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Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten

(Originally posted on the Ear Candle Blog, January 18, 2009)

I ran out and bought Global-A-Go-Go by the Mescaleros soon after watching this comprehensive, heart-tugging, often exasperating movie, and I’m on the lookout for a good 101’ers collection as well. The Future Is Unwritten fully immerses you in the arc of Joe Strummer’s life without ever putting him on a pedestal. The inspirational, conscientious, warm Joe and the capricious, superficial, flaky Joe are saluted and dissected in one complicated, all-too-human portrait.

The central gimmick is both brilliant and exasperating: friends, family, exes, ex-bandmates, and party-crashing celebrities all gather round a campfire and share their memories of the deceased in a sort of post-punk Burning Man-esque wake. It’s a nice way to frame the story, and the viewer can feel as though he or she is there with everyone, singing along with old punk and country songs, warming cold hands, smoking, drinking and sharing the camaraderie.

The exasperating part of this is that, in some kind of fit of arty pretentiousness, director Julien Temple decided to leave every speaker anonymous, perhaps thinking that the lack of captions would aid us in feeling we wandered into this place and are listening to a group of strangers talk about their friend. The actual effect is the opposite; we are removed from the action because we’re constantly trying to figure out who the hell everybody is. We’re meant to be experiencing a ritual, and end up taking notes, running to the computer, or fast-forwarding.

Now, most people will recognize Mick Jones, Topper Headon, and fucking Bono (to be fair, he’s far less pompous here than in that Leonard Cohen documentary, mostly talking about being a teenager at his first Clash show); some of us will go, “Hey, that’s Palmolive/Richard Dudanski/Don Letts/Pearl E. Gates, etc; others, wanting an introduction to an unfamiliar musician they’ve got a hunch they should be checking out, will sit there playing guessing games and not get half of what’s being talked about. I’ve never seen a movie in more dire need of footnotes, and I’ve seen the film version of Joyce’s Ulysses twice. Happily, the bonus interviews on the DVD helpfully identify many of the cast members (though Palmolive, among others, does not appear; perhaps she spent the rest of the interview talking about Jesus, and there wasn’t any more usable footage) so that we could learn, for instance, that this one middle-aged guy with big glasses is actually Micky Foote, who produced that life-altering first Clash album.

Aside from that major flaw, the movie is fascinating and thoroughly entertaining: fifty years of history seen through the eyes and words of a magnanimous-yet-often-ridiculously-harsh punk ideologue with superhuman drive and charisma who tore through life in search of connection and excitement, made a difference, fucked up royally, and finally appeared to integrate all the paradoxical sides of his own nature, achieve some wisdom, and have a little bit more fun before his heart gave out without warning in 2002.

Aside from the campfires (echoing Strummer’s own predilection for campfires in his final years), the other recurring motif is clips from Strummer’s BBC radio show; we hear him spinning one great record after another and rhapsodizing about the songs, the artists, the culture, the emotions and keeping us coming back to the importance of music itself in his life. Like John Lennon before him, Joe was simultaneously bent on conveying a Big Serious Message For The People, and helplessly in love with the pure joy of simple, fun, dumb old rock and roll because that’s where the juice is.

There is a beautiful scene in the weird Clash movie Rude Boy where, after about an hour of the Clash being intense, intimidating and aloof, we see Joe (I think it’s the scene where he has to tell the title character, a Clash roadie, that they’ve decided to sack him) silently stroll over to a piano and pound out the sweet old New Orleans song “Come On Baby, Let The Good Times Roll”. He makes it sound like the greatest hymn ever written. It’s a beautiful gesture to this confused kid, a statement of “it’s not working out but let me just share a little piece of myself before you go”, and a moment where Joe drops his militant tough guy persona long enough to reveal the kind-hearted soul underneath. It made sense; being a kind-hearted soul is a risky proposition in this world, and only a kind-hearted soul who’d been screwed over countless times for excessive kindness would be likely to notice this state of affairs enough to write a lyric like:

Hate and war!
The only thing we’ve got today!
And if I close my eyes, it will not go away!

We follow the life of diplomat’s son John Mellor from his birth in Turkey and childhood spent everywhere from Egypt to Mexico to Germany to Malawi, and it’s plain how this international upbringing fed his later interest in world events and world music. We get the impression of his parents being likeable, progressive people who were driven by class pressures to send their sons off to boarding school, which clearly left scars both on older brother David, a shy misfit who flirted with fascism before committing suicide, and younger brother John, who spent the rest of his life both rebelling and trying to create community in reaction to being cut off from his family, while at the same time nursing a guilt complex for being a child of privilege, which led to him playing an ever-changing set of roles, constantly reinventing himself in search of something meaningful and relevant. Yes, it’s true, Joe Strummer was always a bit of a poser. At the same time it’s hard not to agree with Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones when he bristles, “I don’t care where he came from, he weren’t no phony!”

