Live 1984, photo © Eyeneer Music Archives
Interview by Jason Gross (January 2003)ED NOTE: It was reported on December 23rd, 2002 that Clash singer/songwriter Joe Strummer died of a suspected heart attack at age 50. This interview was done in September 1999 for CD Now, where it appeared in a shorter format.
I met Strummer at the Soho hotel he was staying at, right before a show in New York. We retired to a near by pub for a brew. I admit that I was a little starstruck/awestruck since the Clash was one of the bands that made me truly love and care about rock when I was growing up. I didn't have to worry though- for a punk originator, you couldn't have met a nicer bloke.
"You'll notice that I didn't poo-poo it," Strummer explained to me, as he followed up on his comments about a possible Clash reunion, coming out of an almost decade-long hiatus from the public spotlight. He had more burning issues to discuss though. "Have you heard about the cows in Texas?" he asked. He went on to explain how this might be very pertinent to "CD News or whatever." The story was that milk production dropped off with the bovines when the farmers stopped playing them music on tape machines and switched over to CD's for entertaining the stock. "If cows can tell it, then we sure as heck can!" Along with his new CD Rock Art & The X-Ray Style, Joe shared his thoughts on Tony Bennett, South Park, his mountain goat hammock, his life as a walnut, how to properly threaten record companies, good punk manners and dollar-bill politics.
Q: Why did you chose now to return to the fray of the music business?
JS: Partly chance, partly financial and partly circumstantial. Mainly because I met someone to collaborate with. I'm half a walnut- that's the way I see it. Pretty good but still half a walnut. I needed a tunesmith, to be more specific- like Rodgers and Hart, Leiber and Stoller. I'm a lyrical man.
I was wondering around, trying to figure out what to do for eleven years. I found Anthony Genn, he's a young cat. I knew him already from seeing him work at other sessions. He said 'you're Joe Strummer. You should be making a record.' I was looking at these young idiots making music at some joint in London. I looked at him and said 'you're right.' So when we were watching these idiots, he was saying 'You wanna do it, I'm there.' So in one week, we're in a studio and we haven't come out since. We did Rock Art & The X-Ray Style and then we went on the road. Our feet haven't touched the ground yet. Just meeting a collaborator... It's no good being half a walnut in a Waldorf salad. (laughs)
Q: So you hadn't written songs in a while?
JS: Yeah. 'Cause I find that they know they're not going to come out. Supposing that I contractually had an eight-year tangle with paperwork that prevented anything from happening or issuing anything. The songs don't seem to come you if they know they're not going to come out, I reckon. Either that or I'm a lazy sod. It's probably a bit of both.
Soon as it all started up, I ran out of bits of paper. In the hotel room, it looks like El-Alamin with words written on everything, cig packettes, tissues. It's like mad scribbling over everything. I really think that 'cause they know they can come out now.
I got a contract with Hellcat (Records)- that was another reason. 'Cause I had been signed to a corporation for twenty years. Believe me, being at Hellcat is different. I'm really having a good time. I can't believe it.
You know what's it like to be buried in a filing cabinet? It's not even like they care about letting you out. They just can't be bothered to go and find your paperwork. Really! I wouldn't mind if they said 'You're contracted! Shut up!' But it's like 'We'll try and get it to it next week.' Then three monthes, it's like 'Where's that paperwork?!' 'Oh, don't worry, I'll get on to it.' Six monthes go by and I have to ring them up. 'Look, do you want me to come to the lobby of your fancy headquarters in London? I'm gonna throw down in your lobby like you ain't never gonna forget!' I was talking to a top lawyer in the corportion and that didn't make any effect. A week went by and I said 'I'm not a violent man but I'm gonna get on a train and come up to London and come to your office. How do you like that 'cause I'm leaving now!' 'NO, NO, NO!!!' And I got the bloody paperwork out but I had to go through that ridiculous level. Beats me, man. This is grown-ups we're dealing with here. Overpaid. It's unbelievable.
Q: With Rock Art & The X-Ray Style, what side of Joe Strummer are we seeing?
JS: The tender, youthful side. (laughs) It's because of living for ten years without making any music, you start living with other peoples' music. You go out and buy CD's and put 'em on. I began to notice that I'm 47 and I wanted a certain vibe out of my hi-fi. Something culturally heavy but not someone yelling at you. I found that if I had yelling things, I'd kinda spin 'em once or twice and then they'd go to the back of the pile. I liked chilling out with (reggae toaster) U-Roy, where it's kind of bubbling along, when it's inside the rhythm.
