Death or Glory

Not just another story: Joe Strummer's dead

How difficult it is to type the words: Joe Strummer, songwriter/singer/guitarist for the Clash, is dead at the age of 50. The stomach dropped at the sight of the words coming across the CNN crawl; impossible that so vital a musician and so vigorous a man could disappear just like that. The truth is incomprehensible: From all accounts, John Graham Mellor, the son of a British diplomat, died on Sunday, December 22, of a heart attack at his UK home in the southern county of Somerset.

Strummer leaves behind his family (wife Lucy, their two daughters and another stepdaughter) and an estimable legacy as a founding member of one of the most important bands of the punk-rock era, if not the rock & roll era. Though news of his death comes as a sickening shock -- Strummer, of all punk's fathers, seemed the most resilient and immortal -- perhaps it's fitting that he died of a heart attack: No one of that era had more heart or possessed so much soul. Where so many other bands made noise to agitate and annoy, the Clash played as much to inform as irritate; theirs was the sound of a revolution that began in the garage and swept around the globe, the combat rock made by rebels who fired endless salvos at government corruption and social complacency. "The Clash sang fiercely about problems and weakly about solutions because the members were true punks, and of the devil's party without knowing it," Rob Sheffield touchingly wrote in the Spin Alternative Record Guide in 1995. Seven years on, it turns out to be a fitting eulogy.

What makes Strummer's death all the more upsetting is that Strummer, Mick Jones (who recently joined Strummer onstage after nearly twenty years to perform "Bankrobber," "London's Burning" and "White Riot"), Paul Simonon and Topper Headon were due to reunite in New York City in March 2003, when the band will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Now Strummer will be absent from the podium; on December 22, a celebration was rendered a memorial service.

A year ago, I spoke with Strummer about his last album with his band the Mescaleros, Global A Go-Go, and the Clash's legacy. What follows are excerpts from the conversation.

Wilonsky: This morning I read an interview you did in 1981 with Musician magazine and Robert Fripp. You talked about the feeling of creating music and how, at its best, you don't know where it comes from and about how rare those moments are.

Strummer: The whole point is to shut off the front mind and get to that point. It's, like, say a musician comes to overdub on a track. Ten to one, they always have a run-through and do all the good stuff when they're just running through it, and then as soon as you go, "Right, what am I gonna do on this track?" -- as soon as the analytical side comes in -- then everything deteriorates. It's really weird. It's trying to unlock the human mind, but it's very difficult, because if you think about what you're doing, you've already lost it.

How do you keep the analytical mind out of the emotional mind?

First of all, you have to smoke a lot of weed. [Laughs.] This seems to help, just to turn life out for a minute. Also, you have to be brave enough to let yourself go, so to speak. Say you're approaching a part in the song -- say you're overdubbing or singing on top of something -- I find as soon as fear sets in, you've lost it. You've got to trust something's going to come out of your mouth or your guitar worth having when you approach a difficult section or just don't know what to do. This is one of the big moments. When you don't know what to do, you gotta fling yourself at it with blind trust, I would say, that something's gonna happen. Even though you might not have anything prepared, you gotta get rid of the fear. You better go and have a cup of tea if you've got the fear up, because you're not gonna do it, I reckon.

Before recording with the Mescaleros, you took a decade off from recording. Does making music give you something different now?

I see it very much the same way. The only thing I really have to look out for is trying to keep this band together. That's my main task, because I think it took some putting together, this lot, and they're interesting people and great players, and everyone seems able to get on. It's very hard to find all those things at once, and so if I am worrying at all in the middle of the night, it's about how volatile these situations are. I've seen it all go belly-up before. I feel we can make a really crackin' number of albums in a year or so if we keep it together.

Does that layoff and the rejuvenation after make you think differently about why you do what you do and what you get out of it?

I don't know. Musicians are pretty dumb, y'know? We don't really have too much self-analytical apparatus going on for us. Perhaps we should.

I don't believe that.

It's true. But we're pretty good at intuition. We're not very good at the intellectualization of things. But mainly I'm pretty glad to have another crack, actually. You can't say more than that.

In May 2001, the Clash received the British Academy of Composers & Songwriters Ivor Novello Award for "making an outstanding contribution to British music." Congratulations.

That was nice.

What was that like? You've become an elder statesman.

With the Clash, there's always an element of comedy. Topper turns up with a pair of crutches, so that lent it a much-needed touch of comedy. When they went, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Clash! And will someone help them up onstage?" I loved that bit.

It must be weird getting this kind of award. When you're making music, you're not doing it to make a contribution. You're doing it for yourself.

Good point. We were a bit like fish out of water. There were no awards back then. In fact, Jerry Dammers of the Specials made a very interesting comment. I was at another awards lunch for Q magazine a few months before, and I got one and Jerry got one, and we'd never gotten any before. Jerry got up and said, "If there had been awards back when we did our stuff, we wouldn't have been able to do our stuff." I knew what he meant, because you were only thinking about your record and what it meant and what it said. No one was thinking about, "Ooh, wonder if this will win an award." Nowadays, there are so many of them: the Mercury Prize, the Q Awards, the Brit Awards, the Ivor Novello Awards. New groups sit around thinking, "Ooh, hope we win the Mercury," and completely miss the point somewhere.

Was it weird for you to stand on a stage together? It was the first time in a long time you've done it.

Yeah. Well, it was weird sitting around the table together, never mind being on the stage together. I was a bit apprehensive: "What's it gonna be like?" Finally we clicked back into it just the way you would if you hadn't seen a high-school friend for ten years or something. You can always tell who you were really friends with, because you click back into it just as if you'd only stopped speaking the moment before. You pick it up without any apparent gaps, and it was very much like that for the four of us.

A lot of musicians make a very definite attempt to separate themselves from their past, as though they want to hide from their legacies. It strikes me that your albums with the Mescaleros embrace your legacy and extend it. You're building on the past.

This is very difficult, because the last thing I would have liked to have done is remake the '78 record or do a carbon copy of something else, something that was expected of me. Then again, you don't want to run away completely into a landscape of lunar squelching and blipping. It's quite a fine line to tread, because you're so aware that you have an audience and that you're playing to people who've been with you since you began, so it has to be coherent and understandable, and yet you can't make the same record over and over. I'm just so glad I've got these players so we can make music like this, that isn't the same old damned thing. That's really the main thing. You get up in the morning, and you don't wanna make the same record.

If you had the choice, when you tour, would you do it without any Clash songs on the set list?

Good question. No, I don't think so, because the songs are so good to play or so well-constructed. There's something about them that makes them a joy to play. We get off on playing them. That's a very good question, but we'd still play them. I love playing "Rock the Casbah," which might be my favorite song we did. There was something good about that record.

How hard is it to be on the one hand a still-working, still-viable musician and also be the old man considered an influence?

It is weird. I don't know whether you can have too much influence. It's hard to tell whether you're having an influence or not. Sometimes your album can influence people when it's been in the bargain bins for eighteen years. Mainly you can only tell you're an influence when other musicians come up to you. That's a good thing. We had to worship at the altars of the masters, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, in order to learn our part of the craft.

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