Joe Strummer of the Clash was just 50 when his wife Lucinda found him dead in their home. With an album of unreleased songs just out she tells how she fell in love with the punk frontman the first time
Things were on the up and up for Joe Strummer in late 2002. He had started work on a new album. On November 15, he and his band The Mescaleros played a benefit show for the Fire Brigades Union’s striking firefighters at Acton Town Hall in West London. Strummer’s former bandmate in The Clash, Mick Jones, was in the audience and went onstage to play with Joe on Clash classics like Bankrobber, White Riot and London’s Burning.
It was the first time Joe and Mick had played together in nearly 20 years; it was the final time the two legends of The Clash would ever share a stage together.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but it was fate,” Jones said afterwards of the historic night. “It wasn’t planned in any way.”
Six weeks after the Acton Town Hall concert, Joe was dead. Aged just 50, he died at his Somerset farm on the afternoon of December 22, 2002 of a sudden cardiac arrest; he had returned from walking his dogs. His wife Lucinda tried to resuscitate him when she came home and found him slumped in a chair.
Blonde and refined, Lucinda has the look of an indie rock chick Brigitte Bardot about her as she strolls nonchalantly through an autumnal Marylebone. There is a Chinese restaurant around the corner on Glentworth Street where she wants to have lunch.
London is full of memories for Lucinda. Her late husband wrote so many unforgettable songs about this city. Settling down at a table in the swish Chinese emporium, Lucinda says she would like to think there was a reason for Joe’s death “but there wasn’t. Somebody told me that because Joe had a congenital heart defect, the fact that he found climbing stairs or climbing hills difficult was a real signal that something was wrong”.
Lucinda can remember being on tour with Joe in Portugal, and the lift had broken in the hotel. “We were on the third floor... he could be onstage for over two hours... but climbing stairs, he found difficult.
“I wish I knew then what I know now,” she says sadly, “and he could have gone to have a check-up, but you know, he never saw a doctor the whole time I was with him. He didn’t believe in doctors. He didn’t believe in anything chemical. He never took a paracetamol, not even Alka-Seltzer. He was never ill. Extraordinary, really. He was very healthy. Endless herbal tea.”
She is here to talk about a new album of 32 unreleased songs which she has overseen called Joe Strummer 001. The deluxe box-set also contains a super-cool hardback book of photos, notes and ephemera from her late husband’s personal archive. “In the beginning, huge memories were stirred up,” Lucinda, says, “because the archive was not just Joe’s lyrics.”
Was it a catharsis? “It was cathartic,” she answers. “But some of it was painful. I would come across a note that was written to me or a scribble. ‘Morning, babes. Stayed up late’. So in some ways, it was cathartic and in others, you are stirring up things that I am not ready for yet,” Lucinda says of a man who died nearly 16 years ago and whom she married in 1995.
Is anyone ever ready for a close partner never coming back, being gone forever, I ask. “No. I don’t think so,” she replies. “And also, because of his lyrics and because of the fact that I have so much of his spoken word, it is like he is not dead anyway.”
Lucinda recollects her childhood in London, in particular, that the area she grew up in, Hammersmith, was “very Irish. We had the Brennans and the McCoys, who were builders with large families. I grew up on a street where your door wasn’t locked, and we all went into each other’s houses. I remember the McCoys had a colour TV, so we could go and watch Crossroads in their house. And the Brennans were so close. Everyone looked after each other.
“It was just me and my sister,” Lucinda says referring to younger sister, Arabella, “so on a Saturday morning we would go round to the Brennans and we would go to the Saturday morning pictures with them. It was just a wonderful childhood — of running HAPPY MEMORIES: around these streets, some of which were condemned. They were our hide-outs. They were our playgrounds. So Arabella and I used to run with these great kids. We rode around on bikes. We had a huge sense of freedom,” recalls Lucinda. “And now I live in Somerset on a small farm. I love it. I have a horse, dogs, chickens.”
The horse, called Molly, is 22 years old. Lucinda has had her for 11 years. “I use her to exercise the dogs and explore the hills. I can ride for miles and miles and miles. I live in the Quantock Hills. They are beautiful. There’s grasslands, ancient forests, streams and no fences or hedges. You can just ride for miles. So it is peaceful down there.”
Lucinda knew relatively little of Clash superstar Joe Strummer before she met him in 1993. “He was living on a friend’s farm in Hampshire. I went to stay with my friend Amanda. My daughter Eliza was a year old. Amanda said to me, ‘Get in the car, we are going to the local fun fair in Andover’. It was a grey, miserable, drizzly May day. Then she said, ‘I’ll just see if Joe wants to come’. She drove around to Joe’s house. And Joe would later tell me that he didn’t know why he said yes as he had already been to the funfair with his kids” — daughters Jazz and Lola by Gaby Salter — “and he knew that it was,” Lucinda laughs, “fairly crap.”
“So, he got in the car and Amanda just said, ‘Joe, this is Luce. Luce, this is Joe.’ And that was it.”
What was it? “I just completely fell in love,” she says. “I just looked at those eyes and fell in love. He did have a magnetic voice. He had this personality that drew you in and made you feel special, intelligent, interesting, beautiful. I don’t know what it was. It was everything with Joe.”
Lucinda was living in London but they ended up renting a small cottage together “in the middle ground in-between” (in every sense of the word because Lucinda’s marriage to her then husband James was, as he told The London Independent in 2007, “trundling on in that no man’s land of co-existence”) while Joe’s relationship with long-term partner Gaby Salter was in a similarly unhappy place.
“Joe was very interested in nature. He was definitely a bit of a hippie. He wasn’t doing music then. He was still smarting for the lack of support for Earthquake Weather,” Lucinda says referring to his 1989 solo album.
The political firebrand of punk was born John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, on August 21, 1952, the son of a diplomat whose posts included Cairo, Mexico City and Bonn, before Joe was sent to leafy Surrey where he was public-school educated at City of London Freemen’s School at Ashtead. That didn’t stop middle-class Mellor, who changed his name to Joe Strummer, being the angry anti-Thatcher voice of the underclass as the rebellious front man of one of the biggest bands ever to come out of England, The Clash, who were formed in 1976. Rolling Stone named The Clash’s London Calling record the greatest album of the 1980s; the American magazine also placed The Clash 28 on the list of the greatest acts of all time.
The messy final incarnation of The Clash having disintegrated in 1986, he formed Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros in 1999. “So music was not on the agenda at all for the first couple of years we were together. We hung out quite a lot. He was always writing; there just wasn’t the music to go with it. We were having fun. He introduced me to his friends who lived in New York, in LA, in Paris. His circle was never-ending,” says Lucinda.
Asked what she learned about Joe from going through his archive, Lucinda says: “I have just grown more and more in love with him — and more in awe of him as I have gone through it, because I have seen the depth of his passion for people... and his humanity and his incredible wisdom in what he has left behind. Things that I wrote off as rubbish, because they took up so much space in the house or because they had a half-eaten sandwich in them, or whatever it was, I suddenly realised that each bag represented a time. I could see that there was a method in his madness,” she says, adding: “So when he said, ‘Don’t touch anything. I know where everything is,’
Lucinda with Joe Strummer’s stepdaughter Eliza Mellor