Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Unity Rocker: Joe Strummer interviewed, Dec 99

Joe Strummer, Real Groove magazine dec 1999

This great interview appeared in Real Groove magazine a month before Strummer and his band graced the stage at the Big Day Out, in January 2000. That was a splendid show, with Strummer playing near the end of the day, digging into his back catalogue (London Calling, Police and Thieves, White Riot) as well as newer material.

I never got to see The Clash when they played here in 1982, their sole visit, so this is the closest I ever got to seeing them. But read the last paragraph for a great memory of that 1982 concert from Joe, about him getting lost on the Auckland waterfront.

Unity Rocker, by Troy Ferguson, Real Groove magazine, December 1999, Issue 78, p22-23

"Members only" says one of the doormen of the upmarket West End club having sized up the group as ''the wrong sort", unworthy of entrance into this establishment. They protest they're a band who've been rehearsing past pub closing time and they only want a few drinks to wind down. The doorman doesn't budge.

Joe Strummer attempts to reason with them but receiving no response, he lets loose a torrent of quick-witted taunts and abuse that enrages the doormen and shatters their carefully cultivated air of importance in front of a line of waiting club regulars, who shrink back from the troublemakers with obvious nervousness. It's typical 1977 story illustrating the resistance to 'the other' from the socially stratified and woefully staid old world, threatened by the egalitarian inclusiveness of punk rock.

Except that it isn't. This is 1999. And while anybody with a passing interest of popular culture knows Strummer as a ground-breaker whose influence can be felt in virtually every piece of music worth caring about in the last 20 years or so, apparently no one has informed the bouncers in London's West End. At 47 years old, Strummer, the ragged voiced rebel who founded the Clash, remains an outsider.

Two hours later, he's on the telephone to Real Groove (a slight slur hinting that alcohol was eventually found) wondering what sort of criteria must be met in order to purchase a drink in London's clubland.

"I've been rocking in this town since 1977 you know, what more pedigree do you want? It's not like we just started some crap group 10 minutes ago like Steps or something but it didn't count for nothing," he cackles, amused by the memory of the disturbance. "I thoroughly enjoy giving these people the runaround, I must say, cause they're a bunch of fucking cunts.

Never mind all this poncing around, back in the day we were suss enough to drink in the stripper's joints - you knew which button to press on the mini -cab driver's office door and it opened the door down into the stripper's basement. Anyone could get down there and if you could buy a drink were in."

A rambling hour and a half conversation with Strummer offers a fascinating insight into the past, present and future of a living legend, back in the game after more than a decade with a new band the Mecaleros, and a new album, Rock Art and the X-ray Style. Strummer is in full fight at 3am and delivers an entertaining stream of anecdotes and opinionated rants, fuelled by a few drinks and indignation at licensing laws unchanged since 1918 (which he blames for the little scene earlier).

Then again it's no surprise to him not to be treated with the respect you'd expect for an artist of his stature.

"We're a hard country, you see, right hard. We're all machetes here and people cut you off dead - you're in, you're out," he explains ''I'm not the right character that should have been born here or lived here to be a rock n roller and that's what really cut me up for 11 years, the viciousness of the retrograde, you know.

“In America they'd have been kinder to me and I might have blossomed more, but having said that, 1 don't give a shit about anything that's happened because I wouldn't have had had it any other way. I'd just like to have a really great record, like today in 1999, you know. It's not a bad result is it, all things considered," he laughs.

And he's absolutely right. Rock Art and the X-ray Style is a cracking effort that maintains the culturally resonant edge of his early work but with a thoroughly contemporary sound and without resorting to blustery shouting.

Always working best as a co-writer, Rock Art... began as a collaboration with Richard Norris from early 90s techno act the Grid ('Yalla Yalla' survives from these sessions while 'Digging The New and 'Sandpaper Blues' had their genesis there).

Abandoned before completion, the loose ends were picked up when Strummer teamed up with a young musician, Anthony Genn.

"The project really wouldn't have happened without Anthony coming to me and saying, 'Oi, you're Joe Strummer and you should be making a record' and as soon as he said that to me I went 'Come on then! 'That pulled me up out of my chair", he says.

The very thought that there wasn't people knocking on his door each day saying the same thing the same thing is baffling. But try telling Strummer that or that you can't imagine what your life would have been like without the Clash, and it elicits a very humble response.