Temple is relentlessly clever with the editing throughout the movie; the early boarding school years are peppered with clips from old English schoolboy movies and Lindsay Anderson’s If. When young John Mellor (not yet “Woody” or “Joe”) leaves school, we’re treated to the final scene of If (SPOILER: Think Columbine starring Malcolm McDowell) while “Kick Out The Jams” blasts in the background. It all works for the most part, because there are so many home movies and photos available that the clips work as punctuation, context, and amusing in-jokes without taking over the early scenes; later, clips from movie versions of 1984 and Animal Farm keep turning up all through the Clash years, as if to say there was a touch of Orwellian mind control to the punk ethos. (And we could certainly have a field day arguing back and forth on that one, but it’s a hoot to see how Joe’s views on, say, “hippies” and pot-smoking, evolved over the years.)

A real treat that shows up on occasion is a few pieces of animation built from drawings that Joe did himself. (He had a knack for cartooning, his figures slightly reminiscent of those of recently-passed artist and Clash friend Ray Lowry.) There is one riveting moment set to a wonderfully clattering low-fi rendition of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” by Joe’s first successful band, the 101’ers, that makes me want to jump out of my seat as drawings of the 101’ers spring to life in a crescendo of mad, feral one-chord bopping that sounds like Bo Diddley and the Fall thrown in a blender. It’s just a bunch of drawings, but you feel like you are there, it’s so urgent. And of course, this is just the warmup.

Richard Dudanski (a legendary drummer and intriguing figure in his own right) and other ex-101’ers get in some good stories in the chapter covering the history of that band and the squat community they grew out of (which Joe became the de facto leader of and which evaporated quickly as he moved on—he was a born ringleader); we also meet Dudanski’s wife Esperanza Romero and her sister Paloma, Joe’s girlfriend at the time (better known as Palmolive, the Slits’ original drummer—later on, we get some tantalizing seconds of Slits footage; god, she was something back then). The bohemian pub-rockabilly of the 101’ers was on the verge of hitting it big on the London scene, but the Zeitgeist interfered in the form of a shared gig with the Sex Pistols.

We know this part of the story. A stunned Joe is shocked out of his complacency by the new paradigm shift and is moved to junk everything familiar to him and set out on a new course. Enter Bernie Rhodes, who did not agree to appear in this movie, but who is captured through audio clips, pontificating outrageously in a voice uncannily reminiscent of Pete Townshend. Rhodes is of course key to the story, but he’s something of a cipher himself. While Malcolm McLaren guided the Pistols like a Situationist charlatan out to stir up shit for the sake of stirring up shit, Rhodes comes off as a true believer in his own hype who drove his charges to great heights of inspiration when he wasn’t sabotaging them with nasty mind games. To Joe, a natural leader without a sense of direction of his own, Bernie was someone worth following, and he did so for years. There’s an interesting moment where Dudanski reveals he could have been the Clash’s original drummer, but upon meeting Rhodes, he refused to work with him. (He did all right, joining the early Raincoats—before being replaced by sister-in-law Palmolive—moving on to Public Image, Basement 5, and then rejoining the Raincoats again, among other activities.)

But whatever you think of Rhodes, he was the one who brought Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon and Keith Levene together; there wouldn’t have been a Clash if he hadn’t made it happen. Somebody needed to say to Joe and Mick, “write about what’s around you” rather than string together cliched rock and roll lyrics. They wrote the songs, but it took someone else to fire their imaginations to write the songs they wrote. It’s hard to imagine now how badly punk was needed in the 70s. (You kids have no idea, now get off my lawn, etc etc etc.) As a catalyst, you can’t fault Rhodes. Later on, he proved to be a problem. Over and over again.

Levene, of course, was the first to go, and not the last Strummer bandmate to succumb to a drug problem. (Though not before making his mark in Public Image, working with Dudanski during their Metal Box sessions.) Poignantly, Levene reminisces in the firelight about how Joe loved his guitar playing and how Keith lobbied hard to get Joe to join the band, only to be forced to leave. (Levene is now rumored to be collaborating with Slits guitarist Viv Albertine—I hope we get to hear that!) Terry Chimes joins on drums, and they record that debut album. We get some great early Clash rehearsal footage where we see a speed-crazed, driven band in a noisy little box of a room shaping their racket into something revolutionary. We see Joe’s demeanor change from the goofy beatnik squatter to a surly, stiff-yet-wildly-agile raging frontman flanked by youngsters Mick and Paul.

