Julian Cope directly referenced this little-remembered, hard-to-fathom episode in late Clash history—from the period after Mick Jones had disastrously been removed from the band—with his three-day “Joe Strummer Memorial Busking Tour” in October, 2008. (Check that tour’s impressive itinerary here — then search youtube to see video highlights — there are many).
I’d love to know more about The Clash’s tour (are there any videos? etc). For now, though, there’s this…
In May 1985, [Clash manager] Bernie Rhodes, [manager] Kosmo [Vinyl] and Joe [Strummer] devised the Clash’s last hurrah—a busking tour of Britain. The idea was that the group would assemble at [guitarist] Vince’s flat, leave their wallets on the table and hitch to Nottingham with a few acoustic guitars. They’d then see where the wind would take them. Over the next two-and-a-half weeks, Britain’s provincial towns and cities were thus treated to the extraordinary sight of The Clash popping up under railway bridges and in subways to entertain them with Monkees, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Cramps songs.
The group kipped on fans’ floors and in cheap B&Bs. They survived on the money thrown into their hats. It was a genuinely exiting and unpredictable experience. Joe described it as ‘the best tour we ever did.’
Paul [Simonon] agrees. ‘It was like starting out fresh again,’ he says. ‘It was great. “We’ll meet you in Glasgow in a week’s time,” and the idea was to leave everything behind other than the guitars. You couldn’t take any money with you. We survived by our wits. It was as exciting as the Anarchy tour, you never knew where you were going next. I remember we were in Leeds, it was 2 a.m., and it was outside this black club, and people were coming out and really digging us. There were two white guys and they were shocked it was us. They said, “Where you staying?” And we said, “We’re not staying anywhere,” so they invited us to stay at their mum’s. The money we made from busking meant we could go further, we didn’t have a plan of where to go next. There was no rules. You didn’t have to be on the so-and-so plane at twelve o’clock.’
Daddy was a bankrobber, But he never hurt nobody. He just loved to live that way And he loved to take their money.
Some is rich and some is poor, And that’s the way the world is. And I don’t believe in lying back And saying how bad your luck is.
—from “My Daddy was a Bank Robber” by The Clash
Everyone knows that robbing a bank is illegal. But, there’s no law against fantasizing about it. Popular culture has long relied on this fantasy to promote a wide array of bank robber tales, often romanticizing the lawbreaker as a clever hero outsmarting the agents of economic oppression. The old American West was populated with such infamous desperadoes as Butch Cassidy, Frank and Jesse James, Black Bart, Joaquin Murrieta, and Pearl Hart. And, the Great Depression gave rise to the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, “Slick” Willie Sutton, and John Dillinger to name but a few of the most notorious.
Although the current economic conditions are frequently compared to the desperation of the Depression era, many law-abiding citizens would finger banks as the biggest criminals in our society today. Upon further scrutiny, it becomes clear that this heightened antagonism towards the big banking establishment deserves a creative outlet. As many people battle rising unemployment, increasing food costs, exorbitant health care fees, and bank foreclosures, the “get rich quick” narrative comes head-to-head with the “make ends meet” social conditions that have cultivated the legendary heists of the past.
Can planning a bank robbery really pay off? Yes, it can. The Bank Heist Contest is offering $1000 to the best bank robbery proposal. Period. No need to assemble a team or snag a getaway car. Applicants just need plan it out, draw it up, and describe it as best as possible. If it wins, they’ll be $1000 richer. And the best part: no risk of jail time.
The Bank Heist Contest is a participatory cultural endeavor designed to re-visit the romantic representation of bank robbers in relation to the current economic and social crises, including: income disparity, unemployment, housing foreclosures, federal bailouts, the LIBOR scandal, and a wealth of other egregious economic indicators. It is organized by the The Center for Tactical Magic with support from Southern Exposure, a non-profit arts organization in San Francisco. For inquiries, please email: email@example.com
One year ago on this day, Hairy Painter and Ivy Meadows launched the very first episode of Arthur Radio. Hairy is currently on an extended mind-pilgrimage through Thailand, Cambodia, Tibet and beyond, so we dug up this dusty pile of wax from our secret archive to celebrate the occasion. Many thanks to Newtown Radio for hosting the show, and to the many bejeweled special guests who have joined us to grace the internetwaves with their gifts!
Note: At the time of this conversation, Joe Strummer was 28 and Robert Fripp was 35.
RUDE BOYS: An Interview with Joe Strummer and Robert Fripp by Vic Garbarini Originally published in Musician Magazine, June 1981
Musician: One of the main things you two have in common is the belief that music can actually change society. How can this happen?
