"There, I gotcha!" Joe Strummer snaps the shutter on his brand new Polaroid SX-70 Sonar camera, and out shoots another photo — in this case, one that will bear my likeness. Fresh from an early-afternoon shower, Strummer has agreed to sit down and talk with me before he has to leave for a sound check. But right now the most important matter at hand is his new camera.
"Some girl had one of these backstage last night, and I couldn't believe it," he says. "She said it only cost $100, so I went out looking for one after the show. The first place I went, they cost $500 or something — way out of my current reach. But then we went to Thriftimart, and it was only eighty-eight dollars. Incredible!"
In some ways, Strummer is the least-accessible member of the Clash. "We're totally suspicious of anyone who comes into contact with us. Totally," he once told another writer from this magazine, and in his case it seems to be especially true. He tends to keep his distance when among outsiders, and often appears to stay on the sidelines when the rest of the band is involved in some sort of merrymaking. Twenty-seven years old, Strummer (born John Mellor) is the son of a British diplomat; his only brother, a member of Britain's fascistic National Front, committed suicide.
"I grew up in a boarding school in Epsom, fifteen miles south of London," he says, fidgeting with his camera, when asked about his childhood. "It's not a lot to go back to, if you know what I mean. My dad was working abroad, and my mother was tagging along. I don't think I really gave them a thought after a while."
Strummer is extremely soft-spoken, and because many of his teeth are rotting or knocked out altogether, it's often difficult to decipher exactly what he's saying. "I found that I was just hopeless at school," he continues. "It was just a total bore. First I passed in art and English, and then just art. Then I passed out. That was when I was seventeen; I left to go to art school. Boy, that was the biggest rip-off I've ever seen. It was a load of horny guys, smoking Senior Service, wearing turtleneck sweaters, trying to get off with all these doctors' daughters and dentists' daughters who got on miniskirts and stuff. And after I took a few drugs, things like that began to look pretty funny.
"Like, one day someone gave me some LSD, and I went back into the school, and they were doing this drawing. I was really shattered from this LSD pill, and I suddenly realized what a big joke it was. The professor was standing there telling them to make these little puffy marks, and they were all goin', 'Yeah,' making the same little marks. And I just realized what a load of bollocks it was. It wasn't actually a drawing, but it looked like a drawing. And suddenly I could see the difference between those two things. After that, I began to drop right off."
Our conversation is interrupted momentarily when Strummer spots Mighty Mouse on TV. Apparently, he had failed in his attempts to photograph something off the television screen the night before, and the appearance of Mighty Mouse presents him with another opportunity to outwit the TV. After trying various techniques, such as covering the Sonar device with his hand, he finally succeeds, and we resume talking.
"Then I just spent a couple of years hangin' around in London, finding no way to manage. I was studying this Blind Willie McTell number all day, and then I'd go down to the subway at night and strum up a few pennies [hence the name "Strummer"].
"That was when we moved into squatters' land. They're demolishing all this housing in London, and all these places are abandoned. People started kickin' in the doors and movin' in, so we just followed suit. You had to rewire the whole house, 'cause everything's been ripped out. Pipes, everything. We'd get a specialist who'd go down to this big box underneath the stairs and stand on a rubber mat and take these big copper things and make a direct connection to the Battersea Power Station. Bang! Bang! I seen some explosions down in these dark, dingy basements that would just light things up.
"There's a state of poverty where it gets to be good fun. I was fuckin' useless at all this, but some of the guys I was hanging out with, they could do anything. And that's where I started to rock & roll — in the basement of one of those places. I remember we had an acoustic guitar and a pair of broken bongos, and we built up from there."
Eventually, a band called the 101'ers (named after the street address of the "squat") began making a name for itself playing R&B in pubs around London. The group recorded a single, "Keys to Your Heart" on Chiswick Records, before Strummer left to join the Clash. "As long as I'd been pubbin', I'd been really frustrated," he recalls. "I was just lookin' to meet my match, just lookin' to stir things up. And when I was offered this job, I recognized that it was the chance I'd kinda been waiting for. Just the look of Mick and Paul, you know? The gear they had on...."
"I first saw Joe in the dole line," Mick Jones tells me. "That's no lie. We looked each other over, but we didn't talk. Then we saw each other in the street a couple of times; eventually we started talking, and he wound up over at my flat." That meeting took place in the summer of 1976. By then Jones had already formed the nucleus of the Clash with Paul Simonon and Keith Levine. (Currently a member of Johnny Rotten's Public Image Ltd., Levine, a guitarist, left the Clash very early on.)
Unlike Strummer, with whom he writes the bulk of the Clash's material, Jones is an extremely affable fellow. His dark, riveting eyes and his warm, goofy grin quickly put any newcomer at ease. He's so short and skinny he looks as if he could be easily blown over. And like most of the other members of the band, he's taken almost exclusively to wearing black-and-white clothes ("More subtle, don't you think?") and to greasing his dark brown hair back.
Both Jones and Simonon are twenty-four, and both come from Brixton, a grotty working-class area in South London. "It's pretty bleak, not paradise," Jones says. "You know — lots of immigrants and that." His parents split up when he was eight, and he was raised by a grandmother. Simonon's parents also were divorced when he was young; he was raised by his father.
Prior to forming the Clash, Jones was attending Hammersmith Art School and playing in London SS, a musical forerunner of the British punk bands. Simonon, after a year of art school, was "sittin' around, thinkin' about what was gonna happen the next day, where I was gonna get my dinner, things like that." He had never played bass before he joined the Clash.
"We just sort of bumped into each other," Simonon says of his first meeting with Jones. Though he comes across as the toughest member of the group, the tall, lanky Simonon, with his dirty-blond hair and chiseled features, has the look of a matinee idol. "I was goin' out with this girl, and she was friends with this drummer. Mick was lookin' for a drummer, and he invited this bloke to rehearsal. I just turned up, and that was it."
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