Joe Strummer was a punk-rock legend but also a gentleman.
That seems strange to say about a man who helped ignite a musical movement renowned for its rudeness, but it's true. Perhaps this is because Strummer, who died late last month, was the son of a fairly well-to-do British diplomat (Strummer's real name was John Graham Mellor) and blessed with a cosmopolitan upbringing. But it was also a fundamental quality of his character.
I found this out firsthand when I met Strummer in 1991, backstage at the Beacon Theater in New York City. Strummer was on tour with the Pogues, temporarily fronting the group in place of the ousted Shane MacGowan. I went to the show with my younger brother, Dave, who was a passionate disciple of The Clash and viewed Strummer the way Tibetan Buddhists view the Dalai Lama. Near the end of the concert, we devised the bright idea of posing as campus reporters for our respective university newspapers. The idea was to insist to the security guards that we had arranged an interview with Strummer beforehand.
We were told that no one was allowed backstage without passes, a perfectly understandable (and predictable) position. My instinct was to give up there, but Dave would not. He insisted that we had been told - his use of the passive voice did not specify by whom - that we would not need passes, and that "Joe" was waiting for us. I tried not to let my jaw drop when he told the security guard that "Joe will know us when he sees us."
Eventually, we wore them down, and they relented.
The backstage scene was very tame, just a subdued little party. We wandered into a side room and saw him - Joe Strummer, leaning against a countertop in what looked like a makeshift kitchen, talking to a handful of people. I remember the deeply instinctive feeling of being somewhere that I didn't belong, but Strummer looked up at us and said in his garbled cockney accent, "Hello, fellas."
Dave immediately answered, "Hello, Joe." We stood around awkwardly for a few minutes. There seemed to be a lull in the conversation, so Dave finally asked, "Did you enjoy working with Allen Ginsberg?" referring to the poet's appearance on the Clash song "Ghetto Defendant." Strummer smiled and answered back, "Ginsberg - he's a hustler!" and began to describe the way the song had been recorded.
At some point in the conversation, the distance between us imperceptibly closed, until we were standing next to Strummer, and the others in the room seemed to fade away or start their own conversations. Dave had many questions - and opinions - that he wished to share, and Strummer seemed perfectly willing to entertain them all.
We spent about a half hour with him. He enjoyed talking about his music, and seemed particularly enthused by our questions about his solo work. But he seemed to have no axes to grind about his past, either, and discussed his Clash music eagerly and often in great detail. At times it seemed as though the discussion were among three fans, not two fans and an artist.
What struck me about him was how unaffected he seemed. Part of the punk-rock ethos was that even average guys could start a great band, and the music was a reaction against the increasingly pretentious posture of the rock star. But ethos was one thing, reality another - no one considered The Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten approachable or down to earth, for example. Strummer was.
This was even clearer when he asked us where we lived, and what we did. He had follow-up questions, too. Except for the minor fact that he knew so much inside information on Clash music, we forgot who we were talking to.
Near the end of our conversation, he made one grand gesture. Dave had spotted Strummer's battered guitar perched in the corner of the room. He knew it was Strummer's because he had seen it in so many pictures - it was covered in stickers and slogans. Like many musicians, Strummer preferred to hold on to the same instrument as long as he could.
"That's the one you play in 'Rude Boy,' right?" Dave asked, referring to the Clash film.
"Yeah, that's it," Joe said, "try it on if you like." I will always remember the look on Dave's face as he strapped on the guitar of the great Joe Strummer. The radiant glow that bathed his face bordered on beatific.
The night grew late and Strummer was ready to move on. "All the best to you, guys," he said, and we parted ways.
On our way home, Dave and I were bemused by how many people backstage hadn't seemed interested in talking with Strummer. Or had he not been interested in talking with them? We allowed ourselves the possibility.
"I guess he was just waiting for some good conversation," Dave said. Or maybe Dave's bluff line had proved true after all, and Joe had known us when he saw us.