Truth to tell, I only recently realized how a brief encounter with Joe Strummer over 25 years ago completely reshaped my approach to writing. It was 1981, and the Clash were lined up to be the cover story for the inaugural issue of my magazine, Pulse: Tomorrow’s Trends Today. Their concert at the now defunct, but still lamented Bronco Bowl was nothing short of phenomenal, my photographer had gotten some great shots, and all that was left to do was the backstage interview with Joe Strummer.
I wasn’t a stranger to rock journalism, and I’d certainly done more than a few interviews at this point. But Strummer, for whatever reason, was utterly uncooperative. Maybe he was tired, perhaps he was taking his fresh Mohawk too seriously, or it could have been he knew punk was over and he wanted to ride it out on one last wave of bravado. It doesn’t matter.
But the interview was going nowhere. No matter what I asked him, he’d just say, “You tell me.” Finally, after several minutes of that, he looked at me and snarled, “You yanks don’t know anything about rock and roll.” I was flabbergasted and enraged. “Excuse me,” I blurted, “We invented rock and roll. You Brits are just borrowing it.”
There was a moment of tension as backstage jaws dropped, waiting for the next volley. Strummer just grinned, took a swig of beer, shook my hand and walked away. To make a long story short, I still got my story, the Clash were still my cover feature and l learned a valuable lesson about journalism, especially rock journalism. And that was never, ever be intimidated by your subject. Had it not been for Joe Strummer, I might have gone through life blissfully unaware of the importance of stripping away masks in the course of an interview. With Strummer, that was easier said than done.
Joe Strummer wore a lot of masks, and it’s only now, nearly five years after his untimely death, that we’re beginning to understand the real man behind them. The Future is Unwritten, the soundtrack from Julian Temple’s Strummer biopic of the same name, offers a bit of insight into the man. From 1999-2002, he hosted his own radio program on the BBC World Service, where he had free reign over the music he played. This album takes that radio format, couples it with interview snippets and rare tracks, and ultimately offers a snapshot of the dying days of the 20th century.
“Joe, we’re going to have your name on the screen,” a disembodied voice asks as the album opens. “Is there anything you’d like us to write under it—Mescalaro, Clash, anything. .?”