Has Joe Strummer lost his ambition and drive?
It was strange last month to see one of rock’s all-time most involving performers serving simply as a sideman for another band, even one as colorful as the Irish folk-punkers the Pogues. The former Clash leader’s more familiar position is at the eye of the rock ‘n’ roll hurricane.
It’s also odd that Strummer, who filled in on rhythm guitar on the Pogues recent U.S. tour, dismisses his recent activity--doing music for the films “Sid and Nancy” and “Walker,” a bit of acting, the Pogues gig--as “holiday.”
“I just want to go back to rockin’,” Strummer said, “but I’m uncertain as to what to actually do. . . . The truth is, I never stopped thinking about rock ‘n’ roll for a second that I’m on holiday.”
The ragged-voiced Strummer led the Clash through a stormy 10-year career that began in 1976 when the London band emerged as the English punk group. Unlike many of their cohorts, Strummer, guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon survived that intense, brief period, first broadening their music and finding a larger audience with 1979’s “London Calling,” and hitting the Top 10 in 1982 with the single “Rock the Casbah,” from the million-selling LP “Combat Rock.”
But things were coming apart. Headon had been fired because of his drug use, and Jones was given the boot in ’83. There was one more album with a revamped lineup, 1985’s “Cut the Crap,” but Strummer regrets that move, even referring to that band by a different name: “the Clash Mark Two.”
Since then, one of rock’s most colorful, impetuous and provocative figures has kept a low profile. Though he claims his creativity is undiminished, he’s found that age and fatherhood have changed his priorities, and he’s not ready to commit himself to anything like a Joe Strummer rock album right now.
Sitting down for an interview in the small bar of the West Hollywood hotel, Strummer, 35, was sharp, loquacious and given to a salty vocabulary that would make Tom Lasorda blush. But into his second margarita his mood darkened slightly as he considered more cosmic issues.
Carefully balancing a small acoustic guitar on the floor behind his bar stool, he started off, in his thick Cockney accent, talking about music today.
Strummer: What’s holding me up is I’m confused about the nature of the music. Because the modern music doesn’t reach me. I mean to say the sound of the modern electric production. A lot of sequencers . . . synths. That’s what people are buying. Because that doesn’t reach me, it throws me back to like 1948, but I don’t want to be there. Back there, I’m talking about blues records. . . . The roots of rock ‘n’ roll is rhythm and blues and that’s like really where I’m at, where I was always at.
I want to go back to ’48 because there’s something there that isn’t now. But then I don’t want to re-create ’48, OK, because that would be a jive. So, therefore, I’m kind of just basically juggling with that.
Also I don’t like the idea that people who aren’t adolescents make records. Adolescents make the best records. Except for Paul Simon. Except for “Graceland.” He’s hit a new plateau there, but he’s writing to his own age group. “Graceland” is something new. That song to his son is just as good as “Blue Suede Shoes”: “Before you were born dude when life was great.” That’s just as good as “Blue Suede Shoes,” and that is a new dimension.
Question: What are your feelings looking back at “Clash Mark Two”? Was it a mistake?
Yeah. If you’re allowed to make your mistakes, I think you should. But people don’t really like hearing you admit them. Although I’d never wanted to dump on the musicians that were involved in that. . . . Because it was not their fault.
The problem was really that we shouldn’t have done it. I felt they were haplessly involved in something that they shouldn’t have been involved in, and I always felt bad that when I eventually decided it was forget-its-ville, that it might have reflected on them. ‘Cause it shouldn’t have.
Q: Why did you do it? Were you trying to prove something?
Yeah. I was trying to prove that I was the Clash and it wasn’t Mick (Jones). . . . I learned that that was kind of dumb. I learned that it wasn’t anybody, except maybe a great chemistry between us four, and I really learned it was over the day we sacked Topper, and not the day we sacked Mick. There was quite some time between them. We played a whole tour between those times. But it was the day we sacked Tops.
Because it’s between humans. (Clash managers) Bernie Rhodes and Cosmo Vinyl I think perhaps didn’t understand that. You couldn’t just jigsaw-puzzle it, take out a piece and put in another piece. That it was something weird between four humans that when they played it sounded OK, you know. And that’s fairly rare, that’s all.
And when we knocked out Topper for excessive drug abuse, I don’t think, honest to God, we ever played a good gig after that. Except for one night in New Jersey we played a good one, but I reckon that was just by the law of averages. Out of a 30-gig tour, one night, you’ve got to say it’s a fluke.
Q: Could Topper have continued to function?
Yeah, considering what happened straight after that when everybody I bloody knew in London was on smack. I mean it wasn’t rare, it was like ho hum, who isn’t? I think we could have. But then we were ignorant. It was like hoo hoo hoo, the big heroin, horse. I didn’t know anything about it. It was only after we fired Topper and my friends began to go down like flies. Now most of my friends in London are in Narcotics Anonymous. They can’t even have a glass of wine. Just cigarettes and coffee. It’s forever.
