Photo by Rankin

If you were paying attention to popular culture during the ’70s, you don’t
need an introduction to Joe Strummer. Front man for the Clash, Strummer was one of the heroes of punk rock’s first generation and served as a spokesman for the more enlightened faction of that community. Where the Clash’s colleagues the Sex Pistols adopted a scorched-earth policy for their brief march through the media, Strummer and company encouraged the Blank Generation to wake up to their own lives, to know their rights, to know their neighbors, to know what their country was doing in foreign lands in the name of democracy. Strummer was able to deliver this rather weighty message credibly because he has an impeccable understanding of the rock & roll form, and is what’s known as a leader of men. Smart, unpretentious, and uninterested in wealth and power, he’s a guy who inspires feelings of loyalty and trust.

After the Clash flamed out in 1985, Strummer spent several years struggling to reinvent himself, and when his debut solo album of 1989, Earthquake Weather, tanked, he turned his back on the music business. It wasn’t until 1999 that he regained his balance and formed his current five-man lineup, the Mescaleros, whose debut album, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, came out that same year. Their second album, Global A Go-Go, was recently released to glowing reviews. A rockin’ multicultural stew, it sounds for all intents and purposes like a Clash record. This isn’t surprising, given that Strummer was the heart and soul of that group.

L.A. WEEKLY: What was the great achievement of punk rock?

JOE STRUMMER: It gave a lot of people something to do.

What was its great failure?

That we didn’t mobilize our armies when we had them and focus our energies in a way that could’ve brought about concrete social change — trying to get a repressive law repealed, for instance.

I saw the Clash several times during their U.S. tours of the late ’70s, and I remember the sense that something profoundly important was at stake at those shows, that they were about something much larger than pop trends. What was at stake?

In the rush of youth, you assume too much, but we felt that the whole machine was teetering on the brink of collapse. Some amazing things went down in Britain during the ’70s — the government decided they could disempower the unions by having a three-day week, for instance. Can you imagine that? Everything felt unstable, and looking through youthful, excitable eyes, it seemed the very future of England was at stake.

Given that your music grew out of a situation specific to England, did it strike you as odd that it was embraced in America?

No, because everybody feels the same way on a certain level. The Zeitgeist is a real force of nature, and although we don’t know how it’s transmitted, it’s like an invisible tidal wave.

How would you characterize the Zeitgeist now?

A feeling of shock. Experts on international affairs might’ve seen the events of September 11 coming, but I don’t think the rest of us did. We considered canceling our U.S. tour, because we wanted to do the respectful thing, but after a few days I called my friends in New York and got information about what’s going on there, and the feeling was yeah, come on. I love New York, and life’s gotta go on — otherwise it’s like giving in. Now that this catastrophe has happened, we’ve got to see the optimistic side of it, which is that five years ago it was inconceivable that countries like Iran, Pakistan or Libya would want to join the circle of nations and not be outlaw rebel states. The important thing now is to keep a cool head. Finding the perpetrators of this attack is like finding a needle in a haystack, and though lots of people are saying blow away the bloody country of Afghanistan, that would be a disaster for everyone in the world.

An overriding theme of your new record is personal and political conflict. Why can’t people get along?

I think fear is the corrupting agent, and I don’t know how we can eliminate that. Maybe if every child in the world was really shown a good time, a new breed of human beings would appear. On the other hand, I believe some people are just born bad — I’ve met a few of them, too. Whether they were born bad, what happened to them was bad, or it was a combination of the two, by the time they’re teenagers you can see they’re gonna flip. No matter who loves them or what happens, they’re gonna smash the room up.

What’s been the most difficult year of your life?

I took a long breather after the Clash broke up, and I had a really hard time about halfway through that. I felt like I’d blown it and that I’d never get up there again, and the only thing that got me through was sheer bloody-mindedness — I just won’t quit! Every time I think, ‘You’ve had your lot, now just shut up,’ a larger part of me says, ‘No, there are things you can say better than anyone, and you must say them.’ Nonetheless, it was a hard time that was compounded by the fact that both my parents died.

How were you affected by the death of your parents?

I wasn’t close to them, because when I was 8 years old I was sent to a boarding school, where I spent nine years. I saw my father once a year between the ages of 9 to 12, then twice a year from then on. As to whether I felt cheated by his absence, I didn’t bother with that, because I was in a hard place. You know Tom Brown’s Schooldays? Imagine being in a second-rate boarding school in South London in 1961. You had to punch or be punched, so I became hard and ceased being a mama’s boy pretty quickly.

What’s the most widely held misconception about you?

That I’m some kind of political thinker. I definitely am not. I think about politics all the time, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what’s going on in the world.

I grew up hearing my parents going on about World War II, which seemed very clear: Hitler = bad, everyone else = good. We’re basically lazy — we want to see a good guy and a bad guy, and we yearn for that beautiful clarity, but the world we live in no longer lends itself to those kinds of conclusions.

Are money and power invariably corrupting?

Definitely — the Clash never had to struggle with those things, though, because we never got any money. The music business is a bad racket, and the people on the first crest of a wave never get paid. I don’t like to moan on about money, but you have to realize that although you might’ve heard of the Clash, we didn’t sell any records. Nobody sends me five pounds every time somebody’s heard of the group. We never had any real power, either, other than in an abstract, poetic way. What I wrote on a piece of paper might influence someone somewhere down the line, and that’s something I still take great care with. Not writing things that are stupid or easily misconstrued is something I keep onboard at all times. But it would’ve been nice to have the power to say, “Fifty thousand people down to the Houses of Parliament now!” We might’ve been able to get 1,500 people at the height of our power, but ultimately it’s the big money men who have the power.

What do you miss about being in the Clash?

That was so long ago that it’s all faded, and I’m never on the nostalgia tit, but we did have a very good camaraderie and an extremely acute sense of humor. It was fun being in the Clash.

Your new album is dedicated to Joey Ramone. What was the nature of his genius?

A sharp intelligence. People think of spirit when they think of the Ramones, but the more I listen to those records the more I’m struck by how smart they are.

Where do you think Joey is now?

He’s in heaven.

Do you believe in heaven?

Maybe not for me, but certainly for Joey Ramone.

Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros perform at the Troubadour, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, October 22, 23, 25 and 26.

LA Weekly