I began to study people like Tony Bennett. I know I'm being ridiculous, you can't touch Tony. But I'm just saying the way it sits inside the rhythm. This is how I planned it to myself. (holds out his palm) This is the beat of a record. (holds out his other palm) Say that's the lyrical phrases. Now, when you can't do what Frank (Sinatra) and Tony do, it looks like that. (puts his palms together skewed) But when you can do what Frank and Tony do, which is called phrasing, it magically goes like that. (lines up his fingers on both hands together) You can magically see through it 'cause the phrases are intrinsically rhythmic. See, there I'm out of kilter. (slides his fingers away from each other) I'm singing too fast or too slow or dragging on too long. When you really relax, you see right through the music. (puts his fingers back together) The space survives because you are not jamming your words, that wily-nily in defiance of the vibe, the pulse. Both those guys (Sinatra and Bennett) aren't like that because they're relaxing into the groove. It finally hit me. They're SO super confident! Those motherfuckers! They're like sitting back on a chair, crossing their legs. (crooning) 'I'm sing-ing... to all the grapes in Cal-i-forn-ia'. But when you wind yourself up, it's like (shouting) 'I'M SINGIN'!' That's where I learned it or at least that's where I saw it. So when we made Rock Art & The X-Ray Style, I wanted it to be something you'd play over and over again sometimes. It's a grower, it grows on you.
Q: It has a nice flow to it.
JS: Yeah, it's there. I like the way it's got enough confidence to say 'I don't care if you pay attention or not.' Whereas back in the day, we were all like (shouting) 'HEY, GIMME GIMME!!'
Q: Do you see the lyrics as being reflective?
JS: Definitely. You yell at people when you're young. Fair enough. But it can get pretty brittle if you kept shouting your whole career and your whole life. It would be a bit false if you're 47 and get you get up there and say (shouting) 'C'MON EVERYBODY, WE GOTTA GET THERE AND GO!'
Q: For most of the '90's, you were outside of the public spotlight. What were you up to?
JS: Well, there's a nice hammock in my yard, made from Guyanese mountain goat wool. (laughs) I am a lazy sod though- let's put that down front. And I also did a lot of weird things. I was always involved in things that never came out, like a jinx dare I say it. Like for example, I took eight monthes to do a score for a film called When Pigs Fly. There's talk of releasing the score (now). I did it all, front to back for the whole picture. The film couldn't get any distribution- they showed it at festivals here and there but nothing happened. Probably had one or two showings in its life. But there's talk now that they wanna put the score out. It's a lost body of my work, if I may use such a phrase! That probably took a year to come out of my head and that never came out.
Then I did two years on the road with the Pogues and I produced a Pogues album, which we'll call 'five monthes of nail-biting terror and bliss.' Then I done a track for a Jack Kerouac record (Kicks Joy Darkness). It's so bitty that I can't (remember). I'm going to have to get my head together and put a list down because it's like this little bit and that little bit. Even up to now with the South Park's Chef Aid ("It's A Rockin' World"). That is my ultimate! I have reached the top, now I can coast! (laughs) I was a cartoon on South Park. Yes! Me and Isaac Hayes, buddy. The rest of you guys, lick your hearts out! You'll never make that rarified plateau. Give up now! (laughs)
Q: The music business is a lot different from when you were tangled up with Epic and CBS. How do you see it today?
JS: God almighty. It's the growth of the independent sector that's really come on strong. Thank God Brett Gurwitz put Epitaph together, hit the jackpot and brought the right groups together like Rancid, the Offspring. Thank God, Tim Armstrong is a sorted out young geezer- he got Hellcat going. I was thinking the other day, when I was his age, I didn't know fuck-all. I didn't know nothing, especially how to put a label together and sign guys. I was in the pit, the slough of despond. It's just left across the road. When I met him, he said 'what are you doing?' I said 'I'm looking for a label 'cause I got away from that thing and now I can get a solo deal.' He said 'come on Hellcat.' I had eight or nine meetings lined up that week with labels last summer. But we just shook hands and BANG! I cancelled those other meetings. I just liked 'Hellcat.' Doesn't that sound good? Imagine a jacket with 'Hellcat Recording Artist- piss off' on the back of it. It's so great to say that rather than (mumbles) 'Uh, I'm on Sony.' It doesn't compare.
Q: What do you think about the music scene in terms of the bands out there now?
