September 2012

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Joe Strummer would have been 60 this month, but imagine him for a moment the way I remember him at 20.

Let’s say, then, that it’s early 1973, the start of my last term at art school in Newport, in South Wales. Joe, who everyone knew then as Woody, has fetched up here after dropping out of London’s Central School Of Art. He’s got a job around this time digging graves for the council, something like that, and is otherwise a regular in the college canteen and at the students’ union, a dilapidated place on Stow Hill, not far from where I’m living at the time with my girlfriend, who one day Joe asks to cut his hair. For as long as we’ve known him, Joe’s sported an ungainly frizzy thatch that makes him look like the unnecessary additional percussionist in a tank-topped white funk band. So Kathy gives Joe his first rockabilly haircut, a tonsorial improvement that makes him walk with a newly affected tough-guy swagger.
At the students’ union, we usually gather, a regular bunch of us, sometimes including Joe, on a Tuesday night to watch The Old Grey Whistle Test in an upstairs room where we sit on beer crates as there are no chairs and argue about the bands on the show. I have an opinion about everyone we see, not always complimentary. I am in other words a lippy sod and people are often incensed by my more unreasonable ranting, especially when it’s about groups who are favourites of theirs but not mine. Amazingly, in a little over a year from now, Melody Maker will actually be paying me for such opinions. Who could have seen that coming, or that Joe would go on to become who he did. Back then, he’s just someone with a donkey jacket and a shovel with a job digging holes for the dead.

Anyway, one night Joe drops by my digs with a bottle of vodka. He’s keen, he says, to find out a bit more about the music I’ve been talking up so brashly. Ever the gobby evangelist, I pull out some records I think he should hear and start playing them. There’s not a lot he immediately likes. I can’t for instance get him to listen to The Velvet Underground at all, and he’s not keen on The Stooges. I play him “TV Eye” from Funhouse and he feigns acute distress, screwing up his face in an approximation of horror that makes me laugh out loud. He’s similarly unimpressed by the MC5. He also hates glam, thinks Lou Reed is nothing more than a decadent slut, Roxy Music are the sequinned spawn of a shrieking she-devil and the very mention of David Bowie makes him look like he’s going to spew, although this could be the vodka, which we are probably drinking too quickly and straight from the bottle. I play him “Watch That Man” from Aladdin Sane, though, and he grudgingly admits it actually rocks. But he’s more comfortable with Exile On Main Street and we play the first side over and over, no argument between us over the likes of “Rocks Off”, “Shake Your Hips” (which he will one day cover with The 101ers) and “Tumbling Dice”. Highway 61 Revisited also gets a bit of a leathering, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” a mutual favourite. We’re on common ground, too, with Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee, and he especially likes an album showcasing the blues harmonica playing of Little Walter that I’ve recently found in a great secondhand record shop where I used to spend a lot of time and money, a funky place at the top of Commercial Road, the gateway to an area of Newport called Pill, a place then of ill-repute, shall we say, rough pubs and drug dealers, that sort of thing.

Forty years on from such rowdy nights, our cover story by Chris Salewicz looks back on less innocent days in Joe’s life, his so-called post-Clash ‘wilderness years’, from which he’d eventually emerge in something like heartening triumph. I hope you enjoy Chris’ feature and the rest of the issue. As ever, if you want to get in touch, email me at

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