LET’S ROCK AGAIN
I remember being invited to a semi-underground screening in Hollywood several years ago, and being astounded at a superb post-Clash documentary about Joe Strummer. The film eventually gained some traction on the festival circuit, and may have had a theatrical run of several days. What a delight that it is finally available on DVD to enjoy at length.
The film opens in slash and burn style by capturing the history of the Clash in one quick song…a legal clearance nightmare of glorious footage and clips. The remainder of the film is drawn from the 2002 trials and tribulations of trying to get traction for Strummer’s new band, the Mescaleros, as they tour the US behind their second album, Global A Go-Go. The concert and interview footage is interspersed with backstage behavior, mostly involving scrawny Brits getting out of their sweaty togs.
The film’s best sequence is established around the Atlantic City boardwalk. Strummer visits a nearly deserted radio station in an effort to get some airplay and promotion for his upcoming gig at Trump Plaza. The disconnect is startling and amusing: being from one of the best bands ever and then groveling on the boardwalk to get airplay and punters to his gig. “Ermmm, I used to be in the Clash….”
In one of the film’s many cutaways, Strummer describes his 11 year layoff, admits he went from hero to zero, and that it was good for his soul. Indeed, the interview sequences are extremely insightful. Some of the discussions are one-on-one, and some are on the street with fans. The interview sequences are well-balanced by the scorching live performances. The songs inevitably range from newer Mescaleros tracks to Clash classics and some choice covers.
There are many grin-inducing surprises that emerge from the interview sections. Strummer talks about running a marathon in an impressive four hours and 20 minutes. It turns out he is a huge Beach Boys fan; the film has recurrent ocean and lyric imagery. But Strummer confirms he would not have gotten into music without American bands such as the Kingsmen, the Standells, and presumably the Swingin’ Medallions.
As though he were listening in on my favorite pub debate, Strummer asserts he’d rather be a trash man than a door man, because he could travel around. He equates his songwriting technique to that of a crossword puzzle writer, and debunks the myth that the songwriter is a vessel through which lyrics magically flow. “You gotta beat those lyrics out of your brain; it is hard work.” Hence, he saves the words to the very end of the song’s creation: “They are like lettuce; they can get old quickly, so I use ‘em just before I am ready.”
In an acknowledgement to the evolving nature of touring, he expresses resignation about how the Internet has taken the surprise out of preparing set lists; everyone knows what the band played at the prior night’s gig.
The live sequences show an understandably appreciative audience. The new songs are met with respect and warmth, and the chestnuts such as “London’s Burning” remind any remaining doubters that Strummer was a genius. At the apogee of nearly every song, Strummer’s evocative rasp is matched by his trademark fist against the temple.
We are now in a nascent resurgence of all things Clash; the Rude Boy rockumentary was reissued last summer, a gorgeous Clash singles box set was found under certain punks’ Christmas trees, and this summer will see The Filth and the Fury helmer Julien Temple put to good use with his documentary Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten.
There has been some revisionist history lately, about how early in their career, the Clash curtailed their middle/upper class background. (This is a reverse of sorts from how the Beatles turned themselves from rough Teddy Boys to polished lads.) Time will tell how much of the image matched the Clash’s early reality, but the music Strummer created will last for eons.
Let’s Rock Again includes five additional concert songs, a good Q+A with director Dick Rude—but the outtakes of mucking about backstage would have been better left on the cutting room floor. The best bonus feature is an integrated stream-of-consciousness section, cut across myriad Strummer interviews that is amusing, enlightening, and inspiring.