Paul Simonon meets me outside
Westbourne Park tube station on a cold, bright March morning, and we
walk to his studio. It stands right underneath the Westway, the sweeping
brutalist concrete flyover that the Clash hymned on 'London's Burning',
one of several short, urgent songs on their eponymously titled debut
album from 1977.
Another song from that time,
'White Riot', was inspired by the violence that broke out on nearby
Ladbroke Grove after the Notting Hill Carnival in 1976. I ask Simonon if
it feels strange to walk through his own history, his own mythology,
every time he goes to work.
'Most of the time, I don't
really think about it,' he says, grinning his endearing, gap-toothed
grin as we stand outside his padlocked studio, and stare up at the
monolithic concrete structure that looms above us. 'But I guess it's
kind of poetic that this is where the Clash started out and this is
where I've ended up.'
When the London punk scene
began in 1976, Simonon was a fledgling painter, fresh from Byam Shaw art
college which, back then, was just up the road in Notting Hill. In the
spirit of the times, he bought a bass guitar which he drip-painted in
the style of Jackson Pollock and learned how to play by writing out the
chords and sticking them on to the instrument's neck.
Thirty years on, he describes
himself as 'a painter who occasionally dabbles in music'. His most
recent bout of dabbling, though, led to a number one album as part of
the Damon Albarn-orchestrated supergroup, the Good, the Bad and the
Queen. 'It's done and dusted,' he says of that project, but later lets
slip that the group are in negotiations to play a big benefit for the
newly reignited Rock Against Racism campaign. The gig is scheduled for
27 April in Victoria Park, east London, where, 30 years ago, the Clash
rocked against racism before 100,000 people.
'I can dip in and out of music
when I feel like it,' says Simonon, 'but it's not my life any more.
There was a point after the whole intensity of the Clash finally
subsided when I just found that painting grounded me in a way that music
Simonon has been painting
seriously, quietly and determinedly, since 1986, when he returned from a
stint in LA and was startled by the British weather. 'I saw the beauty
in it for the first time - the clouds, the rain, the cold and even the
grey skies. It suddenly seemed rich compared to the sameness of Los
Angeles. I went out in the rain and drew the gasworks by the canal. That
was the turning point.' He also started visiting museums again with his
sketchbook, drawing 'faces, hands, feet, whatever took my fancy'.
In 2002, he had a show, From
Hammersmith to Greenwich, at a posh gallery in Green Park, featuring
several big London riverscapes, each of which sold for around £4,000.
Later this month, at Thomas
Williams Fine Art on Old Bond Street, he will unveil his most recent
work, a series of figurative paintings inspired by the bullfights he
witnessed in Madrid in the summer of 2003, as well as some small still
'Paul is not in any way a
dilettante,' says his gallerist, Thomas Williams. 'He has the dedication
of the true artist. He lives and breathes art, and is constantly
thinking and talking about painting. We already have an incredible
amount of interest in the show.'
That interest is reflected in
the prices which, this time around, will range from £5,000 for a small
work to £30,000 for one of the larger canvases. 'As far as I'm
concerned, his musical career was a brief interlude in his artistic
one,' says Williams. 'He's an artist. It's the music that's the
aberration, not the painting.'
Nevertheless, at 52, Simonon
is a rock legend, revered by younger musicians who still see punk - and
the Clash in particular - as a template for rock'n'roll rebellion.
Always the most dapper member of the group, he remains a snappy dresser,
decked out today in a tailored coat, pinstripe suit and silk scarf. When
he smiles, you can see traces of his younger self, the angular
cheekbones and sullen good looks that made him punk's premier pin-up. He
has long since shed the rude-boy attitude that was a prerequisite of
those angry times, but still looks like he could hold his own should the
These days, though, people
tend to want to shake his hand rather than throw a punch at him, like
they did back when punk gatecrashed the mainstream following the Sex
Pistols' expletive-strewn appearance on prime-time TV in the summer of
1977. 'It was intense back then,' he nods, when I mention how violent a
place Britain was in the late Seventies. 'People wanting to fight us,
jumping on stage to punch us. If you had short hair and looked at all
like a punk, you wouldn't get served in many pubs. Then, you had the
Teds, who really took it all personally. I remember walking down
Shaftesbury Avenue with a girl, and seeing this blur of movement out of
the corner of my eye. It was this big Teddy Boy running through the
traffic to have a go. Mad.'
