In West London in the early summer of 1976, Joe Strummer decided
to disband his own group, The 101ers, and take up the offer of
promoter Bernie Rhodes to join Mick Jones and Paul Simonon in
a new band desperately in need of a front man. They named the
band The Clash, and went on to carry the torch of the original
English punk scene to a realization of its full potential while
changing the course of rock & roll. Though staying close to music
throughout, Joe is now working on his first real studio album
since the break-up of The Clash.
Photo by Bob Gruen
I was sitting at my desk, dressed only in a thin bathrobe, staring at the scrolling RUDE: International screen saver on my laptop when the phone rang. After four rings I lifted my chin off the arm I was leaning on, took a gulp of luke warm black coffee and picked up the receiver.
Hey, Earl. This is Jason Rothberg. You sound a little groggy. I hope I havent called too early.
Too early?! It must be the crack of dawn out there. I figured he must be calling from his offices in Los Angeles. Anyway, why the wake up call?
Im getting on a plane in about an hour to come out there. Jasons nasally but deep voice almost stuttered with excitement. Joe Strummers flying into Boston later today. You can get your interview after all.
I shook my head trying to get rid of some of the cob webs. I had
been bothering Jason, a big time rock entrepreneur and Joe Strummers
manager, for months to get an interview, offering to go anywhere
from Rock River to Iquique. Now he was coming to my town.
The restaurant was in an imposing gray stone building downtown. I walk up the granite steps and in through the oak lined arch doorway. Straight ahead at the bar are a few local friends of mine who have also been invited to the soiree. They already have drinks in front of them and I order a Martini. Vodka, straight up with olives. Even though we are all glad to see each other, the conversation is muted as we anxiously await the arrival of a man who to most of us is a hero. Little did we know that he couldnt be more friendly and disarming. There is no mistaking Joe when he enters the bar. Dressed in a dark jacket, a white collared shirt and wearing a coy smile, he looks like every picture I have ever seen of him. He is accompanied by his charming wife Lucinda and a group of friends and business associates who greet us all with genuine warmth and interest. I recognize among the group Jesse Malin, lead singer of D Generation, dressed in a black denim jacket, his thin braided dreadlocks hanging down over his forehead from underneath a gray top hat. We shake hands while he introduces me to his girlfriend, a knockout with long, straight brunette hair that drapes to her shoulders and echoes her tight black dress. Also in attendance is famed rock photographer Bob Gruen and his lovely lady.
After a quick head count the restaurant staff assembles a table for fifteen and we all sit down. I share the end of the long table with Joe. Jesse sits to my left and Bob, with his ever present wide grin, sits to my right. More drinks are ordered and the old friends start yucking it up. Bob is one of the only people I have ever met who can start a sentence with a phrase like, So Im driving around Manhattan with John Lennon in this old, beat up Volkswagon I had Jesse keeps the conversation flowing with long, detailed stories about life as a full time rock n roll front man and part time night club owner, (he and the rest of D Generation are the proprietors of East Village rock club Coney Island High). Joe is quite content to sip a beer and take in the banter, only talking about himself when prodded by the slightly awe struck reporter sitting next to him.
I order a second cocktail while Joe, with genuine concern, asks if I am driving. I tell him that I am but that I have a strict two martini limit. Bob starts talking about a book he is working on concerning the different buzzes rendered by different cordials. This prompts a litany of contributions on the subject from those in attendance.
The conversation swings wildly from subject to subject, Jesse recounting his close encounter with filmmaker Martin Scorsese when he was cast in the roll of a doorman at CBGBs several years after he had auditioned for a part in a completely different Scorsese production. The guy was amazing, ya know. He remembers everything. But every time I see a rock club scene in a movie it looks cheesy. Ive got a feeling my scene is going to look stupid too.
The subject shifts to automobiles as Joe tells about how he has two beat up vintage cars, a 55 Cadillac and a 62 T-Bird in a lot in Los Angeles so he has something to drive around in when hes out there. Bob remembers the time during the exuberant days of the early New York punk scene when he watched a group of wierdos spray paint his decrepit Oldsmobile with anarchy symbols, and words like Hate! He recounts with a chuckle how the next day he had to use the vehicle to transport his horrified mother-in-law to Easter Mass.
As food is served and more drinks are consumed, I manage to get
Joe to offer his opinions on a variety of subjects and talk about
his plans for the future. My two martini rule is quickly violated,
rendering my other memories of the evening nearly unretrievable.
Fortunately, before lapsing into drunkenness and an uncontrollable
case of the hiccups, I had discreetly placed a mini-cassette recorder
in the center of the table. What follows are some of Joes ruminations
on a variety of strange, interesting, and completely unrelated
subjects amid interjections by various people at the table. Since
I cant make out all the other voices, and at times I think it
might be me, for the sake of simplicity I have put these interjections
I think golf should be banned. I went out to Palm Springs with Brian Setzer and I said Im going to run for mayor on the anti-golf ticket. I got as far as drawing up a bumper sticker that said something like Golf Sucks.
Golf gets a bad rap because everybody thinks its the sport of the elite, but if you ever go out on the course its all plumbers and construction workers. Regular guys.
