Most of my interview with Joe Strummer originally appeared in While You Were Sleeping magazine and pieces of it are quoted in the book Let Fury Have the Hour by Antonino D’Ambrosio (left). Enjoy!

Joe Strummer, the voice and rhythm of the Clash, died in his home on December 22, 2002—about one year after this interview. He was 50. I was just one of thousands who had interviewed him over the years, and probably one of many, even, on this particular day, yet he was extremely warm, acting as if no one had ever asked him these questions in his twenty-five years of performing. The conversation went on for a few minutes after the tape stopped, about the possibility of him writing his memoirs, and more about fiddling.

He was all about giving props to his musician-friends, and I could see why, after he and the talented Mescaleros rocked LA’s the Troubador that night. Strummer sang and moved with the energy of someone half his age, without a trace of bitter “been-there/invented-that” sentiment common to many of rebel-music’s forefathers (though he’d certainly be more entitled than most.) The set included cuts from Rock Art and The X-Ray Style, their first release, as well as the newer Global-A-Go-Go record—a booty-shakin’ spicy musical mix of Latin, Caribbean, Celtic and Cajun-inspired numbers all fronted by that voice. Of course Strummer sprinkled in a few crowd-pleasing Clash hits, then topped the night off with a nod to the passing of Joey Ramone in a rousing rendition of Blitzkrieg Bop. So moved was one gal during the encore that she threw her big white lacy bra onstage. It zinged by the singer’s head and he laughed and said “thank you” mid-song, never missing a beat.

Strummer’s sudden death got lost in the shuffle of Christmas ’02 and news of impending war.  It was nothing but a television sound-bite, a blurb in music mags. They say it was heart failure. That’s bullshit—you can still hear it pounding through his songs.

DID YOU EVER DO GRAFFITI?

Yeah I did! I got arrested, my very first go. It’s not that glamorous, really. The Clash was playing in a place called Camden. Outside the nightclub there we were horrified one day to find one of the Vibrators had written “The Vibrators” on this fresh white wall. So it was Topper’s first job in the Clash after he passed the drumming audition, to act as look-out, while I went towards the wall and wrote “The Clash” all over the Vibrators! I just about reached the letter “A” when these two guys who looked like football fans or out-of-work builders came up and arrested me. They were plain-clothes cops and they walked right past Topper!

HOW LONG DID YOU STAY IN FOR THAT?

I thought this was gonna be a giggle, really, but they found out I’d been charged with some misdemeanor up in the north, on tour, like for stealing pillows from the hotel. In fact what it was was that we were in an uncomfortable bus, so everyone nicked all the pillows. The cops stopped us to search for drugs and they found all these room keys and pillows and they had to charge somebody. Anyway, it got kind of tangled.

THEY FOUND OUT YOU WERE A HARDENED CRIMINAL.

Well, a petty hooligan.

WAS THAT THE END OF YOUR GRAFFITI CAREER?

Pretty much, although I’ve always been pretty good with a Sharpie. For writing funny things on walls, it’s always good to have with you, if you see some funny sign that’s just begging for a comment underneath it.

OH YEAH—YOU WENT TO ART SCHOOL FOR AWHILE, DIDN’T YOU?

Yeah, I think I lasted all of one year.

I READ THAT YOU WERE A PRETTY BAD STUDENT. WHAT DO YOU TELL YOUR KIDS NOW THAT THEY’RE SCHOOL-AGE?

I was appalling. I tell them that ‘school sucks.’

NO YOU DON’T.

I do, indeed. They know already that it sucks. Whatever kid ever liked school?

NERDS.

Yeah, I guess.

ARE YOUR KIDS INTO PUNK ROCK?

The oldest ones are into Incubus. The youngest is into Dr. Dre!

OH NO!

Oh yes. First it was Eminem, now it’s Snoop Doggy Dog and Dr. Dre.

HOW OLD IS SHE?

She’s nine.

ARE YOU INTO HIP HOP AT ALL?

Well, I’m ‘old-skool’ [laughs]. I like A Tribe Called Quest.

