Friday, November 4, 2011
MY JOE STRUMMER STORY
I feel really fortunate to have had the chance to interview Joe Strummer. In the spring of 2002, I had been working at VH1 for just a few months. I was hired as a “music expert” kind of guy. Which was odd, as it was a period where the channel was really moving away from music. My boss at the time saw which way the wind was blowing, so to speak, and while he appreciated my passion for music, he was more worried about ratings, and rightfully so. Yet he did hire me – and happily for me, while working there I learned a ton about video production.
I remember seeing the listing in The Village Voice for Strummer's multi-night stand at Brooklyn’s Arts At St. Ann’s, and thinking "Man, it would be cool to cover that." And then thinking, "Not happening." Joe Strummer – iconic leader of punk rock legends The Clash, defunct since the ‘80s? Exactly the type of thing I’d often pitched, only to be turned down. I really liked his 1999 comeback album, Rock Art & The X-Ray Style, and his then-current album, Global A-Go-Go, but I knew that a mainstream organization couldn’t or wouldn't really support it too much (this issue is central to a documentary about Strummer’s last tour, Let’s Rock Again).
Anyway, I was shocked and grateful when the boss asked me to cover one of the shows. I remember before the interview, shooting b-roll of the huge lights that were shining where the Twin Towers used to be. It was a weird time. Standing in the haunting glow of that shrine to an event which changed the world – there was definitely an electricity in the air.
By this time, I had done lots of interviews, but Joe Strummer was one of the few artists who I both (a) really wanted to speak with and (b) had to admit I felt a bit intimidated by. You just always got the sense that he didn't suffer fools lightly. But my attitude as an interviewer was, if anyone can do this, I can. Anyway, Joe was really, really cool. Kind of humble in a way. Super passionate about music. He loved his backing band, The Mescaleros. He felt they deserved more credit. Off camera, he told me he wished he could pay the band more, because they were so great. I was surprised that he offered that info (and I hope that he's not mad that I'm writing about it). I told him that they were all in his band because they wanted to be there, and because it was an honor to play with him. I remember feeling nervous about saying that. Now, I’m really glad that I did. I said that he kept the music alive by putting out music that still mattered, and that I would want to see him play "Tony Adams," "Yalla Yalla" and "Johnny Appleseed" at every concert, not just The Clash songs. He thanked me for that. He felt people generally weren't as passionate about music as they used to be: he asked why people weren't rioting over artists like Kylie Minogue, he just felt that most "pop" music was so awful.
During the interview I asked him about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - word was The Clash were going to be on the ballot that year, and of course they were going to get voted in. He kind of scoffed at the idea of performing with them, or even showing up. He didn't want to wear a suit, he felt it was a betrayal of everything he and the band stood for to show up at the Waldorf, of all places, in a tux, and play to rich music industry people. I told him that not everyone wears tuxes, and that no one would tell him what to wear (not that I was in any position to tell him what the Rock Hall does and doesn't do - but I'd been to a few induction ceremonies, and not everyone wears suits or tuxes). I also pointed out that Talking Heads reunited for a few songs at their induction, and it sort of served as a nice "last page" in the band's story. At least it would be on TV (on VH1 in fact!) and all of the fans would have access to see it, if not access to attend the performance. Then, he started being like, "Hmmmmm..." But then he got a bit annoyed on the topic of the band: he pointed out that he'd been working with The Mescaleros for the past couple of years, and the other guys weren't even making music (not totally true: Mick Jones produced The Libertines, but hadn't recorded any of his own music). But none of those guys had called him and asked him to make music with them, which seemed to annoy him.
I remember my camera guy was also a huge Clash fan. We walked out of there dazed and amazed. I felt like Joe Strummer was radiating electricity, and I had absorbed at least a tiny bit of it. I had goose bumps. So, we start shooting the show, which was great. I really did (and do) feel that some of Joe's songs, like "Tony Adams" and "Johnny Appleseed," stood proudly alongside The Clash classics - it's a shame that more people weren't familiar with his solo material, he worked so hard on it, and was rightfully proud of it. But what radio stations would play Joe Strummer's solo material in 2001? (Again, check out the Let's Rock Again documentary.)
The most shocking moment of the night was seeing this guy in the audience. I thought to myself, "Is that Mick Jones?" I mean, in the audience. Not in some roped off V.I.P. area, he was just there. It was him. Not a lot of people seemed to notice. I figured, I should probably try to get a quote out of him. But I made what I felt was a more moral choice. I didn't think the guy wanted a camera in his face, it would certainly blow his cover. I decided against it. Had my boss at the time found out about this, I could have gotten in trouble, but I went with my gut.
After the show, people did start to notice that it was him and crowded around him. He made a beeline for the backstage door. I felt like, "That's nice, maybe he'll hang out with Joe." Potentially, I could have ruined that. It turned out that they hung out for a little while. A few months later, Mick joined Joe and the band at a fundraiser concert in England. It was one of Joe Strummer's last performances.
A few weeks after that gig, Joe Strummer passed away unexpectedly. By then, he had heard the news that The Clash would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the induction ceremony was still a few weeks away. I'd heard that Joe and Mick wanted to perform, but Paul Simonon didn't want to. The week of the ceremony, I got to interview Mick and Paul. I told Mick my story. He looked at me and nodded slightly. Not being a sentimental seeming guy, I think he appreciated what I'd done (or didn't do). I’m not putting too much weight on my actions, but I’m just glad I didn’t ruin anything.
I’ve mentioned the Let’s Rock Again doc twice here, but I also have to recommend another Strummer documentary, The Future Is Unwritten, which is about his whole life (where Rock is really about his final tour). It really is inspiring. Yes, he may be gone, but without being too abstract, I think his spirit is still with us, and you can see it in every “occupy” rally, and really whenever people stick up for those who are less fortunate. Tom Morello said it best in his speech about The Clash at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction: “In fact, the Clash aren’t really gone at all. Because whenever a band cares more about its fans than its bank account, the spirit of the Clash is there. Whenever a band plays as if every single person’s soul in the room is at stake, the spirit of the Clash is there. Whenever a stadium band, or a garage band, has the guts to put their beliefs on the line to make a difference, the spirit of the Clash is there. And whenever people take to the streets to stop an unjust war, the spirit of the Clash is definitely there.”