Monday, November 26, 2007

The Future Is Unwritten

Yesterday I went to see the movie Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten. Joe Strummer was a musician and one of the guiding lights of one of my very favorite bands, The Clash. He died in 2002 at the age of 50 from a congenital heart defect.

The Clash were an English punk band formed in 1976, and one of the few bands to break out of the punk blueprint and have a widespread, lasting, and meaningful impact on music and culture. This was in large part due to the talent and charisma of Joe Strummer.

When I was in eighth grade I bought a cassette of the American release of their first album, The Clash, and it would not be an understatement to say my life was changed. I never really belonged to the culture of punk, and had been brought up on a diet of Mozart and the Beatles, but I was instantly blown away by their energy, their hooks, their sound. As I explored further and got older, I realized that, musically, they were ambassadors and experimenters, delving into dub, reggae, balladry, rap and funk in addition to their straightforward rock’n’roll and punk, and to these ears, succeeding spectacularly at all of it (most of the time).

At the time, I just loved it and didn’t think much of it, and my love of the Clash served as a launching into new realms of music, to the Ramones, The Specials, The Talking Heads, The Sex Pistols, and many others. As I got older, though, I found myself wondering just what it was about Joe Strummer’s voice that I loved so much. It was really more of a hoarse croak; he didn’t sing out of tune (that role was relegated to Mick Jones, the other guiding force in the Clash) so much as sing beside the tune and on top of it. I think Joe Strummer had something like a genius of personality. He was able to put his whole creative being into his singing – you couldn’t help but feel him, his integrity, his energy, his anger and his optimism coming through like an electric current. I now think that he’s one of the great rock and roll singers of all time.

The movie was very moving and very thoughtful. It didn’t focus so much on Joe Strummer as a musician, on his influences or on how he and the rest of the band expanded their sound and became successful, creative and diverse band, so much as explore his life and decisions . In that sense, the subtitle The Future is Unwritten is perfect, and watching the movie made me understand with poignancy that life itself is a creative act, starting with the way we think about ourselves and the world around us.

When the Clash disbanded, Strummer went through a difficult period, some ten years or so, and he was clearly depressed and didn’t hide it. He was torn by the desire for success but turned off by the commercialization of his music and his persona (a very moving scene in the film has a friend describing him as breaking down in tears when he realized that the U.S. Armed Forces were using the Clash song "Rock the Casbah" as a rallying cry for the first Iraq war). He was confronted with people’s expectations for him to follow in the Clash’s footsteps and at the same time his own needs to grow and do new things, even as he didn’t know what those things would be. It seems he finally came out of it with the simple act of working, of finding a new band and just doing whatever came naturally without any preconceived notion of what he could or could not do, or with what anybody else expected him to do. He died a happy and productive person in the full flowering of an artistic rebirth.

I’m far from an objective viewer; Joe Strummer has been a hero of mine since I was thirteen. But I heartily recommend this movie to anybody, not just fans. Also, incidentally, the last albums that Strummer recorded and released with his band The Mescaleros are all worthwhile. A much mellower vibe than the Clash, as one would expect, but vital and exciting work, and full of Joe’s inimitable, fractured voice. Of course, if you don’t know the Clash, please go out and listen to London Calling, right away.


Nicholas said...

I just picked up Sandinista, haven't really given it a proper listen though. I'll put this on my netflicks q when it comes out, if it isn't already.

Brian C. Kenney said...

I was just listening to that last night as I was making dinner. I'll be curious what you think of Sandinista. I'm sure you've had greater exposure to dub (which is only one part of the album) than I have. Hope you enjoy!

Brad Kenney said...

I remember you playing me that cassette -- Janie Jones (she's in love with a rockanrollworld)
too good
no understatement to say that it changed my life too - I'll have to check this out as well.