Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Future According to Joe Strummer

By David Luhrssen
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Joe Strummer thought he could change the world through his songs. He was half right. His songs changed many people living on Earth even if the world continued on its fearful trajectory.

Strummer’s sneering voice was the sharp edge of the most powerful band to rise from British punk rock, the Clash. Only the Ramones and the Sex Pistols rivaled Strummer’s group for their impact on the cultural movement that grew from ‘70s punk. Because there was so much more going on in their lyrics and music, the Clash’s influence was more profound than any band of the era. They mattered deeply to many people.

In The Future is Unwritten, Julien Temple tells the Clash’s story through Strummer. The British director, who made himself the foremost documentary historian of his country’s punk rock scene with The GreatRock’n’Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury, adds another chapter to the story. He employs a punk cut and paste aesthetic, artfully stitching his narrative together from Strummer’s own voice, short interviews, snippets of home movies and swatches of vintage footage of all sorts.

Interviewed are a number of bandmates and friends as well as famous people whose lives shifted because of those early Clash records. Johnny Depp recounts how struck he was by their sincerity. For Bono, the Clash meant that “ideas became more important than guitar solos” and “integrity became more important than driving a Rolls-Royce into a swimming pool” for rock bands.

Strummer’s world tilted on its axis in 1964 when he heard the Rolling Stones and in 1968 when he witnessed the global upheaval of youth. By the time he came of age in the ‘70s, the son of a leftist British diplomat and an open hearted Scottish mum was determined to learn from the mistakes of “Jagger and that lot.” For many of us, punk rock was supposed to be the ‘60s with the stupid stuff omitted. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. In the aftermath of Sandinista, the Clash’s ambitious, genre-spanning 1980 album, the band attracted the same old problems that dogged their celebrity predecessors. The Clash were determined to remain one with their audience, which became impossible when its audience mushroomed into millions of arena rock fans that never grasped the band’s ideals. Those four rock horsemen of the apocalypse—megalomania, drug addiction, self-indulgence and intra-band rivalry—came to call with vengeance. The Clash disintegrated. Strummer died of a heart attack in 2002.

Despite the unhappy ending, the first three or four Clash albums set a bar few if any bands have been able to reach in the years since. Grounded in the idea of doing-it-yourself, the Clash were determined to distill immediate experience into three-minute songs. They were entirely in their moment yet able to set an example decades later. “I get a lot of fun out of thinking,” Strummer is heard to say in The Future is Unwritten. His intelligent refusal to leave society unexamined, coupled with a deep feel for what makes rock’n’roll exciting, set the Clash apart from their often-cartoonish punk contenders as well as the empty-vested corporate rockers who regained ascendance after the Clash exited the stage.

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