THE INDIVIDUAL Remembering Joe Strummer (Pt.2)

More on the Clash icon, who passed away on Dec. 22, 2002, plus interviews with Mescaleros members Tymon Dogg and Martin Slattery. Pt. 1 can be found here.

BY FRED MILLS

There’s a myth that says you spent a long time in the wilderness, yet you actually stayed pretty busy after the Clash…

JOE STRUMMER: With a lot of weird little projects. Mainly I wanted to play out of the eye, out of the spotlight. All the films I worked on were sort of off-off-off-Broadway. Way off, heh-heh-heh. It seemed to be good to lie low for awhile. Mostly I felt uncertain as to what to do, and that sort of breeds perhaps a lack of confidence. No direction home, so to speak.

 Your film career wasn’t exactly invisible. Alex Cox’s Straight To Hell has just come out on DVD. Will that revive your acting aspirations?

Um, hopefully not! [laughs] I was in Los Angeles on the last tour for the last record and this guy comes up to me, like a one-man video crew, camera on the shoulder, microphone strapped on, and he asked, “Do you mind if I interview you about Straight To Hell?” I said, “What, are you pulling my leg?” Because the movie died a death back when. Although everyone who was in it secretly loves it! But you couldn’t say it went down well with the public or the critics. So this guy asks me, and I thought he was having a little jest. But the made a documentary and it’s on the DVD. I think he interviewed anybody that he could still find that was still standing up.

  I was giggling to myself, hoping that one day there’d be a director’s cut. The producers, when they saw what a crazy movie they had on their hand, I think they influenced a lot of the cutting. But I can dimly remember some really funny scenes that made me laugh, and one day I’d like to see them back in the flick.

 For that matter, you’ve been in enough movies that someone could put together a box set of your classic screen moments…

 It would be a thin box! A pamphlet… but no, I had a go at it, if you know what I mean.

 I’d like to see Walker, too, because I never got to see that.

Do you think that would come out on DVD? That’s the only place it could come out I guess.

 A couple of years ago you did a film called Docteur Chance.

 Oh yeah, now this has just come out on DVD because no one would dare play it in the cinema. No distribution guy’s ever gonna dare book something like that. Docteur Chance is quite a wild movie. At the London Film Festival, they showed it, right? And myself and F. J. Ossang, the French director, had to get up. There was about a thousand people that had seen the film. “So here’s one of the actors and the director to have a question and answer session.” The usual sort of thing. We got up onstage and — dead silence! Everyone was sitting on their hands. Frozen. Nobody could think of a question because the movie, erm… what’s it about, well, it’s a kind of road movie, and, erm, it’s very interesting! F.J. Ossang is really quite a character. And it is quite a movie!

 I know what you said about having opinions, but I’ve got to ask: Suddenly, with the September 11 attacks, the world seems a much more dangerous place – smaller, too, if you’re American. You’re European – how do you feel? Or even simply as a parent?

Well, everybody’s freaking out all over the world. That could happen on any airliner. So you gotta try and find a sort of bright side to the cloud. So now maybe, for example, just talking about airplanes, they’ll be sealed off and there’s gonna be a plainclothes sky marshal on every flight – and these things are probably good things for the safety of everyone.

       As a parent I guess I might in the middle of the night worry about whether the real IRA’s gonna blow up Shepherd’s Bush tonight or not. But it’s something you kind of learn to live with. I’m trying not to get too freaked out – keep it in hand. I reckon as time goes by we’ll be able to get it into more perspective, take a more steady view of things, maybe. And maybe you can say, this might be too heavy for the piece you’re gonna write, but it’s really brought a lot of nations out that weren’t previously into or down with the international community, like Iran and even Pakistan. Which is really a big leap forward.

 Both your music, with its global sound, and your occasional deejaying on the BBC World Service (“Joe Strummer’s London Calling”) with everything from blues, African music and reggae to Dylan, Small Faces and the Pogues, which is really all over the map, seems now to have a different social context.

