Clash Culture: In a New Film, Artists from Bono to Damien Hirst Pay Tribute to Joe Strummer, the Punk Icon
Sawer, Patrick, New Statesman (1996)
As the opening credits roll for Julien Temple's forthcoming film about the life of Joe Strummer, an interviewer asks the Clash singer how he would like his name captioned. "Punk rock warlord," comes the emphatic reply. He was true to his word until the end.
Joe Strummer: the future is unwritten recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and will be released in the UK this year. It is the latest offering from Temple who, with works that include last year's film Glastonbury and the 2000 Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury, has forged his career exploring Britain's counter-cultures. "In many ways Joe is a comparative figure to Winston Churchill, in that it's impossible to understand the second half of the 20th century without reference to him," Temple told me, in his first interview since completing the project. "He was a key cultural figure. In music today, it's hard for any young band or musician to work in the field without coming across or understanding the Clash. They are still as ahead of the game as when they were around. Not many bands have topped them."
The film assembles an impressive array of stars, among them Bono, Johnny Depp, John Cusack, Martin Scorsese and Damien Hirst, to testify to Strummer's influence on their lives and work. "Joe's influence goes beyond music, extending to visual artists, writers and film-makers," said Temple. "Johnny Depp--a Hollywood figure we might not immediately associate with punk--says that Joe and the Clash taught him that you can have integrity in your work. Bono simply says that without Joe there would have been no Bono. Damien Hirst told me he'll never meet anyone as important in his life.
"People connected with Joe like that. He was very connected to other human beings, and he never lost that in the way that some stars do. Joe believed that music could change people's lives and he proved that in a way that most people don't get near." The film sketches Strummer's life using old footage interspersed with new interviews, conducted around a campfire--in tribute to the singer's habit of holding fireside powwows at Glastonbury. It paints a picture of a man at war with his family, with collaborators, with society at large, and often with himself.
Strummer's early life was peripatetic. His father, a left-wing diplomat, took the young John Mellor (as he was then known) around the world on his travels before depositing him at an austere, and much-hated, public school in Surrey. His troubled brother committed suicide at an early age. Moving to London to join the squatter movement, Strummer reinvented himself as a travelling boho called Woody. This was at the tail-end of the "peace and love" era. "It was like coming across the battlefield when the battle is over and only the bodies of the dead and wounded remain," he says in one of the interviews unearthed by Temple.
The Clash, one of the most evocative, stylish and incendiary bands in the history of rock'n'roll, was formed when Strummer teamed up with a Machiavellian manager called Bernie Rhodes and two working-class music buffs-cum-street urchins--the guitarist Mick Jones and the bass player Paul Simonon. …