Joe Strummer: New World Order

At the heart of the Clash’s local rebellion always lay a good amount of global thinking. A quarter-century on, Joe Strummer revels in his hard-won freedom to wander all over the map. By Fred Mills

It’s a breezy fall afternoon in New York City when Joe Strummer strides rather testily into Irving Plaza, a 1,000-seat venue located in Greenwich Village. He’s been stuck on a tour bus from Hartford, Conn., five hours longer than he’d anticipated. He still has a soundcheck with his band the Mescaleros to do. There’s also a photo shoot and magazine interview on the itinerary. Worse, he has the beginnings of what promises to turn into a nasty, throat-ravaging cold.

Yet these concerns aren’t what have Strummer visibly agitated. He’s fretting, instead, that schedule delays will mean tonight’s opening act, rock-steady ska-punkers the Slackers, will get the shaft, time-wise, on their soundcheck.

“Where’s Simon Foster?” he barks to no one in particular, prompting Strummer’s Hellcat Records rep Chris LaSalle to rustle up tour manager Foster. When the duo returns, Strummer is unequivocal: “What time are the doors?”

“At 8 p.m., Joe.”

“Hold ‘em until the Slackers are done.”

When I bring up the incident later, Strummer gets a thoughtful look on his face and observes, “See, when you’re being crudded upon by others, you say to yourself, ‘One day, when it’s my turn, the support band’s always gonna get a soundcheck.’ Because you learn what it’s like to be in that position: ‘Sorry man, you can’t get a check because Waffleface has got to mend his fuzzbox!’”

Unlike, say, some superstar playing the aw-shucks/populist angle, Strummer’s paternalism rings sincere. For starters, his unimpeachable been-there, done-that legacy (with a band called the Clash; you may have heard of ‘em) gives him the luxury of hindsight. As a case study in feisty survival, Strummer is the current beneficiary of an inspiring solo career upswing. The enthusiastic critical response to his two albums with the Mescaleros, 1999’s Rock Art And The X-Ray Style and the recent Global A Go-Go, has given him a megavitamin shot of self-confidence—possibly his first sustained dosage since the early ‘80s, before the Clash’s walls started to crumble. A less gregarious personality might hoard the wealth; Strummer chooses to share it.

Make no mistake, it’s been a remarkable few years for Strummer. After getting out of a long-standing contract with Sony that stretched back to his Clash days, he began laying the groundwork for the first Mescaleros album in ‘96. Fortuitously, around the time of Rock Art’s release, a revived interest in his former band—courtesy of the From Here To Eternity Live album, documentary film Westway To The World and Sony’s remastering of the Clash’s back catalog—helped resurrect his profile. Good fortune continued to follow, with the Clash receiving the prestigious Ivor Novello Award earlier this year for “Outstanding Contribution To British Music.” Strummer’s association with a respected indie label hasn’t hurt his street cred, either. (Speaking of which, a couple of weeks after the New York City stop, the Mescaleros were in a Los Angeles recording studio with Johnny Ramone, laying down a track for an upcoming Ramones tribute album.)

True to his nature, however, Strummer is quick to spread the kudos. “The Mescaleros are a construction of chaos,” he says. “We shamble around, and god knows how we put it together. But I think we’ve got something good rolling along here. We enjoy playing live, and we all get along. You get your juices going, you gather ‘round the world again—a very stimulating experience in total, you know?”

The Mescaleros are as follows: keyboardist/guitarist/sax player Martin Slattery (described by Strummer as “our spiritual guru”), guitarist/trombonist/mandolin player Scott Shields (“If you wanna trade insults, he’s your man”), bassist Simon Stafford (“If it’s to do with sordid criminal matters, like breaking back into a club because we left something inside, Simon’s the one”), drummer Luke Bullen (“He’s our ‘knock on wood’ man”) and guitarist/violinist Tymon Dogg (“inventing new ways to make Beethoven nervous”).

Dogg has been a Strummer associate since the two were buskers in London in the early ‘70s; he also recorded with the Clash. Last year, the two friends reconnected when the Mescaleros were playing a beatnik-styled bash called the Poetry Olympics. After jamming together, Strummer invited Dogg to a Global A Go-Go session; he’s been a member of the band since. Observes Dogg of the Mescaleros, “There’s a lot of freedom, and I think in some way, it was already coming from Joe’s attitude. We try to give each other a buzz, because it seems silly if musicians are making records just to please an A&R guy and it flops. Then you end up pleasing no one. We’re lucky as a band that we’ve got someone like Joe, who’s not obsessed with making the next top-of-the-charts record.”

In the Irving Plaza dressing room, a Ramones CD is blaring from Strummer’s boombox, which has been painstakingly hand-decorated in Jamaican-flag colors. Downstairs, the Mescaleros are beginning to soundcheck; at one point, an ad-hoc arrangement of “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” registers genuine surprise on Strummer’s face. He clearly feels under the weather, and he’s been alternating between gulps of herbal tea and sucks from a zinc cold lozenge. Strummer shuffles over to a trash can in the corner and hocks up an impressive glob of black-green goo. Sitting down, he cradles an acoustic guitar and picks at it absentmindedly.

