Sunday, December 18, 2011

Gentleman Joe Strummer

Written when I heard the news of Joe Strummer's tragically early death.



Back in the winter of 1975, when I was 15, I went with my sister and a friend to see Roger Ruskin Spear – the ex-Bonzo Dog – put on his Kinetic Wardrobe show at Hampstead Town Hall. The supporting act was a rough and ready rock’n’roll band called the 101’ers. I remember being excited and impressed when the singer and guitarist launched into a blistering version of The Beatles’ ‘Back In The USSR’. Little did I know I was watching Joe Strummer. He was just a bloke with curly hair yelling at the microphone and bashing hell out of a Fender Telecaster. I looked at him and I knew I liked him. He was alright.

Within a year of course, punk rock had exploded and Joe Strummer was fronting a new band called The Clash who played all their own material: songs with titles like ‘White Riot’ and ‘I’m So Bored With The USA’. Having seen him with The 101’ers bought me some playground kudos amongst those of my schoolmates who actually believed me. Among these was a boy called Guy who was good at art and who was the first at my school to adopt the punk look and attitude. We became friends and he would bring round things like The Sex Pistols ‘Spunk’ bootleg and The Clash’s ‘Capital Radio’ interview ep for me to tape. Armed with Mark P’s magnificent dictum: “Here is a chord, here is another, here is a third, now go form a band”, I had  become reasonably adept on guitar, and on Christmas Day 1977, Guy came round unannounced (nobody comes round unannounced on Christmas Day) and asked me to teach him. I showed him how to play the intro to ‘Pretty Vacant’ and he walked off back to Earl’s Court happy as a lark.

Before this, though, the Clash’s first album had come out and I had bought it and played it loud and often and taken it to parties and annoyed people with it who would rather have been getting off to Genesis and Peter Frampton. I didn’t like the second album, toe-ing, sheep-like, to the then- fashionable line that The Clash had somehow sold out by allowing it to be produced by an American mainstream producer. But the third album, ‘London Calling’, was the goods and no mistake – ‘Exile On Main Street’ for my generation, the best album made by any of the British punk bands of the late 70s. By the time it came out, Christmas 1979, I had become what you might laughingly call a professional musician, and I remember hearing the title track for the first time in a Paris nightclub where I was playing with my first ‘proper’ band, The Cannibals. I was 19 and I was dancing with a pretty girl and there was Joe Strummer’s voice singing “London Calling”. I’m all grown up now and I am extremely wary of overly romanticising rock’n’roll (for good reason) but I can’t deny that THAT, that is a very fond memory indeed. 

