Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Joe Strummer -- Punk Rock Warlord

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: