The Future Is Unwritten

joe_strummer.jpgJoe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten
Director: Julian Temple

A few months ago I was casually listening to a Clash concert at Wolfgang’sVault.com while working on this site. Joe Strummer’s voice rose out of the speakers, imploring a screaming crowd: “You people here are still murdering these guys, I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying, but you’re crushing these guys…” I suddenly realized I was at that show. And the memory of that evening slowly started to bubble to the surface...

It was a frigid winter’s night on February 13th, 1979. I was a senior in college. I’d begged off the advice of friends and snaked my way up from Akron on a snowy, icy-slick I-77 to eventually find myself stuffed into a sweaty, crazy, packed Agora Ballroom in Cleveland, OH. It was The Clash’s Pearl Harbor tour; their first American tour. Bo Diddley was the opener. One of the founding fathers of rock. The crowd was restless, ready to consume these four skinny Brits, heirs to punk’s spiked crown. Sure, we had Stiv Bators and the Dead Boys, but somehow they paled in comparison. The Sex Pistols had already imploded and The Clash burst ahead of the pack. They were the real deal. And Joe Strummer was the galvanizing force that made it go.

As soon as Mr. Diddley got his boogie off stage, the crowd started pushing forward. Punks and rockers were ever so slowly being jostled closer the lip of the stage. Suddenly The Clash sauntered on stage and the anxious crowd behind me pushed even harder. Now most of us in the front row were in danger of being crushed to death by the collective weight bearing down on us from behind. Joe implored the crowd to stop pushing. They didn’t, so many of us were forced to jump on stage and watch the entire concert from the band’s POV. I found myself sitting at the feet of bassist Paul Simenon.

That surge forward would continue to be in some ways the catalyst that would force me to decide my post-college fate. One that would ultimately make me abandon starting law school and instead move to New York City to be part of the exploding culture of the East Village.

Sitting in the screening of Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten by director Julien Temple (The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, Glastonbury) 28 years later, I was transported back to the addictive ethos that attracted me to Joe’s quartet in the first place. The poetry of simple language rendered ferocious by punk’s DIY attitude and primal rock and roll spirit that he and his band mates cast into their music – both on vinyl and in concert.

Far from being sickly sentimental, Mr. Temple’s documentary explores the impact that Joe’s short life had on all those that he touched. Imaginatively constructed with never-before-seen footage, Temple explores Strummer's early years in boarding school to his hippie days as a galvanizing force in his communal squatters headquarters in London where he would form his first successful band – The 101'ers. Joe ingests the Sex Pistols primal fury, quits his band, abandons his friends, and join forces with three new punk-rock converts. Never looking back, he and The Clash would become one of the most beloved and biggest punk rock bands in the world.

There are the requisite celeb testimonials by Johnny Depp, Steve Buscemi, John Cusack (Strummer scored his movie Grosse Pointe Blank), Matt Dillon, Martin Scorsese, and musicians Bono, Joe Ely, Chili Peppers’ Flea and Anthony Kiedis, Roland Gift, et al., that are sincere and no doubt add to the box office lure, but it’s the reminiscing of his old art school and band mates around the raging bonfires that really lend insight into who this man was and how he came to be.

Later in his life, his legendary bonfires – part Glastonbury/Burning Man, part hobo - galvanized his energy and became symbolic for his passion for life with all invited into his fiery tribe. As the interviews in this doc unfurl around these bonfires, we come to learn that it’s truly a tribe of brothers and sisters that he collected during his life. And even though he was at times too dismissive and aloof in mishandling many of them, including some of his closest friends, he managed to find his way back to many of them.

Ultimately, he would come to reclaim some of his past glory with his last outfit Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, in doing so mending some of his burned bridges, and quenching his parched artistic thirst. But he would never again reach the zenith of success achieved by The Clash.

Watching this loving homage to a brother-in-arms is a tremendously uplifting journey. This two-hour documentary is extraordinary in its execution and revealing behind-the-scenes savory minutia that never feels trivial or gratuitous. The use of animating Joe’s cartoons and all the found footage of his early years before the birth of The Clash add insight into his complex persona. One is left with as complete an artist’s journey that a filmmaker could hope to achieve in a relatively short span of time.

In the end, Joe Strummer died (heart attack in December 2002 in Somerset) after reclaiming his renaissance spirit and thus left behind the epitaph of redemption through his music and art. (Fitting that one of his last recorded songs on his very last album would be his plaintive reading of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”) He left behind many old friends and plenty of new ones who got to witness him as a real human being, not just one of punk rock’s enduring icons.

I left the screening and made a beeline to Virgin Megastore in Times Square, fittingly right around the corner from the legendary Clash shows at Bonds, basking in the warm afterglow of this man’s eternal bonfire. He lived his life with little compromise, but with a whole satchel full of moxie. I couldn’t wait to explore his music again. And when I got home, I couldn’t wait to throw on The Clash’s sprawling musical journey on the three-LP set Sandinista!. I’d forgotten why I loved this band in the first place. And why I moved to New York. But once “The Magnificent Seven” boomed out of my headphones, I knew why.

Thanks, Joe.

And thanks, Julian, for this compelling portrait of the burning spirit of Joe Strummer. – Dusty Wright

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Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!

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