JS: I'm into Sick Of It All, Rancid, Offspring, all the new punk. I think it's a lot better than the old punk. It's played a little better. (laughs) The past gets cloying. It's got a dangerous magnetic pull-down. You get into vanity with collecting that old stuff like it's still 1977. I try to kick off traces of the past and say 'let the new punk in!'
I saw Sick Of It All play last week and it was faster than we played. We played at HALF the speed. You talk about some aspects of punk rock and it was speed and aggression. They were so fast that they were going into something weird. The velocity is so fast that they were going into 12/8 or 16/5. They're pushing through boundries. They broke through to another time barrier like a waggon wheel going 'round that it looks like it's going backwards but it's really going fast. This is the audio version of that effect. I was going 'This is...!' Back in the day, I was thinking it was good but we doing (imitating guitar) 'neaaar-neh-neh' but now they're going 'BAP-BAP-BAP, BAP-BAP-BAP!' Let it rock.
Q: You've always shown a lot of interest in politics in your lyrics. What's your political outlook nowadays?
JS: OK, here's my new manifesto. I'm gonna pull out of my pocket one vote. (takes out a dollar). 'He's gotta dollar bill out of his pocket!' What I like to say to anyone who could care to listen to me is that this is our only vote. I'm saying that because we got democrat votes and we voted in this guy two years ago (Tony Blair) and he's become... what he was not supposed to be. We can't get rid of him. Maybe we got a fifteen year run with this guy. What can we do? Fold our tents on the field. We'll lose the battle but not the war.
So it occured to me that since my real vote is useless, null and void, therefore we ain't gonna start runnin' down the street burnin' and a-lootin' either 'cause our ass is gonna get canned. So that leaves the only vote anybody's got, this dollar bill. All I'm trying to say is, when I wanna buy a record, I'm gonna take my dollar bill and go to some corner guy with his weird, kooky little shop. I'm not giving this to Virgin Megastore. The same when I'm going to buy some clothes- I ain't gonna go to Gap no more. I wanna go to Ditsy Louie's Junk Clothing Box. I'm using my vote here, this dollar bill is my vote. I'm not gonna go to a fast food joint. I'm going to go to a place where people own it, where the owner is standing behind the bar, picking his teeth.
This is my new philosophy. Use your vote, your dollar bill is your vote. It's time we stopped giving it in the bucket-loads to these giants corporations. They're not to be trusted with that amount of money. They're only gonna bland us out, robot us out. They're gonna crush us and pulverize us. All they want is our money. They'd rather that we just sat on the pavement, saying nothing and giving them dollar bills. That's what they want to world to be while they have their cocaine and champagne. The dollar bill is your only vote. That's my new vibe.
Q: Do you think some of this new music doesn't have the political edge that you saw in punk before?
JS: It's definitely not bullocks, it's worthwhile. But my dollar bill vote lets me try everything else. When I was a youth, I was an extreme on the left. A complete and utter rebel. I like to quote a Shaun Ryder lyric, if I may. He's goofing off on that (Hues Corporation) 'Rock The Boat' song. He goes 'don't rock the boat, baby. FUCK THE BOAT- PUSH THE BOAT OVER!' That to me, says more than any philosopher, any intellegensia person has come out with or is going on in the Sunday papers for six pages. I challenge the intellengsia to beat that concise message. That is the message of the 20th century. 'Fuck the boat, let's push the boat over.' Shaun Ryder is right and I know what he's trying to say. We're not going to go quietly to our deathes into some retirement home, eating prozac. This is what they're planning for us, unless we do something about it. Always be a punk rocker is something everyone can do. And I mean that by attitude. ATTITUDE!
Q: What's a punk attitude?
JS: Punk ain't the boots or the hair dye. I've been asked to define it many times so I've actually thought about it for a couple of seconds. It must be the attitude that you have, that approach everything in life with that attitude. Say that you come in here and the music sucks. I don't care if the guy is big and in a bad mood. The first thing I do is go up to him and say 'change that music!' I do it in a cool way though but I don't sit here fuming, getting sick and having to leave in twenty minutes. I go straight in, see what's wrong and I fix it. If we're meeting some new couples, the second someone lights a cigarette, I grab an ashtray and it'll be there while everything's going on.
