Chasing A Shadow: On the trail of Joe Strummer with The Clash’s Paul Simonon

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A version of this story first appeared in The Sunday Herald December 14 2003.
All photographs in this version © Damien Love.

FOR SUCH A SMALL ISLE, Raasay’s roads seem surprisingly endless. Maybe it’s because, for such a small isle – twelve and a half miles from tip to tail, if you’re a crow, and just over three miles wide at its widest  – there’s so much nothing here.

Driving north on this rock floating between Scotland’s northwest coast and the Isle of Skye, the sea below lies the same infinite grey as the sky. As the meagre highway stretches away from the island’s community, 200 souls hugging southern shores, road, sea, and sky becomes all there is. It feels like it could unfold, unchanging, forever.

Eventually, though, the road does end. The way ahead becomes a half-made footpath, down through pale wood for a long time, then leg-deadeningly upwards, into a sombre, heathery desolation. An hour of this, then another, harder, climb, and we’ve gained a ridge overlooking the stunningly bleak waters of Loch Arnish, 200 feet below.

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Pausing for breath, there’s time to reflect how far this high, silent place seems from the world. A mighty long way from rock and roll. The last place on Earth you expect to find one of the last survivors of The Only Rock and Roll Band That Ever Mattered sitting eating chocolate.

Here, though, munching, sits Paul Simonon, who was once an immortal as a member of The Clash, but today earns his living as a painter – and, at the moment, is leading our expedition into the northern wastes.

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It’s almost twenty years since The Clash burned so imperfectly out – the only way that incendiary confusion could have ended – and a decade since Simonon laid down his bass to devote himself to painting. He’s in no hurry ever to return to music. But now, eight months after the shock of Joe Strummer’s death, here he is, on the road because of Joe Strummer once again.

It’s mid-September, darkening morning after a night before on which whisky turned into beer, then wine, then whisky again. Celebration seemed in order. When I joined Simonon on the rain-shrouded isle yesterday, he had just returned from a place it had taken him two days fruitlessly searching this wilderness to find. Now all he has to do is remember how he found it again.

Sugar fix satisfied, Simonon picks up his paintbrushes, resettles his battered straw Stetson and stands, a tall figure in blue denim, to survey the way ahead. A thin waterfall seems familiar. He heads east with an easy, gunslinger’s stride. He looks like a man who knows where he’s going.

Later, on a vanishing, precipitous mud track heading straight towards a cliff edge, nothing beyond but the long drop into sea, I’m not so sure.

Tiggerishly in his element, Simonon flashes a gap-toothed grin.

“This is like the Quest for the Holy Grail.”

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ON MONDAY DECEMBER 23 LAST YEAR
, my phone rang. The voice asked, could I write an obituary for Joe Strummer? The radio was on. I couldn’t work out what “write an obituary for Joe Strummer” meant, when the radio announced Strummer was dead. The day before, he’d walked his dog through the Somerset hills, returned to his house, and died.

Joe Strummer, diplomat’s son, squat cartoonist and eternal busker. Marathon runner, escape artist, inventor of the bullshit detector. Who played like his life, our lives depended on it. Like life was worth it. Like he believed this foolish notion: music matters, music can talk. Who, one year ago, was still out there, in red light, still tearing through concerts, entire body still juddering as though hardwired to his wrecked Telecaster, still latino-rockabilly-warring, still hobo-skanking, still beat-jiving, still grooving. Still forgetting the words, still substituting garbled arrrghhhgorrabuhbhuhdoarrrrgggghhhhnnns from the soul, still knee-dropping, still testifying about food and old ladies and young punks and garbagemen and cities drowning and cities on fire. His heart, which never gave up, gave out. He was 50. I couldn’t write an obituary. I didn’t do much the rest of that day.

It emerged that it was congenital. It could have happened at any age. At five, at 25. Strummer’s challenge as he cut out of the scene: don’t grieve he died too young; celebrate he lived so much.

Amid all the elegies that followed, the media eulogies and football park silences, the most fitting memorial seemed the strangest. A company called Future Forests announced the planting of a forest at Orbost, on Skye, as living tribute to Strummer’s memory.

Future Forests provides businesses advice on global warming and sustainable development. Planting trees to neutralise carbon dioxide emissions is a key initiative. Strummer, who until the end railed about “greed-driven, money-feeding bastards raping the planet and standing round laughing about it,” was an advocate. The company planted 50 saplings. Strummer fans have since contributed an additional 2,500.

