Joe Strummer: The angry young man who grew up
The leader of The Clash was the spokesman for a generation. But what was Joe Strummer really like? To mark the 10th anniverary of his death, his widow reveals the truth behind the legend – and how the angry man of punk finally found real happiness in the country life
Ian Burrell is Assistant Editor and Media Editor at The Independent, i paper and Independent on Sunday. He covers news from the whole media sector from television, press, radio and advertising to technology. His weekly column on the media appears every Monday in The Independent and i paper. He also writes on media, music and culture, including long-form pieces for The Independent’s Saturday magazine and the Independent on Sunday’s magazine, New Review. He is a regular presenter of BBC Radio 4’s What The Papers Say and a specialist commentator to Monocle 24 radio. He has contributed to most major broadcast outlets including BBC television and radio, CNN, Sky News, Al Jazeera and LBC. He has also written on media for GQ magazine. Ian has been reporting on the media industry for The Independent for more than a decade. Previously he was the newspaper’s Home Affairs Editor. He worked at The Sunday Times for five years, including as a member of the investigative Insight team, covering stories on political funding, industrial espionage and the arms industry. Previously he worked in ITV for London Weekend Television, on a weekly current affairs programme presented by Danny Baker. Ian trained at the Birmingham Post & Mail and was Regional Reporter of the Year in Press Gazette’s national awards.
Sunday 20 May 2012
How to remember Joe Strummer? It's a question being asked around the world, as the 10th anniversary of the singer's untimely death approaches. To his legion of devoted fans, the leader of the Clash was a rebel genius – the John Lennon of his generation, according to his front-page obituary in The Independent. His sloganeering lyrics, fuelled by anger, idealism and the call for justice and unity, empowered the social consciences of countless thousands. But the woman he knew as "Luce" remembers a very different character to the public image of punk's poet hurtling down the Westway of life.
"He was quite quiet when I met him," she says. "He wasn't doing anything, just living at home – he wasn't out with the posse. I became more and more aware of his charm, shall we say, as I got to know him."
Nearly a decade has passed since Strummer fell victim to an undiagnosed heart defect on 22 December 2002 – which is already a longer time than the nine years the former Lucinda Mellor spent in his life. His influence is probably greater now than when they first met at a Hampshire funfair in 1993, and his star will shine even brighter this anniversary year. But for all of Strummer's lasting international adulation, it is Lucinda who remains the principal keeper of his flame. And she is anxious that her recollection of their time together will not be distorted by myth. "He was always a hero to lots of people and he was always a hero to me – and I'd like to believe I don't think any more or less of him since he's died," she says. "I'd like to think I haven't glorified him or looked through rose-tinted spectacles at my life with him. He was special, magnetic."
We meet in the restaurant of London's Groucho Club, a favourite Strummer hang-out from way back. As tea is served, she pulls out an envelope containing personal snaps of the couple together. There's one of Lucinda looking barely out of her teens but in fact just turned 30, newly in love and clinging to the man she first knew by his given name of John Mellor. Her memories of him are, naturally, quite different from those of us who knew him only through his music. Her Joe was the one who would surface sometime after midday and sit for hours in the kitchen of their Somerset farmhouse. She would have been up since around 6.30am, and would already have been out riding in the fields and walking the dogs. "Joe used to get up late," she recalls with a laugh. "I'm morning and he was night. Complete opposites. He'd always come to bed between two and five in the morning, and get up between one and two in the afternoon. I always feel the day is wasted if I'm not up, dressed and ready to go by 8am. But if Joe was at home he would just be sitting at the kitchen table with his typewriter and his mug of tea. Or if he had people with him, they would all be round the kitchen table."
She's kept the typewriter, which provided a comforting patter to the Mellors' domestic life. "It was lovely, a proper one, and he used to type with one finger," she says, demonstrating by jabbing both index fingers down on the table in front of her.
