08 September 2008

The Future Is Unwritten

I checked out the new Joe Strummer documentary, "The Future Is Unwritten," on the weekend. What a remarkable piece of film-making. I remember when Strummer died. I was back home in Wales listening to the radio when it was announced. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. My gut told me it was upset. My brain shortly thereafter announced, "Who fucking cares? He was just another celebrity, turning rebellion into money." As Strummer himself proclaimed, "We (The Clash) became what we were trying to destroy." IE. Out of touch, out of reach, exclusive rock stars, making millions for major record labels. As a punk purist, it is easy to write The Clash off as perhaps the biggest "sell-outs" of all time. But times were different back then and no one really knew where they were going and what leeches to watch out for. Strummer's story is complicated. He had a middle-class expatriate background that he later tried to shrug off in favor of a more salt of the earth working class image during the turbulent 1970s in Britain. He was very sensitive about this as he couldn't be seen as a middle class twat if he wanted to establish his punk cred.

The film traces Strummer's exploits through 1970s Britain, the discovery of punk, the rise and fall of the Clash and the years he spent soul searching afterwards. In some ways he wrote off his family, wrote off his art school/ hippy friends in order to carefully construct the uncompromising Joe Strummer image, until before he knew it, he was playing giant stadium shows in the US. Singing about the dole in a shitty London pub while the crowd and band are one, is one thing and singing about the Sandanistas in a giant American stadium totally isolated from the audience is another.

It seems after years of post-Clash depression, Strummer finally found peace by celebrating diversity and being allowed to come humbly back to earth. He'd grown up around diverse cultures, loved world music and was now reaching out to people from diverse backgrounds. As he says, "Punk is about having extremely good manners." Back in the mud with everyone else, Strummer eventually shrugged off the elitist rock star persona and became a punk again.

The Christmas before he died, he made cards that he painted himself. It is an idyllic setting with various lush green islands scattered around a complex watery landscape. On each island, people are all sitting around communal bonfires, doing their own thing, telling stories, listening/playing their own music. And this is how the film beautifully stages each interview and celebrates Strummer's humanity without the usual crude celebrity worship.
Strummer made many mistakes but I like where he ended up. Healthy culture needs diversity as much as a healthy eco-system does. Wedging ourselves into the same proverbial mega-stadium to tune into the same re-hashed shit is not going to stimulate anything useful.