Paul Simonon is not here, but Mick Jones gets a lot of face time. Affable, slightly silly, possibly stoned and/or drunk, he giggles incessantly and then catches you off-guard with a perfectly insightful observation. There’s a wonderful bit where he gestures out a balcony window at the Westway in London at night. “If you want to write a song, just look out your window. It’s all out there.” Another time, he stops and listens to the noise below. “The roar of the city…it sounds like our music.” And it does.

The Clash chapters of The Future Is Unwritten cover much the same ground as Don Letts’ Clash film Westway To The World did, only quicker, with more of a focus on Strummer himself and with the benefit of another eight years’ hindsight. 

One big difference is that in the earlier movie, Topper Headon looks like walking death. He looks a lot better here, which is good to see, and gets to tell more of his story this time and not just wallow in shame and regret. And Topper’s side of the story is well worth hearing. A phenomenal drummer who kicked the Clash’s sound into high gear, Topper didn’t even care much for the Clash’s music at the start. Here he candidly admits that his goal was to join the band, make his name, and then move on to play “proper” music. Didn’t quite work out that way, as the Clash were developing so fast that before long, Topper got a chance to play more diverse rhythms than he would have in some “normal” band, and began flowering as a composer in his own right. (“Washington Bullets”, “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”, “Rock The Casbah”) If he hadn’t been seduced by the poppy, who knows what would have happened?

The Clash’s early years go by so quickly it becomes a bit disorienting. Whole albums are skipped, we go from raw punk rock to London Calling in the blink of an eye, etc. The band history as a whole is less of a focus than the radical psychic change in our protagonist, who shifts from his carefree slacker persona to the stern, deadly serious representative of something bigger than himself. The Clash’s mission was to redefine rock stardom (as opposed to many other punk bands whose stated goal was to do away with the concept completely…so they said anyway) and no one took that notion more seriously than Joe. There’s a bitter irony in the contrast between: an early scene where Joe pontificates that he’s studied all the mistakes of bands like the Stones and the Beatles, and the Clash are too smart to fall in those traps; and a later voiceover where Joe muses sadly that the Clash had made every possible mistake a band could make. Turns out that while it’s hard enough to be successful in music at all, it’s even harder to try to control what kind of success you do end up having.

The original punk scene was exclusive by necessity. There was such a powerful sense that music had gone horribly wrong, and it was time for a bottom-up movement to set it right, with all the ensuing dissent over what “wrong” or “right” might actually mean. Early punk was as much defined by what was not allowed as by what was. The Clash were as flash a group of rock stars as any that ever walked the earth, but success never sat well with Joe Strummer, even as he pursued it wholeheartedly. (More clever Julien Temple editing: When the Clash play their triumphant Bond’s Casino engagement and meet Martin Scorsese, we jump-cut from a brutal boxing scene in Raging Bull to a dazed, seemingly punch-drunk Joe shaking his head onstage trying to get his bearings, as if to signal a foreshadowing of times to come.)

But one good thing about this movie is that you are never expected to swallow any notion that Joe was some sort of saint. I was surprised to discover that not only was he a bit of a ladies’ man, he was often a prize jerk about it. “I wouldn’t steal money from a friend (long dramatic pause) but I’d steal his girlfriend.” You would not want to get in a fight with your girlfriend in the middle of a Clash tour, and if you did, it’s a safe bet which bed you’d find her in the next morning. This is a bit beyond anything that can be explained away by “free love” ideals. Oh Joe, you cad!

On the other hand, from all indications, he respected and even revered his audience, knowing what a privilege it is to have fans who care about your music and what a responsibility you have to give those fans nothing less than 100%, whether that means performing live with breakneck energy at all times or cramming your lyrics with political observations, history lessons and manifestos to communicate something worthwhile to the crowd. Mick Jones was more comfortable with being a pampered rock star, but several interviewees accuse Joe of using Mick as a fall guy to express softer and less strident sentiments that didn’t fit his own militant persona, thus leaving his own “hard” reputation intact. (For instance, the poignant “Lost In The Supermarket” was written by Joe, but sung by Mick. Too lightweight for Joe, supposedly. Let Mick be labeled as the “soppy” one.)

Meanwhile, Bernie Rhodes got the boot not long after the Clash’s initial success. A voiceover from him is startling in its clueless dismissal of each member of the Clash; the man clearly had no idea what made the band work. The band seemed to be doing fine without him (after he admittedly got them off to a fine start), but after Sandinista! came out to a puzzled world that needed another 20 years to catch up, Strummer had a panic attack that he’d been going in the wrong direction and demanded that Rhodes be reinstated as manager. If there was one single action that destroyed the Clash, it may have been that one. The remaining years of the band are a non-stop circus of staged disappearances turned real (the first of many Joe Strummer career suicide pranks), catastrophic firings of first a drug-sodden Topper and a bratty, miserable Mick Jones, and a last incarnation of the Clash that people don’t usually like to talk about. (Don Letts completely omits the Cut The Crap period from Westway To The World.)

