Clash City Rocker

Joe Strummer gives his band enough rope, and arrives at a democratically created, internationalist gem

Joe Strummer is having a good day. It's mid-September, and despite recent world events, the former Clash front man is focused exclusively on the second album by his band the Mescaleros, Global a Go-Go. In late July and early August, they hit London, Manchester, New York, Toronto, Chicago, San Francisco and L.A. for a brief but intense promotional tour of record stores, playing 60-minute sets then hanging out for hours to chat and sign autographs. Next week, rehearsals commence for an October-November trek that takes the Mescaleros across the States, to Japan, then back home for a U.K. tour. And he's clearly jazzed.

"I think we've got something good rolling along here," enthuses Strummer. "We enjoy playing live, and we all get along. You get your juices going, you get out, you gather 'round the world again, you see the people you meet and you talk to people -- it's a very stimulating experience in total, y'know?"

A common misconception about Joe Strummer is that he exiled himself from the music industry after the Clash folded in '85. But while ratcheting things down a bit, Strummer hardly puttered around his garden, collecting royalties and regaling neighborhood kids with tales from the Great Punk Wars.

Strummer is enjoying a creative resurgence after a quiet decade of record-label wrangling.
Strummer is enjoying a creative resurgence after a quiet decade of record-label wrangling.

In addition to taking on roles in a number of independent films (among them Alex Cox's punk-spaghetti western Straight to Hell and Jim Jarmusch's Elvis-themed Mystery Train), Strummer either scored or contributed songs to those films plus Sid and Nancy, Walker, I Hired a Contract Killer, Grosse Point Blank and Permanent Record. Work on the latter, in fact, prompted Strummer to form a new combo, Latino Rockabilly War, which toured in '88 and '89 and helped Strummer segue into his first solo album, 1989's Earthquake Weather. A credible slice of roots/worldbeat-flavored rock 'n' roll, it was poorly received commercially, leading Sony-Epic to balk and reassess their solo artist. Strummer, in turn, entered into a frustrating morass of legal wranglings to get out of his contract.

The early '90s saw renewed interest in the Clash via the '91 box set Clash on Broadway. Meanwhile, Strummer toured as a temporary member of The Pogues and dabbled in production work. After his Sony woes finally ended in '96, he was ready to ease back into a band situation and willing to sign a deal with Epitaph imprint Hellcat Records -- as long as it offered complete artistic freedom.

"Definitely," says Strummer. "You've gotta go for the 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. Just to even get 'em to address the problem takes a few years! Never mind getting the paperwork out of it.

"It's down to what's known as the George Michael argument [Michael also sued Sony in the '90s]. Which is basically, THEY are gonna want you to stay at whatever lucrative part of your career where they signed you. THEY are not interested in the development of the artist or having him change. So George is saying, 'You can't expect me to stay at my 18-year-old songs now that I'm 34.' And yet THEY want to force him to stay where he's most well-known so they can make some bucks. The point is, you can't force someone to do something like that. And [with Hellcat], they're sympathetic to my cause. It's a label where the people there actually like music. It's not just a commodity."

The first Mescaleros album, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style appeared in late '99. The rock 'n' roll melting-pot product of Strummer's long-standing love for international music (included were elements of reggae, worldbeat, hip-hop and hard funk) and his newfound appreciation for techno (acid-house pioneer Richard Norris collaborated on several tracks), it was one of the year's best releases. It was also a welcome return of one of rock's most distinctive voices. That voice, lodged halfway between Bob Dylan's croak and Ian Hunter's croon, and the de facto narrator of punk's hopes and ideals, sounded edgy yet generous, full of piss and vinegar yet squinty-eyed with humor, too. Sang Strummer, taking a lyrical stance of inclusion rather than rejection, "Took me a long time to get it/But when it's taken time/You think and don't forget it/You gotta live in this world/Go diggin' the new."

Coincidentally, the tail end of '99 also saw the release of the first-ever official Clash concert album, From Here to Eternity Live, a riveting Clash documentary, Westway to the World, and, the following January, the remastered reissue of the Clash back catalogue. Reunion rumors inevitably swirled at the time, and then again this past May when the four ex-Clash members received the Ivor Novello award for making an outstanding and lasting contribution to British music. Strummer steadfastly maintains, however, that as long as his work with the Mescaleros remains vital and interesting, that's all the career vindication he needs. But, as he wryly noted in Billboard recently, "Maybe when the heat's off in 20 years' time, we'll get together and make a blues record or something. It would be a laugh to do a tour when we're 78 -- that is a punk-rock idea!"

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