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Friday, Sept. 14, 2007
'Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten'
He fought the system; the system won
Punk rock has survived over the past three decades, but at the expense of devolving into fixed form and fashion — the very rock 'n' roll cliche the original movement so loudly denounced. But for those of us who were there at the time, it was clear that punk was a mind-set, an unspoken philosophy of living. It tore down all aspects of conformity and received identity, in favor of the will for self-creation and the strength to mock authority. By becoming a punk, you became a walking, breathing riposte to society's conventions.
You could do this in one of two ways; you could follow The Sex Pistols, icons of negativity (remember Sid's swastika?) and purely antisocial behavior, or you could fall in love with the inspired idealism of their polar opposites, The Clash. The Pistols burned out all too quickly, in a maelstrom of drugs, murder and lawsuits, which somehow wasn't surprising. "No Future" was a self-fulfilling prophesy, and that left The Clash pushing for a better future.
They could play better, too, and their rage and intensity were harnessed to explosive and tight musical hand-grenades such as "White Riot" and "Career Opportunities" ("the ones that never knock"). Lead by frontman Joe Strummer, The Clash were vocal in their leftist politics and opinions, antiracist and antielitist, and showed a refreshing inclination to widen punk's musical palette, notably through their love of Jamaican music.
Surely, here was a band you could trust, a band whose entire image was built on idealism and integrity and who, if nothing else, would never sell out. In the new documentary "The Future is Unwritten" — a biodoc of Clash singer Joe Strummer — you can see Strummer letting fans backstage (dozens of them, and through a window!) to come have a few beers with the band. It was an endearing egalitarianism.
This was especially so as rock 'n' roll stars had become a new, pompous, pampered elite. By 1980, you could look long and hard at The Rolling Stones and not detect a trace of whatever it was that had once made them a countercultural phenom. Their concerts featured prominent flag-waving, overpriced tickets, and the hype that they were "The Greatest Rock Band in the World." Surely this would never befall The Clash, who enjoyed their own slogan as "The Only Band That Matters." We see a young Strummer in the doc, around 1977 or '78, saying, "I look back on Jagger and that lot, and can really pick out their mistakes. And I'm really determined not to repeat their mistakes."
And yet fast-forward to 1982, when The Clash released "Combat Rock," had Top 40 success in America, made rock-star poseur videos and started playing stadiums with apolitical hits such as "Should I Stay Or Should I Go." Worst of all was their combat fatigue look that had many Americans who didn't listen closely to the lyrics assuming they were a promilitary band! The disappointment was total for their original fans. After The Clash, one may have liked — even loved — other bands, but you could never believe in them. If The Clash could sell out, who couldn't?
The disillusionment was total for this fan, and I never looked back. So it was surprising to see, some 25 years later in "The Future is Unwritten," that it hit Strummer as hard as it did me. We see him after the band's breakup in '82 saying, "I couldn't believe we'd turned into the people we'd wanted to destroy." After a brief and failed attempt to resurrect The Clash with a new lineup, Strummer would drop out of music for nearly a decade, never able to live up to or live down his days with The Clash. Finally, in the years before his death he found some peace, with his eclectic radio show "London Calling" for BBC World (which drew 40 million listeners!) and his new band The Mescaleros.
"The Future is Unwritten" traces Strummer's long path to punk stardom, and his even longer recovery from it. Its director is Julien Temple, most recently of "Glastonbury," and a lifetime ago the director of "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," a Sex Pistols film whose producer, Malcolm McLaren, forbade Temple from being too close to The Clash.
Temple uses old footage, home movies, little animations of Joe's drawings and campfire interviews with Joe's friends and fellow musicians to illustrate his life. Some are revealing: a childhood friend tells of Strummer's boarding-school days and his brother's suicide; Dick Evans, of Joe's pre-Clash band The 101ers, tells how Joe cut him off completely once he went punk and decided to renounce his "hippie" days; Topper Headon tells his drama of joining and being asked to leave The Clash, and of how hard it was to get past Strummer's persona. Other interviewees, such as Johnny Depp or John Cusack, seem to be included on the very un-punk principle that celebrity praise is an indication of quality. Worst of all is the filthy-rich mass-production mega-capitalist artist Damien Hirst, who claims the lesson of punk was "you can have whatever you want." Somehow I don't see the quasi-socialist Clash agreeing on this one.
For Clash fans, there is much to like in this film, which almost goes without saying. Hearing the conflicting views of guitarist Mick Jones and drummers Terry Chimes and Topper Headon, cut with old interviews of Strummer, are quite illuminating on the band's direction and breakup. Manager Bernard Rhodes comes off looking like a horrid prat, while bassist Paul Simonon is notable by his absence. And who knew that Strummer was a hippie before The Clash? The irony is that, by the film's end, he has become one again, embracing raves and outdoor fests such as Glastonbury and his beloved campfire gatherings. Good on him — the only constant is change.
For those who missed The Clash, Temple's film is still a fascinating portrait of a man who both sought and ran from stardom, the punk generation's John Lennon. Strummer sought the platform, but then bailed when it became clear his message wasn't getting across. One of the film's most poignant moments has a friend of Strummer's recall a phone call he got from the singer around 1991. Strummer had been watching the news and saw a missile destined to be fired on Iraq (during the Gulf War) painted with the slogan "Rock the Casbah," and was literally in tears. Imagine, as Lennon — whose own songs have been similarly abused — once asked, a world where people actually listen to the lyrics.