Monday 19 August 2019

I hear Joe's voice saying, 'Go for it, go on, just say yes. F**k it. Why not?' - Lucinda Strummer

The Clash wrote the rule book for U2. In an Irish exclusive, Joe Strummer's widow Lucinda talks to Barry Egan about her life now on a farm in Somerset's Quantock Hills without the political firebrand of punk who died suddenly at the age of 50

Lucinda and Joe in New York in 1994. Photo: Bob Gruen
Lucinda and Joe in New York in 1994. Photo: Bob Gruen
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Things were on the up and up for Joe Strummer in late 2002. He had started work on a new album. On November 15, he and his band The Mescaleros played a benefit show for the Fire Brigades Union's striking firefighters at Acton Town Hall in West London.

Strummer's former bandmate in The Clash, Mick Jones, was in the audience and went onstage to play with Joe on Clash classics like Bankrobber, White Riot and London's Burning.

It was the first time Joe and Mick had played together in nearly 20 years; it was the final time the two legends of The Clash would ever share a stage together.

"I didn't know it at the time, but it was fate," Jones said afterwards of the historic night. "It wasn't planned in any way."

Six weeks after the Acton Town Hall concert, Joe was dead. Aged just 50, he died at his Somerset farm on the afternoon of December 22, 2002 of a sudden cardiac arrest; he had returned from walking his dogs. His wife Lucinda tried to resuscitate him when she came home and found him slumped in a chair.

Living in his country idyll with Lucinda, Joe had become "a kind of punk King Arthur, ruling over his camp-fire Camelot under the wide-screen skies of Rebel Wessex", wrote Stephen Dalton in Classic Rock magazine, adding of Joe in his rural kingdom - that "like Dylan in Woodstock, Strummer in Somerset was never really off duty, more like an exiled king waiting to be summoned back to his throne..."

Her interview with French newspaper Le Monde having over-run by 45 minutes, the late King Strummer's Queen Lucinda is starving, not least because she was up at dawn to leave her farm to catch the train from Somerset to London. It is here where she is holding a glamorous - if rare - court with the world's media.

Blonde and refined, she has the look of an indie rock chick Brigitte Bardot about her as she strolls nonchalantly through an autumnal Marylebone. There is a Chinese restaurant around the corner on Glentworth Street where she wants to have lunch. London is full of memories for Lucinda. Her late husband wrote so many unforgettable songs about this city.

Settling down at a table in the swish Chinese emporium, Lucinda says she would like to think there was a reason for Joe's death "but there wasn't. Somebody told me that because Joe had a congenital heart defect, the fact that he found climbing stairs or climbing hills difficult was a real signal that something was wrong".

Lucinda can remember being on tour with Joe in Portugal, and the lift had broken in the hotel. "We were on the third floor... he could be onstage for over two hours... but climbing stairs, he found difficult.

"I wish I knew then what I know now," she says sadly, "and he could have gone to have a check-up, but you know, he never saw a doctor the whole time I was with him. He didn't believe in doctors. He didn't believe in anything chemical. He never took a paracetamol, not even Alka-Seltzer. He was never ill. Extraordinary, really. He was very healthy. Endless herbal tea."

She is here to talk about a new album of 32 unreleased songs which she has overseen called Joe Strummer 001. The deluxe box-set also contains a super-cool hardback book of photos, notes and ephemera from her late husband's personal archive. "In the beginning, huge memories were stirred up," Lucinda, says, "because the archive was not just Joe's lyrics."

Was it a catharsis? "It was cathartic," she answers. "But some of it was painful. I would come across a note that was written to me or a scribble. 'Morning, babes. Stayed up late'. So in some ways, it was cathartic and in others, you are stirring up things that I am not ready for yet," Lucinda says of a man who died nearly 16 years ago and whom she married in 1995.

Is anyone ever ready for a close partner never coming back, being gone forever, I ask. "No. I don't think so," she replies. "And also, because of his lyrics and because of the fact that I have so much of his spoken word, it is like he is not dead anyway."

Eating her dim sum, Lucinda recollects her childhood in London, in particular, that the area she grew up in, Hammersmith, was "very Irish. We had the Brennans and the McCoys who were builders with large families. I grew up on a street where your door wasn't locked, and we all went into each other's houses. I remember the McCoys had a colour TV, so we could go and watch Crossroads in colour in their house. And the Brennans were so close. Everyone looked after each other.

"It was just me and my sister," Lucinda says referring to younger sister, Arabella, "so on a Saturday morning we would go round to the Brennans and we would go to the Saturday morning pictures with them. It was just a wonderful childhood - of running around these streets, some of which were condemned. They were our hide-outs. They were our playgrounds. So Arabella and I used to run with these great kids. We rode around on bikes. We had a huge sense of freedom," recalls Lucinda. "And now I live in Somerset on a small farm. I love it. I have a horse, dogs, chickens."

