’ But he wouldn’t wear them because they weren’t comfortable.” Joe’s personal hygiene, recalled Gerry Harrington, also suggested someone still coping with life in a squat. “He’d be in the studio all the time, so he’d shower there, and put soap in his hair to slick it back. You’d see coagulated soap in his hair all the time. But he wasn’t neglecting his brain: he was always a great reader, and he had a history of the New York Yankees and then started talking knowledgeably about Joe DiMaggio. He was like a little book warehouse.”
“Let’s rock again!” Joe’s opening words that almost fade you into Earthquake Weather do not hint at the epic struggle with himself that Joe had had to make the record. The volume of that declamation is at a lower level than “Gangsterville,” which bursts open immediately after it, the first song. Are those three words muted and uncertain, as has been suggested? Or do they emerge like an Apache war cry ringing down from atop an Arizonan butte? I know which I think. I never had any problem with the way Joe’s voice is allegedly hidden away in the mix on this record—after a time, and with the aid of the lyric sheet in the record, all the words were perfectly clear to me. You’ve simply to listen to Joe’s vocals on Earthquake Weather via a slight adjustment in your hearing and thinking, like you would the first time you hear how the words and music are layered around each other on Studio One records. The way Joe Strummer’s voice is mixed down on Earthquake Weather is often taken as proof of his inner doubt about the project, and it could be diagnosed that way. Yet there is a simpler explanation: “Joe was not in good voice when we recorded this record,” recalled Mark Stebbeds. “He wasn’t physically ill but he hadn’t been singing a lot. His voice had largely been sitting idle for several years, so it wasn’t that powerful.” ...
* * *
In the studio Joe was driven by a blinkered ruthlessness. One night Willie McNeil, the drummer, made a classic error: when at four in the morning Joe asked him for one more take, he protested he was too tired and would do it the next day. That was it. “You’re fired.”
They were more than halfway through the album; who could they get in as a replacement? Ginger Baker, stalwart former member of supergroup Cream and recently playing with John Lydon, was in Los Angeles, up for a gig. Joe had concerns that, as Ginger was an even more seasoned professional than he was, there were possibilities for strife—and he’d had enough of that in groups. But there was an even more unlikely candidate: a former drummer with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who had suffered a nervous breakdown after the group’s guitar player, his best friend, had OD’d on heroin that summer. More than anything, Joe was taken by his name: “Mr…. Jack… Irons!,” as Joe would introduce him onstage.
“I told Joe I was impressed by Jack Irons,” said Lonnie Marshall. “I had gone to an audition once, and the Chili Peppers were rehearsing there. Jack Irons was rehearsing on his own, playing all the grooves by himself. I thought that was impressive: I’d never seen a drummer practicing by himself. I told Joe that. He kept saying, ‘Jack Irons! What a name for a drummer. Jack-Irons-Jack-Irons.’”
“I got a phone call in the hospital from Dick Rude, and he says, ‘Joe wants you to play with him,’” said Jack. “I said, ‘I’m not doing too good, but I love Joe and I love the Clash.’ So I got a day pass from the hospital and I got my girlfriend at the time to drive me to Hollywood, to Baby O.”
Jack’s problems with his own reality seemed even greater than Joe’s. “The first time we got together,” said Zander, “Jack’s eyes were rolling back in his head, like he was hearing voices or something. He gets up and says, ‘I’m going to go in the bathroom and look in the mirror and see if I’m still here!’”
On his return, Joe said, “Let’s try a song.” “Two takes later I cut the song: ‘Jewellers and Bums,’” said Jack. “Joe said, ‘You’ve got the job, whenever you’re ready. Whenever you can get out.’” “Jewellers and Bums” moves along to its own internal rhythms, a very Clash driving rock song, a Death-or-Glory-like insistence, with added melody. Addictive stuff.
The Earthquake Weather sessions took more than three months, with a brief break for Christmas. How was Joe functioning in the studio? He seemed to see his role more in the tradition of a movie producer than a music producer. “He does this great record, in the studio every night for almost four months,” remembered Gerry Harrington. “He’s doing everything from buying guitar strings to taking the petty cash and getting it reimbursed.”