When The Sunday Herald contacted Paul Simonon, the idea was for him to paint the forest, now named Rebel’s Wood, to mark the anniversary of Joe’s death. Simonon, who has been wary of musical tributes, jumped at the proposal. “This is more poignant for me,” he told me, “It’s what I’m dealing with, oil and canvas.”

None of which explains what we’re doing scouring the wilderness on Skye’s tiny neighbour.

There are four of us out here: Simonon, Stewart, the Sunday Herald‘s photographer and I, and the writer Chris Salewicz, a long time Clash associate, currently writing Strummer’s biography, and along with Simonon for the trip. It’s he who first mentions the sheep.

“Isn’t this where we saw the sheep?”

Simonon considers. “Yeah. First day we were out here,” he explains, gesturing, “there was, like, a sheep, on that crest. Just on its own. Looking at us. And it was like it was saying, ‘You stupid fuckin’ London sods – it’s just down here!’

“But, by all the maps, I knew it was just down there.” Simonon points in the other direction. “It’s just that, physically,” he goes on, as I glance warily toward the sheer drop he’s indicating, “it seemed the only way to get there was to put our lives in danger, and there was no way we wanted to call the helicopter ambulance. So we acted accordingly, figured we’d go back, try again.”

“The sheep,” Salewicz asserts, “was from Joe. This whole thing is very Joe. A Zen test.”

“To get there,” nods Simonon, walking off in the opposite direction, “you have to go away from it.”

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This journey began at Strummer’s funeral. Simonon’s wife helped arrange the London service, and their house became gathering place, then, later, site of a celebratory wake. Afterwards, Simonon received a card from Joe’s cousin, Iain Gillies, who lives in Texas, thanking him. It showed a ruined stone cottage, like something from a John Ford movie.

In fact, Iain, who has explored his family history, took the photograph a decade previously on Raasay, at the overgrown devastation of a derelict, eight-house township called Umachan. Beneath the picture he wrote: “This is the house where Joe’s and my great-grandmother was born.” Joe’s great-great-grandfather built the place; it’s as far back as anyone can trace Strummer’s lineage on his mother’s side.

Strummer planned to visit the cottage himself, but never made it. When the trip to Scotland presented itself, Simonon told me, he knew he had to go to the house for Joe; in a sense, with him.

“The forest is a great idea,” he explains, “but I felt I needed to go deeper. To the roots. In a spiritual way, you could say, it’s making a reconnection. It’s a hefty walk. Especially when you’ve got canvases and easels. It took two good tries to find it. But that struggle, it’s part of the painting – and part of The Clash, too, really. Y’know, ‘Well, we fell down. But we’ll stand up and go again.'”

A path is revealing itself. We come out onto a shelf over the enormous sea. Out there, restless water catches a shaft of light dropped through the clouds. The silence is breathtaking. I notice some of the rocks strewn around aren’t rocks, but fragments of walls, stones laid down 200 years ago. Suddenly, here is the house. A rowan grows from its wall, still flowering.

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IT’S THE NIGHT BEFORE
. Simonon and I are huddled alone in the deserted kitchens of the 250-year-old husk of Raasay House, once the island chief’s mansion, now a spartan resort for those who like the outdoor life.

Simonon has a self-effacing, courtly manner, behind which lies an acute, sly, hilarity. At 47, his face is a little fuller, his hair a little thinner, but he’s still blessed with the blue gaze and preternatural poise that made him the most photogenic punk in town. Frowning at the cigarette he’s rolling, he’s recognisably the brooding, low-slung bassist whose name is still enough to make most women I know go literally weak at the knees.

Always The Clash’s dark horse, he was the sole member to be there from before the beginning until – when founding guitarist Mick Jones was sacked, fantastically, for “rock and roll tendencies” – after the end. Simonon named the band, and provided its most iconic image one frustrated night at New York’s Palladium, when he smashed his bass onstage, a moment immortalised on the cover of the epochal London Calling album.

He’s also responsible for the best definition of The Clash as A Political Band: “Really, personal politics. When somebody says, ‘You can’t do that,’ we thought you should ask, ‘Why not?'” In musical terms, as they ventured out from the shadow of London’s Westway into the world, that philosophy saw them absorb everything they encountered, moving them from the sheet-metal punk of their first records to the weird, warm, expansive fields of dub, rockabilly, funk, jazz, blues, hip-hop and folk of their last.

