THE MUSIC INTERVIEW
142 REVOLUTION ROCK
BY ELTON JOHN AND BONO
Joe Strummer, The Clash's front man, transformed music with his rebellious spirit. On the first anniversary of his death, two music heavyweights discussed the legacy of this radical rocker.
WHEN JOE STRUMMER, LEAD SINGER OF THE CLASH, DIED ONE YEAR AGO THIS MONTH, THE WORLD LOST A TRUE VISIONARY. WITH THE RELEASE OF STRUMMER'S FINAL ALBUM, TWO LEGENDS DISCUSS THE LEGACY OF ONE OF ROCK N' ROLL'S MOST INNOVATIVE, IRREPRESSIBLE, AND INFLUENTIAL ARTISTS.
BY ELTON JOHN AND BONO
ELTON JOHN: So, Bono. As you know, this is the first anniversary of Joe Strummer's death. To mark the occasion, I wanted to take a moment to talk with you about the huge importance of his work, which was very political and experimental, as well as Streetcore (Hellcat), the album he was in the midst of recording with his band, the Mescaleros, at the time of his death. I once heard you say that were it not for the clash there would never had been a U2. What did Joe and his work mean to you?
BONO: Well, without exaggeration, the Clash were the first rock n roll band that we ever saw perform. It was in 1977, in Dublin, on the Clash's Get Out of Control tour-in fact, we wrote a tune called "out of Control" after seeing that show. I was 17 at the time, and I remember being frightened because there was a lot of aggression at the gate. But I was also elated. I was in awe at the sight of their clothes-they were wearing militant guerilla style, art-attack gear-and there was n atmosphere in the crowd that felt like something was going to happen, like somebody could die or a revolution could start. It was one of those nights that just turn your world upside down.
EJ: What was Joe like back then?
B: When I was a teenager, some of the punk-rock stuff that was kicking around at the time was kind of daft, a little bit silly-you know, middle-class kids pretending that they were working class. But Joe seemed to be singing from a different place-the kind of place that I suppose Bob Dylan sings from, or John Lennon sang from. He was part town crier and part storyteller. The Sex Pistols were punk, and I loved them because of the sort of Richard III character that John Lydon was playing, and just the sheer noise of the guitars; but what the Clash did was more like roots music. They were a garage band, but hey were also fucking around with reggae, rockabilly, and bluegrass-Joe just put all these different ideologies into the blender. There was this idea that came across in their music that it is possible, as Patti Smith later said, to "wrestle the world from the fools"-that the world is much more malleable than you think.
EJ: They also dabbled in old-fashioned American pop, with songs like "Should I Stay or Should I Go" on Combat Rock . You can hear the reggae roots of that song, and the suddenly it turns into this great pop song.
B: They did something that was very, very uncool in Britain in the mid-1980s: They fell in love with American music. I think the original rock 'n' roll music of the 1950s was important for Joe because it was the zeitgeist when he was a teenager, You know, the reason that people get into music is never an intellectual one. It's because they've heard your piano playing or they've heard you singing a tune, and its gone into their hearts when they're young; it's made them think that melodies are something that you can hang onto in your life-you certainly had that effect on me. The striking thing about the Clash was that, as universal as their appeal grew to be, all the influences in their music could be attributed to a few square miles of London. When I think of them, I think of Ladbroke Grove, in West London-I can see the doorways and the record shops; I can remember the smell of the Jamaican restaurants. It was a long was from fish and chips. [laughs] It was also exciting to see a British band break through, which hadn't happened since the Who and the Rolling Stones.
EJ: Did you ever have a chance to meet Joe?
B: I met him a few times. He was very nice to me, and nice about me, though it must have been irritating for him-we were a really young, gauche, unsauced group when we started off. With U2, I always felt like we had a lot going wrong, but ultimately, we had something special. Lots of bands around us were much better looking, better players, better songwriters-they had everything. But we had the "it"-whatever "it" might be-and we built around that. That idea comes from the Clash-that you could come out of the audience, get up onstage, grab the microphone, and if you had something to say, then you have a valid reason for being there. That idea changed my life: It's the reason U2 exists today.
EJ: There was always something to take away from Joe's lyrics. He was always trying to raise awareness of what was going on in the world, both socially and politically.
B: You know, that aspect of their music really had an impact on me. The Clash got terrible criticism for Sandanista! . But were it not for that record, I would never have heard about Nicaragua or ended up going there and meeting with Daniel Ortega, the leader of the revolution, and Ernesto Cardenal, a minister of culture, or ended p writing "Bullet the Blue Sky," because my mind was blown by the experience. Those were the kind of doors that the Clash-and Joe, in particular- opened up for me, and there were worlds behind them.