In the Clash, apart from Combat Rock, Joe had taken a backseat to Mick Jones. Josh Cheuse believed it was harder without Mick. “For Joe it was hard to not have Mick to fight against, I think. When everyone’s deferring to him, it’s a very different situation.”
As the record neared completion, an official delegation, headed by Muff Winwood, arrived from the record company in London (CBS had become part of the Japanese giant Sony). Joe ran off in response. “I couldn’t find Joe anywhere, so I came home,” said Gerry Harrington. When Gerry arrived at his place, not far from Baby O, he found a sheet of yellow legal paper nailed to the door. “Dear Gerry, I’ve gone to the desert. I’ll be back on: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Sorry if I’ve inconvenienced you. Joe.” Around the word “Thursday” Joe had drawn a circle. “He could have just written: ‘Gone to the desert—be back Thursday.’ He had to write the other six days. That’s why you’ve got Sandinista! being a three-disc set. Joe could not even edit himself.”
“He did run away,” said Muff Winwood. “I’ve had other artists do the same thing—just run away. I understood it.” But Tricia Ronane, by now living with Paul Simonon and having been given charge of the Clash’s business affairs, felt there was a subtext: when Joe had declared to Sony his intention to make Earthquake Weather, Winwood immediately had asked to hear demos of the songs Joe intended to record. “He was offended,” said Tricia. “Joe’s attitude was that he was one of the songwriters with the Clash who had had a big-selling album with Combat Rock. So why was he being asked to play demos? It had a profound effect on Joe and dented his confidence.”
When Joe did return from the desert, on the Thursday, for his meeting, it seemed he had never heard of the golden rule: when presenting any idea to “suits,” never indicate a single shred of doubt, because if you do, that is all they will pick up on. Joe’s deference and humility were not what was required at that point. “Here it is. I’m not sure that you’ll really like it,” he undersold his work to the record company execs, immediately before pressing Play. They said they wanted to hear more Joe guitar on the record. And went back to London.
Muff Winwood was given a copy of the tape. He listened to it; whatever bothered him about the record, he expressed to Mark Stebbeds. Then he received a letter from Joe: “Muff, only you, me and the Stebbeds know this stuff. I’ve been a bit of a hermit of late. Love to the wife. You’re a rock. Down with Bros [Sony’s biggest English act of the time]. Love Joe.” Then Joe listed the twenty quibbles that Muff had with the record, and rebuffed every one of them. “Joe was sensitive about his music,” said the A&R man. “He has no idea what the world is going to think and it’s a frightening experience. In the letter he says to me, ‘The drummer on the sessions was in and out of a mental hospital. The doctors were experimenting on him: the drum tracks on this album were derived from eight or ten mikes. I can’t help feeling you disrespect me to think I haven’t thought of this.’”
Whatever the view from Sony, by the middle of February 1989 Earthquake Weather was completed. A rock ‘n’ roll record, it is the work of a basic combo getting as close to the feel of 1948 as possible forty years later, with all that has been learned since. The lyrical imagery is often very extreme and surreal, a statement of Joe’s mental frame at the time—though his warmth and innocent joy at the world still pour out of it. The album kicks off with “Gangsterville,” a complex song “about the Mafia electing the President,” as Joe explained it. “Gangsterville” is both Joe’s world and the world to which he is opposed, one that is very attractive, but also confusing, one that Joe can see both sides of—so, in one of his most deft songwriting moments, Joe turns the song on its head halfway through with a simple phrase at the beginning of a line, “On the other hand . . .” Let’s look at the other side, he’s saying. Another Joe Strummer contender for one of the best and funniest lines in rock ‘n’ roll? It ends with a message from the Luddite in Joe, the man who still wrote on a portable manual typewriter: “Stop writing things on screen.” Also a hit on the album is the thundering “Highway One Zero Street,” a sort of West Coast treatment of a Bruce Springsteen song, another of Joe’s best tunes, with a beautifully insidious chorus melody, specifically set in Los Angeles: “I can’t believe I’m feeding cockroaches in the biggest jungle known to man / Right where the heart of Chinatown cuts in to old Siam.” “Boogie with Your Children” is like a musical expression of life at 37 Lancaster Road, one of Joe’s great parties; he loved Jazz and Lola deeply, and wanted to celebrate these feelings for his daughters in this song. It is like a tune that Prince might have recorded; or the Clash, if Mick Jones had had his say. “Island Hopping,” a lilting semi-calypso, a paean to the fine art of Caribbean-style idling, is a sunny joy, an expression of what part of Joe seems to really want to be doing, taking off all the pressure. And on their affecting version of the Tennors’ rock-steady tune “Ride Your Donkey,” the Latino Rockabilly War show they can acquit themselves well on Jamaican rhythms. Both tunes remind you that Joe is never frightened to be corny, aware of the strength of simplicity. In a similar elegiac vein to the lovely, heartfelt “Leopardskin Limousines” is “Sleepwalk,” the album closer, the tune first worked up at the Permanent Record sessions that Joe had asked Gerry Harrington to get to Frank Sinatra. With its first line of “Matchbooks of lonely places I’ll never find,” it reminds me of Joe’s superstition that you must never use the last match in a matchbook: the homes of serious tobacco smokers like Jim Jarmusch had drawerfuls of matchbooks that each contained just one match.
