Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
Let me preface this entry by saying that the Clash and their body of work in my opinion is unimpeachable, save Cut The Crap, which I and most Clash fans consider “Clash Lite” due to the fact that Mick Jones wasn’t in the group at the time of the release. There’s that, and then there’s the little factiod that the record was absolute dog shit.
Their eponymous debut, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, London Calling and Sandinista! were all brilliant albums. The first two are classic English ’77 punk albums while London Calling and Sandinista! show the Clash breaking their spiky mold and stretching their musical chops into other genres such as funk, reggae and dub. Sandinista!’s my personal favorite of the lot, but that’s another story.
Getting back to point: The Future Is Unwritten is a documentary on Joe Strummer, who died of a heart attack on december 22, 2002. The film isn’t your ordinary talking heads love fest, although it does offer many candid interviews with folks from Strummer’s past, and these are split into three distinct groups: those who knew him BC (before Clash), those who knew him during the Clash and those who were influenced by the subject and his band (ie, musicians). The latter group offer nothing revelatory, just your token slobbering over how the subject “changed the course of their lives”, blah blah blah. There’s Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bobbie Gillespie from Primal Scream and, but of course, Bozo (I’m sorry, BONO) from U2, all of them waxing nostalgic and saying virtually zip.
Then there’s the folks pre-Clash. Their interviews and remembrences are the most insightful, offering little snapshots of their time with Strummer, and what they say IS revelatory. For instance, I had no idea that Strummer was something of a bohemian hippy before the Sex Pistols changed his hairy ways. Stories about Joe with long hair, smoking pot and living in communal squats was not what I was expecting. These tales paint a very different picture of the man that I thought I knew. He formed the pub rock band, the 101’ers (named after the torture room in George Orwell’s 1984) in the mid 70’s which quickly became one of the most popular touring attractions in the UK. In the first half of 1976, the 101’ers had been opening for The Sex Pistols on selected dates. Inspired by The Pistols and the burgeoning punk movement, Strummer decided to quit the 101’ers in June 1976 and form The Clash. He didn’t just embrace punk, he absolutely lived punk, disowning all his former friends, chopping off his hair and leaving his prior life behind in the dust. The interviewees from this period speak well of Strummer, but some bitterness does surface. As a matter of fact he comes across as something of a dick and a poseur during this period, to tell you the truth. But I guess that was the way of the world at the time, eh? The thing that redeems Strummer though is that his absolute metamorphosis into the spokesperson for the punk generation is entirely convincing. Sure he shat on his friends, but there is never any doubt that this new direction was something he believed whole heartedly from the very beginning. There was total conviction on his part, and if that comes across as mean or cruel then so be it.
At the sessions for Combat Rock, the last album with Jones and the last real Clash album in many fan’s opinion, he let their manager, Bernie Rhodes, convince him to kick Jones out of the group. Obviously this was a huge mistake and effectively sounded the death knell for The Clash. Jones was as much an integral part of the band as Strummer, penning a good majority of their classic tracks. So when Cut The Crap came out and was panned by both critics and fans it was no big shocker.
From this point forward Strummer would struggle to regain his ground, writing the odd film soundtrack and even delve a little into acting. He made his ammends with Jones and even performed with his former bandmate’s group Big Audio Dynamite. He toured with The Pogues and formed a new band, The Mescaleros, and released an album in 1999 (Rock Art and the X-Ray Style). He released one more well received album with the Mescaleros before he died in 2002, but the rub is that the album released posthumously, Streetcore, is brilliant, no doubt the best thing he’s done since his heyday with the Clash. Streetcore is made more introspective and touching due to the fact that he’s no longer with us; I dare you to listen to Silver And Gold or his cover of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and not well up.
The film is great, not because it shows that Strummer was a brilliant songwriter and one of the most important artists of the last 30 years but because it reveals that he was human.