Lucinda Mellor: My life with Joe Strummer

Joe Strummer was the leader of The Clash and a spokesman for his generation. Five years after his death, his widow Lucinda Mellor speaks for the first time about his life, love and legacy.
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The Independent Culture

The day is dank, with clouds threatening rain, and a small woman in the lobby of the Groucho Club which is not particularly blinding is wearing sunglasses. The old trick of appearing not to want to be recognised in order to be recognised, is not, however, Lucinda Mellor's style. Blonde, wiry, and looking younger than her 45 years, she is deep in conversation with a friend. Snippets of their interaction float above the noise of the busy reception area: whether they can hook up for a lift ... what stops her train takes ... how annoying it is to leave your mobile phone at home. Distinctly un-rock'*'roll. But she has spent the last 14 years of her life being known as "Mrs Joe", the wife of Joe Strummer, so she's never felt like a celebrity in her own right. And Strummer himself, as Lucinda will explain, was not one to milk his fame.

The staff, however, treat her like a very important guest. They alert her that the photographer is upstairs, setting up. Where does she want to go? What does she want to do? Does she want to set up in the snooker room? Or is the bedroom upstairs more to her liking? Would she like to take down their picture of Joe and use that in the shoot? "Anything you need to take with you?" a diminutive and personable man behind the desk says, with familiarity. "Can I take you?" she replies, blowing a kiss, with a smile more reserved than her words. "You've already got me!" he shouts as she makes for the stairs, assuring that really she doesn't mind at all where the photographs are taken. "Joe and I used to stay here all the time," she says, climbing the winding staircase. "It's great it meant I could come up to bed when I wanted, instead of saying, 'I want to gooo hoooome'." She affects a whiny voice, and juggles her bags and mug of green tea to push her way into the bedroom where the photographer is waiting. Is she used to having her photograph taken? "No. No, not at all."

Lucinda met Joe in 1993, when she was staying with a friend, and they were introduced on a trip to a Hampshire funfair. "We pottered around this rather dismal little fair as Joe successfully won an assortment of cuddly toys," she says. "We laughed and laughed, and I was bowled over by his charm and sense of fun. I was madly in love by the time we came home." It was 1993, Joe and his long-term partner Gaby (the mother of his two girls) were unhappily living together, and Lucinda and her husband James had a 15-month-old daughter, Eliza, but were "trundling on in that no man's land of co-existence". The funfair was the catalyst; soon the pair were living together in Somerset, and planning for their own marriage.

Although the final incarnation of The Clash had disbanded in 1986 almost a decade before Joe and Lucinda met Strummer was still trying to shake the band's legacy. Finding a new role is easier said than done, when you've been heralded as the voice of a generation. Harder for the fans youth thirsty for rebellion who greedily drank anything Joe gave them to let go of him as the living symbol of punk. Yet when Lucinda and Joe crossed paths, she wasn't even particularly a fan of The Clash, a fact that probably infuriated female followers around the world, but was a breath of fresh air for Joe. "I knew such a tiny, tiny part," she says, eyes direct, shaking her head. "I wasn't around for The Clash years. I wasn't a part of all the... " She pauses to rephrase, a little ruefully, "I never knew him when he was being worshipped or hung out to dry." The tacit understanding is that this is what enabled their relationship. "I knew a much quieter, much humbler man really, a mature man."

Lucinda Mellor doesn't usually give interviews. This is not to say she hasn't had offers since Joe died suddenly, at home in Somerset after taking their dogs for a walk, of a heart condition that no one knew he had on 23 December 2002. He was 50. "Literally the day after he died people were ringing up saying: we're doing a book, we're doing a film, will you talk to the press, will you this will you that," she remembers. "I had e-mails from people two days after he died saying, 'very sorry but I've been floating this idea about doing a book' it was horrible." The thought of reminiscing about a husband she hadn't expected to lose was too painful. Worse still, she says, was when the rush to create retrospectives resulted in histories that she couldn't agree with. "You come to the realisation that you have no control over those things," she says, choosing her words carefully. "People can make films, write a book, say what they want they have done and, erm, you know, the family have been very upset by a lot of it, and there's nothing you can do." She later qualifies, without mentioning any names, that "everyone's entitled to their own opinions. What a writer saw in Joe was not how the family saw it so ... you can say you don't like it and they need to change it, and they can say fuck off and that's life..." Her relatively measured words belie the flash in her eyes, but she is deliberately discreet.

