I vividly remember learning the first song my high school garage band covered, The Clash’s “Clash City Rockers.” We spent hours deciphering the lyrics, and never got them right. This was, if you can believe it, a pre-Google age. While the exercise was frustrating, I never resented Joe Strummer’s slurred, gravelly vocals for making us work hard at getting his meaning. For one thing, I loved his voice, and as a student of the blues and Dylan, never really cared if rock singers could actually sing. For another, Strummer never seemed to care much himself if you could understand him, though his lyrics blasted through mountains of BS. This is not because he was an egotist but quite the opposite: he passionately hated rock clichés and wasn’t making pop records.
The first scene in the documentary above, Viva Joe Strummer (later released as Get Up, Stand Up), gives us The Clash frontman deconstructing the genre. “Well, hi everybody, ain’t it groovy,” he says to a cheering crowd, followed by, “ain’t you sick of hearing that for the last 150 years?” The documentary’s narrator describes Strummer as “the man who put credible rock and roll into the bastard cultural orphan that was called punk,” but this seems an inaccurate description.
For one thing, rock and roll is itself a bastard genre, something Strummer always recognized, and for another The Clash, fueled by Strummer’s ecumenical interest in world cultures, drew liberally from other kinds of music and stuck their middle fingers up at establishment rock and everything it came to represent.
Viva Joe Strummer gives us loads of concert footage and interviews with band members and close friends like the Sex Pistols' Glen Matlock. The focus remains on Strummer, a frontman with tremendous charisma but also, paradoxically, with a tremendous amount of humility. One reviewer of the film says as much:
Joe Strummer always projected himself as a humble man. Even at the height of The Clash‘s megalomania, when he fired guitarist Mick Jones, Strummer came across like a better read, more worldly Bruce Springsteen. The everyman image has made eulogizing the singer difficult.
This suggests that Strummer’s everyman persona may have been part of his showmanship, but even so, he was respected and admired by nearly everyone who knew him. And his proletarian politics were genuine. As one interviewee says above, “he always had a corner to fight in. He always had someone to stick up for.”
The original DVD included a CD with interview clips from 1979 to 2001, such as the 1981 Tom Snyder Show interview above. Viva Joe Strummer lacks the powerful dramatic arc and tight direction of Julian Temple’s 2007 The Future is Unwritten, but it’s still well worth watching for interview footage you won’t see anywhere else. Despite the film’s original subtitle, The Story of The Clash, the documentary follows Strummer’s career all the way through the dissolution of the band that made him famous and through his successive musical endeavors with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. And it documents the reactions to his sudden, tragic death in 2002. I still remember getting the news. I happened, oddly enough, to be drinking at the bar where the Joe Strummer mural would go up in New York’s East Village in 2003. I walked outside and lit a cigarette, put on my headphones, cued up “Clash City Rockers,” and shed a tear for the punk rock everyman who everybody loved.