The Swarm

December 14, 2012

'If You Want To Create, You Need To Suffer': A First-Person Remembrance of Joe Strummer's Historical Hero Worship...

Barry (The Baker) Auguste

In their prime, The Clash were rightfully known as “the only band that matters.” For the majority of the band’s crucial existence, Barry Auguste (left) enjoyed a perch like none other to witness the birth of their righteous revolution rock. As one of The Clash’s beloved roadies, Auguste became best known to fans via his nickname “The Baker” – that’s him performing as one of the bandanna-masked thieves in the classic video for “Bankrobber” above, and he’s the one squatting in the cowboy hat on the left in the vintage image captured by legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen below:

The Baker was there from The Clash’s formative moments in the nascent heyday of British punk’s first wave. In August 1976, after arriving at The Clash’s infamous Rehearsal Rehearsals practice space with his school friends in another early punk-era band, Subway Sect, The Baker would become a central part of the group’s existence, serving as backline roadie and drum-tech for both original drummer Terry Chimes and the band’s beloved sticksman Topper Headon. Indeed, once finding himself at the center of the maelstrom which was the Last Gang in Town, he was with The Clash every step of the band’s journey until September, 1983. That was the day that Clash co-leader Mick Jones was unceremoniously fired; after that inglorious moment, The Baker walked away from it all and has, until now, refused most requests for comment and interviews. Here, The Baker shares his intimate recollections and musings on the historical and cinematic influences that shaped Clash frontman Joe Strummer’s famously iconoclastic worldview – one which would go on to shape punk’s past and present as we know it.

Now the king told the boogie men
You have to let that raga drop
The oil down the desert way
Has been shakin’ to the top
The sheik, he drove his Cadillac
He went a-cruisin’ down the ville
The muezzin was a-standing
On the radiator grille…

- The Clash, “Rock The Casbah” (1982)

After having had six weeks to deliciously digest my Prometheus Blu-ray DVD, it has become increasingly obvious that the deeper the layers I dissect, the more cryptic and mysterious it becomes. I find it at once provoking, stimulating, and exasperating to say the least; I’ve been particularly fascinated by the deliberate, direct references to the 1962 David Lean film epic Lawrence of Arabia. So I went back to watch Lawrence once again, and was astonished by the many connections between the film and some particularly salient memories I have of Joe Strummer.

In the film Prometheus, the android David (as played by Michael Fassbender) fixates on the character of T.E. Lawrence as played by Peter O’Toole, even going so far as styling his hair and imitating the mannerisms of his cinematic hero. A significant line in the film occurs when he notes, “Big things have small beginnings.” After extinguishing a match between his fingertips, David repeats this unforgettable line from Lawrence: “The trick is, Potter, not minding that it hurts.” Much of this reminded me of Joe’s particular eagerness for T.E. Lawrence, and I kept coming back again and again to curious conclusions. One of Joe’s most famous quotes was, “Lawrence of Arabia always was my hero. I think it’s great to come from England to lead the Arabs.”

All of this gave me pause, causing me to think back to when I took Joe to Western Hospital in 1978, where he was quarantined with hepatitis. It was all kept very quiet at the time – even the other members of The Clash were not aware of his location – as hepatitis carried an obvious stigma about it (although there were never any doubts in my mind that Joe had caught it from the nightly onslaughts of gob from the audience). Joe was deemed contagious for a while due to the advanced stage of disease, so I remained his sole visitor for the first week or two. The initial list he dictated to me of things he needed picked up from his room at Albany Street included, amongst his personal items, Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence.

During my daily visits to the hospital, we touched on the subject of T.E. Lawrence frequently. Joe seemed to have war stories on his mind at the time; he’d even outlined a rough draft of a story he’d written about a World War II bomber and its crew. It became obvious to me that Joe was well read on Lawrence, but I was not aware at the time of the huge influence that his writing and life story must have had over Joe, nor the correlations that Joe surely was aware of.

The concept of “not minding that it hurts” seems to be something Joe was very conscious of: every night onstage was a monumental battle with pain and exhaustion for him. Indeed, the only thing that saved his wrists from becoming a bloodied mess were his “strum guards,” but that did nothing for his fret hand. Years earlier, while squatting at 101 Walterton Road, Pat Nother – Joe’s then-bandmate in The 101ers – noted, “We used to piss on our fingertips to make them hard so that we could play our guitars.” [1] That was another clue to Joe’s suffering – something else that he didn’t mind hurting.

