Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Joe Strummer – Punk Rock Warlord, Part II

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