Everyone else there will be standing around while their ashes fall off. That is a punk attitude because I wanna be aware of what's going on. My motto is 'never take your eye off the ball,' which is a soccer motto. I like to be completely aware of what's going on at all times, even if it's four in the morning. She needs a chair or he needs a beer. There's no long wait 'cause I've already clocked it while everyone's going (jabbering) meh-meh-meh. I'm going meh-meh-meh too but I know what's going on around me. This is punk rock.
In fact, punk rock means EXEMPLARY MANNERS TO YOUR FELLOW HUMAN BEING. Fuck being an asshole, what you pricks thought it was twenty years ago. It's totally just dawned on me. These interviews are good because it makes you think. 'Cause otherwise you go to sleep and watch the Rider's Cup or something.
Q: How does it feel to be doing Clash material in 1999?
JS: Great. I swear to you, the songs are so good, like "White Man In Hammersmith Palais." It's a blast. It ain't like some tedious chore. It's like a joy. These are songs that I have written and I have loved. I love it because back in the day, people didn't know them. When we sang 'em, they'd go 'this is good' but... Today, there's more people who have a studied it a bit. Out there in Germany the other day, (singing the beginning of the song) 'MIIIID-NIGHT!' and the crowd was like 'WAAAAAH!' That was great.
Q: Does that time with the Clash seem like another lifetime now?
JS: Yeah, definitely. Last week seems like a long time ago to me sometimes. 'Way back when' is REALLY way back when, a long time ago. Which is no bad thing really. It's almost like somebody else did that.
It is odd but I was thinking of that very point and I was just sneering at the whole idea of opinions. In a way, your opinions tell yourself who you are. 'Oh, I don't like those pair of shoes' or 'I don't like that.' And I start thinking what a bunch of bullshit our opinions are. 'Cause mine change. One day you hate red lettuce and the next day, you LOVE red lettuce. On topics of concepts, I began to think 'who the fuck was I?' I fiercely believed the opposite, say ten years ago. But I remember that clearly. I was thinking, well aren't we just water passing through a slew-scape. We're not really a constant thing at all. We like to think 'you are you' and 'you like hang-gliding or rabbit farming.' But if you had a crack pipe, you'd be sitting out on the street and it'd still be you but you'd be different! It's strange! It's weird!
I looked at London at all these people holding on to their opinions. (in a snooty voice) 'I'm educated, I've got these opinions.' I think that it's a load of rubbish.
Q: As much as you're proud of the work you've done, do you think that sometimes it turns into an albatross around your neck?
JS: Oh, you bet! It's a millstone! You've got to take the rough with the smooth, right? (laughs) What can you do?
Q: What kind of legacy do you think the Clash left behind?
JS: A big pile of empty hair gell bottles for one. Some pretty happy people too. Some people connected. What more can you want? The industry didn't care- they just wanted to kill it off. The legacy is up to you guys. I got places to be, people to meet, records to buy!
Have you heard about the laser beam that they have to read records now? They can glance over the pops and clicks now. When I heard that, I almost wept with joy 'cause it means that vinyl's back. The cows will be happier. I'm a cow myself and I wanna carry around a tape deck. Sorry to be a luddite, it's too late for that now BUT NOT ANY MORE! Now, it's all changed. You can have one player where you can drop vinyl or a CD on it. We should run down to Bleecker Bob's now and buy everything in the store! Let's go. That's the bomb. Put that in the article, I just heard that in Europe last week.
Q: What's your own future? What do you look forward to?
JS: I look forward to things like last night- we stayed up all night writing songs. Out in the city, brimming full of ideas, jabbering like madmen, writing on everything, meeting new people. I get my energy from the idea of ideas. The notion of a good idea or the thought of a good idea. That's when I perk up, when I feel that there's a good idea in the house, in my brain pan. That's when I feel alive and that's what I want to continue doing, connecting with that. Also, I want to continue eating sardine sandwiches with sardines and tomatoes. That's what I did today.
Q: What do you say to all the people that want a Clash reunion?
JS: LATE NEWS BREAKING, THIS JUST IN. I finally realized what was nauseating me about this. It was that some guy is gonna give the Clash five million dollars to reform or tour. I ain't playing the game like that. That is revolting to me because you lose the respect of the audience. If you have no audience, you have no music. Music is communication, it ain't a thing in itself. Three days ago, I woke up and realized 'Fuck it- if we're gonna do that, we're just gonna reform and we're not gonna accept a dollar bill off nobody!' So it ain't gonna be. So I say to everyone who's got five million dollars in the bag, bloody go and blow it down at the race track 'cause we ain't havin' it.
Also see some of Joe Strummer's favorite music
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