There was a great deal of that masochistic stuff gong on back in the early days of punk, with all the safety-pin piercings and open invitations to violence from others. I could never forget how Roadent, another Clash roadie, used to inflict nasty wounds on himself. I’d watch in amazement at the “Rehearsal Rehearsals” practice space in Camden as Roadent would nightly stub cigarettes out on his arm to prove that he “didn’t mind that it hurt,” in an obvious masochistic homage to Lean’s Lawrence. In addition to cutting and burning himself, Roadent seemed to delight in the vile treatment he got from both the band members and their notorious manager Bernie Rhodes back then – the worse the better, it appeared! While Joe was living at “Rehearsals,” he and Roadent would both go weeks without washing; in time, both smelled appalling, which of course invited more scorn. It all seemed similar in some ways to the brutality Lawrence suffered when he was captured at Der’a, along with the abuse he allowed and willingly encouraged at the hands of the RAF enlisted men after the war. [2] He allegedly even paid one of the men to beat him regularly. [3]

Joe went through his own short phase of masochistic indulgence when, in 1977, he would slick back his hair, dress like a Teddy Boy, and together with Sebastian Conran go off to rockabilly shows and pubs that were famous for being in “Teddy Boy” territory. This tempting of fate, of pushing the envelope further and further, resulted in him being badly beaten one night by a proper Ted in the toilets at The Speakeasy. As the story goes, the Ted responsible had quickly sussed that Joe wasn’t the genuine article, but instead merely a public schoolboy playing at being working class, and so gave him quite a pasting. One afternoon at Western Hospital, I asked Joe about his tendency to dress like a Ted and deliberately risk violence. I vividly recall Joe’s response: “If you want to create, you need to suffer.” At that tender young age, I did not fully understand or appreciate the meaning of the remark.

T.E. Lawrence tells General Murray in the Lean film that his manner looks insubordinate, “but it isn’t really.” Looking back, I find Joe’s lifestyle to be entirely consistent with this modus operandi. Born in Ankara, Turkey, his early childhood days would’ve been shaped within similar scenes to that from Lawrence of Arabia. The son of a diplomat, Joe spent his teenage years at a boarding school in Surrey, England, where he graduated with qualifications in English, history and art; this was a quite divergent adolescent upbringing from anything experienced by the rest of the band. Like Lawrence, Joe worked hard at keeping his previous life at arm’s length in adopting the punk persona. Lawrence also had had to forgo his own English upbringing to win over the native Arabs. Joe always played the rebel, and again, just like Lawrence, became the voice of a rebellious nation. Like many prodigal sons, Joe ended up going back to his roots, marrying well and renting a large house in Somerset on a part of the Rothschild’s estate.

Years later, Joe would pen the words to “Rock The Casbah.” On the surface, it seems a comical take on the Arab/Jewish conflict and the power of music to end religious intolerance. Upon closer inspection, it proves, in true Lawrence fashion, a thinly-veiled rallying cry to the Muslim world to rise up and defy their fundamentalist oppressors. In my opinion, this makes for one of Joe’s most cleverly crafted, and covertly worded, declarations of revolution:

Now the king [any one of the Western-appointed rulers in the Middle East] told the boogie men [the oil barons]
You have to let that raga [religious dogma] drop
The oil down the desert way
Has been shakin’ to the top [we need to sell our oil, not promote war]_
The sheik [oil baron] he drove his Cadillac [US western decadent ways]
He went a-cruisin’ down the ville
The muezzin [the chosen person at a mosque who leads and recites the call to prayer] was a-standing
On the radiator grille [saying stop this blasphemous behavior]
Sharia [the moral code and religious law of Islam] _don’t like it
Rockin the casbah
Rock the casbah…

Joe later explained that the first line of the song was a reference to an offhand remark that Bernie Rhodes made in the studio. Questioning the length of the recently recorded songs, Bernie asked, “Does everything have to be a raga?” I believe Joe’s glib explanation served as a deliberate diversion, designed to obscure the rebellious message of the lyric. It has remained one of his most candidly incisive global calls for peace, expressing via subtly maverick poetry Joe’s radical sentiments on an already volatile and unstable situation. Notwithstanding, the lyric stands as a fitting tribute to the accomplishments of T.E. Lawrence during his military career, entirely simpatico with Lawrence’s own radical solutions, providing yet another link to Joe’s hero worship of the man.

It makes for an appropriate tribute that Joe’s life has ended up as much of an inspiration to millions around the world just as Lawrence’s actions were in his own time. The call to arms, standing up for the rights of the oppressed, and the laying aside of personal gain – all while never minding that it hurts – prove fully evident. The moral of these vanguard icons’ lives continues to be timeless, eternal, and uplifting, and the overlapping connections between them remain irresistible – as I’m sure they will continue to be to future generations.

If Adolf Hitler
Flew in today
They’d send a limousine
Anyway… – The Clash, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” (1978)

1 Chris Salawicz, The Ballad Of Joe Strummer, Faber & Faber Inc. 2006. Page 117.
2 Simpson, Colin; Knightley, Phillip (June 1968). Sunday Times. The pieces appeared on the 9th, 16th, 23rd, and 30th of June, and were based mostly on the narrative of John Bruce.
3 Brown, Malcolm (1988). The Letters of T.E. Lawrence. Letter to W.F. Stirling, Deputy Chief Political Officer, Cairo, June 28, 1919

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