As it happens, I had bumped
into John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten, in Soho just a few nights
previously. I tell Simonon that Lydon was standing outside the Groucho
Club with Chas Smash from Madness, surrounded by homeless guys singing
'God Save the Queen'. Simonon laughs. 'So, John's in town,' he says, in
a way that suggests Lydon's reputation for inciting chaos remains
intact. 'How is he?' Same as always, I say - still raging, still
pontificating. 'I always got on with John,' muses Simonon, smiling, 'We
came from the same place - non-musicians. We saw our chance and we took
it. The thing is, I always had the painting to fall back on. That's what
pulled me through the so-called wilderness years. I never wanted to go
back and relive the glory days, I just want to keep moving forward.
That's what I took from punk. Keep going. Don't look back.'
According to Chris Salewicz,
author of Redemption Song, the recent biography of the Clash's lead
singer, Joe Strummer, Simonon is 'essentially quite a shy bloke, but
also a bit of a prankster'. He reminds me that, back in the early days
of the Clash, it was Simonon who made it into the tabloids when he was
arrested for shooting pigeons with an air gun from the window of the
group's Camden Town rehearsal studio.
'Paul was a bit of a bad boy
back then,' says Salewicz, 'but that may just have been what was
required at the time. The way he has managed to move from rock'n'roll
back to painting with such ease is quite remarkable in itself when you
consider how diametrically opposed the two are in terms of artistic
endeavour. Then again, he has always been self-contained; someone who,
you suspect, is very much at ease with himself, and with the solitary
nature of painting. He's definitely a bit of a thinker.'
Simonon's studio is brightly
lit, cluttered but comfortable, a pair of two-bar electric fires
throwing out some much needed heat. There are newly finished canvases
stacked in rows, tables full of reference material - postcards, books on
bullfighting and art, holy pictures. One wall is partially obscured by
stacks of boxes from his recent house move. A bottle of Whyte & Mackay
whisky and a jar of instant coffee stand side by side by a kettle for
those winter mornings when he needs a kickstart.
Underneath the light streaming
in from the high windows stands an easel on which a nearly completed
painting rests. It depicts a huge bullring and a parade of toreadors.
Like his Thames paintings, the scene has been painted from life, and
from somewhere high above the action. Simonon is essentially a
figurative painter, concerned as much with the application of paint as
with the subject. It is obvious from the work, and the real sense that
this is a working studio, visited daily, that he is not just another
rock star who paints as a hobby.
'I want nothing to do with all
that stuff,' he says, settling down with his Scotch and coffee. 'I'm not
mentioning any names, but most so-called art made by rock stars is
fucking dreadful.' Simonon's paintings, just in their painterliness
alone, seem like they belong to another time. 'Paul's not a
conceptualist who parades his intellectual pretensions,' says Williams.
'He really belongs to an older English tradition, to Augustus John and
Even as a teenage art student,
Simonon had little interest in being contemporary or cutting edge in his
painting, preferring the likes of Constable and Sickert to Warhol and De
Kooning. He won a scholarship to Byam Shaw but lasted a year-and-a-half,
dismayed by the teachers' total espousal of American abstraction. He
points to a painting on the wall of his studio, an angular urban
landscape that, were there elongated figures in it, might have been
painted by Edward Burra.
