Joe Strummer: 10 years gone
Before his death 10 years ago today, Joe Strummer could barely get arrested. Afterwards, the Clash icon made magazine front covers and was feted as a rock icon. As a special tribute to the man born John Graham Mellor, Classic Rock‘s Stephen Dalton analyses the struggle of this punk rock warlord during his solo years…
When big money moves in, big money doesn’t fuck around…” It’s the autumn of 1999 and Joe Strummer is in the kitchen of his Somerset home rapping about the perils of rock superstardom. “I don’t know whether I could have hacked it. One of the reasons The Clash broke up was we saw what The Who were like at the end of their tether. It’s a bad scene. You very quickly turn into nothing. I’ve enjoyed my life because I’ve had to deal with all kind of things, from failure to success to failure again. That has made me a better person. I don’t think there’s any point in being famous if you’re an arsehole, or if you lose that thing of being a human being. Because you ain’t gonna be happy living in some mansion somewhere.”
Strummer doesn’t have a mansion. In fact, for the best part of the preceding decade, he’s barely had a career. Shunned by the rock magazines who once lauded him as a righteous punk superhero, he has become reclusive and a little paranoid. This interview has taken weeks of negotiation, the former Clash icon seemingly wary of a stitch-up. After years in the wilderness, his self-confidence is shattered, his bullshit detector twitching.
But he was right to be wary. Ten years on from his death, Strummer has been lauded on screen, lionised in print and immortalised on countless magazine covers. In an age filled with endless reunions and deluxe re-issues, he’s now part of the classic-rock pantheon.
But in 1999, Strummer was seriously out of step with pop fashion. In the eyes of many in the media he had gone from incendiary firebrand to middle-aged burn-out. How the mighty are fallen. More than 15 years after the undignified demise of The Clash, Strummer had not released any new music for a decade.
But he was on the cusp of a belated career revival with his new band The Mescaleros, a ragged roots-rock collective who combined folk, reggae and world music elements. Back to garageland, but with a global twist.
It was this new Mescaleros material that drew me to interview Strummer, particularly Yalla Yalla, a mesmerising dub-rock anthem that sounded like a Straight To Hell for the new millennium. Warmer, more reflective and less angry than in his punk heyday, Strummer’s new project was then still in its infancy. But the soulful sandpaper rasp in his voice and newly spiritual scope of his lyrics suggested he was maturing into a kind of English Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash.
Clearly energised by music again, Strummer told me he had spent much of the last decade “running into brick walls”. It seemed bizarre that such an explosively dynamic, fiercely charismatic performer should have suffered such a prolonged slump. “Yeah, but those are probably the people who are the most unconfident, really,” Strummer shrugged. “The ones who give it the mouth and trousers. I’m like that. Like, if you stormed in here and said the new record was rubbish, I would probably quit.”