By Aaron Hillis
[Photos: Left, Joe Strummer in “Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten”; below, director Julien Temple, IFC First Take, 2007]
Whether you’ve heard London calling, rocked the Casbah, or have no idea what those mean (if so, shame on you!), the late Joe Strummer’s glory as frontman for English punk rockers the Clash will forever be cemented as a keystone in the rock pantheon. Strummer, who sadly died in 2002 at the age of 50, was an astute, politically-charged singer-songwriter and rhythm guitarist whose poetry was as inspired by punk as it was by reggae and world music. Even his work in indie film seems curiously iconic today, from his composing and acting turns in Alex Cox’s “Walker” and “Straight to Hell” to his memorable bit as a drunken crank named Elvis in Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train.”
And then there’s filmmaker Julien Temple (“Absolute Beginners,” “Earth Girls are Easy”), who can unquestionably boast punk cred himself. While still attending the National Film School in London during the ’70s, Temple found himself knee-deep in the early days of punk culture, becoming one of the first to film the Clash. Though he’s best known for his work with the Sex Pistols (including 1979’s cynical must-see “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle” and his 2000 retrospective “The Filth and the Fury”), Temple had personally known and collaborated with Strummer for several years, some of his rare footage emerging in a fantastic new rock doc entitled “Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten.” 30 years after the Clash’s album debut, this celebration is more about the man than his music, one of those rare perfect matches between filmmaker and subject that presents an elegiac but even-handed peek into the personal life behind an influential legacy. Temple sat down to talk about the ghosts of punk past.
Do you remember what your first meeting with Joe Strummer was like?
It was nasty, brutish and short. The first time I actually met him was at the space where the Clash rehearsed, and I’d got permission to film them. They were supposed to be there, and they weren’t. It was freezing cold, and there’s nothing in this big room except a table in the middle with some plastic tablecloth over it. This really weird, not very nice smell was coming from under the table, and I lifted up the tablecloth. There was Joe, asleep, under the table with his boots off, where this cheesy sock smell was coming from. It was late morning, and he was not happy to be woken up by some idiot with a camera.
I had been aware of him before that, [when he was] in the 101’ers. I was part of a squat that was right around the corner from the second big 101 squat. It had good moments; the party times were great. But you know, waking up in a December morning not wanting to get out of bed because it’s too cold and your waterbed would freeze… You needed antifreeze in the waterbed just to sort it out.
You filmed the Sex Pistols throughout their entire career. Was the rivalry between them and the Clash as palpable as the music press always made it out to be?
No, certainly not at the beginning. They were quite friendly; certainly Glen [Matlock, the original Sex Pistols bassist] and Mick Jones were quite close. There was always a thing between John [Lydon, a/k/a Johnny Rotten] and Joe, and John gave Joe a hard time for being middle class, which made Joe have to kind of push further to justify his punk credential. But I think there was a sense that the Pistols were too unstable a mass to love forever, and the Clash had this idea that they were in the wings waiting to come on stage when the Pistols set fire to themselves. They define themselves as pistols and nihilism and negativity, and we are positive ions. Something like that. [laughs]
Which wasn’t totally true! I always thought the Pistols were an incredibly positive act. Joe says: “They were the stun grenade into the room that had to clear the space.” That’s pretty positive to me. There’s a great sense of humor about the Pistols that I think the Clash were lacking at that time. Joe was a very funny person, hilariously witty that comes through in his lyrics but at that first moment of the Clash, there was this kind of self-criticism and hard-line sell up in North London that didn’t communicate with anyone else, plotting this kind of thing.
“The Future is Unwritten” comes across like a tribute to an artist and friend, but it’s far more impartial than the typically fawning fan account. How did you juggle that, making something that honored Strummer but was critically balanced?
[Having] become close friends with him during the last seven or eight years of his life, I certainly didn’t want to assassinate him at all. I wanted to celebrate him. But I was lucky, because I knew that if I didn’t show some warts, then he’s come out of his grave and strangle me. I was very keen to show the defects and contradictions to an extent. I didn’t want to get every bag of dirty linen out and spread it all over the street. I wanted to elude to things without getting into a big personal history of his relationships that you can do, I suppose, with any rock star. We’re all flawed, so I wanted to make it about the spirit of the man and how he worked with his flaws as a source of energy. He didn’t hide it under the carpet like a lot of people who become really famous and think they don’t have any flaws. [laughs] Or, they’ve lost them along the way, somehow, magically. So, it was trying to do justice to him, and he would have hated a hagiography of Joe Strummer.
The film zips along with an appropriately rapid, punk-rock pace. Was there any great material that had to fall out to make the final cut carry that energy?
