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.

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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!"

The new Mescaleros album elaborates fluently upon the musical and lyrical themes of its predecessor. Highlights of Global a Go-Go are many: the vibrant, Pogues-flavored "Johnny Appleseed" (about, tellingly, a punk-rock Pied Piper/Robin Hood preaching the truth); "Cool 'n' Out," a frenetic Latino-ska rocker that hilariously zeroes in on the pressure cooker of life ("God sure baked a lot of fruitcake, baby!"); the kinky reggaefied, Burundi-ized, hip-hop-o-delica of the title cut, which sends shout-outs to everything from Marconi, Buddy Rich and Quadrophenia to Bo Diddley, Baaba Maal and the pan pipers of Joujouka; a sensual dub-reggae lament for the world's dispossessed nomads called "At the Border, Guy"; even a traditional Celtic number, "Minstrel Boy."

The democratically written and recorded album came together rapidly, primarily as a result of the Mescaleros gelling as a touring unit and knowing when the creative juices were at high tide. Explains Strummer, "We first slotted into the studio for a five-day session before [going 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 [the tour] and kept the ball rolling. It was a very strange session afterwards, a real breeze -- a nice one to be at. I only had bits and pieces of one [song lyric] on the deck beforehand. The guys would start to make the music, get the tunes going, and I'd use that to get inspired by the atmosphere inside each tune."

And, he points out, the band -- which in addition to the album's Scott Shields (guitar), Richard Flack (loops, sound effects), Pablo Cook (percussion), Martin Slattery (keyboards) and Tymon Dogg (violin) now includes bassist Simon Stafford and drummer Luke Bullen -- seems to be on a roll: "Just show us a studio and we'll be in there like wrapped up a drainpipe!"


New Times: Are interviews the devil's way of torturing artists?

Joe Strummer: No, no! [laughing] It's something you have to enjoy, which is what I've decided.

NT: You deejay occasionally on the BBC World Service, everything from blues, African music and reggae to Dylan, Small Faces and The Pogues, which is really all over the map.

Strummer: Yeah, that's true. I just 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.

NT: What would you program off your new album?

Strummer: I might play "At the Border, Guy" -- that would be weird. Or I could always play all of "Minstrel Boy" and go and have a sandwich!

NT: You've got Roger Daltrey singing on the title cut, and you mention Pete Townshend deep in the mix in "Minstrel Boy." Won't the punk purists be going, "Uhh . . . dinosaurs . . ."?

Strummer: You must have ears like a bat! You're the only person apart from me that knows it's on there! No, we can't have any of that kind of purism! Let's give the kudos to where they're due, c'mon! The Who in anybody's books must be great, with a body of work that fantastic. We'd been booked to support The Who on a British tour in November. Roger began to hang out with us as we ran up and down. He knew we were recording, so one night he said, "Hey, if you want me to come by I'd be more than pleased to do that." I said, "Sure, come on down, and let's get out the mikes and sing."

NT: How did Tymon Dogg [longtime Strummer/Clash associate] wind up becoming a Mescalero?

Strummer: It was pretty weird. I started to play at these kinda beatnik evenings called "Poetry Olympics." Tymon dropped by one of these; I hadn't seen him in years. I says to him, 'Hey, where's the violin?' And he said, 'About a mile away in the back of the car.' I said, 'Go get it!' He came running back with it just in time for our slot so we did a bit of jamming. And then I just invited him in to the session we were having the following day. For me, it's a laugh, because I started out collecting money for him when he was busking in the London Underground. That was my start in the music world!

NT: Did you plan on making an album that filled up a CD?

Strummer: No. But as we began to reel off the final mixes and build up the album, I began to think, these CDs are 731/2 minutes capacity, so whatever we've done, we'll stack the tunes up. We recorded "Minstrel Boy," which at the time I was thinking it could come in useful as a B-side, and I may have specified doing it for about 31/2 minutes. The guys started playing -- and stopped 21 minutes and 22 seconds later! [laughs] I decided that whatever time was left on the album we'd dedicate it to "Minstrel Boy."

NT: You've said that you didn't read the unauthorized Last Gang in Town Clash bio [recently updated as Return of the Last Gang in Town], but what did you think about the '99 memoir A Riot of Our Own by your old Clash roadie Johnny Green?

Strummer: I LIKE Johnny Green's book! It seems to convey the feeling in the air like it was at the time. You're reading the story as it happened. That book somehow captures something. It's entertaining for starters. And it's short! [laughs]

NT: The '99 Westway to the World Clash documentary comes off as very honest, too.

Strummer: Yeah, that's Don Letts directing there, who was part of the scene anyway at the time. He was perfectly placed to do that and I think he did great.

NT: What's your opinion on Clash and Mescaleros bootlegs? You should take charge and market your archives over the Internet like Pete Townshend does.

Strummer: Yeah, that's a good point. Thank you! If you heard some of them and you liked what you heard, you could recommend it: "This is pretty good . . ." I'm in touch with this guy in Italy who's sort of the king of collectors, if you like, and I'm quite pleased he has all these recordings when it comes down to it, you know what I mean?

NT: Your live show includes Clash material, too -- how far back are you dipping for the setlist?

Strummer: Well, pretty much as far back as I can remember! [laughs] Yeah, the 101ers' "Keys to Your Heart." If you've got a large number of tunes to draw from, you might as well make use of it and maybe pull some stuff that didn't get much of an airing.

NT: What kinds of people are coming to your shows? Punks with graying Mohawks?

Strummer: Mostly they're truck drivers, a-hah-heh-heh! Any people, really. Quite a cross section are digging the music. Quite a wide age group.


Global a Go-Go to date has generated such enthusiastic reviews that even Strummer has been pleasantly surprised. Speaking recently to Rolling Stone about his relatively slow-starting solo career, he summarized, "I realized what I've done is save the best for last, which is a brilliant maneuver. I did it by accident, though. Rather than burn out earlier, taking [time] off has turned out to be a not bad idea at all. When the Clash broke up, it sort of all fell apart and perhaps that was quite good for my artistic ability, which was a good thing for me at least."

So, yeah, Joe Strummer is having a good day. In the broader sense, too. It's impossible to resist bringing up current events with the former punk firebrand, yet Strummer, despite remaining justifiably cynical toward corporations and business-as-usual politics, is loath to be straitjacketed, reluctant to be too reactionary with his opinions. He's even willing to cast a charitable, reflective mood in the direction of international crises, acknowledging that maybe, in the long run, the way the global community has abruptly gotten a lot smaller, while tragic, will one day yield positive results.

"Everybody's freaking out all over the world," Strummer says. "I'm trying not to get too freaked out meself -- keep it in hand. I reckon as time goes by we'll be able to get it into more perspective, take a more steady view of things, maybe. So you gotta try and find a sort of bright side to the cloud. So now, for example, just talking about airplanes, they'll do some good things for the safety of everyone. And maybe you can say that it's really going to bring out a lot of nations out that weren't previously into or down with the international community, like Iran and even Pakistan. Which, if you think about it, is really a big leap forward."

True words, spoken by a man whose expansive music is the sonic equivalent of finding common ground with -- and embracing -- your neighbor. Do the "global a go-go" with the Mescaleros, folks -- it's a sweet dance.

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