Strummer: Because music goes directly to the head and heart of a human being. More directly and in more dimensions than the written word. And if that can’t change anybody, then there’s not a lot else that will. Music can hit as hard as if I hit you with a baseball bat, you know? But it’s not an overnight thing; you can’t expect everything to change quickly. I figure it’s an organic process. Insidious. Look how listening to all those hippie records has affected everybody in general: everybody feels looser about things now.
Fripp: I did a radio show in New York with Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats recently, and he said he didn’t believe rock and roll could change anything. And I said to him, I disagree. So he said, well, if you build up hope in Joe Bloggs in some slum in Northern Ireland, he’s just going to wind up disappointed. And I said, look, if there’s Joe Bloggs in his appalling social conditions in Northern Ireland with no hope, and that becomes Joe Bloggs at No. 8 in his appalling social conditions but with hope, you have two entirely different situations.
S: That’s right. Good point that.
F: Then it’s possible for the geezer at No. 10 to get some hope, too. And then it spreads up the street, and you have a community. Then you have a community. Then you’re talking about something which isn’t dramatic and exciting, but which contains the possibility of real change. It’s easy to miss because it’s essentially personal, and it’s very quiet. And like Joe says, it takes time.
M: Is it the music itself that can do this, or does it merely serve as a rallying point?
F: Both, really. It serves as a rallying point, but it can work more directly too. I think sometimes at a really good gig when there’s a certain quality in the music, a kind of liberation can take place, and you don’t go home and take quite as much crap from the news as you did before, because you’ve actually tasted a different quality of experience which changes how you think about things. So to a degree you’ve been liberated.
M: How did you both wind up choosing music as your means of expression? How were you feeling about things in general, or what made you decide it had to be a band? That there was something you needed or could accomplish through rock?
We’ve got 50 copies left of Arthur No. 3 (cover date March 2003, pub’d February, 2003). This one’s from the original incarnation (read: best) of Arthur—the pages are gigantic (11×17) and the paper is reasonably high-quality newsprint. Some color, some b/w. We’re selling our remaining stock for $5 each over at the Arthur Store.
Notes on this issue…
Joe Strummer died on December 22, 2002. His death received some notice, of course, but since he’d left us in the period between Thanksgiving and the New Year—when glossy music and culture magazines are basically shut down—real coverage of his passing, and the life that he lived, didn’t happen in the pop culture magazines of record. Big-budget American publications like Rolling Stone, Spin and Blender had already finished their January 2003 issues, so major features couldn’t fit in there without major expense (pulled features, pulped magazines, etc.); and by the time their February 2003 issues rolled around, the news of Joe’s passing would be (to their market-minds) “stale,” and thus to be deserving of only an obligatory page or two. Which is absurd for someone of Joe’s stature, his body of work, and commitment to The Cause.
At Arthur, we decided to pull the cover feature that we had in progress. Working together, with no editorial budget, the budding Arthur gang was able to put together something of substance very quickly, and get it out to the people, for free, in mass quantities (50,000 copies), within weeks of Joe’s passing.
Our wake for Joe Strummer would not have happened without journalist/archivist Kristine McKenna. She had a recent, lengthy (3800 words), and yes, poignant conversation with Joe on tape—a really great conversation, of course (this IS Kristine McKenna, after all) that the LAWeekly had used just a bit from in a feature earlier in the year. Kristine had witnessed The Clash at the top of their game, so she could offer some real historical perspective. And, crucially, Kristine knew that her friend, the L.A. photographer Ann Summa, had a trove of gorgeous photographs of Joe, few of which had ever been published. And Kristine got us permission to reprint a Clash-related page from Slash, the crucial late-’70s underground L.A. magazine. Meanwhile, my old colleague Carter Van Pelt, a reggae enthusiast, offered a new interview about Joe that he conducted with Mikey Dread.
Soon we had reports from all over. People were picking up multiple copies of the magazine and redistributing it. The golden centerfold of Ann Summa photo of Joe (worked on with a great deal of care and attention by Arthur’s brilliant art director, W.T. Nelson) was being torn out of the magazine and posted on record store walls, in dorm rooms, in clubs. There are other strong pieces in this issue—the John Coltrane book excerpt, especially—but it’s Joe’s issue. As it should be.
Here’s how the contents page read:
JOE STRUMMER, 1952-2002
Arthur holds a wake in print for a man who mattered. In addition to stunning photographs by Ann Summa and excerpts of back-in-the-day Clash coverage from Slash magazine, we present reflections on Joe by Kristine McKenna; a lengthy, poignant interview with Joe from 2001 by McKenna; a consideration by Carter Van Pelt of the Clash’s embrace of reggae, featuring insights from Clash collaborator Mikey Dread; and a brief on Joe’s legacy: a forest in the Isle of Skye.
