BE BOP A LULA HERE’S JOE STRUMMER
I can still remember the way I felt as I walked down west London’s Lancaster Road and headed towards the Warwick Castle pub on one of the first sunny afternoons of 1988. I was going to interview Joe Strummer. What would he be like? I’d interviewed lots of musicians in that first year that I worked at Sounds even someone who I respected and admired as much as Tom Waits but no one who’d had such a formative impact on life as the lead singer of the Clash.
Musically, visually and in all the things they said and did, the Clash were the perfect band: a teenage dream, far too beautiful to beat.
Thankfully, Joe Strummer turned out to be everything I’d hoped he would be, and a little bit more. When the pub closed, he suggested that we carry on talking in a cafe around the corner â he kind of place where they lace the drinks with spirits ââ and it was there that he told me about The Bop Message. The keep it simple, say it from the heart philosophy that informed everything he ever did. Then right on cue, I suddenly found myself at the centre of an impromptu session which involved a guitar, teaspoons and Joe Strummer singing to an audience of just me.
I met him again a few weeks later, backstage at Kentish Town’s Town & Country Club after he had played London Calling and I Fought The Law onstage with The Pogues. The Sounds feature had yet to be published but he greeted me like an old friend, enthusing about The Pogues and saying that they had just delivered exactly what he had been telling me about ââ The Bop Message.
The next and last time I had the pleasure of meeting Joe Strummer was in San Francisco in October 1991. He had just taken over as frontman of The Pogues, following Shane MacGowan’s recent departure. I was there to write an article for Melody Maker but Joe told me that, if he was really being Shane, there would be no interview until I had kept drinking pace with him through some of his favourite haunts.
Ever the gentleman, Joe insisted, âAnnie gets to ride shotgunâÂ and, as we climbed into his friend’s pink Cadillac and sped through the streets of the Golden Gate city, I wondered what the teenage me would think if she could see me now.
We eventually did the interview at 5am, sitting on the bathroom floor of Spider Stacy’s hotel room in order to avoid the full-scale Pogues party that was still raging on outside. Joe provided his own soundtrack, a rockabilly tape compiled by Jim Jarmusch, and I remember him saying, quite seriously, that the only person who could possibly have stepped into Shane’s shoes (apart from himself) was Gene Vincent.
Sweet Gene Vincent, Shane MacGowan and Joe ââ the title of that Sounds feature now makes so much sense. Be Bop A Lula Here’s Joe Strummer: part 50s-style rocker delivering The Bop Message, part Irish-hearted Minstrel Boy bound for heaven.
I hope he’s singing Be Bop Alleluia among the angels now.
(feature from the late and great SOUNDS April 2 1988)
BE BOP A LULA HERE’S JOE STRUMMER
Ann Scanlon finds Joe Strummer busking in a London cafe and talks to him about The Clash’s past and his own future working on movies
Just within earshot of the barrow-boy cries on London’s Notting Hill market is a cramped cafe, offering whiskey-laced coffee and early morning refuge to anyone who needs it.
For the past four years, Joe Strummer has stared into an empty cup, half-listened to the crackle of a caffeine-stained wireless and reflected on a broken past and perpetually uncertain future.
As the former leader of one of the most influential bands of the last decade, Strummer had plenty to think about.
And it took an awful lot of coffee before he was able to understand how The Clash had allowed such anger, passion and street sensibility to dissolve into complacency, confusion and parody itself.
‘The Clash were f***ed by success,’ he realises now. ‘We were singer/songwriters and the better we did our craft and we tried to do it real good the more it removed us from the frame of where we were writing from.’
But it wouldn’t be Strummer to wallow in coulda-always-beena-contender contemplation for ever. Armed with the hard-learned lessons of the past 12 years, he’s back in the ring with an impressive soundtrack, Walker, and a clear vision ahead.
Until recently, it was Alex Cox who provided the main outlets for Strummer’s brooding madness.
When the latter gatecrashed a Sid ‘N’ Nancy party in 86, Cox invited him to work on the score and Strummer ended up writing the central song, Love Kills.
A few months later, Cox gave Strmmer a lead role in his spaghetti spoof Straight To Hell and subsequently asked him to appear in Walker.
Shot in Nicaragua, Cox’s fourth movie outlines the life of William Walker, the American soldier who declared himself President of Nicaragua in 1855.
Unlike Straight To Hell, which revolved around a small clique of the director’s friends, Walker drew on a huge pool of Hollywood stars and features the talents of Ed Harris, Miguel Sandoval and Marlee Matlin.
Srummer’s acting capabilities are hardly stretched as Faucet The Dishwasher or as a battle extra.
’If I had any less of a role then I wouldn’t be there at all, he says. It would be best if we had it on video so I could press pause and say, ‘Look, see that guy holding his hat running through the back of the battle scene that’s me!’
Although I do have another scene where I dive into a river with a rope and try to lasso these naked women who are washing their clothes in the water.