'That was the last painting I
did at art school. The students loved it but the teachers hated it. I'd
had enough by then.'
approach to painting is surprising given that, within the often volatile
creative dynamic of the Clash, he was the conceptualist, the one who
paid most attention to the visuals, the image. He painted the backdrop
to the Clash's rehearsal studio, and designed some of the later stage
sets, including the dive-bombing Stukas that echoed their often
explosive performances. You could tell the Clash were art-school punks
from the start, what with those shirts stencilled with slogans and that
paint-splashed bass guitar.
'That was the art student in
me trying to find a look that would make us stand apart from the
Pistols,' he says, laughing. 'The Buzzcocks were very Mondrian, and we
were Pollock. As a painter, though, I'm essentially old-fashioned.
Conceptualism just doesn't do it for me. I love Walter Sickert, Samuel
Palmer, Rubens and Constable. That's just the way I am. I love putting
paint on canvas, getting lost in the process of painting.'
Like many painters, Simonon
has a passion for the sheer physicality of the job. For his Thames
series, he carried his huge canvases up on to the roofs of various high
buildings along the river and often had to rope them to railings to stop
the wind carrying them off.
'I was on top of the Shell Mex
building for weeks,' he laughs.
'I think I entered a
trancelike state up there. Bit like Blake. Hours would go by and I'd
suddenly realise I was bloody freezing.'
He'd read somewhere that
Jeffrey Archer, then still a Tory MP, had an apartment overlooking the
Thames, so he wrote to him, asking if he could paint the river from his
balcony. 'He wrote back and said OK,' says Simonon, grinning. 'I was
there for a week. I think he got a bit pissed off with this hulking
great bloody canvas in his kitchen every morning, but, I have to hand it
to him, he didn't go back on his word and chuck me out.'
I ask if he can remember the
first painting he did which he felt happy with. 'Not exactly,' he says.
'I was always painting what was around me, though. As a kid, I always
wanted toy soldiers to play with, so I used to paint them on pieces of
paper. Create them for myself. In a way, it's still the same. Whether
I'm in a good mood or a bad mood, painting takes me out of myself. And
I've realised lately that it often resolves things for me.'
Of late, there has been quite
a lot to resolve. Towards the end of 2006, Simonon found himself in the
tabloids after news broke that he had split up with his wife Tricia
Ronane, and began a new relationship with their friend, Serena Rees,
co-owner of Agent Provocateur. To complicate matters further, Rees was
married to Joe Corre, her business partner and the son of Vivienne
Westwood and Malcolm McClaren, the architects of punk outrage, whom
Simonon has known since 1976.
An intensely private
character, Simonon steadfastly refuses to talk about his personal life,
but he seems remarkably content despite all the upheaval. 'It's not
something I can or want to talk about, except to say that I'm happy,' he
says. 'My kids are growing up. Claude is 14, Louis is 16. We have a good
relationship, I have my paint and my life is generally good. Full stop.'
Paul Gustave Simonon was born
in Brixton, south London in 1955, and grew up, as he puts it, 'all over
the place - Brixton, Ramsgate, Canterbury, Thornton Heath, Bury St
Edmunds, Ladbroke Grove'. His mother was a librarian and he describes
his father, Gustave, as 'a Sunday painter. Literally.' Simonon senior
also seems to have been quite a character. He went AWOL from the army
having served in Kenya during the time of the Mau Mau rebellion. 'I
think he saw some bad things,' says Simonon, 'and was haunted by them
for a long time afterwards.'
Simonon's parents split up
when he was 10, and he lived for a year in Rome and Siena with his
mother and stepfather. 'It was all a bit bohemian, wandering around
these beautiful streets by day, and being taught by my mum for a few
hours in the evening.' In his teens, having returned to Brixton, he ran
wild for a while with a gang of skinheads before ending up sleeping on
the floor of his dad's studio in Ladbroke Grove. 'It was a bit Steptoe
and Son,' he says, 'but with discipline. He set me homework, made me
paint every day. I learnt the technical stuff from a mate of my dad's
who knew how to do glazes and underpainting. It was invaluable, really.