'Well, thank you, though. Because you do what you can, honestly, and even though we had a group going and we were in a lucky time in a lucky place, we were only people like you and we really didn't know what we were doing. There's a lot of moronic stuff in the in the lyrics, and there's a lot of good stuff - it's like not knowing what you're doing that's your saving grace. It helps the old creativity really, because if you're conscious of what you're trying to do, you're never gonna do it, are you? Best to fumble around in the dark."

Though the Clash consistently hit the switches that kept them illuminated in the public's attention, Strummer seems to have only touched the perpihery since then, producing (and breifly fronting) the Pogues, acting in a couple of arthouse films, contributing songs to soundtracks and making the odd tribute album appearance. But it wasn't that the once madly-prolific artist had simply run out of ideas.

"About 11 years ago I put out Earthquake Weather and it didn't sell any copies," explains Strummer. "so I sort of took a confidence knock-down. It's silly now, but the press were kicking me and saying 'you're over and get away with it'. I was listening to it today and I realised that I put the vocals behind the music and you couldn't really hear them, but there's good songs there.

“Just today we rehearsed up 'Island hopping' and we're gonna play it in Nottingham on Monday. Everyone's gonna go 'What the fuck's that?' In fact, I've got a wicked idea, I'm gonna introduce it like this, 'here's one off the sixth side of Sandinista!' and everyone's gonna be going, 'Shall I let on that I don't know what's on that side?"

Strummer is amused that nearly 20 years after the triple album was greeted with a puzzled derision, Sandinista! has just ' come back into fashion among musical intellectuals adding that the skinheads in Perth, Australia, got it the first time round.

"When I'm talking to the intelligentsia pillocks, I say 'you don't know nothing - the Perth skinheads would take acid and listen to it all the way through! There's s an article in GQ magazine praising it, apropos of nothing and people are coming up to me saying Sandinista!'s sounding really great. I swear to you, thinking about it so long after is ridiculous, but I'm really beginning to appreciate it now. I'm beginning to be proud of it." 

Only now? ''Well there's a lot of weird stuff - what about all the sheep, the sheep reggae, now that's going too far, isn't it? Anyway, we're gonna go mad if we talk like this - try to concentrate on something normal, oh dear me," says Strummer as laughter overtakes him.

Another recent reminder of Sandinista!'s weird stuff is that the children who sang 'Career opportunities' on the album are now grown-up ''grooving surf punk hippies' with a band called the Little Mothers, who opened for the Mescaleros on their recent UK tour. It's appropriate that Strummer's history steps out of the shadows in the year he chooses to return - like the live album From Here To Eternity appearing, which he insists was unplanned.

"I swear it’s a coincidence, because that was shambling on the last four years, it could have come out maybe last year and they were even thinking of February next year for it. So it could be Sony trying to cash in on me having a new album, I don't know. But it's definitely not me trying to cash in on them," he laughs saying he's been at work on a live Clash project of his own.

"I've tried to collect all the bootlegs of the Clash in the world as recorded say on ghetto blaster in the hall. I'm doing a C90 cassette-only issue called 'Bootleg Clash', 45 minutes a side of round the world bootlegs, analogue to analogue and hang the dog. I don't want no digital in it and although it's gonna be dodgy sound quality, it'll still be quite fun for your car. I think it really sounds cracking, like what it was to stand on centre stage - mayhem, feedback, people shouting and screaming you know, the ambiance in the hall."

It's interesting that Strummer, who has a lyric on his new album stating he's 'Got no time for luddites/ Always looking back down the track", should still be interested in anything Clash related. But while he's proud of their achievements, he constantly looks forward to the next big shake-up.

"We were lucky to throw the mud at the wall at the right time, see which way it peeled off and mould it a bit. The new century is not going to be about intelligentsia or the intellect - the new century is gonna be about the intuitive, the instinctive. Art is what we're gonna have now."

Not that Strummer's confident Britain will be at the forefront of this artistic dawning.

"I don't know how it is down there, but up here in the islands we've only got arseholes in charge of all the creative processes, so an accountant is the head of BBC television and it's the same in the record industry and the movies and the newspaper industry," he says angrily.

