IN THE middle of September, 2003, Paul Simonon, the former bass player in The Clash, and his friend the writer Chris Salewicz, made a journey, a pilgrimage of sorts, from London to the Hebridean island of Raasay, between Skye and the Applecross peninsula.
The men were seeking something specific – the deserted township of Umachan and the ruins of a crofthouse built in the early 1850s by a stonemason called Angus Gillies, which Simonon, an artist, planned to paint. But they were also in search of something less easy to define; some sense of the soul and spirit of Gillies’ great-great-grandson whose name was John Mellor, but whom they knew, whom the world knew, as Joe Strummer, frontman with The Clash.
“It was like trying to find Camelot,” Simonon says now. After two days of searching they found the croft and he set up his easel and canvas, painting between downpours. He was left on his own, in the gathering darkness, as Salewicz had to catch the ferry to Skye to see Rebel’s Wood, a forest planted in Strummer’s memory.
“For me, that was the only way I could show what I felt for Joe,” Simonon continues. “It was amazing and uplifting and very special, because I know Joe always wanted to go there but never did. So in a way, because of our past experiences as friends and workmates, I did the walk for him. With the rain and atmosphere of the place, I felt quite refreshed from the emotional trauma of losing someone very close to me. I suppose because it was and is his spiritual home it was even more poignant. When I close my eyes, I can do every bit of that walk again. It’s so ingrained on my memory.”
In the chimney breast of the ruined cottage he left a Clash box-set, as a sort of offering. “A gift for whoever made the journey after me.”
This coming Saturday will be the tenth anniversary of Strummer’s death. He would, had he lived, be a 60-year-old grandfather and, Salewicz believes, an elder statesman figure, a sort of British Johnny Cash, full of grit and spit and hard-won wisdom. He was already on his way to that on 22 December, 2002 when, after walking his dogs near his home in Somerset, he suffered a heart attack and died.
The shock of it, at the time, was profound. Fans, even now, talk about the loss being as if a member of their own family had died. This was not the usual drug or booze casualty; Strummer’s cardiac problem turned out to be congenital. More, after years out of the limelight, he had been enjoying a renaissance with his band the Mescaleros. The death felt unfair. There was a feeling abroad that Joe Strummer had a future and not just a celebrated past.
Simonon, who considered Strummer an older brother, found it hard to accept that he was gone. They had been close during The Clash years and stayed friends after the split. He still thinks of him often. Being in the band was so dramatic that Strummer, in particular, was one of the few people who could understand what Simonon had experienced. “I’ll never get over it, but you learn to come to terms with it,” he says. “Going to Raasay helped with that.”
Since his death, Strummer has only grown in stature. He has been the subject of a documentary, The Future Is Unwritten, and a stage play. There are two films in the pipeline. This month, to mark the tenth anniversary of his passing, tribute concerts are taking place from Osaka to Buffalo, and from Parma to Glasgow.
Each year, since 2002, the Glasgow venue King Tut’s has hosted a benefit night with local bands playing his songs and proceeds going to the Strummerville charity which offers support and resources to musicians who would not normally have access to them. These nights are raucous and emotional. This year’s show, on Saturday, has been sold out since early October.
“Strummer’s my all-time hero,” says Dave McGeachan, the promoter who puts on the annual event at King Tut’s. “I was privileged to work with Joe. He played King Tut’s on 7 June, 1999, with the Mescaleros, and I stood at the side of the stage while he did White Man, White Riot, Janie Jones – all the Clash songs you’d want to hear. I’d grown up listening to these songs and jumped about my bedroom with a snooker cue, and now that guy was on stage three feet in front of me. I loved the anger, the energy, and the point they were trying to get across. We also put him on at the Barrowland twice in his last years. The atmosphere was electric. I remember security had to eject about 80 people before Joe even took the stage.”
So what is at the root of these still strong feelings for Strummer? Why does he continue to be mourned and revered? In part it’s simply that the music is so powerful. The first 25 seconds of London Calling are as exciting a piece of music as has ever been recorded. But it’s more than that. It comes down to integrity. He didn’t reform The Clash and he didn’t appear in adverts; he continued to support political causes, playing benefits for striking firefighters and so on; most important of all, perhaps, he continued to make music and play live, demonstrating an unswerving commitment to that half corny, half noble thing, the rock’n’roll dream.
