"Strummer's Mind Was On A Different Level"

This week Clash expert Chris Salewicz will be touring London’s bookshops, reading from the new edition of Redemption Song: the Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer, he lends us an extract. 1234!
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This week Clash expert Chris Salewicz will be touring London’s bookshops, reading from the new edition of Redemption Song: the Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer, he lends us an extract. 1234!

Topper Headon’s belief that Terry Chimes was already waiting in the wings to replace him is not correct. For it was not until five days before the Combat Rock US tour was scheduled to start that Terry Chimes, who had been drumming with Generation X- the group started by Mick Jones’ old musical sparring partner Tony James but which was now in limbo- received a phone-call from Bernie Rhodes: the manager asked Terry to come and meet him in Camden Town’s celebrated ice-cream parlour, Marine Ices, just up the road from the Roundhouse. ‘Being Bernie, he couldn’t say, “Would you like to come and play drums with the Clash?” He said, “How much are you earning? Would you like to earn three times as much?” I thought this is the man that paid me £100 to make one of the great albums of all time and he’s trying to tempt me with money: “Bernie, just tell me what is this about?” He said, “Actually, we need you to come and do a tour with us.” I knew nothing of Topper going. I said, “I’ll let you know: give me a few hours.” I went home and I phoned Mick.  Mick said, “Well, we couldn’t have Cosy Powell with us, could we?” I said, “I suppose not.”  I said I felt more like discussing it with the band rather than Bernie.  But Mick said, “Oh no, no: Bernie handles business.” I think he was afraid to discuss it.’

‘Joe (Strummer) referred to Bernie as the headmaster - that was his humour,’ said Terry. ‘Joe seemed to have a certain respect for Bernie, in that I think Joe had an attitude that our job is to perform the music, and Bernie’s job is to do all that business stuff which we don’t know about. Joe seemed to feel that he trusts us to do a great job on the music so we should trust him to do a good job on the business.’ Terry continued, ‘Anyway, I said I would do it. But Mick said to me, “I bet you haven’t got any of the albums, have you?” Which was quite right: I didn’t know the stuff.’  A pool of some twenty-five songs had to be learned almost instantly.  To further complicate matters, Paul (Simonon, The Clash bassist) already had gone to the United States. ‘So it was me and Joe and Mick rehearsing: Joe played the guitar and Mick played bass. We went through the songs and I learned them roughly and in the end we got there: it was alright. I wrote it all down, had it in front of me on paper onstage: you know, how many verses each one had. Bernie complained that when I turned the page for the next song to see what it was, he thought I was reaching for a tomato sandwich. He was always sensitive about how things looked. But it was alright: we did it.’

In tune with a then new current of thought that celebrated physical fitness, Joe would continue to harp on throughout 1982 about The Year of the Body, when he was at home in London going for runs most mornings along the canal at the top of Ladbroke Grove. But at the same time Joe was once again hammering away at spliffs, as well as spending most evenings down the pub or staying up until dawn in bars when on tour. Aside from a natural inclination towards alcohol-induced altered states, learned in childhood as a behavioural norm at those diplomatic service cocktail parties, you couldn’t help feeling that this sensitive - though certainly hedonistic - man was attempting to obliterate something deeply discomforting within himself, something to which you felt the suicide of David, his older brother, might have played a very large contributory role. In the parlance of the early twenty-first century, he was ‘self-medicating’.

Had he disliked what his unconscious had shown him when he had stopped smoking weed and hash in and after Japan? A consequence of the consumption of ceaseless joints is that when you sleep you hardly dream at all – your dream-state emerges instead in your stoned waking hours.  When you stop smoking, however, your dreams soon return with a sometimes frightening vividness and ferocity. Dreams, of course, are necessary for psychological balance. But, as Joe admitted to Terry Chimes, you might not like what you see in them: ‘He wanted to give up spliffs. He told me that when you give up spliffs you dream a lot, and he hated dreams, so it was quite hard.  He tried not smoking it, but then he had a lot of dreams – he’d been in and out of that a bit. Of course being Joe, he had no problem with punishing himself in all sorts of ways: he’d jog miles and miles because once he’d set a target he’d damn well reach it, and he would almost enjoy making life hard for himself, to feel that sense of achievement of a hidden challenge, I think. He’d make life tough for himself and then get some satisfaction from beating the challenge -whether it’s giving up spliffs or jogging for God knows how many miles. I remember him telling me how fantastic Nike trainers were for running in – they were pretty new then. He’d get really excited about brands: how great Levis were, the only jeans worth having. He was very excited about Levi jeans - actually we all liked Levi jeans.’

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Terry Chimes – who had wanted to study conventional medicine before joining The Clash – eventually gave up being a musician, becoming something of a superstar in the world of chiropractry, at one point simultaneously running three clinics.  Accordingly, Chimes is able to view certain matters with regard to Joe and The Clash through the prism of his medical training. When The Clash had played at Bond’s, I had observed that the Gramercy Park bedrooms of both Joe and Paul each contained rows of plastic containers of Nature’s Plus-brand vitamins, all mega-strength – the yin, presumably, to the yang of the bottles of Remy Martin brandy that each of them also had on display. By the time Terry Chimes had returned to the group, the quantity of vitamins had only increased. ‘Joe was fit and I think he needed that for his physical work onstage. But he took loads of vitamin pills, a ridiculous number of vitamin pills. I’d say, “What the hell is all that? You can’t need all that?” It was like Star Trek, where they get meals out of little pills. I always used to think it was funny: I would say, “Well, if you are eating a good diet, why do you need all these vitamins?” He’d say, “Oh, we’re doing extra hard super-work so we need extra help and these vitamins will do it for us.”’