"You know, I'm here in a cultural desert beyond imagination - in my house I've got every hook-up possible, digital, satellite, terrestrial and there's not one film that shows in one month that I wouldn't feel insulted to watch. I just want to watch a Japanese gangster movie, a French movie... anything made with intelligence, but the bean counters are going, 'Let's have tits, let's have ass on Channel 4 or Channel 5'. And what we want is Kurosawa. This is your Tony Blair kingdom, the worst thing that's ever happened to this crap island. He's gonna have a 15 year run here and this is just the beginning of it and I'm pissed off."

So what does an old punk revolutionary do when faced with the current state of nation? Strummer and his friend, film director Julien Temple, have planned a virtual country on the Internet called Rebel Wessex, comprising Sommerset (Strummer's home for the last 2 and a half years) Devon and Cornwall. Envisaged as a "24 hour Rave Park", their aim is to secede from the United Kingdom.

''If Wales can do it and Scotland can do it, why can't the West Country? We're gonna secede from the union and say 'Fuck off Tony Blair, you're a Victorian in the cyber age'. It has to be done."

You'd think a long-time America-phile like Strummer would perhaps have moved there, but he feels the USA is also undergoing political change for the worse. "I've got 55 Cadillac, I love Humphrey Bogart, I love Elvis, I love John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. I love LA and California. I love American culture," he begins, "but I will only go to California for a minimum amount of time possible because I don't really like being somewhere you can't have a cigarette in a bar."

Strummer's getting into a groove now and he's on a roll. ''What do we want to do? We don't want to chop children up with all axe, we just wanna go in a bar, all have a beer, smoke a cigarette and have a conversation. As soon as you do that In California, policeman rush in and grab you, wrestle you onto the floor and start clubbing you. They don't care about the drive-by slayings or the Uzis spraying all over the barrios, they don't give a shit about that. No, you light I Marlboro in a bar in California and you're gonna be wrestled to the floor and billy-clubbed out of existence. ''

It should be an interesting perspective to take on tour there. "I'll say it when I get there! I'm the guy that wrote 'I'm so bored with the USA' and they loved it there! They're with me - there's hundreds of people that want a cigarette in a bar!

“Californians should hang their heads in shame that they've allowed this to happen, these bloody women - and I know they're women, well don't you think - to take over. They got rid of the cable ride at Disneyland in Anaheim because wheelchairs couldn't get on it. But don't you think if you were in a wheelchair you'd say 'Hey I'll allow that, Hey I've got no legs, I'll allow the fact that you guys can ski' - what, you're gonna ban skiing? You see, Californians have be shamed, because they've allowed these people to take over."

The authoritarianism masked by political correctness is the sort of thing which inspired William S Burroughs to describe America as ''The last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams...."

"Absolutely! Thank god he's dead and not here to see this! Imagine trying to explain to William Burroughs that we couldn't have a cigarette. He'd be going 'Alright, we can't jack up in the bar, but you're saying we can't have a Winston? A Kool?'"

But while most of us can't imagine explaining anything to Burroughs, Strummer did indeed spend time with the man in the early 80s, but describes his association with El Hombre Invisible as "fleeting." '

"I had many more nights with Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky. I tell you, I partied with them and these guys rocked! Forget Marilyn Manson forget Lemmy - they were like 58, all of them and they were fucking up 'til dawn, screaming and yelling. It was like being in the bloody On The Road book, it was great."

With the influence of the Beats on his life and lyrics, "complete and utter total before-end and after-end eternal," Strummer says you take what you can from a long distance and run with it. Still, there's no substitute for actually experiencing something first-hand and he's excited by the prospect of revisiting New Zealand for Big Day Out. He remembers when the Clash played here in February 1982 quite clearly.

"I'll tell you what happened, alright. We got there and I decided to go walking and I walked a long way down the [water]front, a very long way. Then I realised that I'd really fucked it, it was getting dark and we had to play. I put out my thumb to hitch-hike and a Maori stopped in a black sports car like a Porsche or Lamborghini or Ferrari and I got in.

“We were driving back and he said 'So, what are you doing here, are you a sailor are you'?' And I went, 'No, I'm playing a rock concert, I'll give you a ticket and your girlfriend if you want,.' He said 'Naaah, you're a fucking joker aren't ya, you just look like some tramp to me'.

“And then he pulled up roughly near the hotel and all ejected me and he wouldn't accept tickets to the concert."

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