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.

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.

"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.

"The last thing I would have liked to have done is remake the '77 record or do a carbon copy of something else--something that was expected of me," he says. "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."

The longer Strummer talks about the new record, the more one gets a sense that the reason he didn't make an album for a decade was because trepidation kept getting in the way. He talks a lot about "unlocking the human mind," about trying to keep the musician out of the music's way. He bandies about words like "courage" and "fear," as though the act of making a record is no different from the act of picking up a rifle and heading off to war. So, then, how does one banish the fear?

"First of all, you have to smoke a lot of weed," Strummer says, laughing up a lung. "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.

"Let's face it. Musicians are pretty dumb, ya know? We don't really have too much self-analytical apparatus going on for us. Perhaps we should. 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 at it, actually. You can't say more than that."

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