I guess I’ve been too shocked to think about that lately. But I’ve always been keen on hearing stuff from anywhere. I always liked that feeling where you don’t know what’s going on, and this is a feeling I actively like to search out – say, you wanna find some music to hear at home or in the car. You know when you get tired of rock ‘n’ roll and you need to find something. So I often like finding music where you don’t know what the hell is going on or what’s gonna happen next. That’s a great feeling, because you feel like you’re being educated somehow, or you’re learning something, or something new is coming in. But I ain’t no expert, and [on the BBC] I just thought I might as well make hay while the sun shone. Because I’ve got a free hand, and that’s kind of rare in the modern world, to be on the radio broadcasting and have a free hand to play the music that you want and that you like. I’m determined to make the most of it.

 What, then, would you program off your new album if you were on the BBC tonight?

I might play “At The Border Guy”! [laughs] That would be weird. Or I could always play all of “Minstrel Boy” and go and have a sandwich.

 Like the old underground deejays would put on a whole side of the Grateful Dead and go outside to smoke a funny looking cigarette…

[laughing] Brilliant!

***

The Tymon Dogg Interview

 

While I was conducting my Oct. 2001 New York interview with Joe Strummer, who should stroll into the Irving Plaza dressing room but Mescaleros fiddle player Tymon Dogg. He, of course, will be familiar to anyone versed in their Clash history and recordings (particularly notorious is his solo turn on Sandinista!, “Lose This Skin”), and his association with Strummer goes back to the early ‘70s.

Dogg was brandishing a violin bow in need of serious repair. Following a lengthy discussion between Dogg, Joe Strummer and myself about bows, strings, and what a violin sounds like being played minus any strings (Dogg: “GRSNKKREKKK!”) I sat Dogg down to grill him a bit about Strummer and the Mescaleros. A friendly, low-key chap with a soft voice not unlike former Monty Python man Michael Palin, Dogg was happy to reminisce.

FRED MILLS: You two hooked back up again last year at what Joe called the Poetry Olympics, right?

TYMON DOGG: Yeah. I’d just bought a ticket. There was a flyer, a Xerox. They didn’t publicize it! Poetry people don’t – it’s a bit against the grain to publicize them. Vulgar, isn’t it, to let people know! “It’s a hidden gig!” [laughing]

JOE STRUMMER: Yeah, more than two people there and you’ve sold out. The first thing I said to him was, “Where’s the violin?” “In the car.” “Well go and get it!” So — pchhungg! [sound of a man darting off]

FM: And had you been doing bands all along? Did you have to bribe Joe to let you into the band.

TD: I’d done a couple of things ,yeah. I mostly worked on solo deals. He told me – we carried on playing until about 7 in the morning.

JS: Yeah, in the Colony Room. They say that’s the best night they’ve ever had in there. And that’s some room – a thing of the ‘40s and ‘50s, ‘60s-‘70s-‘80s-‘90s, that room.

TD: Yeah, we were going through songs we used to do and everything. I wasn’t really that aware of – we’d played together about a year before at a gig for one of our mates who’d died, in the 101ers, the bass player. We met up there. We said let’s do some music together then, and after that I’d got my son looking after him a lot. He’s 9, so I’ve spent lots of time with him. Before that I’d got stuck a bit in Spain for a couple of years and I had lost touch with quite a lot of mates. When we were in London we kept in touch, but then Joe moved out of town, I moved somewhere else. Friends scattered about the countryside with wives, babies… [Strummer, nursing a sore throat and needing to get ready for tonight’s performance, excuses himself and goes off in search of more hot tea.]

FM: So Joe just said to come down to the Mescaleros session, right?

TD: Yeah, to come put some violin down on some tracks. I left about five days later because we just slept in the studio, worked all night then crashed there. Those first four or five days, I’d never met Martin or Scott, and Pablo [Cook, drums] was there, and we only had one song. The rest were written in the studio.

 How did you find the group dynamic, or vibe, to be?

I just took it to be the way they worked. I didn’t know until after that it was kinda peculiar for them. There was “Bummed Out City” which Joe had written, he had that one. But no other music. So we just started jamming –“Gamma Ray” was one, I just started to play melodies across the chords, and it sort of worked like that, really, where a few things happened. Richard Flack was really on it. He was watching all the time, and literally if you picked up a guitar he’d be listening: “Oh, you know, maybe we should record that now!” And we were just getting little ideas as they were being written. “Johnny Appleseed” was being recorded as it was being written. Not the end result, but the actual melody. I picked up a mandolin from Scott, who was playing some chords on guitar.

