Joe Strummer sort of took me by surprise this year. In an attempt to connect with a friend who claims to be The Clash's biggest fan, I tried to wade through his biography Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, and failed. It was slow, and terrifically dull. It was all about his art school buddies and living in squats, and his history with his first, failed bands. Rather than the exciting, kinetic, thrashing energy of The Clash, the book dwelt on Strummer and his transformation from John Mellor, son of an English diplomat, attendee of boarding school, and brother of David, who killed himself when Strummer was eighteen. Which are all important life events but like, hello? London was calling! Mellor, who went by the name Woody and then Joe Strummer, was a young man who, by all accounts, could charm the yellow off a bee with sheer charisma, and led The Clash to worldwide renown. He was, as the kids say, the shit.
His band changed the face of music in the 2oth century; drawing its sound and fury from reggae, the Sex Pistols, the Zapatista movement, and the fuck-the-rich ethos that grows from squatting in abandoned London council houses, The Clash shaped a generation of young punks into belligerent, intelligent listeners. The band ultimately imploded, starting with Strummer's ill-starred disappearing act that muffed the first leg of the Combat Rock tour, and ending with the ejection of Topper Headon (for heroin addiction) and Mick Jones (for what the California courts might call "irreconcilable differences"), and Strummer had what are widely considered his wilderness years.
I love the concept of the wilderness years. To me, the notion that someone has so much damage that he (or she) has to quit, commit social seppuku and just up and leave, is incredibly potent. Strummer had kick-started a new sound, a hugely influential band, and his own misery. The next logical step was for him to disappear. Strummer was relatively young when he first stamped his name on the music scene - "White Riot" charted in the UK when he was 25 years old, and by the time he had turned 27, London Calling had been released. Ten years after their first show, the band had eaten its own tail.
Think about that for a second. Put yourself in Strummer's shoes. Boarding school must have been tough - Redemption Song mentions that, while he was in school, Strummer saw his parents about once a year. Living in squats must have been rough, although the book and The Future Is Unwritten, one of the many Strummer documentaries produced since his death in 2002, both point out that the squat lifestyle led by a lot of England's youth at the time was a community of politics, not poverty. But then to go from this left-behind feeling, to being the frontman for one of the leading musical acts in the world, must have been really effing weird. Living out of hotel rooms, performing music for aggro crowds around the world, being 32 with a mohawk...come on.
Think yourself into that situation for a second. Leave your wife, your shitty job, your lease, you fridge full full of wilted celery and beer, and put yourself in a hotel room in Osaka in 1982, stoned on adrenaline and Jamaican green. Think about how disconnected you might feel, from your friends, your kids, your closet, your shower. Think about how your boyfriend smells, and think about not smelling that for six weeks while you sing songs for strangers in a foreign country where you don't speak the language and the traditional breakfast is rice and fermented soybeans.
So who can blame Strummer for lying low for a while? He settled down, had a couple kids, did some soundtrack work, along with a few movie appearances, and tried to put his head back together. Normalcy, after a decade of being in The Clash, would have been...weird. But for those of us who aren't internationally acclaimed fathers of rock, the concept of "wilderness years" falls flat. With few exceptions, our psychic damage - and make no mistake, fame and fortune are damaging - is just the regular, normal, fucking up that we all engage in. But I admire him for taking off. It speaks to a level of self-awareness that most people don't have, and getting out of the limelight, for the most part, is a killer move. And then the best part is, he came back.
His later-life project, the Mescaleros, were a much mellow, worldlier-sounding band than The Clash. They were nowhere near as high-profile as his youthful ensemble, but they produced a sound that fits with Strummer's disappearance, his breaking and eventual rebirth as a musical figurehead. Instead of a young lion, the Mescaleros gave him a chance to be a statesman of rock, incorporating the sounds of his ancestral homeland and the reggae that helped shape The Clash. And that band couldn't have happened without his wilderness years.
When I say Joe Strummer was a late bloomer, I don't mean he took a while to get started. The Clash were a game- and genre-changing band, and their out-of-the-gate influence was transformative. But it took a bite out of Joe in a big way, and his real bloom, his flower, his relaxation and his fun, seems to have come with the Mescaleros. And that, friends, is amazing. He gave himself permission to keep trying, to take a break, to give himself the kindness of a new start, and it paid off.