Over the next few months until the record was released, for most of which Joe remained in Los Angeles, Jim Jarmusch came out to the city. Hanging out with Joe, the grateful film director thanked him for the acknowledgment on the song “Shouting Street,” a version of the song Bernie had wanted him to record with Paul for yet another version of the Clash, which had been played live on the Class War tour. “I said, ‘Joe, you name-checked me in the song. I’m honored.’ And he said, ‘I wouldn’t be too honored. I couldn’t think of anything else to rhyme with “garbage.”’”
But then Joe made one of his whimsical changes. Gerry Harrington was fired. “In L.A. I kept getting calls from promoters who’d seen the Clash at the Santa Monica Civic, and they all wanted to see Joe again. We’d get offers of $100,000 for three nights at the Universal Amphitheater. He wouldn’t even think of it: ‘No man, I’m not ready. You’ve got to understand.’
“He calls me to go to lunch with him at the Café LA, on Sunset Strip. Joe was never on time. I get there five minutes early; he’s already there, mulling something over. There was a mean, threatened sheepishness about him. He starts yelling. He made me the villain before I’d sat down so that he could let himself off the hook for what he was about to do. ‘You’re not ready for it,’ he said. I replied, ‘Joe, I’m more ready than you are. I’m dealing with people. You’re hiding from them. I’m paving the way for you. You’re running backward.’
“I was very upset about it, devastated. The good by-product was I didn’t have to be nice to those wanker hangers-on, guys that would bring out the worst in him because he would have a bunch of losers supposedly as his equals. Which would reduce his self-esteem.”
What Joe had decided was to take on his landlord, Luke O’Reilly, as his manager. “Joe kept experimenting with different people,” said Gaby. “He had taken on Gerry Harrington, and Gerry pissed him off about something. Joe fumbled around for a long time. He might have been having a crisis, age-wise.”
Luke O’Reilly was involved with Joe’s management for around a year. I remember him backstage at Joe’s show at the Town and Country Club in autumn 1989, seeming confused by Joe’s edict that whoever wanted could come backstage. “Luke tried to come on board but it wasn’t successful,” said Gaby. “Joe never gracefully extracted himself from the situation. It was left to a bad conversation between me and Luke.”
“Joe had very silly reasons for incorporating people into his business or his life,” said Zander Schloss. “One time we played in San Francisco. I had a friend who was a pot dealer up there and had his own group, More Than Beautiful. But another band was supposed to [open for us]. I said, ‘Joe, my friend has offered to give us an ounce of the best kind of bud in order that he do the opening slot.’ Joe was like, ‘Really?’ He calls the promoter and says, ‘You know that first band? They’re shit. I want More Than Beautiful to be the openers.’ They canceled the first band and More Than Beautiful got the gig. These guys had only been together a couple of weeks. We got this bag brimful of beautiful crystal buds, and me and Joe split it.”