A decade on from his untimely end, those who knew Strummer well can look back at his life and legacy with admiration and affection, the shards of grief having been blunted by time. Salewicz, who went on to the write the definitive biography of Joe Strummer, Redemption Song, first saw The Clash live in October, 1976, at Fulham Town Hall – “this incendiary explosion of sound and colour and movement” – and got to know the band well in his years covering the punk scene for the NME and other music magazines.
What, in Salewicz’s opinion, was the great motivating force in Strummer’s life? What made him the man and artist that he was?
“I think,” he replies, “that the suicide of his brother was fundamental.” David Mellor was the elder by a year and a half. Salewicz believes that in the aftermath of this loss, Strummer decided, essentially, to choose life and to live it at as great an intensity as possible. “It was the 31 July, 1970, and David was found dead on a bench on an island in Regent’s Park,” says Salewicz. “He’d taken 100 aspirin tablets. I think he was suffering very much from depression. Joe said he was such a nervous guy who couldn’t bring himself to talk at all. But he was also into the National Front. The death of David was very focusing for Joe: ‘I’m not going to go that way.’ But he was devastated by it.”
Salewicz believes that David Mellor’s involvement in right-wing politics may explain, in part, why Strummer went on to become a spokesman and figurehead of the intelligent, left-wing, anti-racist side of punk; the side that had no truck with swastikas, which embraced black music, in particular reggae, and the immigrant communities from which it came.
World music, for want of a better term, played an even greater role in the sound of the Mescaleros, the band Strummer formed in 1999. Scott Shields, the Glaswegian composer of film and television scores, joined on bass, later switching to guitar.
His memories of touring with Strummer show a man essentially unchanged in his attitude and behaviour from his days as a punk idol. “He was always a consummate performer,” says Shields. “He switched into character about an hour before the gig. He liked to keep us on our toes so he would throw the set-list out at the very last minute. He liked to keep an air of tension on the stage and I think that helped the performances. You could see we were edgy. Then as soon as he came off stage, he would open the doors and get people in. We wanted a bit of time to chill out, but he always wanted to get the people in. Until we got back on the bus, he was in full Joe Strummer mode.”
After more than a decade in the wilderness, the Mescaleros were good for Strummer, Salewicz believes. “He was very confused for years after The Clash ended. In fact, he was in a state of depression. The Mescaleros gave him his life back.”
How tragic, then, that it was taken away so soon after. His funeral in London, on 30 December, took place in heavy rain. “It was like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel,” Salewicz recalls. “Two dozen firemen formed a guard of honour as the coffin was carried in.” A piper played The Mist-Covered Mountains Of Home and a cousin read a poem by the Raasay poet Sorley Maclean; later, at the wake, in a pub called Paradise, there was ska and reggae.
Strummer had been born on 21 August, 1952, in Ankara, Turkey, where his father, Ron Mellor, was working as a diplomat. His mother, Anna, was a Scot, a Highlander, from Bonar Bridge on the Kyle of Sutherland. Anna’s mother, Jane Gillies, had been born in that croft house out there at Umachan, Raasay, on the edge of the edge. After Strummer’s death, a memorial forest – Rebel’s Wood – was planted on nearby Skye, overlooking Loch Bracadale, and both the forest and Raasay ruin have become places of pilgrimage for fans. Some film themselves performing White Riot accompanied only by raindrops and ukelele and post the result on YouTube; others leave sketches and heartfelt notes.
Was the Scottishness in his background important to Strummer? “In later life it came to mean more to him,” says Salewicz. “I remember in Las Vegas in November 1999 he told me he was going to spend New Year’s Eve in Bonar Bridge. As a kid, from about the age of five, Joe and his family would go up there. He was actually there at the beginning of the December when he died. He’d been up at a family wedding and had tears in his eyes listening to the local pipe band. He planned to buy a house up there.”
A home in Scotland. A hit record with the Mescaleroes. Getting back together with The Clash. The story of Joe Strummer’s last days are full of might have beens. Better to remember what he did achieve, from the white heat of White Riot to his last great Indian summer. “In 50 years’ time he’ll still be an icon,” says McGeachan, “and people will be looking back at him and what he stood for.”
One last question, though. How will Simonon mark the tenth anniversary of the loss of his friend? “Well, I suppose I am by talking to you,” he says. “This is quite special for me to talk about Joe this way. On a personal level, I might just get a bottle of rum and a glass, couple of friends, and raise a toast.” «