Joe Strummer – Punk Rock Warlord, Part II

November 14, 2007 § Leave a comment

Note: This is the second part of Mike Keating’s review of the new documentary about Joe Strummer. Read Part I here:

By Michael Keating

Spoiler Alert: If you’re a Clash fan stop reading now and get yourself to a theater. I’m bound to give away details you’d rather hear on your own. The film, which debuted in January at Sundance, is currently playing at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Mass., through Thursday, Nov. 22.

The Sex Pistols changed everything — so much so that the London music scene could forever be demarcated into Pre-and Post Pistols. When Joe Strummer saw the Sex Pistols live, he knew he wanted to dive into the scene feet first.

Enter Bernie Rhodes, an itinerant band manager who was tight with Pistols lead singer John Lydon (Johnny Rotten).

Rhodes introduces Strummer to guitarist Mick Jones, suggesting he become lead singer for Jones’ band, the London SS, which included bassist Paul Simonon. The three immediately hit it off and with a few other mates formed the Clash in 1976. Strummer and Jones set about writing songs together, Strummer as lyricist, Jones as primary composer. A short time later they had enough material to take the stage and the Pistols did them a solid by letting them open a gig.

It was during rehearsals that Strummer realized he and Simonon had no idea how to play their instruments. During one practice Jones walks over and tunes Simonon’s bass, turning the tuning knobs as Simonon thumbs the strings. “I’ve always played all six strings (across) at the same time,” Strummer admits. “I never learned to play all the fiddly bits.”

What they lacked in talent the Clash made up for with bravado, determination and passion. While Jones worked the melodies, Strummer worked the words. “I like to think,” he says plainly, but poignantly. “I think thinking is good for you.”

In 1977, the band, after some personnel changes, was signed to CBS Records and released its eponymous debut album to both critical and popular acclaim. The English press fell in love and soon declared them “the only band that matters.”

At this point, in the new documentary “Joe Strummer — The Future Is Unwritten”, director Julian Temple, who has so far told a pretty straightforward chronological story about his subject, turns testimonial.

Temple, who also directed three documentaries about the Sex Pistols (“Sex Pistols Number 1”, “The Great Rock And Roll Swindle”, and “The Filth and The Fury”), uses monologues taken from “London Calling,” Strummer’s BBC Radio show, that allow him to narrate his own life events. It’s a thoughtful, intimate effect.

Temple shoots all his interviews around campfires set up to look like squatters’ camps, whether they’re overlooking London, Lubbock, Texas, for punky honky tonker Joe Ely, or wherever the interview takes place. His decision not to use names and titles, as most documentaries will do to help the audience know who is speaking, works well for the most part. Perhaps this is the director’s way of saying that the person speaking isn’t what’s important, but rather what is being said.

The problem is, sometimes you really want to know who’s talking. It must be disconcerting for some non die-hard fans. While most probably know Bono from U2 on sight, others aren’t likely to pick out folks like director Jim Jarmusch as easily (Strummer appeared in his film, “Mystery Train,” along with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Steve Buscemi, who says he was more nervous to act with Strummer than if it had been Marlon Brando).

Because of this decision on no names and titles you wouldn’t realize Temple himself played such an important on-camera role in his own film. I didn’t myself until I looked it up on IMDB afterwards and saw his photo. I just assumed he was another longtime friend of Strummer, which I guess he was.

The audience where I saw the film reacted in interesting ways as the cameos picked up speed. Some groaned at seeing Bono pontificate while sitting beside a beach front fire (presumably in Ireland). Others laughed out loud at the sight of Johnny Depp, who judging by the tasseled beard, might have been on the set of Pirates III. Still, Bono speaks well to how important the band was to aspiring musicians who, like him, weren’t all that talented either.

“Ideas became more important than guitar solos and more important than driving a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool,” Bono said. “You suddenly felt that, if the Clash can do it, then you can do it.” And that’s exactly what happened. Almost overnight, kids around the world started punk bands up in basements, attics and garages, emulating the look, sound, and political angst of the Clash.

Next comes the whole “rise and fall” crescendo where, in addition to Strummer’s monologues cut under concert and traveling about footage, we get an honest look at history from Jones and drummer Topper Headon. Earlier, a reporter asks Strummer if he lives by a moral code. With a mischievous grin he thinks for a moment and says, “Well, I’d never steal money off a mate. (Long pause.) But I’d steal his girlfriend.”

Headon, who explains that he got to know Strummer by spending three days alone with him in jail for stealing hotel pillows for the band’s bus, later tells us that when he kicked his girlfriend out of his hotel room one night he found her the next morning crawled up in bed with Strummer.

One old girlfriend says, “They were like a family of warring brothers.”