Yeah, definitely. I had an hour or so on the 101’ers, for example. A movie doesn’t want to outstay its welcome. It’s still quite a long film, two hours-ish depending on what speed you play it on. [laughs] I know it’s quite long to sustain an audience in the dark, but as it’s a man’s life, I don’t think it’s too long. I did try to get it down as much as I could, but after some point you do want to stand your ground: “If I start taking more out, I think I’m taking out things that’ll bring other things falling down, too.” It’s hard to know when you’ve finished a film like this. At least with a script, there’s “The End.”
There’s a great story of Joe painting his father’s apples blue in his orchard. His father woke up, and suddenly all his apples were blue. I quite like that. Then he threw blue and white paint over a car and drove off. It was a funny moment, but I think you understand his relationship with his father okay without that. I had painted a load of apples blue in my apple trees, so I was kind of attached to it because I had done all this work, but it was disposable, really.
You use a clever device where all your talking heads give their testimonies around communal campfires, a kind of assembly Strummer was fond of. Is it true your first campfire test footage went a little crazy after magic mushrooms broke out?
Oh yeah, it was a dry run. There was a blizzard, it looks great. I shot it because the cameraman collapsed from the mushrooms, so we didn’t have a cameraman. I was shooting the mayhem with infrared so the snow really stood out the sparks going up, snow falling down, and people were flying high. It was great, all the Manchester guys like [Happy Mondays percussionist] Bez, [former Stone Roses bassist] Mani, and I think I brought mushroom tea, or I put mushrooms in the tea. I can’t quite remember but everyone was not really concentrating on being interviewed after a while. This was always going to be a trial run just to get something done down at Joe’s house, but then Bez threw up, still finished the interview, and I started to feel strange myself.
Joe Strummer eventually outgrew it, but let me ask anyway… Is punk dead?
I think the ideas behind it have a very long history. They’ve found expression in cultural ways of expression that go back thousands of years. I’m sure they’ll come again in a different way, at least I hope, than an old punk turning up at CBGB’s to try to stop it from being closed down. That doesn’t do much for the future. Old punks are just as bad as old hippies. But the ideas are part of a ground rebel human tradition that become more and more important as we get closer to maybe [becoming] the first species to design our own extinction. If you want to be human, you should have some of those ideas aired again. I’d like to think this is a bit of a punk film. It’s about a punk guy, but the way I made it. There’s not a Mohican on the front of the film can, but it’s a more anarchic approach to making a film.
You’ve seen so many legendary rock acts, even collaborated with them as you’re still doing with your upcoming film on the Kinks. Are you wowed by any today’s up-and-comers?
I hear things I like a lot. Amy Winehouse, for example. But it’s hard to wow me in the same way as when I was 18, or 12, or 10 in the case of the Kinks. When I first heard the Kinks, that totally changed my life. I’m not going to change my life by hearing Amy Winehouse or Pete Dougherty. But kids may, or some people probably will, which is good. I tend to know more English stuff than what’s happening in the States: There’s this guy named Kid Harpoon, and I like the Selfish Cunts, who surprised me by being a punk band that really felt new and dangerous. There’s always good music out there, but I think it’s hard to have the same impact these guys did back in the ’70s because the whole cultural landscape is so fragmented now. In England at that time, they could take it in one swoop. Even with oppositional rebel music, it was possible for that to be commercial across the board. Whereas now, you can have an indie or hip-hop hit in England, but you’re never going to have every tabloid paper proclaiming some new movement.
It’s also what makes it so much harder for artists of all mediums to get their work exposed. We’re perpetually bursting at the seams with new media.
And there’s too much for your life. You only have 24 hours in a day, and you can’t hope to access what’s out there. In the past, because there wasn’t that much, you could know the culture you’re in. Now, if you wanted to listen to everything, you’d have to live for millions, billions of years. You know, [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge read every book that had ever been published in English up to that point; that’s pretty amazing. That’s not possible in any form to have that kind of grasp of everything that’s going on. Maybe it’s good. It’s inevitable. But maybe the whole thing doesn’t have to go on like this, does it? It could all pop.
You know, the Roman Empire, a hundred years after it fell, it was like: “How did that happen?” You sit and watch cars in gridlock in a city like New York, no one going anywhere. I’m sure in 40 years’ time it could be possible to say “What the hell were they thinking, living in that way?” Things could happen with electronic media, the world relying on digital information; if the power goes, you’re fucked. There’ll be back-up power and that could go, too. I’m excited by that idea. People would have to think in that context. At the moment, they don’t think which is the biggest worry because that’s what defines you as a human being. If you give up your right to think, all your other rights are meaningless.
“Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten” opens November 2nd in limited release.