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Joe Strummer

by Margo Tiffen

I've been meaning to write these stories down for a long time now. It's unfortunate that the catalyst for me to finally do it is Joe Strummer's death. I've been thinking about him a lot, about what the Clash has meant to me. It almost goes without saying that I'm a huge Clash fan, and I have a lot of good memories in my life associated with their music. One of the greatest things I've gotten to do through working in magazines over the years was to spend time with musicians I admire, and get to know them as people. Some of them have become my friends, and so have some writers, photographers, artists, publicity and label people. I've also met a lot of assholes. More of them than I would've liked. I saw a lot of people who I admired do terrible things to the people around them.

But the true friendships I made were worth slogging through the bullshit. The people I never got to know very well but who touched my life nonetheless, were also worth the bullshit. That's why I still do what I do. For all the hard work and banality that goes with it, encountering these gems is what life is about.

And so it goes for Joe. The impact of Joe's life, his music, and his strength of character is immeasurable. When I interviewed Roddy Byers from The Specials, he spoke of how the Clash treated The Specials when they opened for them on tour. When Joe found out they weren't getting paid enough to eat and stay in proper lodging, he shared the Clash's hotel rooms with them and made the promoters raise their salary. Roddy spoke of how much this meant to them, how they always remembered that, and when they got big themselves, they treated their supporting bands accordingly.

Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine / Audioslave, after hearing of Joe's death, released a statement that said: "He played as if the world could be changed by a three-minute song, and when I saw The Clash play, my world was changed forever. His idealism and conviction instilled in me the courage to pick up a guitar and the courage to try to make a difference. Joe Strummer was my greatest inspiration, my favorite singer of all time and my hero."

Joe's greatest legacy was that he lead by example. So many people fall into the trap of blaming their rock star behavior on the music industry, on personal trauma, on whatever easy excuse comes their way. Joe gave us someone to point to and say - he never did that, and he was still successful. In fact, he was successful in part because he never did that. Joe always tried his best to be an honest, true person. Which is why when the dust settles on history, whether they put him on the cover of Rolling Stone, or they induct him into the Hall of Fame, Joe's true legacy will be the art of his music, and the art of a life honestly and ecstatically lived.

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I first met Joe Strummer a few weeks after my 21st birthday. It was 1998, I'd just graduated college, and I was living in Boston. I ran a punk/oi/ska magazine at the time, Rude International, which I'd started a few years earlier with Tim Burton, who's the sax player for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones.

Once I finished my degree and things had calmed down in my life a bit, I put aside time to create a business proposal for Rude's future. We'd been growing and we needed to set down a plan to work towards Rude becoming an actual magazine, one that made money and could eventually support us instead of put us into debt. Out of this proposal came changes like getting an office space downtown, hiring an Advertising Director, things like that. But the biggest thing that happened as a result of my proposal was that Joe Strummer came to Boston.

After I'd laid down the mundane business basics of the proposal, I made a wishlist of the people I would most like to interview. Joe topped the list. I hadn't heard a damn thing about what he'd been up to in years (besides some movie cameos) but I figured, well, he's got to be somewhere out there, right? Hanging out, eating, breathing, shopping, doing shit people do when they're not in big famous bands anymore. And maybe someone knew how to find him. It was a total pipe dream - "Like wouldn't it be like so cool if we could get Joe Strummer for the cover of Rude?! Yeah, dude." Like that.

Let me point out here that Rude was a glorified zine. It was glossy and boasted a color cover, we had distro in places like Tower, Borders, Barnes & Noble, but for all intents and purposes, Rude was a zine. I threw the Joe interview idea in the editorial section of the proposal anyway.

Tim read it when he got back from tour, and thought it was worth a try. He asked his managers if they knew anyone. It turned out that John Doe from X had something to do with the Clash tribute album that was coming out and one of the Bosstones' managers was friends with John. She got in touch with him, and he got us Joe's manager's number. Tim spoke to him and he said we didn't have a chance of getting an interview. "Joe doesn't do interviews and he hasn't in a long time. Sorry." I told Tim to send the guy the magazine anyway, maybe it would help if he saw it. This was me being cocky, but I thought, what the fuck. Joe might not want to talk to bullshit corporate rags but maybe he would dig our little punk rock mag.

Tim mailed the guy the magazine and a few days later Joe's manager called. He said that he loved the magazine, that it was fucking awesome, and that he would try to get us the interview within the year. He said he knew Joe would do it for us. I was psyched. Within the year seemed like a long time but a hell of a lot better than nothing. And I was proud that Joe's manager liked our magazine.

A week or so later I was walking past Tower Records and saw a sign in the window that said the Bosstones were going to be getting a gold star on the walk of fame in front of Tower. Tim had never mentioned this to me and when I brought it up to him and said congratulations, I think that's cool, he just kind of shrugged it off and went yeah, whatever, like he always did. Nothing ever phased Tim.