But having such differing body clocks provided a challenge to the relationship, especially when there were so many other people who wanted a piece of Joe – and when he, most unusually for a rock star, was more than happy to reciprocate. "Joe just loved people and he would not leave a bar when there was someone who wanted to talk to him," says Lucinda. "He liked to sit up, he liked to drink and he liked to talk."
Joe Strummer was born 60 years ago this summer, on 21 August 1952, in Ankara, Turkey. His father was a diplomat, and Joe spent his early childhood in Cairo, Bonn and Mexico City, soaking up influences that would become apparent in his work. Decades later, when the Clash had disbanded and he moved from London down to the West Country, his instinct was to absorb the local culture. When Joe went to the pub, he didn't just go for a pint of beer; he was interested in every detail of its history. "He would find out when the pub was built and why it had cobwebs in the corner," recalls Lucinda.
The Mellors would often head down to the Wilkins scrumpy farm in nearby Mudgley. "Having gone up there to buy cider, he would be sitting there talking to local farmers and local people, he would be jotting things down that they said, because Somerset people have a turn of phrase which is different and that would amuse him."
It might surprise Clash fans that a figure synonymous with such urban anthems as "London Calling" and "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais" should be so comfy in the sticks. "He loved both [city and country]," says Lucinda. "He used to walk the dogs for miles, he loved the Quantock Hills, he loved the beach. He was a great walker. What he liked about the country was that no one could ring on his doorbell, and say they were passing." She laughs hard at this.
There were moments when he wanted to be left with his thoughts. "He liked being alone – he needed time to compute what he had listened to and heard." In Julien Temple's marvellous 2007 documentary Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, the musician is shown saying that "thinking" is what gets him out of bed in the mornings. But according to Lucinda, it was also his excuse for burning the midnight oil. "He would say, 'I'm thinking, I'm thinking.' And I would go: 'No you're not, you're just staying up!'"
Strummer was a regular in the village working men's club ("There's a skittle alley and he threatened to join the skittle team once") and was always heading out to see local friends ("He'd say: 'I'm going to see my mate the barman,' or my mate the farmer or the tractor driver. Or he'd say, 'I've met someone who bakes bread and this is what he says about how you should cut it.' He was interested in everything and that's what gave him the inspiration and that's what gave him the lyrics – it was people").
The lyrics that Strummer was typing in the Somerset farmhouse were not Clash ones. His early time with Lucinda was part of what he called the "wilderness years" of his musical output. The Clash had finally disbanded in 1986, and Strummer had tried his hand at acting before attempting to resurrect his musical career. After meeting Lucinda, he also dabbled in collaborative projects with the like of the Levellers, Black Grape and the reggae producer Lee Perry.
Although Lucinda came to understand the place Joe held in musical lore, she had never really been a Clash fan, even though she had grown up in Shepherd's Bush in west London, close to the band's Notting Hill stamping ground. "I liked Dexy's Midnight Runners and Blondie more," she admits.
But in the early years of their marriage, the Mellors had more important things to think of than music. Eliza, Lucinda's daughter from her first marriage, had been only 15 months old when her mother eloped with Joe. The musician also had two daughters, Jazz and Lola, from his relationship with long-term partner Gaby (with whom Luce remains friendly). It's a source of immense pride to Lucinda that all three girls have grown into young women who "are so like him".
They will all be contributing to Strummer of Love, the festival that Lucinda is planning with Strummerville, the charity set up to keep Joe's spirit alive. It takes place in Somerset's Blackdown Hills, from 17 to 19 August, around the time of his 60th birthday. Lola, now 26, has a similar "magnetism" to her father, according to Lucinda. "She's like a pied piper, a great gatherer of people and wonderfully inspiring." Jazz, 28, embodies Strummer's thoughtful side and his creativity (he was also a talented cartoonist), and will oversee a craft corner at the festival. Eliza, 20, is writing songs and has been singing with the London band Alabama 3 – one of many musical kindred spirits that will be playing at Strummer of Love, along with Billy Bragg, Badly Drawn Boy, KT Tunstall, Basement Jaxx and Emmy the Great.