EJ: What sort of influence do you think the Clash had on the political bands that came afterwards, like Pearl Jam or Public Enemy?
B: I remember when we were a baby band, we were staying at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City, and the Clash, our idols, walked through the door. Paul Simonon, the bassist, looked like somebody out of West Side Story  crossed with an axe murderer. [laughs] He had this jacket, and on the back was the name of a local gang. They had been hanging out with some of the gangs, listening to early scratch hip-hop; then they came up with "This Is Radio Clash," finding in New York that sort of interface between black and white music that they'd found in London. That was a real moment when the Clash were crossing genres. Hip-hop was in at the time, and Chuck D of Public Enemy came out of that scene. I know Elvis didn't mean shit to Chuck D, as he once famously said, but I'll bet the Clash did. They meant something to others as well: Manic street Preachers, Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys.
EJ: Joe had that rare quality that two other singers we've lost in the last year-Nina Simone and Johnny Cash-both had: Whatever he sang affected you because it was just so raw. His voice reeked of hurt and anger. Take his version of "Redemption Song" on Streetcore-just him alone, with an acoustic guitar. He just makes it his song.
B: Yeah, of all the songs for Joe to cover. [laughs] You know, when you put on Streetcore, I had already begun to move uncomfortably in my seat even before I knew that it was Joe who was singing-the hairs on the back of my neck had already begun to rise. I don't know if Joe was religious in any way, but "Redemption Song" is a kind of hymn, and if there was a hymn that Joe could sing, that would be the one. "Have no fear for atomic energy" and "None but ourselves can free our minds"-those are such beautiful lyrics, and so prescient right now because these are very nervous times. Hearing Joe sing that tune, in his voice, means a lot.
EJ: on Streetcore, Joe sounds more at peace with himself. While he is still kind of prickly, he also sounds happy in his own way.
B: It makes me so sad, but I think you're right. You want to believe that there were more peaks, but it does seem like he had arrived at some place in his life. It is infuriating to realize that the most maddening of clichés has come to be true, which is that Streetcore, Joe's last record, is probably his best. I hate the sound of that as it comes out of my mouth-you know, "Fuck off. Why didn't you tell him the last Mescaleros record was great?" Well there is some great stuff on his other albums with the Mescaleros, but on this one, it all comes together.
EJ: It is a truly great album. I hope that it will reach a lot of people. The Joe Strummers of this world don't come along very often, but when they do, they shine like beacons because of what they have to say and the passion with which they say it. Even though Joe sounds contented on Streetcore, I don't think he ever stopped searching for new sounds, new ideas.
B: That there was more to come-yeah, I know. I think that intellectual curiosity, that lifting of stones-even if sometimes there are creepy crawlies underneath-is important. It's what gets us into trouble in our lives, but it's also what keeps us relevant.
HOW THE CLASH INSPIRED PUBLIC ENEMY BY CHUCK D
"The first time I heard the Clash was in 1981. I was in College at Adelphi University on Long Island, and one night I went down to this show in Manhattan-one of Kurtis Blow's hip-hop package shows. The crowd was rough. People from different camps were there-the hip-hop people and the punk-rock people. They even started throwing tomatoes at Kurtis, so that's the type of wild kids who were there. But the Clash completely broke it that night. It was an awakening for a New York cat like myself.
As I delved more into the music scene, I started learning about how the kids across the water in England were rebelling against the queen and the aristocracy. Around the same time, Bill Stepheny, a friend of mine from Adelphi and one of the original members of Public Enemy, started playing the Clash's records on his hip-hop radio show, which opened up a lot of people's minds. He would reach into the Clash's catalogue, as well as the sex pistols', and make those kinds of songs work in the context of a hip-hop show. He was instrumental in exposing a lot of hip-hop cats to what the Clash were doing.
I had great respect for Joe Strummer. How he used his music-incorporating a lot of black music like hip-hop and reggae-was very different from the guys who invented rock 'n' roll: He Always paid homage to those who came before him. I admired him for his humility as an artist and for the fact that he dug musical cats, no matter what type of music they played. He was constantly pushing the boundaries of the Clash's sound and of what music could do on a greater level. And Joe was still rebellious: He was speaking about things he saw in his life-the things right in front of his face that none wanted to talk about-and taking his message around the world.
Public Enemy is an American group, but we address the same issues we deal with-political, social, musical-on an international level. We take our conversation worldwide. I learned the importance of that from Joe Strummer. Right now there's a hunger out there for a musician like that. As a musician, it's not an easy way to go, but there are people who are doing it in hip-hop right now-politically outspoken groups like Dead Prez and the Coup, who are totally fearless and noncapitulating in their work. That's Joe Strummer's legacy-the idea that you need to stand by your word every step of the way."