80s RAP, LIKE PUBLIC ENEMY?

Yeah. Jurassic 5 is a CD I got last year that was kinda on the same thing. But I’m not a big expert.

WHAT ARE YOU LISTENING TO LATELY?

Over here in Britain The Strokes are pretty hot, from New York City. Kind of like a New York rock-n-roll band, and they’re coming your way. Sometimes when you do a little touring, you’re kind of music-ed out, so right now I’m just kind of listening to the ‘fridge.

AND HOW’S IT SOUND?

It sounds too loud!

I HEARD YOU CREDIT MARIJUANA FOR YOUR YOUTHFUL APPEARANCE?

I do.

IS GUITAR THE FIRST INSTRUMENT YOU PLAYED?

No, I started on the ukelele because I figured it must be easier, having four strings. I was in awe of music. I was a very late-comer to playing music. Most kids might learn something in their youth, but I didn’t have any musical knowledge at all, except that I listened. From the Rolling Stones onwards, I listened obsessively. I figured the ukelele couldn’t be as complicated as Eric Clapton—all that “dillillillla…” (guitar-lick noises) At the time there were a lot of ‘fret-wizards.’ Technique was king. I figured, “how complicated could this be?” and it was much more complicated than guitar…different tuning, the chord-shapes were different…Thankfully it spurred me to move on to the guitar. That’s the only instrument I can play and I can only play that very basically. To me, the guitar has only got one string. This is quite weird. So I played all six strings, or none. I only played chords, if you like. That’s the way it was played, I thought. Charlie Parker learned to play all the scales in ALL the keys, which apparently on the saxophone is really difficult. A more soft-player will just learn B Flat, F or C, figuring most of the songs will be in one of those. To me this is just how the guitar was played—I play all the strings or none of ‘em. And I’m playing the wrong-handed, as well, which really adds to my confusion, because I learned to play on other peoples’ guitars.  So I’m left-handed but I play right-handed. And then when I got my own guitar I couldn’t be bothered to change. I don’t have any delicacy with my “pic-hand.” The way they make all those complicated guitar-runs is not the fret-hand really. They know which one to pick—this one, that one, then that one over there and back to this one—it’s quite complex—and I’ve just got my clodhopper hand down there, so I can only shovel the whole row at once, or none. And that really limited the style. I play really rudimentary.

YOU HAVE YOUR OWN UNIQUE STYLE.

Yeah I hope so. That’s my only hope.

DID YOU EVER CONSIDER STRINGING THE GUITAR UPSIDE DOWN AND PLAYING THE OTHER WAY?

Well but you see once I learned to play the chords with my left hand, I’d learned them in the right hand way, so I couldn’t be bothered to learn it in any other way.

YOU’RE PRETTY MUCH SELF-TAUGHT, THEN? DID YOU EVER TAKE ANY CLASSES?

The only person who really taught me about the guitar was Tymon Dogg, who is a fiddle player and now in the Mescalleros on the new record. I started out in the music world by collecting money for him while he was busking down in the London underground—the tube system. This is back in say ’71, if you went down to Picadilly, you’d see Tymon Dogg playing a wild mountain fiddle, and me standing by him with a hat, going “thank you, thank you.”

I JUST WENT TO A FIDDLER’S CONVENTION IN SOUTHERN VIRGINIA.

Oh did you? You’ve GOT to see Tymon Dogg—he fiddles just like a Virginian!

HAVE YOU TRIED FIDDLING?

I can’t do it. Maybe I’ll try it the wrong-way-around! [laughs]

BEFORE YOU MADE MUSIC YOUR CAREER, WHAT WAS YOUR WORST JOB EVER?

It’s a toss-up between digging graves and cleaning toilets. They both have good things going for them…I’d have to say it’s a draw between those two..

DO YOU WANT TO DO ANY MORE ACTING?