Strummer and his Straight To Hell co-star Dick Rude were inevitably written in as comic relief to the serious storyline but, as Walker was cut from its original three hours to half that length, most of their efforts ended up on the cutting room floor.
‘At some point Alex decided that he had to reach the Rambo audience, which you can understand. But really his audience is the people who’d go up to the Gate cinema or the Scala, we could have sat and enjoyed a two and a half hour Walker, and now it seems to fall between the two stools.
I think Alex started with both a great script and crew of actors. They were real professionals, no complaints, no tantrums, Ed Harris would sit down in the dirt with the extras, but everything was still very uptight.
As soon as we got there it was (adopts phoney drawl), Right, this is dead serious. This is a five million dollar picture and personally I didn’t enjoy the ten weeks we spent there.’
That said, Strummer was glad of the opportunity to visit Nicaragua and just as on Straight To Hell, he had preferred to âmethod out and sleep in a battered Dodge ââ so himself and Dick Rude skipped the luxuries of Managua’s Hotel Intercontinental for a rented house in Granada.
‘Nicaragua was just like being in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book. There’s nothing to do except sit outside on rocking chairs, rocking the mosquitoes away. You’d sit there in the afternoon and feel so clear in the mind that it was like being on a different planet.’
Because they were filming in the south, the Walker crew were well out of the war zone. But Strummer who once dealt in the polemics of Sandinista and the more specific Washington Bombs still maintains his support for the Sandinistas.
Nicaragua is a country with nothing, and the Sandinistas are the the first to admit that they’ve made every mistake in the book. But when they took over from Somoza (the dictator who was deposed in 1979), the first thing they did was to teach everyone to read and write and make sure that there was some sort of medical care.
‘There’s a guy called PJ O’Rourke who writes in f***ing Rolling Stone and represents the typical, Hey, dude, let’s party segment of America and probably doesn’t even know where Nicaragua is. Anyway, he went down there to slag it off, and of course he can go into a supermarket and see all the empty shelves, but he’s not talking about the real issue which is that America supports any kind of fascist dictator so long as he ain’t a commie.’
It was while Walker was being filmed in Granada, that Cox asked Strummer to write the score.
‘I banged the stuff off in two weeks. I had my trumpet, violin, myself and two suitcases in this house, and every day I’d take a couple of songs to Al’
Less straightforward, however, was the actual recording when Strummer had to explain his arrangements to more than a dozen musicians in a San Francisco studio.
‘That was incredibly nerve wracking. I felt completely paranoid all the way through the first side because The Clash would just record, Bang! Bang! and that was it.
There’s a song called Omotepe, which I wrote with one finger on the piano, and when I explained it to the pianist I was almost apologising for its simplicity. But she just said, I think that’s tough, and gradually I began to feel better.
But it was only when we cut the second side country style that it was more like rock ‘n’ roll and I could say, This is how it goes, boys. We’d do ten takes: a slow one, a long one, a fast one, a funny one ââ that’s the way rock ‘n’ roll was made.’
On completing Walker, Strummer returned to London and, within weeks, a guest appearance to The Pogues at Camden’s Electric Ballroom led to a three week tour of the States with them.
‘It was funny how it happened, he smiles. I’d met Jimmy The Red, a well known drinker around Notting Hill, and he was telling me that he’d been to Narcotics Anonymous, had given up everything and was feeling great.
So I decided to knock drinking on the head for a month, went home and was sat there feeling all smug with my new decision when the phone rang and The Pogues’ manager Frank Murray said, Joe, you’re gonna come to New York with us in three days time.’
Standing in for ailing Pogues guitarist Philip Chevron refuelled his enthusiasm for playing live.
’There’s something about thrashing an instrument to the limit and that’s what really appealed to me about The Pogues the sheer physicality of the music. I’d just done Walker and I loved the way we could really rock the house with a tiny little thing like a mandolin, rather than bludgeoning everyone into submission with a huge wall of sound.
Philip Chevron is a fantastic rhythm guitar player, and it was scary enough to learn all that stuff let alone try and play it at 900 miles per hour.’
Four days after the last of these Pogues gigs, Strummer was back in LA writing a score for Permanent Record, a US movie dealing with teenage suicide.
This time he put together The Latino-Rockabilly War, a six-strong band which mixed psychobilly with Latin and jazz, and includes Zander Schloss of Circle Jerks and Poncho Sanchez, one of the most respected Latin/jazz musicians on the West Coast.
‘I wrote all the songs in two weeks, says Strmmer, âand that’s the best way to do it, cos we’re being too damn precious. There’s not enough people pushing themselves to write.
Instead of rewriting they’ll endlessly tart it up and take it to Memphis and take it to New York and take it to this magic mix master or that. Too much money is spent papering over the fact that it’s shit in the first place.’
Ever since Strummer heard The Rolling Stones’ Not Fade Away as a ten-year-old in boarding school, he has thought of nothing but rock ‘n’ roll.
