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Friday, 4 March 2011

Strumming on a Typewriter

Julien Temple told me he remembered the photograph well. It appeared on the cover of Britain’s New Musical Express, sometime way back between the end of punk and the death of a prophet. Sean O'Hagan, writing in the London Guardian a week after Joe Strummer died - on December 22, 2002 - remembered it too: ''photographed at the typewriter like Kerouac, penning a feature on a single roll of paper: The Thoughts of Chairman Joe''. Strummer wouldn't have liked that line, all mixed metaphors and inaccuracies: Jack Kerouac, the capitalist capital's Merry Prankster, wrapped up in three-ply toilet paper with Chairman  Mao, Communist China's most published writer of mindless banalities. Cold War contemptibles caught together in one sentence. But it would have been more so the fine detail: ''penning on a typewriter''? ''No, Sean,'' Strummer might have chided. ''You type on a typewriter.'' And he did, as Julien Temple well remembers.

At all hours, as Strummer's widow Lucinda testified when The Mescaleros brought out the ''posthumous album'', Streetcore, 10 months after Strummer's sudden and utterly unexpected death. Lucinda said Strummer spent late nights writing at their English West Country farmhouse as he composed for the album he would never hear. ''He loved the night. He would be up throughout the hours of darkness in what he called his 'woodshed'. He worked with pen and paper. When he was getting somewhere with the lyrics, he would sit at his old-fashioned Remington typewriter, bashing them out. He'd do endless versions, eight or ten goes at typing out the lyrics. And then he'd be happy with it.''
Temple, whose highly acclaimed documentary tribute to Strummer, The Future in Unwritten, was released on DVD in late 2007, has a somewhat more romanticised recollection. Temple agrees with O'Hagan about The Beat Generation fixation. ''Joe used a typewriter for all his lyrics,'' he said when I interviewed from London. ''[But] it had to be the right sort of paper, he had to have beside him an ashtray stolen from the room of a Parisian hotel, and it had to be the right typewriter, Venezuelan I think, South American, anyway.''
Let's not get too carried away here. There is no such thing as a Venezuelan typewriter, not even a South American one, unless one counts the Italian ICO MP1, which was a bit of a favourite in Argentina. Yet Temple's point is valid. Strummer was a most particular man. Almost peculiarly particular. ''He was very ritualistic. That's what the campfires are all about. They have to be done exactly the right way. The flags have to be right. The right sort of wood has to be used, wood that will burn the longest. They reflect Joe's fixations. Everything had to be done the right way. People might get the impression of a slap-happy nomadic sort of figure. But Joe had a very strong code of living.'' Strummerville campfires at Stone Circle in Somerset, England, now commemorate a Strummer ritual which began backstage at the Glastonbury Festival and spread around the world – as ''any loose assembly of people bonded by the rising flames and the advancing dawn''. They're variously described, in the way dead rock stars are mythicised these days, as ''art forms'', ''melting pots'', ''wisdom stones'' and, yes, ''Holy Grails''. No doubt Monty Python gets an invite. But while Temple salutes Summerville, his film is also about other ways in which the more serious side of Strummer's life is still celebrated. He knew the real man well and said Strummer is far more relevant today than ever - and much more than just another dead rock star. ''He was a philosopher, he was more important than a mere musician, a mere rock star. He was obsessive about writing his lyrics because he spent so much time [as his widow Lucinda related] paring them down.'' Was he, I asked Temple, influenced by Hemingway in that? ''Yes, Hemingway, among others. He once wrote a novel, you know, spent months on it, completed it, then burned it. He was that kind of person. It had to be perfect.'' Strummer's death was, in many ways, what people might consider the ideal ending. He simply took his dog Maggie (aka Mugsy) for a walk from his home in Broomfield, Somerset, got back, collapsed, and died. He had an undiagnosed congenital heart defect.
Even before Temple’s Strummer DVD was released, it was being described by critics who had seen advance copies ''the best rock movie ever made''. It went on to win the British Independent Film Award as the Best British Documentary of 2007. Marc Savlov of The Austin Chronicle named it the 8th best film of 2007 Temple certainly has the credentials. Apart from 1980's The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, he made another Sex Pistols' essential, 2000's The Filth and The Fury. Temple has also made a breathtaking range of music videos, from Neil Young's Rockin' in the Free World to Dexy’s Midnight Runners' unforgettable Come On Eileen. Temple and Strummer met at a time when Temple's interest in The Sex Pistols and punk rock was heading out toward The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle and Strummer's legendary band The Clash was working toward the release of its classic London Calling, rated the greatest album of the 1980s. It was 1977. Temple made some legitimate points about the arrival of The Ramones in Britain and the subsequent explosion of British punk. ''British punk was socially rooted. Whatever impact and influence they may have had in America, The Ramones were essentially New York Down Town art.” “Joe so loved the US, he was fascinated by it. Yet he despised empire-building, he loathed the way one culture gobbled up others.”

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