A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 4, 2008
Joe Strummer was so bored with the USA. He identified more with the Sandinistas than he did with Ronald Reagan. Yet he loved America. He loved the craziness of the cities and the weirdness of the countryside. He loved cowboy stuff, big cars, big pizzas, big drinks, and, of course, the music — Woody Guthrie, Elvis, the Bobby Fuller Four, Bukka White, Eddie Cochran, and the MC5. He probably would have agreed with Leonard Cohen that America is “the cradle of the best and the worst.”
“He knew the culture of America,” says Joe Ely in The Future Is Unwritten, a documentary about Strummer. Ely, a country rocker from Texas, toured with Strummer and The Clash about 30 or so years ago. “He knew the culture. He knew the music of it backward and forward. And so we hit it off immediately. Here was this unlikely meeting of two guys who grew up thousands of miles apart. But the same things moved us.”
Maybe he was a Brit — technically. But The Future Is Unwritten reminds us that Strummer can also be seen as a great American, one worth celebrating this Fourth of July. Had he been around in 1773 he’d have helped us dump tea in the harbor. And after the revolution, he’d have provided the soundtracks to Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion.
The Future Is Unwritten, directed by Julien Temple, tells Strummer’s story: from his boyhood, through his years as the leader of a hippie/squatter band, through the glory years of The Clash, through the lean years when his music was scarce and obscure, and though his musical rebirth leading a band called The Mescaleros — a comeback cut short by his unexpected death in 2002. The movie is scheduled for release on DVD on Tuesday, July 8.
Temple — who created two Sex Pistols movies, The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle and The Filth & The Fury — tells Strummer’s story through family movies and photos as well as through footage that Temple shot during the pioneer days of punk rock. There are clips from a BBC film of George Orwell’s 1984 and an animated Animal Farm. There are Strummer doodles brought to life through animation. And there are interviews with the musician’s friends, family, and celebrity admirers — almost all of which are set around campfires in both rural and urban locales.
Some of the interviews are gushing. Steve Buscemi, who was in the Jim Jarmusch movie Mystery Train with Strummer, confesses that he was just as nervous to be working with the rocker as he would be working with Brando or De Niro. Bono does a typical Bono rap about how important The Clash was.
But some are not so worshipful. Mick Jones still seems to feel pain about being kicked out of The Clash. One old friend calls Strummer a coward.
Strummer was born John Graham Mellor in 1952 in Turkey, where his father (who was born in India) was a British diplomat. Strummer spent part of his childhood in Egypt and Mexico and was sent off to boarding school in Surrey, England, along with his brother, David. The film tells of David’s suicide and how that tormented Strummer.
Hooked on American folk music, Strummer took the name Woody, probably in honor of the Dust Bowl balladeer. He attended art college in Wales, busked on the London underground, and then became leader of the 101ers, a band of fellow squatters. (The group performed the New Orleans classic “Junko Partner” years before The Clash did.)
By the mid ’70s, Strummer shed his new name and snapped at anyone who called him Woody. He was becoming Joe Strummer. “I can only play all strings or none,” he explains in the documentary. “And not all the fiddley bits. That’s why I called myself Joe Strummer.”
During The Clash years segment, the movie takes on a bit of a VH1 Behind the Music veneer. There’s some great footage of the band, but soon the creativity, energy, and idealism are crushed beneath the weight of egos, drugs, management problems, “creative differences,” and most of the other crap that kills great bands — except airplane crashes and Yoko Ono.
“We have fallen into every pitfall that you can possibly fall into ... and invented some new ones along the way,” Strummer says in the film.
There are many memorable moments in the documentary. Jarmusch talks about seeing Strummer weep when he saw a television news report of American troops listening to The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” as they were bombing Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. There’s the interview in which Strummer rants about anti-smoking laws, saying that nobody who doesn’t smoke should be allowed to buy works created by artists who do smoke.
And there’s the moment when the 1990s Strummer is raving about raves. Even though earlier in the film he snarls, “Hippies can shove off,” by the ’90s, Strummer says, “Quite frankly I am a hippie. I want to be a hippie. Punks and hippies are now fighting together here in England. ... In fact, you can’t tell them apart. And they’re coming together in some new strange style.”
Yes, basically, Strummer was just a big bundle of contradictions. Light some fireworks for him on the Fourth.
My review of the soundtrack CD for The Future is Unwritten, which was released about a year ago, can be found HERE.
* The Clash Live: Revolution Rock. Except for the music here — 22 Clash songs recorded at various concerts and television appearances between 1977 and 1983 — the best thing about this DVD (released earlier this year) is that it gives you the option of “just play music” and skipping the cheesy narration, which tells the story of the rise and fall of the band.
The music, indeed, is great. But if you already own The Essential Clash DVD or the movie Rude Boy you already have several of these performances. Weren’t there other versions of these songs that could have been used?
One twisted little treat is a bonus feature — The Clash’s 1981 interview with the ultimate befuddled American squarejohn Tom Snyder, who is, as usual, unintentionally funny here.
But Snyder’s weird sincerity sometimes get sincere responses from band members. Even so, Strummer, at one point, gets away with quoting “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”
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