 You played that on the Letterman show the other week.

Yeah, it’s an easy one to get across on TV. It’s a kind of country set up. In fact, I was picking it out on violin the other day and thinking it sounded like a banjo.

 At soundcheck I watched you guys working out “Minstrel Boy” and you were leading that. Was that something you suggested to the others?

I remember back in ’83, and I go around to Joe’s house. And he’s sitting around with a Fostex or a little tape recorder, and he had a little keyboard and a songbook that was open to “Minstrel Boy.” I knew the song because my mum used to sing it when I was a little lad. I always quite liked it. I think the lyric is 200 years old. The tune is hard to know. Somebody did write it but no one remembers so that’s why it’s called “anonymous” or “traditional.” [laughing] Or maybe a woman wrote it!

       He was sitting there with the little book, which I thought was strange because the Clash was still together. Mick had not left yet. I said, “Are you going to do that song there?” And he said, “Yeah, I’d like to.” I thought, funny song to do. I think it was a bit of a trip that Joe wanted to do that; Mick was going into hip-hop big time.

       Joe had picked up a music book in the streets of London. I was trying to get away from the studio after about 4 or 5 days. This book had “Minstrel Boy” and Joe started talking about it, and then about 2:00 in the morning he said, “Let’s go back and knock it down.” And that’s the exact recording [on the album]. In fact, that recording has me getting the violin out of the case. I’m playing it to Martin, who’d never heard it before.

 Joe told me that 22 minutes later you stopped and he said, “Okay, this goes on the album.”

Well, I’m still surprised about that. Because as I say, it’s literally getting the violin out of the case and starting the song. There’s a point that goes dah-dat-dat-dat-dat about six minutes before it ends: that was where I thought we’d started. I thought the rest was just a pure – for Martin to learn the chords.

 Sometimes the best moments happen when the tapes are rolling and no one expects it…

Well, however we explain it – it IS excessive! [smiles] In fact, quite a lot of songs we jammed for quite awhile on them. “Gamma Ray” I think is about seven minutes.

 Any songs have more rather than less of your input?

I suppose “Mondo Bongo” because I was trying to keep inside this thing of writing in the studio, but when I was leaving my house, which is about 60 miles from London, I was going to take my Spanish guitar with me and I picked it up in the kitchen and I wrote a part, thinking, “Isn’t that Peruvian? Bolivian?” Just a Spanishy-Latiny thing. I think it’s partly because my son was at the time getting into Pan-pipe music. When I got to the studio I played it for Joe.

 I can draw a pretty direct line in my mind from Sandinista! to Global A Go-Go.  There are the international sounds on that more prominent than on other Clash albums. You were present for that. What was it like recording then versus now for you?

Yeah, there’s a lot of similarities in a lot of ways. A lot of freedom. I think in some way it was already coming from Joe’s attitude. He wanted, after we did the tour with The Who – “why bother going home?” “Well, I gotta go home some time!” [laughs] It went from being – “who is this new person in the band with the violin?” – to playing that first gig with only one rehearsal.

 “By the way, you’re in the band.”

Yeah. I think, anyway, on that tour – people underestimate the listening audience. Quite often they’re a lot more sophisticated than the musicians give them credit for. And the history of music, which we’ve got more of it recorded than ever now. And the Internet can give you a lot. It seems silly now if musicians are making records to please an A&R guy and it flops, because then you end up pleasing no one. We’re lucky as a band that we’ve got someone like Joe to work with. He’s not obsessed with making the next top of the charts record.

 For the record, Joe called himself “a hack.” What were your expectations of this tour?

Too old to have expectations! But you know, expectations are sometimes a pathway to disappointment. I just get on with it and enjoy it. I just thought we’d get the record finished and see what we had. Same with every gig: what is tonight’s gig, tune in to that place and what’s happening and making the most of it.

 What do you see in the faces of the audience? Every performer wants to sneak a peek at some point and see how they’re reacting.

