“When big money moves in, big money doesn’t fuck around...”.
It’s the autumn of 1999 and Joe Strummer is in the kitchen of his Somerset home rapping about the perils of rock superstardom. “I don’t know whether I could have hacked it. One of the reasons The Clash broke up was we saw what The Who were like at the end of their tether. It’s a bad scene. You very quickly turn into nothing. I’ve enjoyed my life because I’ve had to deal with all kind of things, from failure to success to failure again. That has made me a better person. I don’t think there’s any point in being famous if you’re an arsehole, or if you lose that thing of being a human being. Because you ain’t gonna be happy living in some mansion somewhere.”
Strummer didn’t have a mansion. In fact, for the best part of the preceding decade, he barely had a career. Shunned by the rock magazines who once lauded him as a righteous punk superhero, he has become reclusive and a little paranoid.
This interview has taken weeks of negotiation, the former Clash icon seemingly wary of a stitch-up. After years in the wilderness, his self-confidence is shattered, his bullshit detector twitching. But he was right to be wary.
Many years on from his death in 2002, Joe Strummer has been lauded on screen, lionised in print and immortalised on countless magazine covers. In an age filled with endless reunions and deluxe re-issues, he’s now part of the classic rock pantheon. But in 1999, Strummer was seriously out of step with pop fashion. In the eyes of many in the media he had gone from incendiary firebrand to middle-aged burn- out. How the mighty are fallen.
15 years after the undignified demise of The Clash, Strummer had not released any new music for a decade. But he was on the cusp of a belated career revival with his new band The Mescaleros, a ragged roots-rock collective who combined folk, reggae and world music elements. Back to garageland, but with a global twist.
It was this new Mescaleros material that drew me to interview Strummer, particularly Yalla Yalla, a mesmerising dub rock anthem that sounded like a Straight To Hell for the new millennium. Warmer, more reflective and less angry than in his punk heyday, Strummer’s new project was then still in its infancy. But the soulful sandpaper rasp in his voice and newly spiritual scope of his lyrics suggested he was maturing into a kind of English Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash.
Clearly energised by music again, Strummer told me he had spent much of the last decade “running into brick walls”. It seemed bizarre that such an explosively dynamic, fiercely charismatic performer should have suffered such a prolonged slump.
“Yeah, but those are probably the people who are the most unconfident, really,” Strummer shrugged. “The ones who give it the mouth and trousers. I’m like that. Like, if you stormed in here and said the new record was rubbish, I would probably quit.”
A master of reinvention, the artist formerly known as John Graham Mellor spent his pre-punk music career as a neo-beatnik folk rocker. When The Clash imploded following their feeble 1985 swansong album Cut The Crap, the singer seemed poised for multiple careers as an actor, composer and musical journeyman.
In 1986, Strummer buried the hatchet with Mick Jones, the former soulmate he had acrimoniously sacked from The Clash, co-writing and co-producing the album No.10 Upping Street for Jones’s new band, Big Audio Dynamite.
He also struck up a new creative partnership with maverick film-maker Alex Cox, contributing music to his punk biopic Sid And Nancy, and starring alongside The Pogues, Elvis Costello and a young unknown called Courtney Love in Straight To Hell, Cox’s deranged 1987 spaghetti western. The next year, Strummer also played a smaller role in Cox’s ambitious, anti-imperialist period piece Walker, but it was with the soundtrack that he struck gold: the lush score for Walker remains the finest of his career. Cox believes Strummer’s underrated film scores eclipse anything he did on screen.
“Really his impact was as a composer,” the director says. “Walker has the best soundtrack of any film I’ve done.”
On his next film score job, for Marisa Silver’s low-key 1988 suicide drama Permanent Record, Strummer put together his first post-Clash band, the Latino Rockabilly War. The stand-out cut was Trash City, a terrific clatter of Springsteen-esque power folk. Neither film nor album made much commercial impact, but Strummer kept the band together.
A studio album, Earthquake Weather, followed in 1989, but it was a commercial flop. Perhaps because Strummer was still a little lost without Mick Jones, with his flair for sharp arrangements and melodic hooks. Or maybe the singer’s poetic blend of beatnik poetry and jukebox Americana simply sounded outmoded in a rock era that was dominated by dance music, thrash metal and grunge.
Further acting roles followed, notably in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, a ghostly journey through America’s Deep South rock mythology. But increasingly the films were low-budget cult affairs, often going straight to video or simply disappearing altogether.
“Joe was a really fine actor,” Jarmusch insists. “Musicians are performers, but that doesn’t mean all of them translate into good actors. He was so observant of details and human nature, and he was also empathetic to other people, which you certainly know from his music.”
