I was cooking lunch when Joe Strummer’s publicist called. Todd answered the phone. I kept grating cheese for quesadillas. This was in the early days of Razorcake, when Todd and I each did half of magazine from the apartment we shared, when we were working on our fifth issue and still defining what the magazine would be. I didn’t pay attention to the call. I buttered a couple of tortillas, lay one on a frying pan, sprinkled grated cheese on it, and lay the other tortilla on top of it. This was also the days when any and all money we earned went back into putting out this magazine, back when I still considered Top Ramen food and would actually eat it. Quesadillas were a bit of a luxury.
Todd got off the phone just as I finished cooking. He said, “That was Joe Strummer’s publicist. She said she heard a rumor that we were going to interview him and put him on the cover of the next issue?”
“Was she calling from 1978?” I asked.
We both laughed.
The band on the cover of that issue: Super Chinchilla Rescue Mission.
My joke was had less to do with Joe Strummer and more to do with all the publicists who would call and try to play stupid publicist tricks on us. I was and am a Joe Strummer fan. I thought long and hard about that interview. Part of me wanted to do it. The second Clash album, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, is the perfect punk rock album. It’s high energy, full of catchy melodies, has a nice mix of personal and political lyrics and the political lyrics are complex explorations of enduring issues like cultural imperialism rather than politics that come with an expiration date. The trade off of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones vocals are perfect. And, unlike every other Clash album, every song is great. There’s not one low point between “Safe European Home” and “All the Young Punks.” I got the album when I was still young enough to believe that punk rock could save the world. It still sounds great to my old and jaded ears. I’ve played that record so many times that the vinyl seems somehow thinner, more flimsy, like I can only play it another couple of dozen times before I wear completely through it. Still, it gets a lot of spins even now. I listened to it this morning.
In a sense, every album I buy now is a futile attempt to recapture that feeling I got when I first set the needle down on that record.
So I asked myself again and again, “Do you want to interview the creative force behind the perfect punk rock album?” And I always came up with the same answer.
Did I want to meet him? Absolutely. Was he a hero of mine? Of course. He still is. Did I want to bask in the glow of brilliance? Yes. But did I want to waste his time with a bunch of questions about something he’d done twenty-odd years ago? Questions that have already been asked a million times, that he’s answered and that I read the answers to? No. The truth of the matter was, I had no interest in his new project, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. I’d heard it was “world music.” One of the songs on the vinyl version of that album is seventeen minutes long. I wanted nothing to do with that. I didn’t even give the disc a spin when it arrived in the review pile. I had no interest. After some of those horrible songs on the Clash’s Sandinista, after living through a couple of decades of “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” and “Rock the Casbah” on high rotation everywhere, I felt like I was done with Joe Strummer. Sure, he’d written great songs since Give ‘Em Enough Rope. There are even great songs on Sandinista. And I loved him the in the movie Midnight Train. But world music? Come on.
After Joe Strummer died, we did run a feature on him in Razorcake. I didn’t write anything about him then because I felt like Eric Rife—who did write the feature—said everything I wanted to say. He said it beautifully. I did the layout for that article. I sat at the computer in my apartment playing every piece of Clash music I had, right down to a bootleg copy of the Clash at the U.S. festival. I photoshopped pictures of Joe Strummer, I moved layout elements back and forth. I read and reread Eric’s words. I spent more time on that layout than I did on any other layout for Razorcake. I don’t know why.
A few months later, I was in a coffee house in Cincinnati. It was at the end of a short book tour I was doing. There was a record store above the coffee shop. I milled around there for a minute and got to talking to the owner. He knew Razorcake. We chatted about the Joe Strummer feature. He said, “I have the new Mescaleros album. Just came in. Wanna hear it?”
I didn’t, really, but I said, “Sure.” Just to be polite.
He played the first song. “Coma Girl.” I thought, wow! This is a song I’ve been wanting to hear for twenty years. Holy shit. I made a huge mistake.
Shortly before Joe Strummer died, filmmaker Dick Rude went on the Mescaleros’ final tour and made a documentary on it, Let’s Rock Again. The documentary has been out for a couple of years, but I didn’t get around to watching it until recently. There’s one scene in the middle of the movie when Joe Strummer is in Atlantic City. He’s scheduled to do a show that night. He goes to a rock’n’roll radio station in hopes of promoting his show. He goes to the telephone outside the station and he talks to the D.J. Only Joe Strummer’s half of the conversation is audible, but the tenor of the conversation is clear the third time he says his name to the D.J. The D.J. clearly has no idea whom he’s talking to. Finally, Joe Strummer says, “I used to be in a band called the Clash.” Suddenly, everything changes. The D.J. is beaming. He welcomes Joe Strummer up. He tells Joe Strummer that the station is three songs away from playing a Clash song.