One of the things I’m interested in is the way fans invest a lot emotionally in their heroes and how kids, in particular, emulate them. Yet a lot of public people—sports figures, especially—are uncomfortable shouldering this responsibility. How do you feel about the role-model issue?
I don’t agree. Just because you’re good in some particular area and you excel in that area, you’re not walking around as if you had a big jacket on saying, “Do as I do. Do as I say. Follow me.” A sports guy’s good at shooting the hoop. I don’t see why he can’t go downtown and get harebrained outta his box like everyone else, you know? You’re talking about Keith Richards and heroin, right? People are a lot more complex than, hey, they see someone doing it, why don’t they do it too?

To some, you are a role model, a spokesperson for the punk generation.
I’m not a spokesperson. Never was to anybody. They can hose off, man. I mean it. That’s a load of horseradish. I don’t have any opinions about British politics—I get rid of my opinions! Because some clever guy said, “If you have opinions, you cannot see.” Meaning that opinions will kind of horseblinker you to see the truth about any situation.

What about issues that hit closer to home? Artists’ rights and contractual matters, for example, affected you and the Clash directly.
It was our fault. We signed that paper. There was no one grabbing our hands and saying, “Sign.” I could’ve gotten a decent lawyer to read it. Hey, any intelligent man would have done that. Not us, man. That was exceedingly dumb, but that was the way the world was. Maybe they capitalized on our eagerness and all that, you know? But on the other hand, they got our records all around the world.

So should genuinely creative, free-thinking people stick with indie labels?
You gotta look at the small print. Hellcat’s sympathetic to my cause—it’s a label where the people there actually like music. It’s not just a commodity. You’ve gotta go for the (artistic) freedom. Without it, you’re scuppered. And I already spent enough time trying to get out from under deals, which are quite complex with a corporation. If there is a young musician reading my guff, he’ll get the picture.

You basically went on strike from Sony after your ‘88 solo album Earthquake Weather, but you did stay pretty busy, producing, acting, scoring films.
Yeah, I waited out (the Sony contract) until my hot potato had grown cold. [Laughing] And so they went, “Ahh-pffft!” So there were a lot of weird little projects. Mainly, I wanted to play out of the eye, out of the spotlight. All the films I worked on were sort of off-off-off-Broadway. Way off. It seemed to be good to lay low for awhile. Mostly, I felt uncertain as to what to do, and that sort of breeds a lack of confidence. No direction home, so to speak.

Is it true that if you, Mick (Jones) and Paul (Simonon) set foot in a studio, it’s called the Clash and you’re automatically on Sony?
Yeah, that’s a contractual thing. And it will never expire. Because it states if two or three of us get together … that’s the Clash. No choice.

A recent issue of Mojo named two Clash songs in its “100 Punk Scorchers” list, including “White Riot” at number four. When the media drag out their perennial punk retrospectives, do you groan and go, “Reporters will be calling again.”
Yeah, because every time an anniversary comes up, they always get around to the old [in pinched, nasal voice], “So, what does punk rock mean to you?” Yeah, you just want to scream.

Um, that was my next question. I should just leave now. Will you ever put a boycott on the Clash inquiries?
I’ll just carry on. [Grinning broadly] Don’t you want to know when the Clash are going to get back together?

No, I know the answer. At 49, what expectations do you have of performing, compared to two decades ago? A recent book, Rock ‘Til You Drop, proposes that fiftysomethings look ridiculous hopping about and should just go sit down on barstools and play the blues.
Not a bad idea. That’s what Johnny Ramone thinks. [Laughs] No, I think you should just get on with it. Look at Paul Newman. And the Sufis think people get better, you know? Why should we assume people get worse? Just because everybody makes loads of cruddy albums. No, I just look forward to it. [When] you’ve done a few gigs with just one man in the room, you appreciate the crowds. When you can overcome a mood—“I don’t feel like it tonight”—and do a good show, then you feel like you’ve really learned something. Every day’s a new day, really. You always end up somewhere interesting. If you walk around with expectations, with a specific aim or target, and then you arrive at that point, it’s boring. There’s no fun, no surprise, no chance in that somehow, is there?

That’s the approach you took with the new album, I take it. And it was a more democratic approach compared to the last one, right?
Well, Anthony Genn (guitarist/collaborator on Rock Art) pissed off to make his own group, called Help. So that left a kind of vacuum. I was interested to see how it would affect our dynamic, so Scott and Martin kind of stepped into that vacuum, if you like. And it was great; it was like working in the old days. We had slotted into the studio for a five-day session before [going out on tour with] the Who. It just started to happen, and your antenna goes up when you know that you’re on a roll. We just went straight back in after and kept the ball rolling.

