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POP MUSIC

Enduring Ambition From Joe Strummer, Long After the Clash

November 04, 1999|RICHARD CROMELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joe Strummer wrote "The Road to Rock 'n' Roll" with Johnny Cash in mind, but the country titan took a pass. That's fine, because it's hard to imagine a truer rendition of the stately, reverent anthem than Strummer's own. "On the road to rock 'n' roll, there's a lot of wreckage in the ravine," he sings with a blend of weariness and determination, placing his own long haul in an archetypal landscape where Robert Johnson pacts with the devil and the wind blows off Mose Allison's Parchman Farm.

"It's trying to get to some wisdom," Strummer says of the song, a highlight of his new album. "There's a line in it where it goes, 'There's a mirror in your soul and you should turn it to the sky.' That's what I learned on the road to rock 'n' roll. In other words, be a force for good and not for evil."

Sweeping and sentimental, it's quintessential Strummer, drawn with the broad strokes and fearless ambition that helped push his old band the Clash to greatness in the first punk-rock era.

Strummer's new album, "Rock Art and the X-Ray Style," picks up strands from the international-minded, free-ranging Clash of 1981's "Sandinista," with urgent narratives and colorful, apocalyptic scenarios carried on percussive grooves, with a dusting of contemporary electronic elements. Notably absent is 1-2-3-4 and a cloud-of-dust punk rock.

New Album Is His First in 10 Years

"We just knew that we weren't gonna make a record that would be expected," says Strummer, who plays shows in Anaheim and West Hollywood this weekend with his new band, the Mescaleros.

"We just let it come out the way it wanted," he continues. "Sometimes it's better not to think, you know. Musicians work by intuition and instinct, not by forward planning or front-lobe scoping. . . . We're like blind men throwing spaghetti at walls. We don't know what we're doing. That's a given."

One thing that wasn't a given until recently was that there would ever be another Joe Strummer record. The new album is his first since 1989, ending a becalmed decade during which he mainly dabbled in acting and scored some films. His return began two years ago when he was cleared of contractual restrictions inherited from his term with the Clash.

He finally found the collaborators he was looking for--primarily London session-musician Antony Genn and techno musician Richard Norris--and populated the new band with players from the Manchester rock scene. Once all was in place he quickly recorded the album, which was released in the U.S. by L.A.-based Hellcat Records.

"For a while I was thinking there that I wouldn't really get another crack at it," says Strummer, 47. "Time goes by, you know. . . . I was kinda content, because I knew that the only way out of my self-inflicted legal chaos was to wait it out. . . . And I just thought there's two ways to do this. You can either become an angry ball of nerves and get all bitter and twisted, or you can kinda chill. . . . Obviously in the middle of the night I'd have my worries. But I always try to keep on the sunny side of the street."

To his surprise, Strummer found that his missing-in-action status enhanced his cachet.

"Ten years went by and I thought that's it, I'm gonna be washed away with the detergent and out through the sluice gates and out to sea. And in fact, more and more people started turning around and looking at me going, 'Hmm, nice.'

"You know after thousands of crap records came out and youth cults came and went, I found people were going, 'Yeah, that's quite dignified, that. You haven't flooded the market with loads of crap records. You haven't led us up garden paths with new directions that don't go anywhere, you just chilled out and you're good company and you don't moan, you're not sniveling in self-pity.' "

Strummer's not likely to jeopardize that good will with this return, which comes in modest circumstances, and with music that's true to his spirit without straining to recapture the aura of the Clash.

Clash Reunion? Unlikely, but Never Say Never

The legacy of that band--which folded officially in 1985 but really unraveled after drummer Topper Headon left in 1983 because of his heroin habit--is both an honor and a burden.

"What, the millstone?" Strummer jokes. "No, obviously I'm proud, but it almost carries too much baggage, the old team."

That hasn't stopped reunion rumors from regularly floating through, but it's not likely in the near future.

"If you were gonna re-form the Clash, imagine all the sharks and piranhas--it'd be like throwing a fresh bit of flesh into the Pacific Ocean. It's gonna be a right pain in the ass. . . . I never say never about nothing, but I'm not gonna re-form for money.

"The only thing that would make it happen is if Topper Headon got off heroin and the four of us got some tunes together and started to hang out and had a reason to believe in each other. . . . There's no way we're gonna suddenly snap back into life because some guy's written a check."

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