I mentioned it to my friend Jay who worked at Rude with us and he said "Yeah, they're trying to get someone to present it like maybe someone famous but we're not sure who. Dicky was thinking of Mr. Butch." Mr. Butch was a Boston legend. He was a very tall, thin, homeless rasta guy with long dreads. He wore a long grey tweed overcoat with "Mr. Butch" written on the back in white letters and he hung out in Kenmore Square all day sparing change and smoking pot. It was local legend that if you gave him a quarter it was good luck. When they razed half of Kenmore (including the Rathskeller, the best punk club in Boston), Mr. Butch got displaced and had to move to Allston, but that's another story entirely.

So Mr. Butch was a real character and I thought it would be great if they got him to present it. But there was no final decision yet.

A few days later Tim told me "Don't tell anyone but I found out this morning who is going to present us with the star." "Who?" "Joe Strummer." "No fucking way." "Yeah, but it's a secret so don't tell anyone." Tim had already made contact with Joe's manager, and the Bosstones were all big Clash fans, so they thought hey - let's see if we can get Joe here, present the band with the star, and Tim could also get the interview for the mag. Turns out Strummer liked the Bosstones and was totally down with a trip to Boston to come hang out.

By the next week the word was out - far from being a secret, they were going to hang up a sign in Tower about it, tell radio stations, that kind of thing. Then it hit me -- I was going to see Joe Strummer and maybe even get to meet him. I did realize, however, that if anyone interviewed Joe, it was going to be Tim, not me. I'd told Tim originally that if we got the phone interview I wanted to do it. He said sure. But this was different now because Joe was coming to town for the Bosstones and Tim was the one who asked for the interview. He was in the Bosstones and I wasn't anyone in all this, just some kid who did a magazine.

But I was cool with it -- hell, we were still going to get the interview, that was enough. I was excited but I knew it was unlikely that I'd actually get to talk to him. There was going to be a party after the ceremony and it was sure to be crowded. If Joe came, everyone there would want to talk to him. I figured well, I'll just stand back and kind of watch him all night and maybe I'll get to shake his hand or something.

The night before the awards ceremony I had crazy dreams about Joe. When I woke up I called Tim. I told him I had a dream that he was yelling at me because I was late and he was angry and telling me to hurry up. Tim said "I had dinner with Joe Strummer last night."

He'd gone out to dinner with Joe and Joe's wife Lucinda, Bob Gruen and his wife, and some of the other Bosstones. I asked what Joe was like and he said "Really cool. He's real mellow, real accessible and nice. He's really great." Tim had never complimented anyone in all the time I'd known him. He also said Bob Gruen was cool, that Jessie Malin from D Generation was there, and that Jessie and Bob mostly did the talking all night telling stories.

He said he was sorry that he didn't invite me but it was just really Bosstone people and it was a last minute thing. But he was supposed to meet Joe at the Park Plaza hotel to interview him and take pictures. I asked if I could come. I asked very politely and told him I wouldn't say anything, I'd just hold the reflector thingy for the pictures and be really good and not talk. Please. Tim said he knew I wanted to (was he kidding?) but that it might not be the best idea, it might make Joe nervous to have someone else around during the interview. I said, "I understand. (Please. I'll be good. Come on you selfish fuck it was my idea in the first place.) It's okay, I understand." He said "You can meet him at the party". I said "There'll be a million people there and I won't be able to talk to him. Fine. If I can't come, you have to promise to introduce me." "Of course. And if it seems okay that you can come, I'll call you before I leave and tell you whether to meet me or not."

So there was still a chance. I got off the phone and my friend Bobby showed up. Bobby was as into the Clash as I was. I told Bobby what Tim said and he got all quiet and depressed. He had to work and he wasn't going to be able to go to the ceremony and see Joe Strummer so he was sad and started telling me how stupid it all was and how he didn't want to meet Joe anyway. At least not in those circumstances. He thought the Bosstones were all stupid shitheads and the whole thing was dumb.

I was excited but trying not to be for Bobby's sake and feeling kind of bad about it at the same time. I left Bobby sulking and hopped in the shower. Tim called and told me to come down and meet him at the hotel. I had an hour to get ready and be at the hotel. I ran around like a madwoman. I asked Bobby to call a cab. Cabs in Boston are not like in NY, you can't just go get one. He was writing in his journal on the living room couch and glaring at me.

He called the cab and we went outside to wait for it. We waited and waited and it wasn't coming. I was pissed. I ran upstairs and called the cab place and the guy said a few minutes. I yelled at him - "This is important, dammit!"

I was going to be late to meet Joe Strummer. For all the fucking things I've been late for in my life you think I could just once be on time for something like this. Bobby ran down to the corner and luckily flagged a cab. I gritted my teeth until we pulled up in front of the hotel 15 minutes late. Bobby asked if he could come in and meet Joe and leave.

I said "yeah, come on" and we went inside. There was no Tim or Joe anywhere. We waited in the lobby for awhile. I blew it. They didn't want to wait and they left. I'm an asshole. I had a chance to spend time alone with just Joe and Tim and I fucking showed up late and blew it. Jesus.

Bobby checked the bar and the restaurant but it was closed and they weren't there. We thought maybe they went to take pictures so we walked around outside and finally decided to head down to Tower for the ceremony thing. There wasn't anything else to do.

 

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