All the different musical styles and themes: Did someone say, “OK, I have this Celtic thing here,” the next guy says, “Let’s get this dub thing going,” etc.? Or was any of it due to happy accidents caught on tape?
We don’t talk. People just kind of grunt. Like, you’ll say [shrugs shoulder, furrows brow], “Nggg.” You don’t like it. Or [relaxes shoulders, softens face], “Mmmggg.” That means it’s probably really great. Grunting seems to be the perfect way. And the whole thing was a happy accident. Because it wasn’t planned. You can’t do that every time. Only a maniac would walk forward like that, into a studio. Costs a lot if it didn’t happen. I think you’ve gotta have a kind of vibe going to avoid it getting “sticky,” that horrible moment when you stick on a bit, keep going over and over it. A smart operator just hops over it and carries on. You’ve gotta feel like you’re achieving to keep the morale up. It’s a very morale thing, making a record. You’ve gotta believe you can do something good. But we’re pretty into what we do. Just show us a studio, and we’ll be in there like rats up a drainpipe. Going with the vibe seems to be the way we do things. Maybe that’s why we’re still on the road two years after we started, which is quite an achievement.

It’s a dense album, lyrically. There’s lots of namechecks, wild visual imagery—more like a rapper’s words than a rocker’s.
About the only thing that was on the deck was “Bummed Out City.” [For the rest], the guys would start to make the music, get the tunes going, and I’d use that to inspire me, to get inspired by the atmosphere inside each tune. It’s too much for one person to do the tune and the lyric. Sometimes, if you’re lucky. There are geniuses like Hank Williams or Bob Dylan. But in the main, I like the Rodgers and Hammerstein method, or the two Gershwins, or those two lunatics who wrote Pirates Of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan. Lieber and Stoller. It’s really good when you have the guys working on it because it’s always different. Whereas if you leave it all to one person, after awhile it’ll all be in the same box.

A lot of musicians claim to be vessels through which music is channeled from some higher energy or power. Do you think of yourself as an “artist” in that sense?
[Standing up] I don’t think along those bollocks, man. You’re out of your mind! Horseradish. You gotta think of it, you gotta beat it outta your brain! [Slapping his head] You can’t sit around thinking like that. I think of myself as a hack. Because, one, it’s true. Two, it stops you from getting highfalutin notions—above your station. And three, you’re just a hack anyway. Honestly, the people out there who are true geniuses, they are the ones putting little circuits together, operating on people’s brains, you know? I mean, we’re kind of on the level of crossword-puzzle compilers. No one ever goes to them and gives them an award.

So you’re saying we should bring our artists down to earth? You’ve indicated that, at one point, you felt uncomfortable with the Clash’s image as “corporate revolutionaries.”
When people’s platform heels get too high, yeah. That’s why it had to stop. Because when you begin, it all makes sense—“Yeahhh!” But then five years later, you’re kind of professionally paid to be a rebel, which is insane. Isn’t that a conundrum? And I realized that it was only going to get worse. Say we’d gotten as big as U2. I could certainly see that life would only be: photo shoot, do the interview, go to the video shoot, go do another interview, fly to Rio, play the Asshole Stadium, come back in a helicopter. And all the time, you’re supposed to try and write something real or think real or get through to real people or “keep it real,” as they say. Im-fucking-possible. I’ve had plenty of time to think about it.

What inspires you to seek out and make global music? You have a recurring DJ slot (“Joe Strummer’s London Calling”) on the BBC World Service, where you’re all over the map.
I thought I might as well make hay while the sun shone. That’s kind of rare in the modern world, to be on the radio broadcasting and have a free hand to play the music that you want and that you like. I’m determined to make the most of it. I’ve always been keen on hearing stuff from anywhere, finding music where you don’t know what the hell is going on or what’s gonna happen next. Say you wanna find some music when you get tired of rock ‘n’ roll and need something new. That’s a great feeling, because you feel like you’re being educated somehow.

A few hours later, I’m back in the Irving Plaza dressing room, only this time it’s jammed with well-wishers (including legendary rock shutterbug Bob Gruen, whose book of Clash photographs has just been published). In the air is a cloud of reefer smoke thick enough to choke a Rasta village.

By all accounts, the sold-out show is one of the tour’s best, with high points from Global including the Dogg-led Celtic instrumental “Minstrel Boy,” a jubilant “Bhindi Bhagee” as an extended Indi/Afro funk workout and a slow, psychedelic “Mondo Bongo” replete with trippy, liquid lighting effects. Old Clash faves like “Police On My Back” and “I Fought The Law” feature prominently as well, with the set’s reggae flavors (“Pressure Drop,” “Police And Thieves,” an extraordinary “Justice Tonight/Kick It Over” dub segment) among the tastiest. Needless to say, an encore of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” dedicated to Joey Ramone, goes over like gangbusters for the already euphoric crowd, a melting pot of diverse attires, lifestyles and attitudes, from young, crowd-surfing moshers to graying, ‘77-era rock vets to chic scenesters.

Seated at the dressing table is Strummer, enthusiastically playing host and passing out iced ales from a big metal tub. While clearly in his element, he doesn’t have the appearance of a “spokesperson,” “role model,” “hero” or whatever media label might be thrust in his direction. Rather, the look on his face is more like that of a proud, satisfied father.

As if on cue, Strummer catches my eye. “Did ya get enough at the interview? Did ya have a good time tonight?” I grin stupidly, reach out to grab his hand and mumble something about the show being better than seeing all six sides of Sandinista! come to life. Fixing me with a stare, then grinning back, he rasps, “I told you we got something good here.”