In 1990, Strummer produced the fifth Pogues album Hell’s Ditch, the last to feature Shane MacGowan. He later stepped in as last-minute replacement singer after the band were forced to tour the album without MacGowan. But the tour became a kind of career finale for Strummer. Locked in a legal dispute with Sony, his public profile fading, he drifted away from music to focus on his young children and turbulent private life.
Splitting from his long-term partner Gaby Salter, Strummer moved to a rented cottage in rural Hampshire and began a new romance with Lucinda Tait. Like Dylan in Woodstock, this former generational icon dropped off the map.
“The weird thing about Joe was for the longest time he didn’t do anything,” muses Cox. “He did have crises of confidence that lasted a long time. That’s the mystery of those years when he retired to the countryside and didn’t produce anything, because he had such torrential creative flow going on in the years I knew him. It’s hard to imagine that ever dried up.”
“I think it was lack of confidence,” explains Joe’s widow Lucinda. “He felt Earthquake Weather had been totally unsupported by his record label at the time. It just left him disheartened, doubting himself and his abilities.”
In 1994, Strummer and his fellow Clash veterans received a multi-million-dollar offer via Perry Farrell’s Hollywood-based agent to reform for the alt-rock touring festival Lollapalooza. These former punk legends debated the offer seriously, but eventually declined.
“It was five million dollars for 50 gigs or something,” Strummer told me five years later. “But you can’t put something together for money that was originally for an idea. We could probably knock up a few gigs but it’s not going to do anything for the world, is it? Creatively you’re really The Searchers on a chicken-in-a-basket tour. If you’re confronted with a choice: take one million dollars for the death of an artist, or you can live as an artist forever – maybe – you’re gonna take the second option.”
The next year proved to be pivotal in Strummer’s fluctuating fortunes. In May 1995, he married Tait in a low-key ceremony at Kensington And Chelsea registry office.
Previously an occasional visitor to rock festivals, he became an enthusiastic convert that summer, setting up his makeshift ‘Strummerville’ camps backstage at Glastonbury and WOMAD. Here he would gather around communal campfires with friends old and new, including Mick Jones, Keith Allen and his daughter Lily, artist Damien Hirst and his partner Maia, Shaun Ryder and Bez of Happy Mondays fame, Primal Scream bassist Mani and many more. This campfire community slowly drew Strummer back to music. Belatedly discovering Ecstasy, he immersed himself in dance music. The dance scene had the same pull as punk, he said, “because as with punk, two mad geezers in a room could do it. It can be made by two nutters in a room for 200 quid. Like Karl Marx said, let the workers have the means of production and then we’ll see the world change. That’s why dance music is fucking great because anyone could get into it.”
I asked Strummer how long he took to get into the music. “About the time it takes to swallow a pill,” he laughed. Always an undercurrent during his Clash days, world music also became a new passion for Strummer. Setting up camp at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios near Bath, he began meeting young musicians from across the globe, bonding with Richard Norris of techno outfit The Grid and Black Grape percussionist Pablo Cook.
He collaborated on Black Grape’s Euro 1996 football anthem England’s Irie, then on Keith Allen’s collective comedy-rock project Fat Les. In 1997, Strummer and Lucinda bought a farmhouse near Taunton in Somerset. Damien Hirst had a place less than an hour away and film-maker Julien Temple was living just around the corner. These middle-aged punk veterans became fast friends, with Strummer converting Temple to the delights of Glastonbury.
“We were trying to get a rebel state going, a bit like the Confederacy,” Temple says. “Joe designed a flag with a skull and crossbones over the campfire.”
Moving to the country may have initially felt like retirement to Strummer, but this new pastoral hippie phase ultimately re-energised him. In 1998, he kicked off his public comeback with a world music show on the BBC World Service, London Calling, which was heard by 40 million people around the globe. Like Dylan in Woodstock, he was never really off duty, more like an exiled king waiting to be summoned back to his throne.
“Glastonbury and the whole campfire thing was so good for him,” recalls Lucinda Mellor, Joe’s widow. “He had been pottering around in his own studio and not associating with like- minded people. Suddenly going out to Real World Studios opened up a new world to him. He met people who were involved in techno music or world music, and he just got really enthusiastic and excited about everything again. He felt he had something to offer.”
As his musical comeback began to take shape, Strummer initially mooted forming a group with Richard Norris, Pablo Cook and Bez.
“Me and Norris were trying to invent acid punk, but we were coming from opposite directions,” Strummer told me in 1999. “That was a real Clash. He was coming right out of acid house, and I’m coming right out of punk rock, and we hit head on. We made some brilliant tracks, but the cultural collision was too much.”
Norris and Strummer eventually parted company, but not before they co-wrote a clutch of tracks that would later feature on the first Mescaleros album, most notably the mighty swaying ocean liner of dub rock that was Yalla Yalla. Meanwhile, Strummer met Antony Genn, a sometime member of Pulp and Elastica, who he had first spotted dancing naked onstage at Glastonbury in 1995. In blunt terms, Genn ordered the singer to put a new band together.