The horse, called Molly, is 22 years old. Lucinda has had her for 11 years. "I use her to exercise the dogs and explore the hills. I can ride for miles and miles and miles. I live in the Quantock Hills," Lucinda explains of the famous range where they say on a clear day from the top it is possible to see as far as Wales to the north and to the east, to Glastonbury Tor, where the spirit of her dead husband still lives; Joe's camp-fire 'Strummerville' backstage at the Glastonbury festival became the stuff of legend with the likes of Damien Hirst and Shaun Ryder, et al dropping by to join in the fun.

"The Quantock Hills are beautiful. There's grasslands, ancient forests, streams and no fences or hedges. You can just ride for miles. So it is peaceful down there."

Lucinda knew relatively little of Clash superstar Joe Strummer before she met him in 1993. "He was living on a friend's farm in Hampshire. I went to stay with my friend Amanda. My daughter Eliza was a year old. Amanda said to me, 'Get in the car, we are going to the local fun fair in Andover. It was a grey, miserable, drizzly May day. Then she said, 'I'll just see if Joe wants to come'. She drove around to Joe's house. And Joe would later tell me that he didn't know why he said yes as he had already been to the funfair with his kids" - daughters Jazz and Lola by Gaby Salter - "and he knew that it was," Lucinda laughs, "fairly crap."

"So, he got in the car and Amanda just said, 'Joe, this is Luce. Luce, this is Joe.' And that was it."

What was it? "I just completely fell in love," she says. "I just looked at those eyes and fell in love. He did have a magnetic voice. He had this personality that drew you in and made you feel special, intelligent, interesting, beautiful. I don't know what it was. It was everything with Joe."

Lucinda was living in London but they ended up renting a small cottage together "in the middle ground in-between" (in every sense of the word because Lucinda's marriage to her then husband James was, as he told The London Independent in 2007, "trundling on in that no man's land of co-existence" while Joe's relationship with long-term partner Gaby Salter was in a similarly unhappy place.

"Joe was very interested in nature. He was definitely a bit of a hippie. He wasn't doing music then. He was still smarting for the lack of support for Earthquake Weather," Lucinda says referring to his 1989 solo album.

The political firebrand of punk was born John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, on August 21 1952, the son of a diplomat whose posts included Cairo, Mexico City and Bonn before Joe was sent to leafy Surrey where he was public-school educated at City of London Freemen's School at Ashtead. That didn't stop middle-class Mellor, who changed his name to Joe Strummer, being the angry anti-Thatcher voice of the underclass as the rebellious front man of one of the biggest bands ever to come out of England, The Clash, who were formed in 1976. Rolling Stone named The Clash's London Calling record the greatest album of the 1980s; the American magazine also placed The Clash 28 on the list of the greatest acts of all time. They had over 16 hits; Rock The Casbah went to Number 10 in the US. Another huge hit internationally, Should I Stay or Should I Go?, was used in a Levi's ad.

In 1994, years after the band split, Joe was offered millions to reform The Clash for the Lollapalooza festival in America . Joe turned down the offer on the basis that, as he said, "If you're confronted with a choice: take five million dollars for the death of an artist, or you can live as an artist forever - maybe - you're gonna take the second option."

The messy final incarnation of The Clash having disintegrated in 1986, he formed Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros in 1999. "So music was not on the agenda at all for the first couple of years we were together. We hung out quite a lot. He was always writing; there just wasn't the music to go with it. We were having fun. He introduced me to his friends who lived in New York, in LA, in Paris. His circle was never ending," says Lucinda.

Asked what she learned about Joe from going through his archive, Lucinda says: "I have just grown more and more in love with him - and more in awe of him as I have gone through it, because I have seen the depth of his passion for people... and his humanity and his incredible wisdom in what he has left behind. Things that I wrote off as rubbish, because they took up so much space in the house or because they had a half-eaten sandwich in them, or whatever it was, I suddenly realised that each bag represented a time. I could see that there was a method in his madness," she says, adding, "So when he said, 'Don't touch anything. I know where everything is,' afterwards I could come to appreciate that he had such a huge capacity to absorb all these outside things in his head. Unlike me, who had to compartmentalise them."

What was he like to live with? "He was an owl and I was a lark. So, we kind of worked, because I would be up early doing the school run; I could do my phone calls. I am very organised. I was his, if you like, account manager in the relationship. Joe would kind of wander down between 11am and 1 o'clock, depending on how late he had gone to bed. Then we'd have lunch together. He loved his dogs. He loved his walks in the country. And then he would disappear into the studio."

