Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Strummer Wind

In 1982, Joe Strummer signaled the beginning of the end of The Clash when he abruptly bugged out and disappeared for several weeks on the eve of a major tour. The band's manager, Bernie Rhodes, had originally cooked up an idea where Joe would vanish as a publicity stunt, but Joe turned the tables on him by genuinely disappearing and not telling him, the band, or anyone else.

Joe was having a dark night of the soul at the apex of The Clash's success, and hitchhiked across Europe and returned to his roots as a street-busking musician, playing the blues for coins in train stations. Few recognized him when he took part as a runner in the Paris marathon, about a month before resurfacing publicly and returning to London. Later asked how someone as unhealthy as he could have ran in a marathon without training, Joe replied, "Drink 10 pints of beer the night before the race." He also added: "It works for me and Hunter Thompson but it might not work for others."

I took Joe's example to heart, not just about the beer but about bugging out. I'm known for my own abrupt disappearances and vanishing acts, often just before gigs with my own bands (though, as with George "no show" Jones, the rumors greatly outweigh the truth). Sometimes you just gotta pull the big straw hat over your eyes and exit stage left. When life baits you, go fishin'.

In 1989, I was nearing the end of my great "lost years" spent hoboing around this continent some call North America. I spent several years lugging around a guitar and a satchel, naively blundering through roadhouses and bus stations and unknown alleys of unfamiliar cities, repeatedly finding myself in dangerous situations where, looking back now, by all natural law I should have been killed. Like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs, I left a trail of my crappy chapbooks of poetry in which I emulated Billy Childish emulating Charles Bukowski, and my crappy homemade cassette tapes of pre-Cheeseburger & Fries crummy acoustic blues recorded on the fly in roach-filled motels, park benches, and boiler rooms of college campuses.

Meanwhile, things hadn't gone so well for The Clash. They split up and both Joe and Mick wasted too many years trying to prove that each of them were the real genius behind the band and it was the other guy who had been the dead weight. Mick may have won the battle in terms of conventional music success - his Big Audio Dynamite records sold better and he actually had a couple of genuine hits - but his best song, C'mon Every Beatbox, was co-written and co-produced by Strummer himself, after they (mostly) buried the hatchet. Joe did some lackluster bits for movie soundtracks after his own final incarnation of The Clash conked out. At that point, I didn't expect anything much more of value out of Strummer or any the old boys.

So it was a real ground-shaker when Joe Strummer dropped the big one - an LP called Earthquake Weather, released with little fanfare or publicity. A lot of people hated it, even Clash fans. But for me, it resonated perfectly with where I'd been since dropping out of college to hit the road like a hillbilly Kerouac. Earthquake Weather's lyrics read like top-of-its-game Beat Generation poetry, and in fact you had to read the lyric sheet because until you memorized the words (as I did, and still have) you can't understand a freakin' word old snaggletoothed Joe is saying! I suppose Michael Stipe's mystery mumbling had already softened me up for Joe's ever-increasing inpenetrability.

I remember one rock critic panning the album saying something like "Strummer seems to think that merely piling up heaps of imagery and cramming as many words into a song as possible is enough to pass for good songwriting". And I was thinking, "well, isn't it?"

Songs like "Jewellers and Bums", "Sikorsky Parts", "King of the Bayou", "Slant Six", "Dizzy's Goatee", "Passport to Detroit", and especially "Sleepwalk" sum up those peculiar misspent years, in which Joe and I were apparently running in some of the same circles following the same salt-lick trails blazed by all those undomesticated animals before us, and I didn't even know it at the time.

Even if you don't know the words to the songs, you can still pick out snatches of phrases from amid the rumble and grumble, like hearing disassociated fragments of a shortwave radio broadcast fade in and out from the static of the ionosphere:

"Matchbooks of lonely places I'll never find.."

"Don't sneeze on my Cannonball Adderley LPs..."

"Check into a desert hotel and let the dam in the waters go broke..."

"With me, it'd be Charlie Parker, Chevys and late night barroom brawls with real or imagined friends and enemies..."

Whenever I'm in Florida, I tend to avoid the squares on the mainland and stick to the islands, especially Anna Maria Island and Lido Key. I can always hear Joe singing "Island Hopping" while I'm down there in the Gulf of Mexico, where all us burnt moths who follow the river end up.

People keep telling me that Joe died a few years back, but I'm not sure how these goofy internet rumors get started. I was slumming in Interzone just last week and bumped into Joe picking up a racing form and a bottle of Yoo-Hoo at a newsstand with Little Richard and Sal Dali.

(Photos: 1. Joe Strummer, NYC, circa 1980. 2. Jeffrey Scott Holland, Richmond, KY, circa 1986. 3. Joe Strummer's Earthquake Weather LP, 1989. 4. Jeffrey Scott Holland, Perico Island, 2008. 5. Joe Strummer, San Diego, CA, 2002.)

- - JSH


obligingstranger said...

Thanks for this. I feel the same way about that album. I had it on a cassette and havent heard it in yeeeeeeears....................

RIP Joe Strummer.

JSH said...

I had it on cassette too! Spent many a long bus trip with it on my walkman, providing the soundtrack to my life.

I wish someone would put out a Bear Family-style CD box set collecting everything Joe did besides the Clash and the Mescaleros: the 101'ers recordings, Permanent Record, Walker, Sid & Nancy, Straight to Hell, Earthquake Weather, and all related b-sides and outtakes.

Maybe even include Cut the Crap on there, since history still hasn't decided yet whether it's really the last Clash album or the first Joe Strummer album.