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.

But until 1999 and the release of Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, his first outing with the Mescaleros (he now likens that hit-and-miss disc to a test run, a "flexing of the old muscles"), Strummer had little else to talk about except all those yesterdays. He'd made but one solo album prior to that, 1989's Earthquake Weather, which deservedly fell between the cracks. There had been some acting gigs, usually in films little seen by non-pot-smokers: Walker and Straight to Hell (both by Alex Cox, both as coherent as a lifetime drunk), Robert Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer's rocker fairy-tale Candy Mountain, Aki Kaurismäki's I Hired a Contract Killer and, most notably, Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train.

Strummer scored a few movies, among them Cox's Sid & Nancy(much to the chagrin of Sid Vicious' old band mate, one Johnny Rotten), Permanent Recordand Grosse Point Blank. He would contribute the random odd and sod to the occasional benefit compilation or tribute album and collaborate with the likes of Black Grape and Brian Setzer, but aside from those rare, often unreleased collaborations, Strummer was little seen and little heard from throughout the 1990s. The loudest voice of punk rock had, it appeared, gone strangely silent, save for a brief stint as Shane McGowan's replacement in The Pogues during a 1991 tour.

He refers to his period of inactivity as a "layoff," but it was as much a forced exile as it was self-imposed: Epic Records, home to the Clash since 1977, kept putting off Strummer as he prepared to record another solo album in 1991. The label simply wasn't anxious to fund yet another flop, as Earthquake Weatherhad been. Rather, it preferred to keep releasing Clash product: the 1991 boxed set Clash on Broadway, a Singlescollection the same year, and, in 1999, the live From Here to Eternitycollection along with remastered CDs of The Clash, Give 'em Enough Rope, Super Black Market Clash, London Calling, Sandinista! and Combat Rock. It kept his name in the papers, but Strummer would have been just as happy if it remained in the history books.

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

"I was sort of messing around, really, trying to find my way," he says of the 1990s. "The best fun I had during that period was The Pogues, going on the road with that lot. Now, that was fun." He laughs. "But I think it was a case of burnout rather than anything having to do with the industry. You just get burned out a little bit. Every now and then you need a bit of luck, and sometimes you get it."

It showed up in 1993, in the shape of a balding, middle-aged man who looked an awful lot like the mannequin atop which Paul Simon used to keep his hairpiece. At a party in England, Strummer ran into Simon, whose 1986 album Gracelandranks high on Strummer's Top Ten. That he should love the twee ex-folkie's Afropop excursion (which has since become the template for everything Simon's done since) is of little surprise: Long before the Clash started crossing borders like musical marauders on a scavenger hunt, ransacking the villages for dub discs and rockabilly records and platters full of spaghetti-western rumbles, Simon was co-opting reggae's riddims for his very first solo album. The two spoke briefly, exchanging pleasantries and compliments. Strummer was just surprised to discover Simon knew who he was.

"We had a chat, and I was complimenting him on Graceland, which is one of my favorite records," Strummer recalls. "He said, 'One day, you'll make a record where you put it all together.' At the time, nothing was going on for me, so I kept that comment as a sort of talisman or as a little bit of encouragement, and every now and then I would turn it over in my mind: 'What did he mean, one day you'll make a record where you put it all together?' He was trying to encourage me, and I kept thinking of his comment all through the years of things going off without ever quite happening. When we made this album, I thought, 'Now I see what he was talking about, where it all comes together at the same time.'"

"This album" is Global A Go-Go, which seethes with a familiar energy thought lost ever since...well, ever since that other band broke up. And Strummer is not above making the connection: He says that making the new album reminded him of the Sandinista!sessions in 1980, when "we found ourselves in the studio without any preparation by a series of accidental circumstances" and emerged with a triple album full of rebel waltzes and myriad sounds of other sinners. And the comparison is not entirely blasphemous: Global A Go-Go is the sound of a world traveler spilling out his luggage and allowing the audience to paw through the goodies. He's even brought back with him Roger Daltrey, who stumbled into the studio to lay down some backing vocals on the title track, as though the Who's front man could stay hidden in the background.

Strummer credits the Mescaleros with much of the music on Global A Go-Go; he insists he's too busy worrying about the lyrics, which deal with immigrants fleeing war-ravaged Kosovo to the spread of rock to the furthest reaches of the globe to the availability of hummus and couscous on every corner (I wanna riot...on a pita, please, and make it to go), to worry about the musical stuff these days. He trusts the band to add the flutes in the right spots. He swears this bandis a democracy and hopes only to keep it from busting up like that other band.

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