He would re-emerge "for food or tea", she laughs.

"Joe was fun to live with. I remember one day - I think my daughter must have been about five or six - and we woke up and it was a beautiful morning, and Joe said, 'No school today. We are going down to Cornwall for the day'. He lived life for the moment."

Does Lucinda live in the moment? "I wish I did. I try. I do try! I hear Joe's voice the whole time, saying, 'Go for it. Go on. Just say yes. F**k it. Why not?'"

And why not? "Exactly, exactly. And that's what his early death should teach us. He was 50. 'Just go for it! Say yes!'" Lucinda says, echoing the love of her life.

Were Lucinda's parents the reason why she finds it difficult to go for it. "No, funnily enough, they were huge fun. My parents came of age in the early 1960s. My dad is an architect. My dad is still around. He is 78 years of age. My parents had me young. He is still working."

Her father Gavin is, she says, partially slighted, almost blind, and has been since his late 20s. "He makes buildings disabled-friendly. He has had wonderful projects - everything from Kensington Palace to public transport systems. He understands the colours that the blind can see."

Lucinda's mother Zara died a few years ago. "She came from an old aristocratic English family, if you like. She was a model. She modelled for a bit and was quite heavily involved in social work in London. She was lovely. I loved her."

And presumably her parents loved Joe? "They absolutely loved Joe. Everyone loved him," Lucinda says, adding that her grandmother Daphne's passion was horseracing and the first time Joe met her, she was just sitting there with the television on, watching the horse-racing. "Joe just sat down and watched it with her. I asked him, 'Do you know anything about horse-racing?' And he said, 'No!'"

I ask Lucinda to recall the day after the funeral when she closed the door and was on her own.

"I had friends stay with me for a long time; for about three years," she says. Tears welling up in her eyes, she goes on, "I still feel his presence there, definitely. It was very traumatic because Joe was not meant to die. I just came back and found him dead. It was such a shock. And it remains such a shock. This wasn't meant to happen. He was fit. He was healthy. He was vegetarian. He ate his oily fish. He liked his wine..."

Can she remember their last conversation?

"Not particularly," she says, haltingly. "We were giving Eliza a pony for Christmas. The few days before he died, we had been up in London meeting his girls [Jazz, then 18 and Lola, 16] and Gaby, their mother, and Gaby's parents - we were all very close - for our annual Christmas lunch at Kettner's in Greek Street in Soho. Joe was tired. He had been working at Rockfield Studios with The Mescaleros. He had been on tour. He was tired. There was Clash business at the same time, re-issues."

Lucinda lives on her own now on the Somerset farm but she is rarely on her own in a sense because "Joe suddenly appears in my dreams". In the dreams, Lucinda is, she says, "always trying to find him. Or he appears for a bit and then I have to go and find him".

Does she ever find him?

"I do sometimes but he is very often busy or preoccupied, or with someone."

Was that the way it was with Joe when he was alive?

"Yeah. A lot of our life was like that. Joe loved people and I had to share him with everyone. At times, it was very difficult. He had time for everybody."

Maybe he knew he wasn't bound for a long life, I say.

"Maybe he knew and just wanted to make the most of everything. Don't the Tibetans say that you are born with a finite amount of breaths and it is how you take them?"

Lucinda says she sees "things and does things now and I want to tell him about it. I still talk to him. Of course, I do".

What kind of conversations does Lucinda have with Joe? "Just kind of chat, really. I just feel comfort, I think."

Does Joe talk back? "Not always, no. I just get comfort from it."

I say that William Blake believed he could talk to anyone just by thinking about them.

"I think it is more like, in life, if you take the question outside of your own little universe and just put it out there. It doesn't matter whether it's Joe, or whoever you talk to - a lost parent or God or Jesus or whatever you're into - you are just taking it out of your own little orbit and just spreading it out there.

"And hopefully," Queen Strummer says, before catching the train to return once more to her Somerset Camelot, "you are more receptive to an answer."

'Joe Strummer 001' is out now on Ignition.

STRUMMER: A king among  his contemporaries

* “The most profound voice of any musician I’ve ever heard. Joe [Strummer] took his message to the world and the world listened. He managed to influence more than one generation with his innovative and determined manner, and I am not alone in repeatedly turning to his thoughts and lyrics when searching for inspiration. The Clash were the greatest rock band. They wrote the rule book for U2.” — Bono

* “I know for a fact they were offered huge amounts of money to reform The Clash. They just said no. That’s truly admirable. They were very important musically but as a person, Joe was a very nice man.”

— Bob Geldof

* “Without Joe, there’s no political Clash and without The Clash, the whole political edge of punk would have been severely dulled.”

— Billy Bragg

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