No, I’m trying to avoid that desperately. I just think we all want good things in the world, like good books, good movies, etc. Sometimes ya feel like you’re clogging up something…like maybe an actor could have done the job. It feels like maybe rock-n-rollers come with a little too much baggage to the screen. “Oh look, there’s the guy from whatsit.” Even though Robert DeNiro’s been in 99 movies, he still has some magic power where we’re absorbed in the role he’s playing. Even though we know in the front of our mind hey it’s Robert DeNiro, sometimes I wonder if being let’s say  a rock-n-roller it’s a little bit harder to mesh into the scenery somehow, or become part of the story. When you’re acting you’re just a tool of the story. I prefer to leave it to the actors. Especially having done some films and hung out with actors, you see how hard they work at it. It ain’t just standing around.

EVEN WHEN YOU’RE SINGING, YOU’RE PERFORMING, RIGHT?

True. There’s parts that might link but something to do with the magic they have in letting us forget who they are. They can play to the camera. The camera is like an all-seeing eye, and unless you really spend a long time inside that intense circle of light…it’s like dancing with  someone—they can work to the lense—they know where the lense is. That’s a big part of being a film actor. They know what they’re doing.

THAT’S TRUE. I GUESS ALL ACTORS SHOULDN’T SING, EITHER.

Yeah, I’d like to trade!

DO YOU STILL PREFER VINYL TO CDs?

Absolutely. And though it’s going to be on import—the European arm of Hellcat/Epitaph is doing it—we have got a double-vinyl pressing of the album. It is gonna cost a few more, but I just figured because I’m a vinyl hound I prefer paying a few more rather than not have it all.

DO YOU HAVE A HUGE RECORD COLLECTION?

Well, I did have the beginnings of a decent collection, but living in squats and being on the road and being in rented flats, sometimes we had to sell some records to eat and all that usual stuff. People always take your best records at parties and stuff, so I have some shattered remnants of bits and pieces. Mostly it tends to be Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass.

DO YOU LIKE BEING ON THE ROAD STILL?

It’s a bittersweet thing, because you’ve got to leave home, yet when you’re out there you’re really expressing yourself and having the time of your life. To me it’s always bittersweet.

AND NOW THAT YOU’RE MARRIED IT’S PROBABLY DIFFERENT FROM BEING ON THE ROAD WITH THE CLASH?

I would hope so! [laughs]

DID THE CLASH HAVE GROUPIES?

Well, we weren’t so ugly, ya know? [laughs] It’s hard to compare with another group. Paul Simonon was a good-looking guy, so I think he brought a few ladies into the audience.

AND NOW?

Well I’ve always been more of a ‘guy’s band’ guy, see what  I mean? It’s not a shaking-your-ass kind of thing. However, having said that, there’s a few good-looking young guys in my band who are attracting their own share of attention.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO CHILL OUT WHEN YOU GET HOME FROM TOUR?

Open a bottle of wine, find an interesting book, smoke a couple of spliffs, and just chill.

DO YOU READ A LOT?

I like to read because it’s the opposite of being on the go. Reading is the perfect antidote.

WHAT’S BEEN YOUR ANTIDOTE LATELY?

I just finished Boogie-Man: The Story of John Lee Hooker. It’s by Charles Shaar Murray, who used to be a journalist for all the papers here, back in the day. It’s a stunning piece of work. It took him eight years. He’s really given it the proper due. Also Education of a Felon by Edward Bunker. It’s mind-blasting!

HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT WRITING A BOOK?

I do think about it but            maybe you’re just blessed with one talent in life that you can really fulfill. I’ve got a knack for writing lyrics and the very nature of that means it’s like writing a telegram. It’s like “stop. stop.” It’s very concise. It’s a three-minute thing, and yet a book is like a century long, to me. It seems very difficult for me. It’s almost like I’m doing the opposite. They’ve gotta have a structure. It’s a funny thing to crack. I just figure if Rogers and Hart write a book all we need is good lyrics. I’m working on that.

WELL YOU’VE DONE THAT.

Well, thank you.