As he had with the Remy Martin, Joe was now balancing out his slow-release mega-vitamins with large amounts of beer. ‘I remember him drinking a lot of beer in ‘82,’ said Terry. ‘I don’t remember him drinking much beer before that.’  Although the deep-lying depression that the drummer had observed in Joe in 1976 and 1977 was still apparent, he didn’t feel that it was in any way alcohol-related. ‘I think that’s just the way he was - with or without alcohol.’

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Still a vegetarian, Joe Strummer sometimes seemed to approach his relationship with his fellow occupiers of earth with the passive zeal of a Hindu priest. On one occasion he seemed to be taking his inspiration from the title of that early, unrecorded Clash song, How Can I Understand The Flies? (live version played in'76 below) ‘I walked into his room,’ said Terry, ‘and he and Gaby were standing there with pillow-cases, trying to get the flies out of the room without killing any of them.  The windows were open, but every time they shooed one fly out another two would come in. They’d be doing this for hours. I said, “You’re going to be doing this all day, and you’ll exhaust yourselves.” They said, “We don’t want to kill any flies.” It was so ludicrously funny. They say artists have got no kind of logic.’

Joe’s friend Sean Carasov, who ran The Clash’s merchandising, would go along with a moderated version of this view of Terry Chimes. Prior to working with The Clash, Sean had been employed in a similar capacity with The Specials, initially managed by Bernie Rhodes, who on their first tour had been the support act on The Clash’s Out On Parole tour, before spearheading the 2-Tone Ska movement in Britain. ‘People like Joe and Jerry Dammers of The Specials, and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest,’ said Sean, ‘are so brilliantly creative that their minds are working on a different level: yet to others they seem sometimes to behave like idiots. But they are simply hooked up differently, and people take advantage: Joe’s head just wasn’t wired up in the same way as most other people.’

Joe, for example, far quieter offstage than the rabble-rousing rock’n’roll frontman might make you expect him to be, often would speak to you wordlessly, using the language of the heart. But since the return of Bernie Rhodes something inside Joe, powerful and urgent, had pumped a driven energy back into his previously wavering spirit, and snapped life and leadership back into him. Perhaps it was the recognition of some wonderful truth within himself, or simply a question of wanting to get the job done. But was he surrounded by the right allies? Was he really as supported as he thought? Perhaps because of the spontaneous and fissiparous warlordism that Joe had injected into his personal relationships within The Clash since seizing control over Combat Rock, he found his own allies – his co-conspirators, more like – within the group’s crew, where, it must be said, he was far less likely to encounter dissent. ‘We used to get on very closely with our road crew that we had a long time, like Baker, and Johnny Green and Raymond Jordan our bouncer, and people like that,’ said Joe to me. ‘We didn't live above them as I've seen some groups doing. We were equals. We'd go out to drink together: when we were on tour we'd stay in the same hotel as much as possible. I think that was good because it keeps your feet on the ground. Kosmo became almost the fifth member of the group – in some ways he was its conscience.’

But was it Joe’s perception of himself that he was synonymous with The Clash?  As Terry Chimes pointed out, his behaviour at the time might indicate that it was: ‘Joe was taking control at that stage. I don’t know why. He’d sort of lay the law down on certain things, and he would be bossing Bernie around a bit, pushing him around a bit, which he wasn’t doing in the early days. I think Joe had learned the hard way that unless you insist on certain things happening, they don’t happen.  And since he passionately cared about what we were delivering, he had to start laying the law down with Bernie; where we are playing, for example, who we are playing to, under what circumstances: if we were playing to an audience of Yuppies, and the ticket price was too high, he goes mad. That’s the kind of stuff he was passionate about, so he would be onto Bernie about those kind of things.’  Between Mick Jones and Bernie Rhodes, however, he noticed a different energy: ‘There was a bit of tension between the two of them. I just remember Mick getting a bit angry with Bernie now and again: I don’t remember the issues, but there was tension in there.’

Ends

You can buy the new edition here 

CHRIS and JOE in NYC '81

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JOE STRUMMER 60TH ANNIVERSARY READINGS!In late November and early December, Chris Salewicz will be touring London’s bookshops, reading from his new edition of Redemption Song: the Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer.Here are the dates – 7pm kick-off, unless otherwise specified!Tuesday 20 November 2012:The Big Green Bookshop1 Brampton Park RoadWood GreenLondon N22 6BG020 8881 6767Thursday 22 November 2012Clapham Books120 Clapham High Street London SW4 7UH020 7627 2797Friday 23 November 2012Bookseller Crow50 Westow StreetCrystal PalaceLondon SE19 3AF020 8771 8831Tuesday 4 December 2012Waterstones39-41 Notting Hill GateLondon W11 3JQ08432908523MORE READINGS TO BE ADDED!NICENESS GUARANTEED!BUY THE BOOK FOR KINDLE HERE