The Rebel's Waltz

For 10 years, Joe Strummer made little noise. Finally, the Clash front man returns with a record he can call his own.

On May 25, 2001, there stood on a single London stage Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon--all told, "a fucking gorgeous bunch of blokes," in the estimation of one Peter Townshend, who's known his share of rough boys. Their names rang a bell. They looked familiar, if inexplicably fancy. Paul, appearing far more beefy than he did during his days of string-bean cool, wore dark shades, a gray suit, a white shirt with open lapels. He looked like Mafia, like he didn't wanna be fucked with. Mick, beneath a nearly bald head and a thin smile, sported a black suit, crisp white shirt and matching tie; a red kerchief poked out of his breast pocket, very classy. Joe, once the mohawked one, donned a black waistcoat streaked with white pinstripes; his hair was well-coifed. Only Topper wore jeans, but likely he just wanted to be comfortable. He stood between his old mates using crutches to prop himself up. The sight of Topper on crutches initially made Joe laugh. The old days, at that moment, seemed a million years away. It's just hard to be tough when you need something to hold you up.

"But with the Clash, there's always an element of comedy," Joe says, laughing till it sounds like a cough. "They went, 'Ladies and gentlemen, the Clash...and will someone help them up on stage?' I loved that bit. And 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 10 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: 'Hey, howya doing?' There wasn't any awkwardness. That was quite weird."

Joe Strummer—in the studio, in the moment—banishing the fear: “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.”
Josh Cheuse
Joe Strummer—in the studio, in the moment—banishing the fear: “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.”
The Old Band: from left, Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer, Topper Headon and Mick Jones
Paul Slattery/Retna
The Old Band: from left, Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer, Topper Headon and Mick Jones

So before you go wondering if the Clash will ever again reunite on stage, there is your answer: been there, done it just a few months ago. Likely, it will never happen again, at least not until they're old men--in their 80s, Strummer has said more than once, when no one's left to give a damn about such things. Then, they'll do it for themselves and not an audience that has yet to stop shouting for songs written and recorded a billion years ago, give or take. Strummer still plays the old songs, but not when people shout out for the monkey to do his "party trick." London calling? Take a message.

But for this one night, the Clash was happy to sit at the same table, stand on the same stage and accept its British Academy of Composers & Songwriters Ivor Novello Award for having made an "outstanding contribution to British music." It was a bit like Groucho Marx getting an honorary Academy Award in his waning days, just before it became a posthumous accolade. The band's been busted up some 17 years, ever since Joe told Mick to take his drum machines and shove 'em up his arse, and only now does it warrant some feting. Ah, well, Strummer sighs. The band wouldn't have accepted any award in 1977 or 1981 or 1983 anyway. Accolades were so beside the point. "I wanna riot!" they yelled. Not, "I want a reward!"

"We were a bit like fish out of water at the ceremony," Strummer says, in that hoarse, guttersnipe rumble of his. "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 Qmagazine 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, 'Oooh, wonder if this will win an award.' Nowadays, there are so many of them: the Mercury Prize, the QAwards, the Brit Awards, the Ivor Novello Awards. New groups sit around thinking, 'Oooh, hope we win the Mercury,' and completely miss the point somewhere."

But Joe Strummer is not on the phone, from his room at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, to talk about awards and yesterdays and The Old Band, though when they come up in conversation, he does not shy away from such topics. He's out on the road--in record stores, actually, playing beneath fluorescent lights in the middle of the day--promoting a new record, only his second since 1989. Global A Go-Go, released last week on Hellcat Records, an offshoot of Epitaph Records, is easily the best album he's been part of since 1982's Combat Rock. Fair enough: That's such a backhanded compliment, it's damned near an insult.

Strummer recorded Global A Go-Go--yet another installment in his ongoing series of rock-and-roll travelogues, a slide show of flutes and fiddles and Spanish guitars and British snarls--with the Mescaleros, a band of British session players back for a second spin with the old man (Strummer turns 49 this month). For years, he resisted putting another band together because of how horribly his last one ended--in a media-fueled spat with Jones and with a record so miserable Strummer disowned it, as have most people who bought Cut the Crapin 1985. He often refers to how "volatile" such situations are. He doesn't want a repeat of the past, a subject he's been rehashing the better part of the last 12 years. Enough already.

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