Despite major artistic successes such as the double album “London Calling,” which Rolling Stone ranked at Number 8 on its list of the 500 most important rock albums of all time, or the triple disc politically-charged “Sandinista,” which sold for the price of a single album so fans could afford it, the band lived up to James Dean’s, “Live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse” motto.

“We lived out of each other’s pockets for years,” Jones laments by way of explaining the eventual demise and rancor. “We never even got to take a vacation. Bands today get to take vacations.” Drugs also took their toll, especially for Headon, who was so wasted by the end that he could hardly keep a beat.

Still, it’s a visual, emotional rush to watch it all unfold on screen. You can’t help but get juiced as they take off on a flight to concur America. “Somebody had to prove it could be done,” Strummer says righteously.

Portsmouth, NH, readers who know Joe Stevens, the rock ‘n’ roll photographer who resides in that fair city, will get a kick out of seeing him on screen for a brief moment. Disembarking from the duty free shop at JFK the band is caught by a gaggle of journalists, with Captain Snaps himself in the middle snapping away.

Scenes from the triumphant run at Bonds International Casino on Broadway, which can be seen in all its glory in Don Letts’ kick-ass concert film, “Westway To The World,” are especially interesting, including an aside from director Martin Scorsese who discusses the influence the Clash had while making his film, “Raging Bull.” While the soundtrack consisted of artists such as Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby, the music in his head was all Clash, Scorsese said.

Strummer has a hard time landing on his feet after the Clash split up in 1986. He piddled around and did a bit of acting before landing a gig to write the soundtrack for “Walker,” a film by Alex Cox about 19th Century American soldier of fortune William Walker starring Ed Harris. The soundtrack is a gorgeous mix of Latin percussion and rhythms that harken back to his childhood upbringing in Mexico and presage his wonderful work to come with The Mescaleros. The movie, however, was a disaster.

Toward the end of the Strummer documentary, we learn why Temple chose to use the campfire device for his interviews. Turns out, Strummer was tuned in to the communal power of the campfire, especially as it relates to the cultural rites of indigenous peoples. He’d invite people over to his house in Broomfield, England, where they’d sit around the fire having parties, talking politics, playing music and talking about life.

As the film moves quietly toward its conclusion, you’re allowed to reflect on this man, Joe Strummer, and the power he had to change the world through music. The film ends with one last monologue from Strummer, recorded sometime between 1999 and 2002 for the BBC. It’s a sentiment worth ending with here.

“And so now I’d like to say, people can change anything that they want to. And that means everything in the world. People are running about following their little tracks. I am one of them. But we’ve all got to just stop following our own little mouse trail. People can do anything. This is something that I’m beginning to learn. People are out there doing bad things to each other. It’s because they’re being dehumanized. It’s time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring, and follow that for a time. Greed ain’t going anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Time Square. Without people you’re nothing. That’s my spiel.”

Michael Keating was the former features editor at the Portsmouth Herald. He now works internal communications at a teaching hospital in Boston. He can be reached by e-mail at batopilas@gmail.com.


Joe Strummer — Punk Rock Warlord

November 13, 2007 § Leave a comment


By Michael Keating

Spoiler Alert: If you’re a Clash fan stop reading now and get yourself to a theater. I’m bound to give away details you’d rather hear on your own. The film, which debuted in January at Sundance, is currently playing at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, Mass., through Thursday, Nov. 22.

I once had the chance to see the Clash in concert, back around 1984 on the “Combat Rock” tour. My buddy Emmons hounded me to join him for the trek down from U. Maine Farmington to Portland, but it was exam week and I wasn’t doing so good that year. He still ribs me for being such a lightweight and I always admit that missing the show was one of the worst regrets of my life.

Turns out, maybe I didn’t make such a big mistake after all. In “Joe Strummer — The Future is Unwritten,” a new documentary film lovingly crafted by director Julian Temple, we learn that by the time the Clash made it to Portland, ol’ Joe was the only remaining original member of the band.

“I don’t think we ever played another decent gig after Topper left,” Strummer admits three-quarters of the way through this wondrous 123 minute biopic tracing the life one of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s greatest preacher-agitators. Starting with his birth as John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, in 1952, through to his death from a congenital heart defect at his home in Broomfield, England, in 2002, the film follows the jagged trajectory of his EKG.

The film opens with Strummer alone in the studio singing at the mic. Headphones on so only he can hear the music; Strummer starts belting out the lyrics to “White Riot,” spitting piss and vinegar in an all-out rage.

White riot — I wanna riot
White riot — a riot of my own
Black man gotta lot of problems
But he don’t mind throwing a brick
White people go to school
Where they tea
ch you how to be thick

Then BOOM — the music comes in (Strummer on rhythm, Mick Jones on lead guitar, Paul Simonon on bass, and Topper Headon on drums). Electricity shoots up the spine to the cerebellum and we’re witnessing the birth of punk rock.