A lot of enthusiasm, really. Open heartedness as well. For me, ever since we did the first gig in the 100 Club, which only holds about 350 people, when Joe said we were starting with “Minstrel Boy” which at the time was still a very long piece, for the die-hard punk audience – I thought Joe was calling my bluff. “Okay, we’ll open with you and that violin playing that tune.” But it went great. We did six new songs before anyone had ever heard them. They’d only been written about five days before.

 Is this band one that automatically found its footing and got a group vibe going or did you have to let that develop as you toured?

No, I think we just got on. There’s obviously different ways people can see. Martin’s a very proficient, sensitive person who can play a lot of instruments and is quite serious about his music. But yeah, we work on things and try to give each other a buzz as well. That’s the way I see it.

 Watching soundcheck, it looked almost like you guys were getting into a Neil Young & Crazy Horse-like circle onstage. What kind of buzz do you get onstage?

Yeah, we are. Because we sort of wrote the songs from a jamming thing, now we’re doing that onstage. That’s happening onstage as well, and it’s nice. We don’t hold it down too rigid. In fact we might do different things [from the arrangements] as long as we’ve outgrown our expectation for the songs. If we’ve said, “Okay, it’s gonna be like that,” then it’s fixed. And we can always do that as a last resort. And we have parts as well, some of them we’ve only rehearsed once or twice, that we can go into.

 You’re playing guitar and fiddle onstage – what are some of the older things you enjoy?

 I don’t play on much of the older stuff. I play keyboards on “Rudie Can’t Fail,” a few chords. Which is kind of strange because I was involved with a couple of albums and I played a bit of stuff on Combat Rock and Sandinista! I dunno; Scott and Martin actually take the older stuff quite seriously inasmuch as they wanted it to sound like the record. So Joe often says to me, “Tell ‘em there was a violin on this!” [laughing]

 You encored with the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” last night – was that Ramones with a fiddle?

No, Spanish guitar. We did “London’s Burning” with a fiddle, though. When you get a violin revving away it’s quite a noise.

 Fiddle in rock ‘n’ roll is an underappreciated instrument. There was this late ‘60s band called The Flock and they had a wild man on violin.

And there was a band It’s A Beautiful Day too… Jean-Luc Ponty, some of his solo stuff was great.

 Some people cite ELO, but while the first few albums were good, they became sort of the epitome of “bloated” and wound up giving strings a bad name.

Yeah, almost this fake classical sound… Papa John Creach, with Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane… It’s a very handy instrument to have in rock. It’s small, you can get on planes. That’s one of the reasons I took it up, because I played guitar and thought, “It’s too big, this.” [laughing]

 Can you give me some impressions or memories of those early days, pre-101ers, that you and Joe shared? He said he used to collect money for you in the London subways while you were busking.

Oh yeah, there was about three years of that. When I met Joe I had a recording contract, and I did a whole tour, and even did a support gig at the Albert Hall. I was making records but I didn’t particularly like them, I was 17, 18, and they were trying to make me out like The Monkees or something. I was being played on the radio and stuff like that. But I just wanted to get away and grow up and travel, you know? My heroes were people like Dylan, Cohen, people with depth, songwriter sorts. I started hanging out in a student house, and he was crashing on the floor at the time. This was about ’71.

       I did a couple of folk gigs and Joe would always turn up. He was always in the house, dead interested in music all the time. Then we went a bit of traveling, off to visit one of our friends in Holland. On the way we’d busk to get money for dinner. And we got gigs as well.

 Could you make a living like that back then?

Well, the problem was, like, we went to Amsterdam once, and we lined up a load of gigs, about five, which is all right. But I’d always arrive penniless, just bad organization. So I’d say to Joe, “Let’s go out and play a couple of songs before the gig in the streets and then we’ll have a meal.” They [police] took the violin, basically. So Joe had to go scour the town to turn up a violin for this gig! Stuff like that happened. [laughing] Then we had to hang out in Amsterdam to get it back from the courts. Couldn’t leave it! So all the money that we had, we had to pay them back. They couldn’t allow busking, such a “free and liberal town” at the town. You could smoke pot, but no street music. I remember hitchhiking out of town with absolutely nothing again! We’d just bought the violin back.