Fast forward more than 20 years to the summer of 2002 and I get a call from a friend of a friend, a colleague of a colleague, the sitar player from Cornershop. She’s double-booked herself and she’s heard that I play sitar. Could I dep for her on a few festival gigs with Cornershop? 
 “How long have I got to practice?” I say. 
 “Three weeks”, she replies.
 “What’s the money?”
 OK. The first gig is in front of 45,000 bozo Oasis fans at Finsbury Park. They chuck plastic bottles but they’re so far away they can’t reach me. So far, so good. The last of the gigs is a festival in Cardiff. The only time available for soundcheck is first thing in the morning so we’re travelling the night before in a sleeper tourbus. The meet is outside the rehearsal studio at 10pm. So I turn up on time outside The Depot in Brewery Road with my two sitars in their monstrous cases and there’s the tourbus. It’s locked so I knock on the driver’s window to get him to open up the equipment trailer so I can load my sitars and get on board, grab a decent bunk. As I’m putting the sitars in I notice that none of the equipment looks at all familiar. With a hesitant air I ask the driver:
 “This is Cornershop’s bus, isn’t it?”
 “Oh no, mate”, he replies, “this is Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros!” Close! I haul the babies off the trailer and wander down the road where I can see another tourbus. I knock on the door.
 “Is this Cornershop’s bus?” 
 “No mate, this is Alabama 3. Where are you headed?” 
 “Cardiff”, I reply.
 “Oh we’re doing that gig. You can come with us.” 
I make my excuses: “Thanks but I better wait for the right bus. I don’t want to piss off the tour manager.”
 “OK. See you there!” 
I wander back towards the Depot. As I’m standing on the street, looking forlorn with two sitar cases in tow, who should emerge from the building but Joe Strummer himself. He smiles broadly. He walks over to where I’m standing. He speaks.
 “Alright? How ya doing?” 
I smile back. I’m feeling a bit nervous. I’ve met lots of famous people and I don’t get nervous - but now I’m feeling a bit nervous. This man was so much a part of my youth, so much a part of everything I ever aspired to join in with. I explain my situation: why I’m standing on the street with two sitars in big cases, how I don’t do mobile phones (“Neither do I”, he chuckles) and where is the Cornershop tourbus? He listens attentively. He deliberates. Then he says, “Tell you what. Put your sitars on my bus and we’ll go down the pub and you can use my guitarist’s mobile to phone your tour manager, find out what’s going on.”
“OK,” I agree, feeling not quite unlike a fool. I pick up the cases but Joe Strummer says, “Here y’are”, and takes one of them off me and carries it over to the door of his bus. He unlocks the door and puts the case inside and I put the other one inside. He locks the door. We walk down the deserted road together. He has just finished rehearsals for his tour and is about to embark upon it. He is relaxed and amiable. I am overawed and uptight and worried.  I ask him if he still lives in West London but it turns out that he has lived in Somerset for several years now. 
“I thought I hadn’t seen you on the streets for awhile”, I say, and don’t like the way it comes out. But it’s true! I used to see him around Notting Hill and Portobello on a regular basis and it was always nice to know that Joe was still in the neighbourhood. I tell him how the area is being turned into a yuppie theme-park, how he wouldn’t recognize the end of Westbourne Grove, how the Blue Sky cafĂ© has been closed down. I realise I’m whingeing but he looks sympathetic. We arrive at the pub and Joe introduces me to all the members of his band who are standing outside the bar, merry and getting merrier. He commandeers the guitar player’s mobile phone.
 “You call your tour manager and I’ll get you a drink. What you drinking?”
 “Um, OK. A pint of bitter please.” Joe Strummer goes inside and leans on the bar with a tenner in his hand. I am instructed in how to use the mobile phone and I call the tour manager. I have gone to the wrong studio! I should be at Terminal which is by London Bridge! Miles and miles away!
 “Don’t worry”, says Yaron the unflappable tour manager, “get in a cab. We won’t go without you.” 
I hand back the phone to its owner. Now I really feel like a fool. And here’s Joe Strummer with a pint for me. 
 “Thanks Joe”, I say. I need a cigarette. I produce my packet of Cutter’s Choice tobacco. Joe produces HIS packet of Cutter’s Choice tobacco and clinks mine with it. Hey, I smoke the same cigarettes as Joe Strummer, says the16 year old in my head. Meanwhile the 42 year old nincompoop that I have become explains the situation. But how am I going to find a cab? This whole area is virtually an industrial estate. 
 “I’ll get the barman to call you one”, says Joe. He hands me a key. “You better go back and get your sitars off the bus. Don’t forget to lock it up after you. I’ll watch your pint.” He takes it off me and he goes back into the bar to get me a cab. I trot back up the road to the bus, get the sitars, lock up carefully. When I get back to the pub Joe has my pint carefully lodged behind him. I retrieve it gratefully. Everyone is chuckling at my predicament. Hapless is the word I’d use. But the cab arrives before the conversation dies. I down the rest of my pint, feeling embarrassed that I won’t get to buy him one back. As the band look on Joe carries one of my sitars to the cab while I carry the other one. 
 “Thanks, Joe”, I say sheepishly. “Thanks for everything. You’re a gentleman.“
And I wish there was some way to convey to him just HOW much of a gentleman I think he is. As I clamber in he says: 
 “Say hello to Tjinder from the Mescaleros. Don’t forget to give it some …” He gestures with his arm and clenched fist to indicate strength and commitment and I’m off. I look back out the window and Joe Strummer is waving goodbye to me.

And now I learn that that hale and hearty man, that true gentleman of the road, of rock’n’roll, is dead. At 50, of a suspected heart attack, three days before Christmas. What a shitty Christmas present for his wife and two kids. What a shitty Christmas present for all of us. For we are all impoverished by Joe Strummer’s death. Whether we give a flying stuff for The Clash, or the Mescaleros, or rock’n’roll at all, we are all impoverished by the loss of a great big-hearted man who believed in what he did and who did it for all the right reasons. Talented, genuine, truthful, he was unique. The music business is full of petty little people. Joe Strummer was not one of them. He was an old-school rock’n’roller, someone who cared. God bless him.  

(Adam Blake. Christmas Eve 2002.)

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