It was 1982, and the Clash were not having a good time that year: there was the new album Combat Rock coming out, there were rumors that tickets for the tour to Scotland were not selling well, and relations among the band members were so strained that they were not speaking to each other during rehearsals.
It was at that juncture that Joe Strummer decided it was the time to disappear.
For a long time no one knew where he had gone. His girlfriend Gaby Salter also disappeared with him, along with the silence with which he left: not a forwarding address, not a note, not a phone call to their manager Bernard Rhodes. Moreover, the situation was untenable: guitarist Mick Jones had strained relations with the entire band, and drummer Topper Headon was struggling with heroin addiction.
It was then that manager Bernard Rhodes realized it was all about to escalate and told Strummer to take a break and figure out what he wanted to do, at least him. He certainly did not think he would take him at his word so much that he would vanish without a trace. “I didn’t think much about it,” Strummer later recounted, “I left for Paris knowing that many people would be disappointed, but I had to do it.
What happened in the French capital sounds like the script of a bohemian movie, but with an unexpected conclusion.
Joe and girlfriend Gaby arrived in Paris and lost their passports. They knew no one in the city except for a friend of Gaby’s daughter who had a small apartment in Montmartre where they stayed for their entire stay. “Come see me,” the landlady said to Richard Schroeder, a photographer friend of hers, “I have a surprise for you.” He arrived and was confronted by Joe Strummer and his girlfriend. They were the same age, he loved his music: they spent the next three weeks always together, eating, talking and especially drinking. Like, drinking really a lot and in a lot of bars, up to a dozen a night. Joe was comfortable and relaxed: although the Clash were very famous in France, the fact that he had grown a beard made him less recognizable. Perhaps he had finally managed to get away from his public persona more than from the band’s mess.
At one point, rumors of his suicide spread so much that it forced him-he, who hated making phone calls-to call his record company’s press manager and tell him that he was okay, that he just needed to get away for a while, adding that it was not forever, that he would be back. When, no one knew, but at least he was alive.
On one of his last days in Paris, Richard Schroeder joined him in a café. Joe was reading a French newspaper. He wanted to learn the language, which he later never did. There was news of the upcoming marathon. “There is a marathon on Sunday. Do you think we can do it?” asked Joe. Richard replied that he had no idea, that he had never done such a thing and that there would be a need to at least sign up. “We’ll show up at the start and see,” Joe said. “You don’t look like you’re in shape to run a marathon to me,” shyly tried to get Richard to observe. “Being on a stage is a kind of sport,” Joe cut Joe short.
In fact, as Kit Buckler recounts, Joe was a man in good shape. Between recording sessions he played 5-a-side soccer and before Paris he had already run a marathon, as well as running others upon his return to England.
He could have tried, and he did.
To get ready for the marathon, Joe implemented a program that he himself advised against, but since they asked him to…
A clue as to how he prepared always comes from his friend Schroeder: “He did absolutely nothing, he didn’t train. He was drunk as a skunk the night before.”
How much? Recounting this is Joe himself: “Since you want to know, here’s my training: zero running, not a single step for the four weeks leading up to the race and about ten pints of beer the night before. I don’t recommend doing the same but that’s how I do it.”
Joe actually went at the starting line, along with his girlfriend Gaby. He borrowed shoes and clothing and ran it, completing it in about 3 hours and 20 minutes. Richard was waiting for him at the finish line, near a banquet where they served the runners orangeade and sugar cubes. Joe hugged him, exhausted. The friend asked him if he wanted some orange juice. “I want a cigarette and a beer,” Joe answered.
He imagined he wanted to rest in the evening, so he did not call him. It was Joe to call instead, asking him if he wanted to go out for a drink. They did, to the point of the singer’s physical exhaustion, who could not move the next day and appeared to be 90 years old.
Joe may have become unrecognizable to many French people, but he did not escape the notice of a journalist who happened to be in Paris and alerted the promoter of a festival where the Clash were soon to be headlining. Joe’s “escape,” or break of anonymity had lasted three weeks. When by then he himself had decided to return, someone from the record company was sent to bring him back to England. He seemed amused by it and phoned his friend Schroeder and said, “Hey, they found me!” and laughed as he told the story.
He and girlfriend Gaby later recalled that period with great pleasure. She in particular called it one of the happiest in her life. Joe needed to break the alienating monotony of the band’s creative-but also repetitive-work. He wanted to stop feeling in demand even and especially for things that did not interest him. He wanted to breathe outside the recording studio, now a place of quarrels and grudges.
He wanted to feel free, and he succeeded. We like to believe that running the Paris Marathon was not an incoherent parenthesis of that period but, rather, was the perfect synthesis: running away from something to find oneself.