I never actually heard all of Cut The Crap, but boy, do I remember the hype. Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, along with a fresh crew of new boys, were going to take the Clash back to their populist punk roots and reconnect with those guttersnipes by whom the truth is only known, blah blah. The public didn’t buy it, probably smelling the desperation. Temple unearths a striking clip of the “new” Clash being interviewed. Joe introduces the new band members while Paul scowls sullenly in the back, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. The interviewer asks Joe how he feels about the new group. “Great! Do ya hear me? GREAT!” Joe snarls back, as if he’s trying to force himself to believe his own words. Of course, New Clash went over about as well as New Coke, while Mick Jones and Don Letts were already tearing up stages together as Big Audio Dynamite. The real story seemed to surface in the heartbreakingly beautiful valedictory single, “This Is England”, where Joe sounds like a broken man despondently combing through the wreckage of his ideals, searching for clues. It was one of Joe Strummer’s finest recorded moments, but it wasn’t enough to salvage the Clash legacy. One more laughable quote from Rhodes about the possibility of the Clash carrying on without Strummer (Simonon’s perspective is most missed here; did he finally say to Bernie, “NO MORE!” in the end?) and the Clash story ends, like a deflated balloon.

The movie suddenly changes tone as we enter the “Wilderness Years”. What does it mean to be Joe Strummer in a world without the Clash? We follow the aimless career of a disoriented drifter who can’t seem to find an artistic niche. Dabbling in acting (I saw Straight To Hell in a theater when it came out; at the time it looked like it was more fun to make than it was to watch, and I doubt that it’s aged well), movie scores (I recall hearing the Walker soundtrack album once, and it sounded pretty good) and solo projects (Earthquake Weather sounded terrible to me when it came out; wonder how it’s aged?) and raising his kids, Joe Strummer seemed more lost than anything. Subbing for Philip Chevron in the Pogues (I saw this lineup at the Fillmore in the eighties; it was a fantastic show) and later filling in for Shane McGowan himself kept him in the public eye for a while, but without a real band of his own to work with and against, Joe Strummer became the perfect candidate for a role that no longer existed.

So what is one to do with the rest of one’s life? I know the feeling of spending years committed to a project and falling into depression when that project no longer exists. There is a weird, melancholy sequence where we see Joe, alone in the studio, pacing madly, working on overdubs for a musical score for a friend’s film project. Plunking a piano, trying out handclaps that he ends up hating, moaning a bottomlessly sad melody, and bantering with an unseen engineer, he looks like the loneliest man in the world. Fortunately, the movie (or Joe’s life) does not end on this eerie note.

Suddenly, we meet a new wife (we aren’t told what brought Joe’s previous marriage to an end though we can imagine—Joe’s Achilles heel seemed to be his relationships with women; all of his exes tend to talk about him with equal parts admiration and annoyance) who seems to arrive at the same time that Joe discovers the rave scene and sees the counterculture turned upside-down and a new paradigm in which hippies and punks are nothing but two sides of the same coin. Approaching middle age, our protagonist gets it that he no longer has to pledge allegiance to a particular subculture, and there is a place for all of the personas he adopted in the past to exist in one integrated alive human being. Now our punk patriarch begins holding marathon outdoor campfires where minds can meet and ideas are shared, and the seeds for a new band, the Mescaleros, are sowed.

The three Mescaleros albums are something special, the culmination of what Joe Strummer was all about: catchy, rocking tunes full of humor, farsighted social observation and unpredictably eclectic international influences. I ignored this stuff when it came out because I didn’t wanted to be let down by another disappointing Joe Strummer solo project. Hearing the Mescaleros material in this movie made me change my mind. Global A Go Go just might be a better album than London Calling, time will tell. If Joe Strummer had to die young, at least he ended it all on a high note. And The Future Is Unwritten gives us a complete picture of an artist/commentator whose sharp, critical mind always took the backseat to an impulsive, idealistic heart. What ultimately makes this more than just another rockstar biopic is Strummer’s ongoing, burning need to establish a deep communication with his audience, and his successful struggle to keep his sense of wonder intact in spite of it all. “Hey!” we see him exclaim at a huge Clash stadium gig mid-film. “We’re all alive on this planet at the same time!” It’s one of those statements that seems so obvious on the surface, and so improbably amazing when you start thinking about it. We’re all alive on this planet at the same time; how do we make use of this chance? Thanks for leaving us with that thought, Joe.