Thats what they say, but its more addictive than crack. As soon
as anyone tries it theyre hooked immediately. Its happened to
all my mates. In fact, theres a hardcore soccer player in England
called Julian Dix, the mans man. He said in the paper the other
day, I always thought it was a puftas game. And now I love it.
On Future Recording Plans:
Im talking with Hellcat. Theyve been absolutely wonderful. This is what Im trying to do. This is the horns of my dilemma. I can see the four piece rock unit, okay, and Im wondering, that cant be taken any further. Maybe. It probably can be, but at the moment Im thinking not. And over in England theres already this really big dance, techno, jungle, drum and bass, all this stuff going off. And when that guy, Marshall McLuhen said The medium is the message, I look at the computer, and I think, I dont want to use a computer in case it changes the nature of the music. Thats my thinking today, anyway. It might change tomorrow. If its made in the computer I dont want that to sneak into it and change the music without me noticing. I dont mind if I wanted that, sort of, Lets get it computery, if the artist is using it. But I dont want it to sneak around behind me, and suddenly I find that the musics lost its touch. On the other hand, Im a bit sick of my ramshackled style, just slashing away. We have an insult over in England, if something sounds shitty we say it sounds like Pub Rock, like its any crummy bar band.
So youre thinking of going in a new direction?
Not really. I already tried that with Richard Norris and The Grid. It was a successful thing but then we fell out, because I was coming from punk rock and he was coming from acid house. We did three brilliant tracks which Im going to put on my next record, but I dont want those tracks to sound different from the rest of it, so it sounds like, These tracks are from over here, and these tracks are from over there. Ive just started talking again to Richard Norris, we fell back in again, its been a couple of years of avoiding each other. It was very difficult because he thought vocals were just part, well, in acid house vocals are just one of the tracks....
Another rhythm track.
Right, some fat chick going Oh-ah, get up-pump it up. And he didnt realize that for me vocals are the song. Its all part and parcel. We fell out on that point. But we actually cut three songs, and he kind of dubbed it up with his techno thing, and it worked. I dont go around boasting, but if Im drunk enough at a party to put it on people go this is great. And so I have decided, this has got to come out. And I want to kind of mesh again with Richard Norris, but this is going to be better because before we were trying to cut those tracks for a group together, but now weve agreed that he is going to work on the Strummer record, and hopefully we can work together because he wouldnt have his balls in a vice. Hes going to help what Im trying to do rather than making a group together, because we cant possibly agree on everything. It would just lead to another roux.
Ive got this stuff and I just want to move it on a bit. I know
some rock-a-billy guys, and the whole thing is like, lets pretend
its 57. And you have to think to yourself, this isnt getting
anywhere. This is nice, but where is it getting us? Unless its
mutated with the modern world it aint valid. So Im trying to
figure out how to mutate my kind of cave man style with the modern
stuff. It aint gonna sound like punk rock; like a retro thing.
It aint going to be a xerox of one day in 1977. Cause that would
piss me off. Although I love punk rock. Im not going to leave
it. I want to move it on if its possible.
On Todays Punk:
I like it when its thoughtful. And I like it when they think about melody. All the best punk rock has melody in it. Sometimes theres an aura that melody is for wussies or something. But music is boring without melody.
Thats whats bad about some of these young ska punk bands today is that the songwriting is really poor, and they dont have much melody. They just go after it technically.
Its laziness. If I produce a track and havent really busted
my gut on that aspect of it, I can get angry with myself. And
thats another thing with this computer shit, they avoid that.
They dont write a song, they just get a groove going and throw
some noises on it. But we wouldnt want it in twenty years. Thats
why Im going to try to put songs to this stuff. Its an experiment.
On Life Post Clash:
I put a recording studio together. I started with a four track and I worked that for a couple of years. Then I went to an eight track. I worked that for about eight years. Ive got a twenty-four track now. Im self taught. I realized that the musician has to have some knowledge. Before, wed stand in the studio, and wed have the music, but between us and the art there was an engineer guy. You lean over to the guy and you say, Can you make that more can you bring that out? and they go (Joe puts on a real nasally voice) No, I dont think so. Sometimes they throw their ego into it. Because the guitar is here and the recording desk is there and thats another musical instrument. And I thought, the band should get a hold of the shit and record ourselves. We dont need anybody.
Ive got a Mackie deck, and a Fostex 24 track. I did some music for an Eric Cantinal film. Hes a famous footballer in Europe, and I just picked up my 24 track tape machine and I took it on the train without any flight case or anything. I stuck it in the luggage rack over the seat and took it to Paris. By the time I got there I was amazed it worked, but I love the portability of it. I love it because its not some huge monolith stuck in some place. Im going to drive to Morocco, is my latest idea, and Im going to throw it in a panel truck. My whole kit, the board and the machine and the loops and Im going to drive it to Morocco with a generator and start fucking around in the mountains. When the Clash finished I was completely equipment un-oriented. I didnt know anything about it. Now I can record but I still havnt gotten into the computer. Im hiding from that.
