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The Rebel Life of Joe Strummer The Future is Unwritten

The Future is Unwritten

by BEN TERRALL

"Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten" is a beautiful documentary directed by the Clash frontman’s friend and admirer Julien Temple. Temple, who made videos for The Clash in their late 70s-early 80s heyday and later directed the Sex Pistols doc "The Filth and the Fury", nicely meshes together the personal history of self-described "punk rock warlord" John Graham Mellor with the story of his most famous band.

Mellor/Strummer died unexpectedly in 2002 of congenital heart disease at the age of 50. Luckily for viewers of this film, he had been interviewed extensively. In addition to audio interviews with Strummer, who confesses that as a youth "I was a mouthy little git," and talks about how he learned to put up a tough front in boarding school, the film includes extensive footage of friends, family and bandmates of Strummer sharing memories of the man. Partly because Strummer spent a good chunk of his final decade developing a fondness for all-night socializing around campfires at Glastonbury and other music festivals, Temple eschews the standard talking head in a chair format and shoots his interviewees around outdoor fires in the U.S. and U.K. Underscoring The Clash’s ideal of punk rock being a great equalizer, he also refrains from identifying the speakers individually, running names of the famous and non-celebrity interviewed in the closing credits.

One of the more resolutely political and musically adventurous members of the first generation of punk rockers, Strummer had a profound influence on many people. The picture that emerges from the campfire remembrances is of a complex, flawed but overall loving and giving person. He was a creative force who saw himself not as an intellectual or a remote artist, but as someone connected to grassroots movement politics.

The Clash supported a wide array of progressive campaigns, from labor struggles to anti-nuclear activism. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they also eschewed easy nihilism. Lamely using rightist imagery for shock value, many early punks worse swastikas and hinted at flirtations with facism. But Strummer was clear that though The Clash took no ideologically rigid sectarian party lines, "We’re anti-facist, anti-racist, and pro-creative."

Moreover, as writer Charlie Bertsch notes in the collection of essays Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer, "Even at his most combative, he was more interested in building up a community of rebels than in tearing down those who failed to make the grade."

Some of the film’s most interesting music is taken from Strummer’s turn as a DJ on the BBC, playing what would later become known as "world music." That globally popular show proved the punk icon to be a musical internationalist who believed in the potential of interaction between cultures, and in music being a fertile ground for developing true solidarity between people. Chuck D of the pioneering hip-hop band Public Enemy wrote in Interview magazine, "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." Comparing what Strummer accomplished to the work of political hip-hoppers The Coup and Dead Prez, Chuck D added, "That’s Joe Strummer’s legacy–the idea that you need to stand by your word every step of the way."

After The Clash self-destructed in the 1980s under combined pressures of huge fame, little business acumen and non-stop rock and roll lifestyles, Strummer spent years working on soundtracks and acting in films, including a featured part in the wonderful Jim Jarmusch movie Mystery Train. He found his voice as a member of a band again in the outfit he put together called The Mescaleros, which allowed him to explore further the musical curiosity evidenced in his BBC DJ work.

Several weeks before Strummer died, Mick Jones, his old songwriting partner and lead guitar player from The Clash, came onstage to play the old warhorses White Riot and London’s Burning with The Mescaleros. It’s entirely appropriate that instead of a big-ticket reunion, the evening was a London benefit for the Fire Brigades Union’s fair pay campaign. Not surprisingly, firefighters were amongst the pallbearers at the great singer/songwriter/provocateur’s funeral.

BEN TERRALL is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He can be reached at bterrall@igc.org