“That was the call I’d been waiting for, because I’d had a loss of confidence,” Strummer confessed to me. “It’s hard because it’s like a car that hasn’t run for years. You think it’s never going to run, as you stand around there kicking the wheels. But with a bit of goosing and some gasoline in the carburetor… I just needed someone to pull my sleeve and say: ‘Come on!’.”
Strummer enlisted Genn as his co-producer, co-writer and guitarist. No stranger to booze and drugs himself, the singer initially worked around Genn’s serious heroin addiction. Together they recruited a band including guitarist Martin Slattery, bass player Scott Shields and drummer Steve ‘Smiley’ Barnard.
The group was still nameless. Damien Hirst suggested Sausage. Strummer briefly favoured Machine, then Hand Of God, then settled on The Mescaleros, after a Native American Apache tribe.
Recorded in a boozy, flag-draped spliff bunker in North London, the first Mescaleros album was completed in early 1999. Strummer then began the dispiriting business of shopping it to British record companies. Reaction was lukewarm. Even avowed Clash fans like Creation boss Alan McGee turned the former punk legend down.* In the end, it was the US label Hellcat, run by Tim Armstrong of arena punk veterans Rancid, who gave Strummer his break with a generous one- album deal worth $250,000. In Britain the album was licensed by Mercury after recording.
“Nobody would sign me in Europe,” Strummer told me glumly. “I understand why, because a record executive doesn’t really want to stick his neck out in this day and age. I’d been out of fashion, and this is a pretty brutal island. The press are pretty harsh.”
The Mescaleros played their first gig in June 1999 at the Leadmill in Genn’s native Sheffield. Reviews were generally positive, partly reflecting the huge legacy of goodwill towards Strummer, who dropped several Clash songs into the set.
The band’s debut album, Rock Art And The X-Ray Style, was finally released in October. Inside the pink cave-painting sleeve design by Damien Hirst were Clash-style rockers like Tony Adams, alongside more adventurous worldbeat experiments like Yalla Yalla and the blissful Willesden To Cricklewood. Reviews were mixed, but mostly encouraging. As The Mescaleros toured Europe, America, Japan and Australia, the album went on to sell a respectable 150,000 copies.
Recording sessions for a second album soon loomed, but cracks in the band were starting to show. Genn’s heroin habit finally became untenable when he began missing shows, and Strummer reluctantly sacked him in July 2000. When Barnard also left, the singer reshuffled the band, installing Luke Bullen on drums and Simon Stafford on bass He also enlisted his former Clash cohort Tymon Dogg on fiddle, broadening the band’s Celtic-reggae folk sound. Though still clearly a work in progress, old friends were impressed with the maturing Mescaleros sound.
“I liked them,” says Mick Jones. “It was a thing that was developing in public, he was actually out there doing it. I would have developed it in private and then come out. It’s just two different approaches. Everybody changes as their journey continues.”
In late 2000, almost two decades after asking The Clash to open for them, The Who offered Strummer’s new band a support slot on their UK arena tour.
“I only saw them one time, playing with The Who,” recalls Alex Cox. “I’d also seen The Clash years ago playing with The Who. The Clash blew The Who offstage, but the Mescaleros were about equal.”
Between Who shows, Roger Daltrey dropped by the studio to sing backing vocals on the title track to the upcoming second Mescaleros album, Global A Go-Go. More polished and textured than the band’s debut, the new album featured the playful tropical skiffle of Mondo Bongo and the warm Bo Diddley-goes-Afropop Johnny Appleseed, a leftover from Strummer’s Earthquake Weather days.
During the album sessions, Strummer also surreptitiously sent over a collection of lyrics to Mick Jones, hinting that he wanted to make an alternative album with his old songwriting partner. Assuming the lyrics related to the Mescaleros, Jones worked them into songs, but did not hear back from Strummer. Intriguingly, he later told Jones they were for “the next Clash album”. Whether this was a joke or a serious hint that Strummer had a fallback career plan, the duo never broached the subject again.
Released in July 2001 to broadly positive reviews, Global A Go-Go plunged The Mescaleros into another heavy-drinking, hedonistic round of tours and festivals. Strummer even summoned his former Straight To Hell co-star, film-maker Dick Rude, to shoot a tour documentary of the band’s global exploits in 2001 and 2002. Later released as Let’s Rock Again, the film shows Strummer frantically busking, hustling, struggling to find an audience for his new project. But Rude insists The Mescaleros were maturing into a solid commercial prospect.
“I think there was enough momentum and chemistry with that band,” Rude says. “It had finally reached its solidarity musically, the songs were poppy enough to get people’s attention. Had Joe been around to promote that last record I think he could have crossed back over into the Clash category of recognition.”