Joe needed a video for “Gangsterville,” so he formed WFN—We’re Fucking Nuts—Productions, with Josh Cheuse, and the pair shot it themselves in L.A., giving Sony two videos for £10,000. “The A&R guy was like, ‘What? You only need ten thousand? I’ll get the check right now.’” The videos cost even less: “We made the two videos for almost nothing, so we could pay a Chateau Marmont hotel bill,” said Josh. When Sony rejected Joe’s collage for the Earthquake Weather cover, Josh Cheuse photographed him, standing at sunset fully clothed on the diving board of Luke O’Reilly’s pool, Telecaster in hand, cigarette in mouth, head held high, an iconic Strummer image ironically much better known than the music inside the record it was intended to herald.
Earthquake Weather was scheduled for release on September 29, 1989. Everything was put in place to push the record, including live dates on both sides of the Atlantic. “Earthquake Weather didn’t do a thing,” remembered Muff Winwood. “The tide had gone out for Joe when he did that record. He wasn’t a good self-promoter.” Such a bad self-promoter in fact, that he kept a BBC film crew waiting for three days before they gave up. “We would have loved it to succeed,” said Muff, “but it was such a failure. There was tremendous respect for the guys who’d been in the Clash. No one was thinking: ‘Those wankers. Let’s drop them.’ Mick knew how to deal with problems in the studio. But Joe was more of a poet and artist than a musician. He didn’t really know what to do, and went into panic mode.”
The critics were not hip to Joe’s trip. Very typical was the sniffy review of Robert Christgau, the self-styled “dean of American rock critics,” in his column in New York’s Village Voice, into which he mystifyingly dragged Mick Jones’s ex-girlfriend: “A man without a context, Joe digs into Americana up to his elbows, up to bebop, up to Marvin Gaye, cramming obsessions and casual interests into songs as wordy and pointless as Ellen Foley’s. Foley’s absence is a relief, but with Joe emulating Gaye and Bird— crooning and murmuring instead of screaming and spitting, cramming in the syllables—not that much of a relief. New guitar sidekick Zander Schloss does what he can to make things worse.”
Christgau gave the record a C rating; even worse, he put a “Must to Avoid” symbol next to it. BAD’s fourth album, Megatop Phoenix, reviewed in the same column, got one grade better, a C+—by the end of the year, however, the original BAD would splinter apart, and Mick Jones would form Big Audio Dynamite 2. In London NME was up to its usual tricks, Andrew Collins calling Joe’s big shot “a minefield of duff moments,” and berating his “penchant for weedy Latino tinkling.”
In an interview published in Sounds on October 8, Joe said, “I’m definitely not someone who’s worth worshipping. We shouldn’t really worship anybody. I mean, everyone’s fucked up…I just say to myself, It’s a good job you’re a rock ‘n’ roller, because people expect you to be nuts and a bit flakey. But if I had to do something really proper, it’d be a disaster. I’m useless for anything except what I do—that’s what I’ve come to realize, which is no bad thing. I don’t want to put across any romantic notion that it’s a gang, or anything like that. We’re just four guys, y’know.” Another volteface from this former member of the Last Gang in Town.
In London to promote Earthquake Weather, Joe would often be at Paul and Tricia’s house at 53 Oxford Gardens, a hundred yards from the intersection with Ladbroke Grove. “Joe was the sort of person who would go off for a while on a tangent,” said Tricia, “but you knew he would be coming home. The doorbell would ring one day and he’d be there.” From their friendship Tricia gained valuable insights into the relationship between the two men who had lasted the longest in the Clash. “Joe and Paul needed their camaraderie: they were so close because it was like a band of brothers. Joe and Paul found that in each other, that need for a sibling. Paul had a brother but they were separated when he was ten; Joe had a brother, but they were separated by his death. I think because Mick was an only child and never had a sibling, he didn’t even begin to know about those relationships. Maybe that was something Joe and Paul found in each other, but couldn’t quite find with Mick.”
One night at Paul and Tricia’s, Joe opened his heart to her. “Joe wanted to have a talk and a drink, he said. He did—all night long. We talked about so many things. I didn’t know who Iain Gillies was, who was often at Lancaster Road. I said, ‘Is he your brother?’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you about my brother, and I’ll tell you this once and never again.’ He said, ‘Look, I became a bully at boarding school. That’s how I survived. My brother wasn’t like that.’ He said his brother was too soft, too weak, and that boarding school had got the better of him. Joe explained that by becoming a bully he covered himself up to the extent that no one was going to get to him. A lot of the resentment toward his parents was based on what had happened there. He felt that if his parents hadn’t packed them off to boarding school, his brother wouldn’t have died. Of course, by another extraordinary coincidence, Gaby had a brother who committed suicide. Gaby and Joe were tied in so many ways, and that was significant, I felt. The death of his brother seemed to have formed Joe into what he was, some sort of warrior: everything had to be some sort of fight or mission. He almost admitted that he had become very selfish afterward. His brother died when Joe was at a really impressionable age, when it’s hard to get over things easily. I don’t think Joe did get over it.”