The intrepid Gabe Soria connects with every single member of THE POLYPHONIC SPREE, the cheeriest 24-person pop symphony on the planet, in addition to chatting at length with Spree leader Tim DeLaughter about the “c” word, the Spree’s next move, and the sadness that remains. Portrait by Paul Pope.
“ASK JOHN LURIE”: He may be in self-described “hermit mode” but this longtime Lounge Lizard is eager to lend a helping hand to his fellow man. And woman too.
In the work of artist SHIRLEY TSE, plastic aspires to more than Pop. Mimi Zeiger reports.
COMICS by Sammy Harkham, Jordan Crane, Johnny Ryan, Sam Henderson, Marc Bell and Ron Rege Jr.
Byron Coley & Thurston Moore review underground music, film and texts.
A MAN THAT MATTERED Joe Strummer was a spectacular, inspirational human being
Text: Kristine McKenna Photography: Ann Summa Design: W.T. Nelson
Originally published in Arthur No. 3 (cover dated March 2003), shortly after Joe’s untimely death on December 22, 2002.
When the Clash first burst on the scene in 1977 I dismissed them for the same reason I’ve always hated U2. Their music struck me as humorless, self-important political blather that wasn’t remotely sexy or fun. Definitely not for me. Nonetheless, being a dedicated punk I had to check them out when they made their Los Angeles debut at the Santa Monica Civic on February 9th, 1979, and what I saw that night changed my mind—just a little, though. As expected, Mick Jones came off as a typical rock fop who clearly spent far too much time thinking about neckerchiefs and trousers. Joe Strummer, however, was something else. With the exception of Jerry Lee Lewis, I’d never seen anyone that furiously alive on stage. Legs pumping, racing back and forth across the stage, singing with a frantic desperation that was simultaneously fascinating and puzzling, he was an incredibly electric presence.
At the press conference following the show that night, L.A.’s ranking punk scribe, Claude Bessy, jumped up and snarled, “This isn’t a press conference—this is a depressing conference!” (Jeez, tempers always ran so high during that first incarnation of the punk scene—who knows why the hell our panties were in such a twist!) I remember that Strummer looked genuinely hurt by the comment. Mind you, he was a working class Brit so he wasn’t about to start sniffling in his sleeve, but he didn’t cop an attitude either. I was touched by how unguarded and open he was—and I was certainly impressed by the mans vigor. I wasn’t surprised when I subsequently learned that Strummer ran three marathons without having trained at all. His preparation? “Drink ten pints of beer the night before the race and don’t run a single step for at least four weeks before the race.”
That first show at the Santa Monica Civic didn’t transform me into a Clash fan, but Strummer interested me, so when the band showed up in 1981 in Manhattan, where I was living at the time, I decided to see what he was up to. The Clash had booked a nine-show engagement at Bond’s, an old department store on Times Square in Manhattan, and this turned out to be not a good idea. The place wasn’t designed to handle the crowds the band drew, and the engagement turned into a nine-day stand-off between the band and the fire marshals. I attended three nights in a row and can’t recall them ever actually making it to the stage and performing. But then, that was business as usual during the glory days of punk, when gigs were forever being shut down, aborted, abruptly canceled. This was political theater, not just music, and nobody embodied that idea more dramatically than the Clash.
Cut to June 14 of the following year and I finally saw the Clash succeed in a completing a full set at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. By then, I’d finally begun to appreciate the breadth and fearlessly experimental nature of the Clash’s music, and Strummer was at the peak of his powers as a showman at that point. The huge hall was packed, and it was as if Strummer was a maestro conducting this undulating mass of sweaty people, with the mysterious power to raise or lower the pitch at will. Boots, beer bottles and articles of clothing flew through the air, people leapt on stage, leapt back into the arms of their friends, Strummer stood at the microphone stoking the fire, and somehow managed to keep the proceedings just a hair’s breadth short of total chaos for two hours. It was a commanding display from a man who clearly knew his job and knew his audience.