On World Politics:
Everythings fucked! Its down to individual people to make life enjoyable. I dont have anything more to say than that. I think people should avoid the world fucking them up. People are becoming too uptight, treating their children bad, being negative.
Well how do you do that?
Youve got to live life and enjoy it. Control your mind. This is like Zen Buddhism or something. You cant go around feeling jealous or envious. Everyone should fight much harder to control their minds. It can be done. Those bastards up in the mountains of Morocco are doing it, sitting cross legged. We should all have children and give them a good time while they are growing up.
And youre raising three daughters?
Yea. Im no good, but Ive tried to make it fun. I hate it when
I go out and I see parents going, dont do that, or stop doing
that when some kids just hanging off a staircase or something.
Theres too much of this, dont do that. The whole thing baffles
On What Inspires Him To Write Music:
Somebody asked Sammy Cahn, who wrote Three Coins in a Fountain, what comes first, the tunes or the words, and he went, THE PHONE CALL! And then he said, What, do you think Im crazy? Do you think I wake up in the morning going, Im going to write a song called Three Coins in a Fountain? Actually, what he was saying is Shut up and write a damn song. I like the way he could do it on the spot if he had to. Its hard work. Thats the only way to do it. Youve just got to put the time in. A lot of people avoid doing that. Like we were saying earlier, thats why todays music sucks. Every record station in England sucks. On the radio today, its unbearable to put it on. I listen to this station called Radio 2. They play everything from thirty years ago, twenty years ago. You can hear the craft; the songwriting craft. Everything on Radio 2 is a song. If its Neil Diamond or Roger Miller you figure its a piece of someones real life put together with melody and truth and insight. Then I turn it to the current station and its a bunch of wimpy nerds moaning about shit in their bedrooms, and you think, get a life. Go out there and become a lumberjack or do something.
On Non-Musician Artists He Admires: Im friends with a guy in England called Damian Hearst whos kind of the Enfant Terrible of the art world there. He and I were talking about Jackson Pollack. I like the people who can see how to move things forward. Imagine just before Jackson Pollack, paintings been going on for god knows how long. Suddenly this guy comes forward and moves the whole thing a million light years in one moment. Thats the kind of people I like to think of. Yesterday we went to see the Monet exhibit and I was so shocked to see that at seventy-six years old he moves into a new phase. The stuff was completely deconstructed from what it had been, water lilies, and he moves into a revolutionary phase. Thats the sort of thing that keeps me going. I go to the desert and I visit this painter called Carl G. Braid. Hes eighty-six and were looking at one of his works and he says, (Joe puts on a kind of weird Brooklyn accent) You know, this is my kind of, kind of my new style on this one. I didnt say anything, but I was thinking, We should shut up moaning, this guys eighty-six and hes got a new style. He didnt think anything of it. Thats a lesson to learn.
On Political Leaders He Admires:
Well, I kind of got off all that because it all seems to be such a power trip. Political people, to get elected youve got to be on a power trip, and you cant trust anybody on a power trip. I cant see a way out of this.
They say that politics is show business for ugly people.
Exactly, that is very true. It is show biz. And were taking it to a new level. Were taking it to a Stepford Wives level. In the old days it was okay for politicians to go against their party if you didnt like a law. The English have learned from American political machines. Theyve moved it into this incredibly spin doctored, P.R. thing where no one in the party or the government or the House of Parliment is allowed to say anything that doesnt tow the party line. Theyve got this horrible phrase, Youve got to stay ON MESSAGE! Theres no debate or discussion in England.
And thats all determined by polling.
Exactly. Theyve got it down to a fine art. Theyve just taken democracy in England and flushed it down the toilet. It took them six months and theyve done it. Now theyre going to rule forever with this weird Stepford Wives thing. Its really a strange phase. Theyve really taken it to the limit. I dont know. It aint gonna be any good. You cant trust them. Theyre all so bloody straight. Im sick of being governed by straights actually. Whats the point of having the nerds in charge? Nerds are no damned good to be in charge. Theyre good with details and research.
Thats when I realized Bill Clinton was a great vote. To do that, (makes a smoking-a-joint gesture) he was a regular guy.
And thats a first in the history of the world. At least hes admitted, all right, he couldnt say he inhaled, but he admitted hes had a joint in his hand. Thats a first. We should build on that. But we wouldnt be able to because its the puritans, the religious nuts that are in charge. Imagine if they took all the drugs out of the ghetto, theres a lot of people making a lot of money off that trade.
And government officials brought them into the ghetto in the first place. They used the proceeds to finance the war in Central America.
Yeah, definitely. Thats proven now isnt it. I dont know, everyone
likes to sleepwalk through life. Normal people dont want to know
about all of that. They just want to watch T.V. and go to bed.
But not us. Were out drunk at four in the morning.
Very true. And to prove the point, we ended the evening in a bar in the basement of a V.F.W. Hall where everyone danced the night away. I woke up the next morning with a splitting headache, wondering where my car was (Joe made sure I was safely in a cab when we left the bar.) It was a night to remember, but for the most part I couldnt. All I was left with was the feeling that there was a rock in the back of my skull, and the realization that I had met some of the greatest people ever.
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