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POP MUSIC : Strummer on Man, God, Law--and the Clash

January 31, 1988|RICHARD CROMELIN

Has Joe Strummer lost his ambition and drive?

It was strange last month to see one of rock's all-time most involving performers serving simply as a sideman for another band, even one as colorful as the Irish folk-punkers the Pogues. The former Clash leader's more familiar position is at the eye of the rock 'n' roll hurricane.

It's also odd that Strummer, who filled in on rhythm guitar on the Pogues recent U.S. tour, dismisses his recent activity--doing music for the films "Sid and Nancy" and "Walker," a bit of acting, the Pogues gig--as "holiday."

"I just want to go back to rockin'," Strummer said, "but I'm uncertain as to what to actually do. . . . The truth is, I never stopped thinking about rock 'n' roll for a second that I'm on holiday."

The ragged-voiced Strummer led the Clash through a stormy 10-year career that began in 1976 when the London band emerged as the English punk group. Unlike many of their cohorts, Strummer, guitarist Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon and drummer Topper Headon survived that intense, brief period, first broadening their music and finding a larger audience with 1979's "London Calling," and hitting the Top 10 in 1982 with the single "Rock the Casbah," from the million-selling LP "Combat Rock."

But things were coming apart. Headon had been fired because of his drug use, and Jones was given the boot in '83. There was one more album with a revamped lineup, 1985's "Cut the Crap," but Strummer regrets that move, even referring to that band by a different name: "the Clash Mark Two."

Since then, one of rock's most colorful, impetuous and provocative figures has kept a low profile. Though he claims his creativity is undiminished, he's found that age and fatherhood have changed his priorities, and he's not ready to commit himself to anything like a Joe Strummer rock album right now.

Sitting down for an interview in the small bar of the West Hollywood hotel, Strummer, 35, was sharp, loquacious and given to a salty vocabulary that would make Tom Lasorda blush. But into his second margarita his mood darkened slightly as he considered more cosmic issues.

Carefully balancing a small acoustic guitar on the floor behind his bar stool, he started off, in his thick Cockney accent, talking about music today.

Strummer: What's holding me up is I'm confused about the nature of the music. Because the modern music doesn't reach me. I mean to say the sound of the modern electric production. A lot of sequencers . . . synths. That's what people are buying. Because that doesn't reach me, it throws me back to like 1948, but I don't want to be there. Back there, I'm talking about blues records. . . . The roots of rock 'n' roll is rhythm and blues and that's like really where I'm at, where I was always at.

I want to go back to '48 because there's something there that isn't now. But then I don't want to re-create '48, OK, because that would be a jive. So, therefore, I'm kind of just basically juggling with that.

Also I don't like the idea that people who aren't adolescents make records. Adolescents make the best records. Except for Paul Simon. Except for "Graceland." He's hit a new plateau there, but he's writing to his own age group. "Graceland" is something new. That song to his son is just as good as "Blue Suede Shoes": "Before you were born dude when life was great." That's just as good as "Blue Suede Shoes," and that is a new dimension.

Question: What are your feelings looking back at "Clash Mark Two"? Was it a mistake?

Yeah. If you're allowed to make your mistakes, I think you should. But people don't really like hearing you admit them. Although I'd never wanted to dump on the musicians that were involved in that. . . . Because it was not their fault.

The problem was really that we shouldn't have done it. I felt they were haplessly involved in something that they shouldn't have been involved in, and I always felt bad that when I eventually decided it was forget-its-ville, that it might have reflected on them. 'Cause it shouldn't have.

Q: Why did you do it? Were you trying to prove something?

Yeah. I was trying to prove that I was the Clash and it wasn't Mick (Jones). . . . I learned that that was kind of dumb. I learned that it wasn't anybody, except maybe a great chemistry between us four, and I really learned it was over the day we sacked Topper, and not the day we sacked Mick. There was quite some time between them. We played a whole tour between those times. But it was the day we sacked Tops.

Because it's between humans. (Clash managers) Bernie Rhodes and Cosmo Vinyl I think perhaps didn't understand that. You couldn't just jigsaw-puzzle it, take out a piece and put in another piece. That it was something weird between four humans that when they played it sounded OK, you know. And that's fairly rare, that's all.

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