‘It’s the only thing that’s living to me,’ he claims. ‘I shall live and die and be judged by it.’
God knows, he even sold his marriage vows for it. In 1974 he married a complete stranger, who needed immigration status in order to travel abroad, and used the resultant £100 to buy the black Telecaster that he has used every night since.
‘I’d like to get divorced,’ he shrugs, but I can’t find her.’
It’s not something that Strummer now the father of two daughters thinks about from one year to the next.
‘I’ve been with Gabrielle for ten years and we don’t need a piece of paper to tell us we’re together.’
And although he now accepts that The Clash have split for good, he and Mick Jones are closer than ever.
‘Mick’s daughter Lauren and my daughter Jazzi are the best of friends – a terrible duo- so I see him all the time. I see Paul too and I’m going to go and see Topper who has been detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.’
Strummer is curious as to what Topper will make of the recent spate of Clash reissues.
‘When I heard that they were going to release I Fought The Law I had a predictable reaction,’ he admits. But then I rang up Rob Steiner at CBS and he explained that he was a long term Clash fan but hadn’t got I Fought The Law because it was released on the since deleted EP, and now sells for £45. Until then I hadn’t thought about it in terms of the audience, and Rob convinced me that he’d made the right decision.’
Together with Jones, Steiner subsequently worked out a track listing.
‘Story Of The Clash Volume One was my idea of a joke. I’ve got no right to assume that there will be a second volume, but this double album is made up of all the main stuff and I think we’ve got an interesting odd bag that might fit on a single LP in a couple of years’ time.’
For today, though, Strummer is back in his favourite Notting Hill retreat, staring into another cup of coffee but surer of his next move than ever.
‘Sitting here these past four years listening to the stuff out of that,âÂ he nods in the direction of an old radio behind the counter. ‘I’ve realised there’s no Bop Message. And I’ve decided that I’m going to deliver The Bop Message to anyone who’ll listen.
It’s nothing to do with be-bop, I call it The Bop Message cos I’m differentiating it from all the drivel that I hear on the radio, which has no message to me except that some f***er wants to be famous.’
It was while Strummer was working with The Latino-Rockabilly War, in a tiny studio in LA, that he fully realised the potential of The Bop Message.
‘Most of the studios in LA look like the London Rock Shop but we found this Mexican place called Baby ‘O, which was just a simple wooden room. I’ve got a song called Thrash City, which is going to be released as a single off the Permanent Record soundtrack and I asked my friend Jason Mael to bring his Super 8 camera and shoot a video.
He just shot it as we were recording and the whole thing cost 650 dollars. That to me is The Bop Message.’
But although Strummer’s message and method is simplicity itself, he is only too aware that promoting The Bop Message won’t be quite so easy.
‘Right now, I’m a one-man operation and it’s lovely and clear. I’ve got nobody to please but myself and that’s the way I want to keep it.
Walker sold 15,000 copies in America, but there’s never been an advert. It’s not on the radio and the film died in a week. So I’m not dispirited by those figures cos what that means is that there’s 15,000 hipsters in America who searched out Walker and found it.
I don’t have an extravagant lifestyle to maintain so I can almost operate on that level. Whereas if I was trying to compete on a mega-mega level I’d have to have all these wankers polishing my mix and polishing my haircut. I’m just not interested enough in Joe Strummer to push Joe Strummer the way Madonna must push Madonna.’
Strummer might have resigned himself to indie sales figures, but he’s planning to return to the road nevertheless.
‘Touring is like a drug. You forget what it was like to be high on that drug, but when someone comes along five years later and gives you another taste, you’re addicted again. And on The Pogues tour, I really felt the bite.
But what really annoyed me,’ he continues, curling his top lip into that famous snarl, ‘was that for 13 numbers the audience would be rocking away, having a great time, but as soon as I stepped up to do I Fought The Law and London Calling all these tossers would suddenly start gobbing.
I’m going to go back onstage and when I do I’m going to play everything from Keys To Your Heart to Rock The Casbah ââ I insist on playing my back catalogue ââ but the first person to gob at me, I’m gonna jump offstage and have that Telecaster right through the centre of their head.’
But, he stresses, ‘I don’t want my songs to be about my hotel rooms or my ego. I’m a one-man operation, and I’m not interested in becoming a superstar cos you can’t write.’
Strummer’s train of thought is interrupted by a stray busker who wanders over and unwittingly asks, ‘Can anyone tune a guitar?’
Within minutes the guitar is at the centre of a fully-fledged session, a cafe regular singing while Strummer and his friend Roughler Ray keep rhythm.
‘I am a sincere man,’ echoes Strummer, translating from the singer’s Spanish, ‘the most thing I want in life is to spit my words out into the air.’
And then he’s lost again, keeping time with his teaspoon as simply and effectively as he’d banged out one-finger piano patterns for Walker.
Joe Strummer might have been unsure about where he was going or even of what he was doing, but he could never lose sight of himself.