In the next cut, we see Joe Strummer in a radio station that serves as a metaphor for everything that ruins rock’n’roll now. There isn’t one piece of actual music around: no compact discs, no records, not even cassettes. All the songs are programmed into a computer. Behind the D.J., the afternoon’s playlist beams on a computer monitor. It’s the same playlist on every computer monitor in every rock’n’roll station nationwide. And there’s Joe Strummer sitting on the other side of The Booth That Ruins Rock’n’roll. He’s singing back up along with “Rock the Casbah.” He’s got a withering smile on his face. The sides of his mouth twitch and he does an admirable job of keeping his chin up. But, really, do any of us need to hear “Rock the Casbah” again? Especially when we compare it to all the great songs that the Clash recorded? And what could possibly be going through Joe Strummer’s mind? Does it break his heart to know that this is his legacy to most of the world? Or does it just break my heart?
Several times in the movie, it’s made clear that Joe Strummer has gone from superstardom to obscurity. He mentions that the first Mescaleros album, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, didn’t break even. Hellcat Records actually lost money on it. He says that his goal with Global A Go-Go is simply to break even. “There’s more music in us,” he says. He just wants to cut one more album. We know now that he did. Sort of. The album, Streetcore, was never really completed, but it was completed enough to be released. The song “Coma Girl” is on that album.
Toward the end of the film, Joe Strummer gets redemption.
Both the D.J. in The Booth That Ruins Rock’n’roll and a really rude D.J. at KROQ have played a song off of Global A Go-Go (the last album Joe Strummer released in his lifetime). The cuts of the movie alternate between the two radio stations. The Mescaleros song “Johnny Appleseed” plays. Joe Strummer jumps around the booths, completely stoked. For a second, it’s easy to confuse this fifty year-old man with an eighteen year-old kid. He bangs his fists against the wall in perfect rhythm with the song. He shouts out, “We’ve got a toe-tapper here.” He opens the door and yells down the hall, “It’s a toe-tapper.”
Not a hit. Not a gold record. A toe-tapper.
And suddenly this becomes Joe Strummer’s legacy to the world: he shows us how to still be cool when you go from hero to zero. Or, more poignantly, how to understand that hero and zero are irrelevant. That what really matters is your art. He promotes an album, he tours, he does everything he can to generate press not so that he can be a star again, not to reclaim his former glory or to cash in one more time—hell, there’s barely a nod to the Clash days in the movie—but because he’s got more music in him.
And what about me? Do I regret never having interviewed Joe Strummer, not helping him out when he was a zero? Not even listening to his last three albums until after he was dead? Not really. An interview in Razorcake, even putting his mug on the cover of that magazine, wouldn’t have changed his life at all. The Mescaleros toured with The Who, their records were played on KROQ, every major weekly in the country wrote articles about them. People knew about them. One more interview in a fanzine that went out to four thousand people wouldn’t have made any difference.
By not meeting him, though, I think I got something better. I got to know him only through his art. Only through what he chose to give of himself. And that means more to me.
See, after that reading in Cincinnati—for which there was a big crowd, sure, but a crowd who seemed suddenly surprised that they had come to a reading and not just to a coffee house—I stayed the night in a punk house. The next morning, my tourmate Jennifer Whiteford and I hopped a Greyhound from Cincinnati to Chicago. The bathroom of the Greyhound had not been cleaned for six or seven thousand years. The smell permeated everything. It hit you as soon as you set foot on the bus. The only open seats for Jennifer and me were in the back, right by the bathroom. We spent four hours breathing this air. Imagine sitting in an ancient port-a-john and someone is outside, shaking the walls enough to make sure the odor never dissipates. That’s what that bus ride was like. We performed that night in Chicago. Six people showed up. I sold one book.
After the reading, I went to a bar with the guy who set up the reading. He bought the first round and I bought the second. The round I bought cost more than the book I’d sold. He apologized for the turnout, for the local papers and weeklies that had ignored the press releases and promo books I’d sent them. He lamented the state of literature today. I answered with a withered smile. The same smile I recognized on Joe Strummer’s face years later, when I watched Let’s Rock Again and saw him in The Booth That Ruins Rock’n’roll. Seeing that smile made me feel like a kindred spirit. I think I knew exactly how he felt right then. It’s a feeling I know well. In that smile, it’s clear to me exactly why Joe Strummer did what he did with his life and why I do what I do with mine. For a second, it felt like one of my heroes had come back from the grave, like he gave me a hug and said, “Man, everything’s cool.”
Author’s note: This is the ninth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #38. For more information about the collection, read this post.