Another of these kindred spirits, the Pogues – who are headlining the festival – gave Joe the chance to get back on tour in the early 1990s. But it wasn't until 1999 that his career really enjoyed what he called its "Indian Summer", as he returned to much acclaim with a new band, the Mescaleros. Lucinda quickly became a fan and, with Eliza, accompanied Joe on tours to America, Japan and Australia. At the age of seven, Eliza was on a Japanese stage filming her stepfather with a video-camera. "She was on the stage videoing him and I'm at the front-left looking up and seeing her little face as she's realising what she is capturing," her mother recalls.
Lucinda would try to position herself in the throng of the audience, almost as if she was making up for missing the Clash years. "Sometimes I thought I would burst with pride." Then, after the show, she'd encounter those old frustrations about Joe and his late nights as she wanted just to go home with her husband. "It took me a while to understand this was Joe's way of reacting; he couldn't just say: 'Thanks very much, I'm going home now to go to bed.' He needed that downtime and enjoyed having people around."
The couple weren't flush with cash – though they were far from starving – and they had great times on tour. In New York, they might stay at the Gramercy Park Hotel, a Strummer favourite from his Clash days, and in Los Angeles, they lived it up at the famous Chateau Marmont, which he knew from his acting period.
She has finished her tea now, and asks the barman to bring us passion-fruit Martinis – passion is a fashion, as Strummer used to say. Many of Lucinda's closest friends today are people she knew through Joe. She still sees all the other members of the Clash, especially bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon, who has promised to attend the festival, as will the actor Keith Allen. The artist Damien Hirst has taken on the considerable job of curating the archive of Joe Strummer lyrics, drawings, photographs and miscellania gathered from scrapbooks and from the mountains of plastic bags which Joe carried around on tours, before bringing them home to Somerset.
"There were notebooks in the bags where the paper was stuck together with rain and damp," Lucinda explains. "There was endless kitchen roll and matches. Invariably there might have been a tuna sandwich in there as well..." And, as she went through these plastic bags, there was the odd unpleasant discovery for a recently bereaved widow. "I'd sometimes find lyrics, and I'd take things quite personally. There was one song about a row we had ['Bummed Out City', from the Mescaleros' Global a Go-Go album]: 'It was me that fell off the sweetheart highway...' That was it!" Clearly she no longer feels so bad about it.
But Joe was also a romantic. "Every morning I'd come down and there was a little note: 'I love you,' 'Please could you fax this to...' or 'Please wake me at 11 – I have an interview,' but always with a heart and a little drawing." Some of this handwritten material will be incorporated into Strummer School, an exhibition of memorabilia being put together by Joe's artist friend Robert Gordon McHarg, designed to inspire a new generation.
McHarg is to fly to Sierra Leone to paint Strummer slogans on the walls of a music studio that Strummerville (a foundation that gives support to aspiring musicians) has set up in the war-ravaged West African country. The charity, run by Lucinda's friend Trish Whelan, also runs projects in Malawi, Bogota, Belfast and London. "I never envisaged Strummerville would be as big as this," admits Lucinda. "I just saw it as being a damn fine campfire at Glastonbury every year and it's so much more than that."
As anyone who has seen Temple's documentary will know, Joe loved a campfire, usually with a string of national flags flying around it to represent his faith in humankind. He would speak movingly about the flames' unifying effect. Lucinda – who three years ago married again and became Lucinda Garland ("I'm very, very lucky to have met somebody") – wants that same philosophy to prevail at the Strummer of Love. "We are just hoping that the people who come will be celebrating Joe's music and ethos. The family, healing, friendly, campfire, let's have a bit of fun in the countryside kind of vibe. We're not trying to be anything other than a bigger version of the campfire," she says. "It's time to talk, time to listen, time to think, time to feel. It's not about rushing here there and everywhere and then dancing your socks off in a tent until 6am. It's about connecting." That's how to remember Joe Strummer.
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