The Day Joe Strummer Hijacked My Phone Call

I first met Joe Strummer when I was broke and using the payphone of the Pearson Park Hotel blagging my missus for the cash to see him play...
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I first met Joe Strummer when I was broke and using the payphone of the Pearson Park Hotel blagging my missus for the cash to see him play...

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It’s about 6pm on a grey and rainy evening and I'm totally broke. I was living in the none too salubrious area of Stepney Lane in the days before mobile phones. The highlight of the evening for this 21 year old was going to be a walk down to the Pearson Park Hotel to make a reverse charges phone call to my girlfriend, Jayne, and enjoy a bit of a chat and a moan.

I braved the drizzle and walked across the car park of this once majestic Edwardian manor house, well past its prime, and now a temporary home to the down at heel travelling salesman and teams of builders. In the foyer is a payphone. It's next to a radiator, accompanied by a comfy chair, and facing the once splendid grand staircase that’s now sadly in need of paint and repair. At least I can get warm for an hour.

As I get comfy, I spot a rather grotty tour bus pulling up outside the hotel. It’s no swish Nightliner, more like a knackered out hippie charabanc with grubby orange curtains obscuring the interior. A couple of roadie types come in through the main doors, bum bags and laminates marking them out as someone’s crew. As they walk passed me I catch a glimpse of the laminate. Joe Strummer & The Latino Rockabilly War. Fuck!

I had pretty much blanked this from my memory on account on zero funds. Oh how I wanted to go, but it was over a week to giro day and the chance of a ticket was on a par with my money situation: zero. Jayne picks up and quickly rings me back. We shoot the breeze and ask each other about our days. 'Guess who's staying here?' I say ‘Joe Strummer! He's playing the Tower Ballroom tonight.’ I add with a wistful lilt. She picks up on the wistfulness. ‘You really wanted to go to that last week,’ she says. ‘Why aren't you going?’  I stared at the sole of my boot that was only days away from coming off. ‘Thursday at Silhouette club, and Friday and Saturday necking Pangalatic Gargle Blasters in Spiders.’ I add ruefully.

I'm not angling but Jayne is the most selfless person I know. ‘What if I drive into town and lend you twenty quid? Will that cheer you up and stop you moaning?’  Before I can begin gushing everlasting love she asks a question. It’s getting on towards 7 o clock and she's working out if she has time for food and a shower before coming to my rescue. If she hasn't she will wait until later. 'What time is he playing?' she says.

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As the question comes down the wire to my ear, I suddenly see someone at the top of the old grand staircase. He's wearing a leather box jacket, white t-shirt, skinny black jeans and brothel creeper shoes. A carrier bag in one hand and a blue towel round his neck like a scarf. It's Joe Strummer and he is bouncing, two steps at a time, in my direction. I remember Jayne’s' question.

‘Joe!’ I shout. 'What time are you on?’

He runs out of stairs and strides straight over with a cheery smile, that familiar gravel laugh wrapped around his words. 'How you doing?’ he says and rummages in his carrier bag for his tour itinerary.

“11 30 tonight, I think. You coming down, are yer?”

I am obviously looking like a guppy fish at feeding time and the words of Lieutenant George come to mind when he meets Captain Flashheart. I hope I bally well snuff it right this minute so I can preserve the moment. I point to the handset. 'I am if she will lend me some money.’ I don't quite know why I then do what I do. Neither does Joe. I hand him the phone.

“Ello?” harrumphing Strummer laugh. “Ello Darlin... Yeah, about half eleven. You coming are yer? OK, never mind. Nice to speak to yer. Be safe, Bye.”

He hands me back the phone with yet another harrumphing Joe laugh, and gives me a hug before saying he's late for sound check and had better scoot. Jayne is back to my ear. 'Who was that?' she says. I tell her.' Yeah right' she says.

Three hours later I am standing in a packed Tower ballroom. So full in fact, I've only managed to make it as far as the rammed foyer area.  I run into my friend Guy, and we are contemplating the assault course involved in getting to the bar, when I suddenly get a squeeze on my arm. I turn expecting to see some just arrived mate whose has come through the doors. It's Joe again. 'Your bird give you some dough then, did she?”  He says hello to a couple of other star struck fans and follows his roadie guy to a small door that leads to a corridor to backstage. Before going through he catches my eye and nods to me and Guy to follow him through. Two minutes later we are jumping over the crash barrier right into the front of the gig. And what a gig it was.

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It’s about 8 years later and I am sitting in the beer garden of the Lonsdale pub in Portobello Road W9. It is Saturday afternoon and a day in the market has just passed. I've bought a Steve Austin t-shirt and an old ammo box; fuck knows why. A moment later I hear that unmistakable harrumphing giggle and turn to see Joe Strummer getting settled at a table with his young daughters. They order some food and drinks and are sitting enjoying the late afternoon sunshine while their order comes. Joe looks over and I nod a hello, not expecting for one moment that he will remember me. It's Joe Strummer on his home patch. I expect everyone says hello to him.

He nods back but I can see he is looking for some recall. ‘I met you on the Rockabilly War tour yonks ago.’ I say, solving his conundrum.

The harrumph and giggle go again. 'Your bird lent you some dough to get in.” he says. “Bet you neva give it her back though!”

“Probably not” I say.

“Long way from 'ome, aren't yer?” says Joe, quaffing the first sip of his drink.

“I live down here now.’ I reply. 'In a band.’

Joe Strummer wiped his mouth and grinned. “Good to hear it. One more of us, is one less of them.”

In the years that have passed I must have read all the credible Joe books. Passion is a Fashion and Chris Salewitz's epic Redemption Song biography stand out. One thing that repeats and repeats in every account of this guy is just how gregarious he was. Clearly I was just one of thousands who had run into Joe Strummer, and to whom he related like he had known you for years. He thought everyone was his mate and treated them accordingly. The world could learn a lot from Joe Strummer’s view of things.