Following the break-up of the Clash in 1985, Strummer charged head-on into a busy schedule of disparate projects. He acted in several independent films and composed six film soundtracks, including one—for Alex Cox’s lousy 1988 film, Walker—that was remarkably beautiful. I wrote an admiring review of the score for Musician Magazine, and a few months after it was published Strummer was passing through L.A. and he invited me to lunch in appreciation for the supportive words. We were to meet at a Thai restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, and though I was nervous on the way there, he put me at ease the minute we met. Strummer was such a genuine person that it was impossible to feel uncomfortable around him—I know it sounds corny, but he truly was a man of the people. He was funny and generous in his assessments of people, but he didn’t sugar coat things either–he had no trouble calling an asshole an asshole when it was called for. The thing that ultimately made Strummer such a spectacular human being, however, is so simple that it barely seems worth mentioning: he was interested in people. He wanted to hear your story and know what was going on in your neighborhood, he asked how you felt about things and was an empathetic listener—he paid attention! The other thing I immediately loved about him was that he was an enthusiast and a fan.
Just how big a fan he was became clear to me a few months later when he guest hosted a radio show I had at the time on KCRW. My show was at midnight on Saturday, and KCRW’s office is hard to find, so our plan was to meet behind the Foster’s Freeze at Pico and 14th at 11:00 P.M. He roared into the parking lot exactly on time in a car with four pals, and the lot of them tore into the record library at the station looking for the records on Strummer’s play list. His plan was play all the records that shaped his musical taste as a teenager in the order that he discovered them, and the show he put together was equal parts history lesson and autobiography. Included in the far-flung set were tracks by Sonny Boy Williamson, Lee Dorsey, Captain Beefheart, Bo Diddley, Hank Williams, and loads of fabulous, rare reggae and dub. His loving introduction to the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again” brought tears to my eyes. Several fans crashed the studio when they heard him on the air and realized he was in town, and he welcomed them all. It was a wonderful night. He had fun too, and as he thanked me and said goodnight, he kissed me on the cheek and I blushed.
Strummer spent the next ten years struggling to re-start his career post-Clash and stumbling repeatedly. “The only thing that got me through was sheer bloody-mindedness—I just won’t quit!,” he told me when I interviewed him in October of 2001. We were talking on the occasion of the release of his second album with his five man line-up, the Mescaleros, Global A Go-Go, which was rightfully hailed as the best work Strummer had done in years. He was happy with the record, and when I saw him perform at the Troubadour a few weeks after we spoke, he seemed happy in general.
Above: Joe Strummer leads an impromptu dancing-on-the-tables moment at a restaurant in New York City, sometime in the late ’90s. (Photo courtesy Chris from Hellcat/Epitaph.)
“I’ve enjoyed my life because I’ve had to deal with all kinds of things, from failure to success to failure again,” Strummer told a journalist from Penthouse Magazine in 2000. “I don’t think there’s any point in being famous if you lose that thing of being a human being.”
That’s something that was never a danger for Strummer. During that last interview (printed below), I asked him what the great achievement of punk rock had been, and he replied, “it gave a lot of people something to do.” I loved the complete lack of self-importance in that answer, however, this isn’t to suggest that Strummer ever broke faith with punk. “Punk rock isn’t something you grow out of,” he told Penthouse. “Punk rock is like the Mafia, and once you’re made, you’re made. Punk rock is an attitude, and the essence of the attitude is ‘give us some truth.’
“And, whatever happens next is going to be bland unless you and I nause everything up,” he added. “This is our mission, to nause everything up! Get in there and nause it out, upset the apple cart, destroy the best laid plans—we have to do this! Back on the street, I say. Turn everything off in the pad and get back on the street. As long as people are still here, rock’n’roll can be great again.”
Thank you Joe for bringing us the good news.
* * * * *
The following conversation with Strummer took place in October 2001, on the eve of his final U.S. tour during the winter of 2001-2002.
Arthur: You say the great achievement of punk rock was that ‘it gave a lot of people something to do.’ What was its great failure?
Joe Strummer: That we didn’t mobilize our forces when we had them and focus our energies in a way that could’ve brought about concrete social change—trying to get a repressive law repealed, for instance. We’re stuck in a kind of horrible holding pattern now, and it seems to me that the only way to change it is if we get hipsters to stay in one place long enough to get elected. The problem is that no hipster wants to get elected.
Arthur: I saw the Clash several times during their U.S. tours of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and I remember the sense that something profoundly important was at stake at those shows, that they were about something much larger than pop trends. What was at stake?
Joe Strummer: In the rush of youth you assume too much—and so it should be—but we felt that the whole machine was teetering on the brink of collapse. Some amazing things went down in Britain during the ‘70s—the government decided they could disempower the unions by having a three day week, for instance. Can you imagine that? Monday morning you wake up, and suddenly there’s only a three day week, from Monday to Wednesday. There were garbage strikes, train strikes, power strikes, the lights were going out—everything seemed on the brink, and looking through youthful, excitable eyes it seemed the very future of England was at stake. Obviously, that’s very far from the feeling these days, when everything’s pretty much smugly buttoned down.