Now the King told the boogie men
You have to let that raga drop
The oil down the dessert way
Has been shaken 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
Rock The Casbah, The Clash, 1982
After having time 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, and have been particularly fascinated by the deliberate direct references to the 1962 David Lean film epic ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ So I went back and have been watching ‘Orance’ once again and was astonished by the many connections between the movies and some particularly salient memories I have of Joe Strummer.
In the film ‘Prometheus’, the android David 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 is when he notes, “Big things have small beginnings.” After extinguishing a match between his fingertips, David repeats the unforgettable line from the David Lean film, “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 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. and. He was deemed contagious for a while due to the advanced stage of disease, so I was 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 and Joe seemed to have war stories on his mind at the time, even going so far as outlining a rough draft of a story he had written about a WWII 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 and the correlations that Joe surely was intensely aware of.
The concept of, “Not minding that it hurts,” seems to be something Joe was very conscious of as 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, his band-mate Pat Nother said, “We used to piss on our finger-tips to make them hard so that we could play our guitars.” [3} That was yet another clue to Joe’s self-inflicted suffering – something else that ‘he didn’t mind that it hurt.’
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 remember watching how Roadent (another Clash roadie), used to inflict nasty wounds on himself. I watched in amazement at “Rehearsal Rehearsals” in Camden, as he 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. Also he used to cut and burn himself and displayed many masochistic tendencies, seeming to enjoy the vile treatment he got from Bernie and the band back then – the worse the better it appeared! While Joe was living at “Rehearsals” they would both go weeks without washing and both smelt appallingly 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 and the abuse he allowed and willingly encouraged at the hands of the RAF enlisted men after the war.  He allegedly even paid one of the men to beat him regularly. 
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 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 merely a public schoolboy playing at being working class, and so gave him quite a pasting. One afternoon at Western Hospital, I remember asking Joe about him dressing like a ted and deliberately risking violence. I remember vividly 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 have been shaped within similar scenes to that from Lawrence of Arabia. The son of a diplomat, Joe spent his teen-age years at a boarding school in Surrey, England, where he graduated with qualifications in English, History and Art; a far divergent adolescent upbringing from anything experienced by the rest of the band. Like Lawrence, he worked hard at keeping his previous life at arm’s length and adopting the punk persona. Lawrence also had had to forego his own English upbringing to win over the 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, married well, and rented a large house in Somerset on a part of the Rothchild’s estate. It seems the apple never falls far from the tree.
Years later, Joe would pen the words to The Clash’s hit single, ‘Rock The Casbah.’ On the surface it is a comical take on the arab/jewish conflict and the power of music to end religious intolerence. Upon closer inspection though, it is a thinly veiled rallying cry to the Muslim world (in true Lawrence fashion), to rise up and defy their fundamentalist oppressors. In my opinion, it is 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 behaviour].
‘Sharia [the moral code and religious law of Islam] doesn’t like it.’
‘Rockin the casbah, Rock the casbah,’
Joe later explained that the first line of the song was a reference to an off-hand remark that Bernie Rhodes made in the studio. Questioning the length of the recently recorded songs he asked, “Does everything have to be a raga”? I believe Joe’s glib explanation was a deliberate diversion, designed to obscure the rebellious message of the lyric. It is one of his most candidly incisive global calls for peace and inserts his 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 and is entirely in sympathy with Lawrence’s own radical solutions, providing yet another link to Joe’s hero-worship of the man.
It is a fitting tribute that Joe’s life has been 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 (not minding that it hurts), are all evident. The moral of their lives is timeless, eternal, and uplifting, and the overlapping connections between them are irresistible as I’m sure they will continue to be to future generations.
1. Brown, Malcolm (1988). The Letters of T.E. Lawrence. Letter to W.F. Stirling, Deputy Chief Political Officer, Cairo, June 28, 1919
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. Chris Salawicz, The Ballad Of Joe Strummer, Faber & Faber Inc. 2006. Pg 117.
* Movie still © 20th Century Fox
* Joe Strummer. ca. 1977. image the exclusive copyright of Denis O’Regan.
* Cathy Lomax, ‘The Virtues of War’, 2012, oil on canvas, 97x83cm, © Cathy Lomax