It was because of his looks as a 20-year-old art student that Mick Jones first approached Simonon about joining a band. Jones needed a singer. Hearing Simonon sing, he tried teaching him guitar instead, then gave up, and handed him a bass, which Simonon learned by painting the notes on his fretboard.

Simonon, Strummer and Jones all attended art school. Unlike the others, Simonon actually went there to learn to paint. Born near Brixton in 1955, his parents split up when he was eight. By his early teens he was failing at school and getting into trouble as a skinhead; this was before that became synonymous with the National Front, when being a skin still meant a particular sense of style and a diet of Jamaican music, the latter a love which, in time, altered The Clash’s architecture.

In his teens, he lived with his father. He slept in a fold-down bed in the kitchen, “cheese and bread one side, cooker on the other. I’d lie there at night, making toast and cheese.” His father, Antony, had been a soldier, an insurance man and a book seller. His main love, though, was art. Although they had a difficult relationship, Simonon credits his influence for his decision, at 16, to get together the portfolio that took him to London’s Byam Shaw Art School. “We all want to be like our fathers. Then we get to a certain age and we don’t want to be like them. Then suddenly, we are our fathers.” He now has two sons himself.

He’s found himself thinking about his father on this trip. Around the time his parents separated, he and is dad hitched from London to Skye, camping. “You know that green water-proof paint? We painted the tent. It rained. Next day the tent was white again. There are probably people who still remember these green aliens from London walking around.

“What’s frustrating now,” he goes on, “is, I knew Joe’s mother was Scottish, but I didn’t know his family were from this area. We never had that conversation. Our conversations were usually [his voice blurs into Strummer’s], ‘Whattawe gunna do tamorrah?'”

Simonon first saw Strummer in 1976, when Jones took him to see Strummer’s band, the 101ers. “There were, like, dogs walking across stage, hippy blokes wandering around – but in the middle of all this, this bloke, just giving it really serious attitude with a guitar. We were looking for a singer, and there he was.

“Joe was shocked I’d only been playing a few months. But he was relieved I had a bit of passion, the way I threw the guitar around. There was a connection: I had no baggage, musically, and Joe chucked his away when he joined The Clash. It was like, ‘We’re starting fresh. We’re gunna create a new world!’ How naive. But, you have that attitude when you’re that age. Me and Joe, we were always at ease. We were still really close friends. He always treated me as his younger brother.”

When The Clash ended, Simonon upped sticks. “London was crazy! People were like” – his face crumples into cartoon despair – “‘What Happened?!‘” He moved to El Paso and rode a motorbike along the Mexican border. He found himself in LA recording a bizarre session with Bob Dylan, interrupted when Hells Angels Simonon knew turned up in the studio wondering where he was. With one of his oldest friends, Nigel Dixon, he formed another band, Havana 3am.

In quick succession in the early 1990s, Simonon’s first son was born and Dixon died. Those two events caused him to rethink his life, and brought about his return to painting. “I went to the National Gallery, just started drawing,” he says. “Then it was going outside and painting, because I couldn’t do it in a studio at that time. It’s difficult, after you’ve been on stage, instantly giving people the ammunition they want, to suddenly be on your own. Going outside and painting helped. That, somehow, transplanted the emotions I got from playing in front of an audience. Being exposed to the elements, I felt like I was a human being. When the rain hits your face, you feel you’re still alive.”

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Defiantly figurative, as a painter Simonon draws influence from the classicists and Constable, but as much from expressionists like Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach. In a keynote exhibition last year, From Hammersmith to Greenwich, a sequence of huge canvases done along the Thames, his panoramas show modern-day London imbued with a sense of the city of Blake and Dickens, as well as – with its scurrying red buses – the Ealing comedies.

His commitment to oil and canvas saw him through when the temptation to reform The Clash grew intense. “It did get over the top,” he mulls, “We were offered millions. Then, like, a million million million. But if The Clash had continued not on our own terms, we would maybe have turned into aresholes. There’s a financial cushion because of our heritage, but I have to work, as Joe did, as Mick does. We have our feet on the ground, and maybe our heads still in the clouds. It’s a good place. Rather than knowing we could retire, buy a swimming pool in the south of France and live off our yesterdays. The nature of The Clash was always to strive forward.”