For these reasons, there was a certain amount of relief on her part that one of the people who suggested making a documentary about Joe was his close friend Julien Temple. Temple — who had won acclaim with two films about The Sex Pistols in the late Seventies and the retrospective documentary, The Filth and the Fury, in 2000, had known Strummer in the days of The Clash. But they hadn't seen each other for 25 years until one day Lucinda brought Joe along to meet an old school friend who was a Somerset neighbour, and they discovered that she was married to Temple. The friendship between the two men was quickly renewed. "He really knew Joe," Lucinda says. "He understood him, knew where he came from. He didn't see him through rose-tinted glasses but wasn't jealous or envious of him either." The result was The Future Is Unwritten, a biopic with reams of old footage of Joe interspersed with stories from friends, told around campfires. There are old friends from his hippie days, ex-friends who were kicked out of The Clash Topper Headon, Mick Jones who became friends again near the end, as well as celebrities (Bono, John Cusack, Johnny Depp) who Joe had picked up along the way as fans. All had a story to tell.

"The idea of the campfire appealed because it was fun and it was what Joe loved," Lucinda says, with a little smile. Nights around the campfire were something she'd witnessed a lot, especially at festivals, where Joe was in charge of the fire and the tunes (which he'd blast out from a stereo he could just about stretch to using CDs, but iPods were a no-no). "It was informal, and party-time really," she continues. "It could all be done in the atmosphere of gaiety and the spirit of Joe." Yet while Lucinda does appear in the film, the raw emotion so soon after his death was too much for her to handle. "I found everything absolutely fine until the first campfire," she says, suddenly looking fragile. "Everybody began to talk about Joe the whole time and it just smacked me in the face I wasn't over him in any shape or form, and it was very painful. So I sort of stepped back and just let them get on with it." This trait stepping back, not assuming a role just because it was there to take is something of a thread in the stories she tells. She is hyper-aware, too, of how relatively short the last decade of someone's life can be when you're looking at the whole, and she was anxious not to claim anything that wasn't hers. "I felt when I sat in, it was like I was intruding," she admits, "because people were being very honest about their memories, being very pertinent, painful and poignant..." And although it is a warm documentary, it isn't a eulogy. Lucinda shrugs. "He was far from perfect, so it would have been very wrong if you'd just had adoration the whole way through." But it was the avalanche of unheard stories, rather than any unfavourable comments, that encouraged her to keep her distance. She had been married to a man who made it his business never to tell an anecdote more than once. When Lucinda sat down to watch the first run of interviews, she was enthralled "suddenly to hear about the wilder side, the ego, the fun, the escapades, the dramas, was fascinating" but overwhelmed too by the thought of all the people Joe had come into contact with. Despite the fact that he'd regaled her with tales every day, here "suddenly there were thousands more".

Strummer's charisma, by all accounts, was a powerful force. And not least for Lucinda, when they first were married. "In the beginning I was certainly very absorbed in his life I was," she admits. "We went on tour together, I went to the studio with him, we saw each other all the time. All the time, all the time, all the time." Joe formed Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros in 1999, and Lucinda toured America, Japan and Australia with them. "When Eliza was younger we used to take her out of school and take her with us," she continues, biting her lip, half guilty, half pleased at the illegality of it. "I think she loved it." But then Eliza needed more stable schooling and Lucinda had to make more of a life for herself at home. "In the beginning it was a bit of a wrench and I did resent it," she says, with no qualms about how this might sound. "But I became extremely grateful," she continues. "It wasn't like the Mescaleros had a private jet. It was tour buses. Roughing it." And back home in Somerset is where it seems that Lucinda, used to being backstage, found something of her own. "I felt the last year I was with Joe that I was happy and confident in myself, that I knew who I was," she says. "I could let Joe go and I could welcome him back." Then, quietly, "We did have it good".