 “Came, saw, conquered, left broke.”

Yeah, and left. On the way to Paris, a guy picked us up in a car, who was going to this big gig in Brussels, so he asked us to play in the bar while the theatre was going on. We ended up hanging out in this place in Belgium for about four days. So stuff like that was going on all the time. Going from day to day, week to week.

 Last night after soundcheck I saw a subway player, a guy doing classical violin, and I couldn’t help but think of you.

Instrumental music’s good for busking. And now they’ve got little amplifiers and stuff like that, just shrieking away. I tended to go down to London and play for about two hours, and if I played this Irish-y stuff, just instrumentals – I learned to play the violin and harmonica together – from about quarter past ten to a half after eleven when people were coming home, I’d get enough. Maybe 100 quid. But I didn’t really do much after around 1976.

***

The Mescaleros’ Martin Slattery Pays Tribute to Joe Strummer

Martin Slattery recorded and toured with Joe Strummer from 1999’s Rock Art And The X-Ray Style until Strummer’s passing. Slattery, along with his fellow Mescaleros, completed work on Strummer’s final album, Streetcore, following his death on Dec. 22, 2002. It was released in 2003 to much critical acclaim. Here, in an excerpted interview I conducted with Slattery in ‘03 not long after Strummer’s passing, the multi-instrumentalist remembers his late friend. – Fred Mills

I first met Joe in 1996, when I was playing in Black Grape. Joe was a big fan of the band. I knew of the Clash, but I didn’t really know who Joe was or what a momentous effect he had on everybody. I was talking to him and going, “Sorry mate, but what’s your name again?” Maybe that put us in good stead for the future.

It was a slow process to get to know the man. He just kept his cards close to his chest. Not in a “going in on himself” way; he was just seemingly more interested in other people and in what you had to say. That was his trip. I think it stems from a real humble streak, not just wanting to blab on about himself. He’d always be talking about other bands or other music he was into.

Obviously, Joe’s performing capability kicked everyone up a notch. A good example is playing through the tunes in rehearsal: They sounded good, but they never really came alive until Joe sang with us. There was very much the rock ‘n’ roll spirit being with Joe. One thing I’ve realized in the last couple of months is that we were in this great little world with Joe. The record company never bothered us. We always sold enough records to get through and do the next thing. It was a wonderful, wonderful time.

The last night we were in Rockfield Studios working on Streetcore, in December of 2002, everyone hit the sack about 1 a.m., but me and Joe sat up until about dawn, just talking about stuff. That night, I felt really close to him. I also had a brief chat with him on the phone a couple of days before he passed away. Just a little phone call from a mate, you know? That was what was so great about being in the band. I can genuinely say we were mates. Nobody was like, “Oh, it’s Joe Strummer!”

I haven’t a clue about Joe’s financial situation, but I know he wasn’t a millionaire. Joe could’ve made hundreds of thousands of pounds guesting on other people’s albums, showing up for this, showing up for that, but he wouldn’t do any of it. He was about creating music for himself and for him to be able to perform and give to all the people. God, the amount of people that would come backstage and say, “Joe, you changed my life… ” We never left the venue until everyone had been talked to and everyone’s records had been signed. And it wasn’t just him going, “Hey, that’s great, see you later.” We’re talking about hours. We’re talking about commitment to the whole deal — hence, why so many people feel a connection with him.

The guy bore a lot. He took a lot on his shoulders: his band, his family, hundreds of thousands of people who he felt musically responsible to. And he dealt with it amazingly. He was one of the most naturally spiritual men I’ve ever met. You read books about Daoism and stuff like that, the way it talks about going with your life: Don’t fight what’s happening, move with the world. Obviously, he fought it lyrically, but he was always cool. He moved and talked with humble authority.

Joe was into the individual: You’ve got to do what’s right for you. Which is another kind of Daoist principle. You’ve got to follow what’s in your heart and not what’s in someone else’s heart. Tuning in to your own spirit: that’s what people should take from Joe. The fact that he came from what he did. At one point, he was digging graves; at another point, he was playing at Shea Stadium. That’s the spirit of an individual: finding the self within and not relying on someone else. He did that. It was incredible — that incredible energy.

 

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