I told Tricia of the tension coming off Joe when I had talked to him about the death of his brother; how I would walk into him on the streets and almost bounce back from the static coming off him. “Yes, you’d feel that he wanted to hit you. He’d walk around seething. But he was a deep thinker, and he needed his space. Sometimes he was in a chain of thought, and didn’t want to be interrupted. He needed his head space to think. He liked to be alone. That night he talked late into the night. I was thinking, How am I going to get away from him? I want to go to bed: It’s 4:00 a.m. I want you to go. Sometimes you couldn’t get rid of him. I loved him, but sometimes you’d want him to leave.”
That autumn, despite the iffy Earthquake Weather reviews (he’d had those before), Joe was justifiably in good spirits. His imminent tour was getting good previews. “Judging by his floor-shaking gigs last year on the ill-starred Rock Against the Rich tour and his new LP—the best Strummer work since ‘82’s classic Combat Rock—these gigs should be fuckin’ memorable,” said Sounds. “With a band who brilliantly realize the multicultural rock ‘n’ roll the Clash ached to achieve, and a canon of songs (both his own and others) that’s vast, well-aged and still relevant, Strummer’s a modern electric folk-singer par excellence. His hand is still welded to the old Telecaster and he’s got as much hog-wild, brandy-fueled energy as any young upstart, and then some. Bollocks to the rest of them—Strummer is the only name left from the punk era with more than a light and less than a tedious career.” Now it was on with the shows, beginning at Barrowlands in Glasgow on October 6. Before “Island Hopping,” four songs from the end, Joe gave a plug for “Simmo’s” new group, Havana 3 A.M., who were scheduled to play Glasgow a couple of days later. The set was a real move forward. Thirteen of the twenty-three songs had been written since the end of the Clash.
The relatively brief U.K. tour—only ten dates—hit London six days later, for two nights at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town, opening the shows with theme music from Walker. The Clash had stepped onstage to music from Ennio Morricone, but now Joe and his group were walking out to his own music—a subtle but significant advance. I went to the second London show, and they were a real driving group. I preferred them to the previous year’s version; some of the crowd were confused by the Latino Rockabilly War’s changed lineup—but at least that indicated they had registered them the first time round. After the show Joe seemed exaggeratedly businesslike, a bit tense, but he invited me back to Lancaster Road and he relaxed, sitting at the round kitchen table, with Gaby and some bottles of wine. He did complain that the tour was costing him a small fortune; he would discover his personal shortfall on the dates was £24,000.
In an interview with Carol Clerk for Melody Maker on September 30, Joe claimed to be cutting back on booze, something that was rather a regular rap. “Who wants to be fat and wrinkled apart? I still get drunk if it’s someone’s wedding, or those days when you just have to go on a binge, which I think is quite therapeutic. But you see a lot of casualties around, I suppose, and that’s the biggest way to warn anyone off.” Carol Clerk commented that she’d give Joe the benefit of the doubt over the large amounts of red wine he consumed during their talk. When Carol asked Joe how he would like to improve his life, the man who played everything so close to his chest did utterly the reverse; it all came out, in the confessional with a female priest: “I’d like to be able to not take things so seriously that I get frantic. I’ve had times in these past ten years where I’ve been really unhappy, really at the end of my tether, and when I get into that I’m just awful. Moody, sullen, aggressive. I like to smash things, but I don’t think it gets you anywhere.” He described to her how he had whirled a chair over his head and smashed it into a floorboard while talking to his manager at the other end of a phone line. (Rock ‘n’ roll tantrums become very tedious. It is a surprise that Joe Strummer had not figured this out.)
