When I tell friends I am going to Paul Simonon's studio, I am unprepared for their reaction: "He is the coolest man in town." Simonon has been in this three-floor former stable – now a fashionable mews – in west London for three years. His studio on the top floor was the hay loft, my affable host tells me, pausing to show me the trapdoor through which food was thrown down to the horses.
The large, comfy living area is surrounded by objects relating to his time as a musician. A motorcycle is parked on one side of the room; on the floor is a framed bass guitar, one of the instruments he destroyed during a performance.
Simonon was born in London in 1955, but his parents moved around, "looking for work". They split up, and his stepfather got a grant to study music in Italy – first Siena and then Rome. Italy was a revelation to Simonon: "Grapes and wine – and the art – it was all around us." Returning to England was a shock – "No grapes or wine," he says – and he started to run out of control. "I was a bit of a hooligan; I was sent to live with my dad and he got the shackles out and my world changed." Simonon was in a failing school, and was sent to a girls' school for art lessons.
"The art teacher knew I would not have a chance with my O-levels, and she encouraged me to try for a scholarship." He got one to the Byam Shaw School of Art. "The first couple of months were fantastic," he remembers, but he soon realized that "life drawing was frowned on". He began losing interest, and when he got his grant money he disappeared, having met Mick Jones – who "went to an art college as he thought that was where you go to get musicians". Together they started a band, recruiting Joe Strummer to sing, and Simonon christened them "The Clash". "The Clash was total attitude and lifestyle – you breathed it and smoked it and there were no holidays. We all came from broken homes, one way or the other, and we were a family."
It was hard at first to find a venue to play in. "We played a few times at the ICA in London – that is one of the reasons I'm glad to be back there." The Clash eventually imploded, and Simonon had to deal later with losing Strummer, with whom he'd remained friends, to a heart defect.
Most of the paintings ranged around the walls of Simonon's studio relate to motorcycle gear, the most striking a work in progress. One of the paintings is of Strummer's leather jacket, which he has. "I did a painting of some washing-up in the sink, and he could not believe that someone would do a painting of that, so we did a trade and he walked home – slightly cold". The painting has the energy of the sitter, a ghostly presence. "Then Joe dies – sometimes you have dreams and you think they are still around".
Paul Simonon: Wot No Bike, ICA, London SW1 (020 7930 3647) 21 January to 6 February.Reuse content