There was a point earlier, during the photo session, when the photographer, to put Lucinda at ease, asked her what she does. "I ride a horse," she said, a little self-consciously, "and I'm a mother, so..." She is keen that Strummerville, the charity she set up, is not seen as a solo project. There are other trustees, including Damien Hirst and Joe's daughters, Jazz and Lola. Perhaps this is why she doesn't bring it up as a job; but the project to buy rehearsal and recording time for young musicians is now such a big affair that they employ a full-time charity manager, and she has stepped back.

Later, she elaborates about working, when talking about her life before she met Joe. "I lived in London, yeah," she says, pausing. "And I worked, never with much... " there is another pause, and she trails off, looking into the middle-distance. "I found I was very happy in the country... I was happy walking dogs, I was happy doing school runs. I was just happy pottering."

That quiet life she says they had between tours was, of course, shattered with Joe's sudden death. With death, too, came the duties of those left behind: sorting out the possessions of the departed, working out what to do with the bits and pieces they had accumulated. And although Lucinda knew that Joe would write ideas down on anything he could find old napkins, the back of envelopes she had no conception of what she'd been left with. There was a room in their home which was used for nothing other than to store his suitcases when he came back from tour. Each case contained about 30 plastic bags. "Months and months after he died, we decided this had to be tackled," Lucinda says. Her immediate reaction was to go through the bags and put everything in piles lyrics, cartoons, random thoughts but soon came to an abrupt halt when she had an epiphany of sorts. "I suddenly realised that each bag was pertinent to a week on tour or a session ... each bag had a sharpener in it, each bag had cigarette papers, a matchbox, endless bits of napkins, kitchen roll, receipts. Each bag told a story which was amazing." She covers her mouth, looking guilty but a bit delighted in her unwitting mischief-making. "I had done quite a bit of sorting before I really realised..."

After some intensive work, feeling out of her depth and worried that what she didn't understand would hinder the process, she called in reinforcements, including the artist Gordon McHarg. All the material found in plastic bags and some Clash lyrics unearthed in mouldy tea chests have now been put on file, photographed, carefully stored between acid-proof paper and catalogued. It's all archived now, waiting. "One day we will do an amazing book," Lucinda says. "With Damien Hirst. But it's a long time off and it's going to take many, many... " She slows herself down, obviously excited. "It's not something that's going to be rushed into; it's going to be beautifully done it'll be like an art book, with photographs, lyrics, drawings, maybe unreleased songs, rarities. It'll have CDs in it, rare Joe stuff we'll see what we've got."

She already has experience of putting out her late husband's music. Streetcore, the album he was working on with the Mescaleros when he died, was released posthumously in 2003. She didn't lightly step into Joe's shoes. "It was absolutely terrifying," she says. "It was also terrifying when the band members came to me with what they'd done and I went, you know what? I don't like it. And who am I to tell musicians I don't like it?" she asks, as if she still can't quite believe, four years later, that she uttered those words. "And then I didn't like their track listing. I knew it had to be changed. I knew what song had to go last. I put my foot down and then when I heard it all the way through yes." Despite her outward fragility, there's a sense that resolve is a much stronger, if more hidden, characteristic. She seems to share more than a bit of the "bloody-mindedness" she acknowledges was part of her late husband's character. "You just know, don't you?" she says. "And I knew him so well that I knew what he would have liked and what he wouldn't."

She says, with a funny frank smile, that she and Eliza, and Joe's daughters, are trying to keep his legacy, trying to keep what he stood for as important in their lives, but move on too. And that one of her "dearest and loveliest allies" is Gaby, Joe's ex. "He was such fun," she says, brightening. "Just the most charismatic incredible man. A line in one of his songs says, 'We're alive that's the one.' I mean, we're alive. Each day was a celebration." Has she been able to keep that sense of fun? "I think so. I mean, God there have been times when I've been utterly distraught, but today I can think of him with a smile and..." she trails off, smile still there, but too many words to fill the pause, and a train to catch back to Somerset.

'The Future is Unwritten' is out now on DVD. Strummerville charity: www.strummerville.com

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