. . . I never liked heroin. I never even took it. I might have smoked it once in Holland. I remember the bloke said, “Zis next joint has the heroin in it.’ . . . I took like a show puff, the one where you keep it in your mouth. . . . And that was the only time I ever got really near heroin.
Q: Was the Clash as political as people made it out?
Probably not. I always tried to stress that in the later interviews. I didn’t want to pretend to be somebody I wasn’t. I kept saying, “Hey you know, we’re drug addict musicians.” That’s what I used to say to journalists--"Hang on, don’t get the wrong idea that were carrying around ‘Das Kapital’ and loads of pamphlets.” We had Mott the Hoople records and reefer, you know?
I often felt that all got a bit unbalanced. I kept trying to stress that--"Hang on, we’re be-bop guys, we’re down in the alley on 57th Street. We’re not in there with John Reed and ‘Ten Days That Shook the World.’ We’d be in the alley with (Charlie) Parker shooting up junk.” That’s where we were at really. I mean not shooting up junk, but if you had to say which camp are you in I’d have to say hey, we were up Bop Alley. I often felt worried that people thought we were Che Guevara.
Q: Where did the politics come from?
Don’t misconstrue me. I’m a human being. I’m not dumping on what I’ve done. I mean I know we were doing social (stuff), all right? I just don’t like boastin’ about it, OK? I know what we were doin’. I know damn well what we did. But I ain’t gonna start crying about it now, all right?
But the fact is that we were drug addict musicians first and foremost. We loved Chuck Berry, Slim Harpo. We never heard of Friedrich Engels, you know what I mean? The politics were on the street in front of us, man. I didn’t have anywhere to live. Don’t ask me where my politics came from. I couldn’t find anywhere to live. I was willing to wash dishes. I washed plenty of dishes. I dug graves. I cleaned the toilets. I’m not joking on any of these. None of that is an exaggeration. I did exactly what I say. I washed dishes, made omelets, I dug graves, cleaned toilets. And cut grass in the parks. I did the usual things that young men do. I didn’t have nothin’ behind me. I didn’t have nowhere to live.
Q: What are you proudest of that the Clash did?
“Rock the Casbah.” . . . It’s such a groove. Long live groove. Screw the rest of it.
Meanwhile can I interject something about “Rock the Casbah” here? The true genius of “Rock the Casbah” is Topper Headon. I was in Electric Ladyland (studio) and he said, “Look, I’ve got this tune, can I put it down?” I said, “OK, Tops, let’s put it down. . . .” He ran out in the studio and banged down the drum track to “Rock the Casbah.” And then he ran over to the piano and he banged down the piano track to it, and then ran over to the bass and he banged down the bass part. This is, like, I suppose, within 25 minutes, and “Rock the Casbah” is there, boom. Topper Headon did that in 25 minutes. And now he’s serving 15 months in (prison). . . . For partially supplying the heroin that killed some guy.
Q: Where’s your home?
I live in West London. I grew up in Ankara. It’s the capital of Turkey. My father was in the foreign office. I was born there. I also have Armenian blood. And Scottish. . . . I grew up 18 months in Turkey, 18 months in Cairo, two years in Mexico, two years in West Germany, then I went to boarding school in Epsom and I visited my parents in Tehran for 5 years, and then Malawi for a few years, and then went to art school, dropped out, became a bum, better chew gum. . . .
Q: Are you married?
I have two children, with a girl I’ve lived with for 10 years. Two girls, aged 4 and 2. And we live in West London.
Q: Are you uncomfortable talking about your personal life?
J: Do I give that impression? Well I don’t hide nothin’.
Q: Did the birth of your daughter change your outlook?
I’ll tell you something. When you see you become part of the cycle of generations, you lose your ego in the process, because you ain’t nothin’ special. You’re just another cipher in the generations. When you devote all your interest into another person, you lose your self-obsession, and that’s when you understand what it is. You don’t know (anything) without that moment. You don’t want anything to harm this helpless being. That’s a fantastic change. And that’s when you understand what’s happening. I never understood anything until my first baby looked at me. I didn’t understand (anything). Now I understand.
Q: Are you as driven to create as you were, to make music?
Creativity don’t stop. It just gets more intense if you feed it right. The only people that have to worry about their creativity is the junkies. The coke freaks and the heroin freaks, they’re the ones that have to worry. . . . Bet you Paul Simon ain’t no coke freak or no junk freak, you know.
Q: Do you feel good about things now generally?
Oh man, you know. There’s certain things you gotta decide in life. . . . If you ain’t confronting them--if you ain’t thinkin’ about man and God and law, then you ain’t thinkin’ about nothin’. There ain’t no use thinkin’ about sex or drugs or rock ‘n’ roll. That’s all red herrings. If you ain’t thinkin’ about man and God and law then you ain’t thinkin’ about nothin’.
Q: What do you think about man and God and law? Do you believe in God?
Well, I would say it was about time that you believe in something. And sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll ain’t it. . . . A lot of people used to think they were.