As a nondrinker, Lonnie Marshall watched Joe from a different angle. “The shows were getting great responses. Joe was really up. He was excited. The whole experience was incredibly entertaining. He was just real playful and curious. He related to people: he’d meet somebody one second and next thing you know he’d be off on some philosophical conversation.” Lonnie learned to follow Joe’s every move closely: “If we were playing too fast or too slow we would watch his foot, and that would show us where the beat was. Or if there was a change, he would maybe give us a nod for the change part. On the sections where we were vamping out and grooving, we were all together. I’m an improvisational player, so I loved that excitement of not really knowing what to expect.”
“His boot would lead the way,” confirmed Mr. Jack Irons. “Sometimes you couldn’t even hear where he was going to start. He’d be talking to the audience, and we’d be watching his boot. You’d keep an eye on that boot, because sometimes he would change things. He would go in different directions, and you’d have to really follow. He’d always signal a change with a wave behind his back if something different was coming—if he wanted to rap to the audience and had something he wanted to say. He wasn’t too anal about it having to sound perfect. He was just, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s rock.’ He really was into communicating. He’d talk and rattle the audience a bit.
“He burned the candle at both ends. I remember thinking, ‘God! Take it easy. Get some sleep.’ I don’t know how he kept it up, because Joe did the roll call at eight or nine in the morning, and he wouldn’t have got to bed until six or seven. You’d just avoid it when he was hungover and grumpy. If he was like that, he’d apologize.” When they hit San Francisco, Jack met the woman he would make his wife. At the San Diego show he encountered and became friends with a guy working with the crew called Eddie Vedder; by 1994 Jack Irons was the drummer with Pearl Jam, one of the biggest groups in the United States, with whom Vedder was singer.
Following dates in Paris and Italy, a short American tour began at the Palladium in New York City on November 11. It was here that Joe later maintained he made a major decision. A fan told him that at Tower Records on Fourth and Broadway, in the middle of the allegedly hip Village, they didn’t have Earthquake Weather. “I just realized that if I couldn’t get my record into Tower Records in Greenwich Village the very night the tour hit New York—never mind Poughkeepsie or Oswego—I thought, ‘Well, you better retire yourself, boy!’”
You can feel in those words the withdrawal from emotion, the setting in of a freeze of the soul. When you live in a habitual state of depression, fighting to keep above it, fragile from its ceaseless presence, the smallest thing can send you slithering all the way down the snake. A healthy mind’s response to habitual record company incompetence might have been to laugh about it, or even be driven by fury, and go out and make another record and then another, and prove a point. A little like Mick Jones had done, in response to Joe’s actions. But small things could knock Joe off-kilter—it had been such a struggle to get even to this seemingly pointless point. Now again it seemed hopeless. Everything did.
The tour was a success, but no one bought the record. Worldwide, Earthquake Weather sold only just over seven thousand copies, less than half the fifteen thousand that Walker had moved, a paltry figure blamed on its being merely a film soundtrack. The excoriatingly disappointing Earthquake Weather sales figures were a staggering blow to Joe, supposedly setting off on his solo career. He took it personally, thought it was a judgment on his own work. He didn’t appreciate that it was simply not his time, and that the solution would have been to make another record and keep playing live. But Joe, disillusioned, dissolved the group. “They were great,” Joe said of the Latino Rockabilly War to his friend, the actor Keith Allen. “It was fun. They were all good players. But I understood at the back of my mind that we weren’t doing anything new. So I let it drop. Thankfully, I think.” If Joe had kept going in this vein until March 1991, when—thanks to its use in a Levi’s commercial—“Should I Stay or Should I Go” became the Clash’s first number 1 hit in Britain, he might have been in a position to capitalize on a new wave of credibility that swept upward the reputation of the group and its members. But he didn’t do that. His state of mind didn’t help. “This decade has pissed me off,” Joe confided to Carol Clerk in that Melody Maker interview in September. “It’s been a waste of fucking time, apart from the kids. Music’s got shit, Thatcher became God, ninety percent of the papers are right-wing and brown-nosing.”
But would Joe Strummer find the next decade to be much better?
* * *
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.
// Sound Affects
"The newest Between the Grooves series tackles Lowercase's Kill the Lights, a great marriage of slowcore and post-punk: raw, angry, sullen, and very much alive almost 20 years later.READ the article