WHAT ABOUT WRITING YOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY? It’s something like being a stool-pigeon. It’s like ‘yeah, then we went there and did this with si-and-so.” It’s like I ain;t gonna tell the police anything! I figure the best thing to do would be to strip away all the pomposity and just write the best anecdotes I can remember, and then just get it down so it’s a non-stop chain of anecdotes, rather than “I woke up and was feeling bad about my mother…”

HAVE YOU READ JOHNNY ROTTEN’S BOOK?

No I haven’t read it yet.

YOU SHOULD READ IT. IT’S A LOT LIKE THAT. THERE’S STRUCTURE BUT THERE’S A LOT OF ANECDOTES FROM HIM AND OTHER PEOPLE. IT’S A GOOD READ.

Oh that’s excellent!

DO YOU STILL RUN MARATHONS?

I have run three. I figure three’s a nice number. That’ll do. We live out in the middle of nowhere, so you can just walk for miles. I just take a dog.

IS PUNK DEAD?

Punk is a live and kicking because I am signed to a punk rock label. If I did not have this chance, I’m sure I’d be dead.

DEAD?

I mean in the water. I think it’d be hard to get a ‘straight’ label to sign on someone like me. Hellcat just signed Merle Haggard, they’ve got Tom Waits, they’re building an interesting roster here.

WHY DID YOU SIGN TO HELLCAT?

Because Tim Armstrong said “do you wanna sign to Hellcat?” and I said “sure!”

WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER ABOUT THE 101ERS OPENING FOR THE SEX PISTOLS?

I remember that it was the Sex Pistols opening for the 101ers. They were new in town and we’d been on the circuit about 18 months, so we could headline. These were only pubs, maybe 400 people could fit in ‘em? I heard about the Sex Pistols coming up and I was really wondering what it was, so there they were supporting us one Tuesday night. I think it was at the Nashville room. I remember they came in. I thought ‘I’m gonna interact with one of these guys.’ They were walking through the dressing room, and the last guy in line was wearing an Elvis Presley gold-lame jacket, and I said “hey—where’d you get that from?” And he went “oh, this jacket? I‘ll tell you where I got it from. This store up there in Camden.” And he was really nice and cool about it. And that was Sid Vicious, who at the time was kind of a hanger-on. So I thought I’m gonna check this out. My whole group went out front and sat in the audience and they came on and people are standing at the bar and it’s a Tuesday and it’s raining and nothing’s going on, and they kind of rewrote the history of rock-n-roll right in front of me!

WERE YOU BLOWN AWAY?

Absolutely! Except other people couldn’t see it. Immediately the whole scene was divided, in one instance. If you dug the Sex Pistols or you thought they sucked—you couldn’t stand on the line. It was one or the other. We were all squatting in huge families. It divided whole squats and everything.

HOW DID THE AUDIENCE REACT THAT NIGHT?

They didn’t react at all. It was like they were in a coma of surprise or delayed reaction. Remember that I was kind of ready for something, and these other guys just stopped into the bar for a beer on their way home from work.

DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU HEARD THE RAMONES?

Absolutely. We’d put the Clash together. Mick and Paul had a squat in Shephard’s Bush. Somebody’d got a hold of it and put it on and it was like “Eureka!” I think it’s one of the most fabulous records ever made. I was 22 or 23. I was a little bit more senior than the other punks.

ARE YOU CURRENTLY INTO ANY AMERICAN PUNK OR HARDCORE?

Sick of It All are brilliant. Bloodhound Gang, Green Day, Rancid, you name it—we rock with them.

DID YOU EVER GET INTO ANY OF THE DC OR STRAIGHT-EDGE STUFF?

You mean the originals? I knew it was going on but I can’t remember the names of the groups.

YEAH, LIKE MINOR THREAT?

Yeah, Minor Threat!

BUT THE STRAIGHT-EDGE THING NEVER GOT BIG IN ENGLAND.

No. People like their beer and cigarettes over here.

I KNOW. WHAT’S UP WITH THAT? SO YOU’RE NOT STRAIGHT-EDGE, THEN?

No way!

I’M JOKING.

Good.