Temple, a music journalist who chronicled the London scene in the ’70s and later went on to make music videos and feature films with the likes of Bowie, has a treasure trove of personal footage to unleash. He tells his story straight, chronologically, starting with home movies of a young Strummer playing with older brother David in the backyard, mugging for the camera — beating his chest like Tarzan and turning cartwheels. He’s a cute little bugger with big-tipped Spock-like ears.

The details from Strummer’s youth foreshadow the life of the artist to follow. Dad was born in India and later became an English citizen, going on to become a member of the foreign office who colleagues describe as a “left-winger.” Mom was a nurse, a country girl born and raised in the Scottish Highlands. “Joe had the generosity of Anna and the questioning of Ron,” says a childhood friend.

The family moved around the world with different postings, from the first few years in Turkey where “Joe was heard screaming in Turkish at the age of three,” to Cairo for two years, to Mexico City for another deuce where he found himself in a school where everyone spoke only in Spanish (all of which would later influence the music of both the Clash and the Mescaleros). The family was posted in Bonn, West Germany, where the one-and only Elvis Presley would also be posted during his military service. Cue Soundtrack and Strummer’s favorite song by The King, “Crawfish,” from his 1958 film “King Creole.”

Temple’s 25-song soundtrack is culled from “London Calling,” Strummer’s radio show (named after the Clash album of the same name) for the BBC World Service (1999-2002) that attracted an audience 120 million. In addition to Clash rarities, such as a previously unreleased “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.” demo, we get a mixtape that includes reggae great U-Roy, MC5, Eddie Cochran, Rachid Taha (doing a wild Middle Eastern take on “Rock The Casbah,”) and Nina Simone.

Coming into his teens, Strummer and his brother are packed off to boarding school in Surrey, England. “I really had to just forget my parents and deal with this,” Strummer is heard saying as black and white footage of children being tormented flashes on the screen. “This was a place where people hung themselves. It was bully or be bullied and I was one of the principal bullies.”

On school breaks he’d meet up with the family in far-off places and “return with lots of stories and lots of crazy records,” his friend states. Near the end of his grade school years David, who was said to always follow Joe’s lead, goes off the deep-end and becomes infatuated with Nazism, painting his room black and plastering his walls with swastikas and references from “Mein Kampf.” Not long after this, in 1970, he swallows a bunch of pills and OD’s in a park. Strummer is called to identify the body, an event he never speaks of with friends.

A self-described “lousy student,” Strummer takes the only escape possible after graduating. “Art school is the last resort of malingerers, bluffers and people who don’t want to work,” he says in describing his decision to attend London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design where he thought he might become a professional cartoonist. Drawings and doodles from this time come to life as animation in the film.

Influenced by music all his life, he’d grown to love the songs of Little Richard and Woody Guthrie, taking “Woody” as his nickname. The emergence of the Rolling Stones was life-altering experience. He soon picked up a guitar and began busking in the tube stations. A friend once jokingly said, “You can’t busk with one song.” To which Strummer replied, “Yes I can. These people will never see me again.”

He’s asked to leave art school after painting a canvas red with used tampons. After bumming and busking around a bit, he lands a job as a gravedigger in Newport, Whales, but is soon fired after being found sleeping in a grave.

Strummer returns to London where he joins other out-of-work squatters in a flat at 101 Walteron Road. The tenants form a house band, calling themselves The 101’ers, and perform for the community of squatters who have taken over abandoned buildings. It’s a loose-knit band of hippies, gypsies and émigrés, but they’ve got tough rules for admission and end up sacking more than 45 members over their short lifespan. “You knew you were done when Joe took you down to the pub and bought you a pint,” said one ex-member.

The band starts playing gigs in the pub rock circuit and footage shows a scruffy, longhaired but energetic Strummer looking every bit like the charismatic young Bruce Springsteen. The 101’ers start to gain a name for themselves and in one night come four lads to check them out who had just started a band called the “Sex Pistols.” A short time later the Pistols get themselves a gig and Strummer goes to check them out. “The Sex Pistols changed everything,” says Strummer. “After that night all bets were off.”

Tune in Wednesday for Part II of this review wherein we learn that “the Clash were like a family of warring brothers,” as one longtime friend states, and find out why Martin Scorsese says the Clash were his inspiration for “Raging Bull.”

Read Part II here:

Michael Keating is the former features editor at the Portsmouth Herald. He now works internal communications at a teaching hospital in Boston. He can be reached by e-mail at batopilas@gmail.com.

Read Michael Keating’s eulogy of Strummer here:

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