It’s getting late. The wine’s finished. Simonon is telling me he’s in denial of Strummer’s death. “To be honest, I refuse to come to terms with it.”

When did you last speak to Joe?

“He phoned,” he says, then stops. Then starts. “The night before he died. He was trying to send a fax. It wouldn’t go through. So he phoned to say, ‘Happy Christmas, I’m trying to send this fax.’ I got the fax later. The discussion was ‘Well, are we gunna play the Hall of Fame or are we not?’ [inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, there was speculation The Clash might reform for the ceremony] My attitude was, No – if we are going to get together and play again, let’s do it in an environment where anybody who wants to come along doesn’t have to pay two grand. But that’s the thing with Joe, we could have a conversation.

“A couple of hours later, it was never to be.”

Time to find another drink. Threading back toward the cafe, I mumble something heartfelt about how, you guys, you changed people’s lives, you know.

“People used to tell us that. But what did we know about other people’s lives? We were just this band from London.”

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“PAUL’S TOTALLY PUNK ROCK ABOUT HIS PAINTING,”
Strummer marvelled in 1999. “He comes down to my house and paints for hours in the rain. I have to go out with a bottle of brandy to beg him to come in.”

Standing in the ruins of Strummer’s great-great-grandfather’s house, the rain is thundering down. Simonon is a shadow out there. When it gets so bad his brush is no longer marking the canvas, he darts back to cover it. The painting is stolen between raindrops. “There are moments,” he tells me, “I’m not really in control. It’s like I’m becoming a conductor, a conduit, for my emotion, the emotion of the scenery and the weather.”

Salewicz, Stewart and I, meanwhile, are beginning to remember things like timetables and work commitments. We’ve made plans to get from Raasay over to the young forest on Skye. Time is pressing. Simonon plans visiting the forest the next day. In the meantime, he’s going to stay out here alone until he’s finished. As we leave him, I wonder if he’ll be okay, if he’ll remember night falls like a hammer and that it’s a long way back. As we round the bend, he’s a cowboy swallowed in landscape, waving. He looks happy.

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After we finally slip and stumble back to the road, the Joe Strummer Memorial Marathon continues with a dash south to catch the ferry to Skye, then a drive northwest, to Orbost, where we discover getting to the lochside forest involves another long march through rutted terrain. When we make it, the forest site resembles another Zen gag: the saplings stand some way away from the placard that says WELCOME TO REBEL’S WOOD, so the sign seems to mark an empty landscape. A majestic place, though. It’ll be great when it’s finished.

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Trudging back, the going on the rutted, broken track gets so heavy we drift far apart. I’m caught in the strange, obvious thought, that these places Strummer never visited, young forest, ancient cottage, bookend his existence, a strange invisible circle.

As I approach the car, a sheep detaches from its scraggly flock and wanders over.

“Ba,” says the sheep.


“IT WAS STARTING TO GET DARK
. I felt the village closing in. The silence was quite…weighty.”

It’s October. Simonon is back in London, telling me how he got on alone after we left him out on the edge of the world.

“I felt safe,” he continues. “It was just a very strange, weird atmosphere. Church-like, almost.”

You said you felt in denial of Joe’s death. Did being out there help?

“Yeah,” Simonon considers. “It did seem I’d gone full circle with Joe. I felt a whole load off my back when I left that place. It was really difficult getting out. I had blisters, I felt drained – but, despite the load of canvases and paints, an emotional load had been lifted.

“One weird thing,” he laughs, “my mobile phone rang. My wife, calling from London. She said, ‘How do you pay the Congestion Charge?’ That brought me back to Earth. I realised, shit, it’s getting a bit dark round here. I should bloody make a move.”

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Weeks later – coincidentally, the week that Strummer’s final album, Streetcore, is posthumously released – Simonon sends me a print of the painting he made out there of the old cottage. He’s still not sure what to do with the original. He’s thought about giving it to Joe’s daughters. Looking at it, listening to Strummer’s last record, I remember Simonon’s description of finding the place.

“It’s strange,” he told me. “All the other cottages are ruins. You’re looking through all this rubble – then, suddenly, there’s this chimney standing there, like a testament. Obviously, Joe’s great great grandfather made it to last. And that’s a strange continuity. That’s Joe really. It’s made to last. It’s not some flimflam thing.”

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