In the US, at least, Strummer still had friends in high places. Their shows were thronged with famous friends like Jim Jarmusch, Deborah Harry, Matt Dillon, Steve Buscemi, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth.
“The Mescaleros were so good that last time I saw them,” recalls Jarmusch. “They played five nights here in Brooklyn, and I saw three of the nights. He had really whipped them into a fine band.”
In the spring of 2002, Strummer recorded a version of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song with Johnny Cash at Rick Rubin’s house in LA. On the West Coast tour that followed, he wrote one of the finest songs of his post-Clash career, Coma Girl, inspired by his 16-year-old daughter Eliza. The band also filmed a live special for the cable network HBO, and Strummer was offered his own music show on the VH1 channel. Momentum was building.
Drummer Luke Bullen recalls Strummer expressing regret about all the years he had wasted, but also feeling vindicated by The Mescaleros.
“He seemed really happy with the final line-up,” Bullen says. “He was very creative, always scribbling lyrics. I never got the sense it was a finite thing; he was just following his instincts and seemed really excited about working with young musicians. He never gave anyone the impression of being the boss.”
Back in Britain for an autumn tour, The Mescaleros played a benefit for the striking fireman at Acton Town Hall in West London on November 15, 2002. Nobody knew, but it was to be their final London show, and one of their last ever gigs. By coincidence, Strummer’s former Clash buddy Mick Jones was in the audience and found himself drawn onstage to play on Bankrobber, followed by explosive encore versions of White Riot and London’s Burning.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but it was fate,” Jones recalls. “It wasn’t planned in any way. I didn’t think I was going to be playing that night, I just went along. I wasn’t exactly pushed onstage physically, but it just felt right.”
The Acton show marked the first time Strummer and Jones had played live together in 19 years. It was also the last time they would ever share a stage.
Strummer had already begun work on a new album when he died suddenly at his Somerset home on the afternoon of December 22, 2002. He was just 50, killed by a congenital heart defect that could have claimed him at any time. A third and final Mescaleros album, Streetcore, was released in 2003. Although inevitably scrappy and incomplete, it does include fine tracks like Coma Girl, the Biblical reggae-rock shuffle Get Down Moses and Long Shadow, a gravel-voiced alt-country ballad the singer wrote for Johnny Cash.
Cruelly, Strummer died on the cusp of a major career comeback, his profile higher than at any time in the previous 15 years. In March 2003, The Clash were due to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. In February, a stellar supergroup featuring Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl paid musical homage at the Grammy awards. After his death, rock magazines that sniffed at interviewing Strummer during his Mescaleros days suddenly put him on the cover and hailed him as a lost rock genius.
“People didn’t really realise how important Strummer was,” argues Alex Cox. “It only kind of popped out when he was no more. He really was a great artist.”
Mick Jones agrees: “I don’t think it really started happening until after he died, but I think he deserves it.”
Like Bob Marley or John Peel, Strummer’s posthumous legacy crosses borders and generations. His charity for young musicians, Strummerville, continues to this day. Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis gave the same name to a corner of the festival site in tribute.
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On his UK tour in 2005, Bob Dylan played London Calling. Springsteen has covered Coma Girl and Pearl Jam often play Arms Aloft, both latterday Mescaleros songs. This month, a starry line-up including The Pogues, Mick Jones and Billy Bragg will play at the Strummer Of Love festival in Somerset, a one-off celebration marking both the singer’s 60th birthday and the 10th anniversary of his death.
Whatever he did musically, Strummer was never likely to eclipse his glorious heyday in The Clash. But his midlife reinvention with The Mescaleros helped liberate him from the long shadow of his legendary past in the same way as Robert Plant and Paul Weller escaped theirs. Tragically, he was cut short, cheated out of his third-act comeback.
“I’m wondering if he was cheated,” DickRude muses, “because for Joe, it wasn’t about the acclaim. It was never about the end of the journey, it was about the journey itself. From my perspective, he achieved what he set out to do.”
Back in Somerset in 1999, Joe seemed to have found some kind of contentment. He had become a kind of punk King Arthur, ruling over his campfire Camelot under the widescreen skies of Rebel Wessex. The best thing about his new rural kingdom, he told me, was the sky.
“We’re always in rooms in modern life, we never really think about were on a planet circling through space. Which is really weird; we almost shouldn’t exist. And being down here, you walk outside to piss on the grass and the whole celestial thing is looking at you.”
Strummer paused, lost in thought, grinning. “It knocks your head off.”
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 175.
* Note: while Strummer told writer Stephen Dalton that Creation weren’t interested in signing him, label boss Alan McGee disputes this, posting on Facebook in September 2017, “I never passed on Joe strummer as I was never asked… but I loved Joe. If he had wanted to be on Creation, just like Kevin Rowland, we would have signed him.”