He'd hand me a brush and go, "Here, Paul, I have to go to work, finish
off that fox for me.'"
Simonon was raised a Roman
Catholic but vividly remembers his dad arriving home from work one day
and announcing his conversion to Communism. 'He suddenly became a
Marxist,' he says, looking like he still hasn't quite got over the
shock. 'One minute I was making a papier-mache crucifix scene for
Easter, the next I'm selling pamphlets to help liberate the workers. It
was all a bit extreme.'
For all the domestic upheaval
and constant flitting from place to place, Simonon seems to have come
through remarkably unscathed. He is certainly the most grounded punk
survivor I have met in a long time. 'I suppose my upbringing made me
resilient in some way,' he says. 'What I remember most, though, is that
feeling of always being the new boy at school. That was kind of tough. I
have absolutely no friends from school, no connections from back then. I
was always moving on. I gained a certain independence from that
experience. Funnily enough, all the members of the Clash had it, too. We
all came from broken homes - even our manager, Bernie Rhodes.'
Back in 1976, it was the wily
Rhodes who instructed Mick Jones to recruit Simonon to the group that
would soon become the Clash, simply because he looked the part. 'I was a
bit Bowie, a bit suedehead back then,' says Simonon. 'And, more
importantly, I was at art college. Mick liked that. He was always big on
pop history. He knew all about Stuart Sutcliffe, who was Lennon's best
mate in the early days of the Beatles, and a proper artist. I remember
Mick introducing me to all his mates: "This is my new bass guitarist,
Paul. He can't play but he's a painter."'
The rest, as they say, is
rock'n'roll history. Together, at Rhodes's urging, they recruited Joe
Strummer to the cause, and the Clash became the coolest punk group on
the planet and, after the Sex Pistols imploded, the biggest British rock
group since Led Zeppelin. Simonon only wrote a few Clash songs,
including the somewhat misguided 'Guns of Brixton', but his
reggae-influenced bass playing was integral to the group's sound. He was
21 when he joined the Clash, and 31 when they split asunder for the
final time in 1986. It was, he says, 'a heightened state of alert
throughout. A total life experience. It was working and living and being
the Clash, 24-7. We had to live and be it all the time, and we struggled
to find what it was every single day.'
Does he have any regrets that
the group split just as America was ready to fall at their feet? 'Not
really. I mean, it would be nice to have loads of money, but that was
never a consideration back then. It was always very fast-forward, let's
keep the urgency.'
That urgency was dissipated
somewhat by the constant rows between the band members as their
popularity grew and the original punk principles became impossible to
live by. Mick Jones was the first to go, sacked in 1983 by Simonon and
Strummer after one row too many. A new version of the Clash continued
for a while but it simply wasn't the same. Then, as suddenly as it had
started, the 'heightened state of alert' ended, and Simonon found
himself sitting at home, bored and brooding.
'It was a weird time,' he
shakes his head. 'I guess I was a bit dazed. Bewildered. The thing was,
Mick lived just around the corner and he had formed Big Audio Dynamite.
I'd see his tour bus heading off, and I wasn't going anywhere. It was
tough, after all those years of the constant Clash agenda. That's really
what sent me back to painting. It was the only thing that kept me sane.'
Treading carefully, I ask him
how he coped with the news of Joe Strummer's sudden death back in
December 2002. He stares at the ground. 'Well, me and Joe were tight,
you know. We were very close throughout the early days, living on the
street, sharing dole money. And then he stayed at my house a lot after
the band broke up. So it was tough. Really tough. First, it's like you
are shocked so much you don't even know you're in shock. Then, you have
to find some way of making sense of it.'
Has he made sense of it yet?
'I think so. Yeah. Finding out that Joe had a congenital heart condition
helped, in an odd way. I mean, it could have happened at any time along
the way. It's great in a way that he crammed so much in. He used his
allotted time to the full.'
The day before Strummer died,
he sent Paul Simonon a text message. It said, 'Come on, Paul. Give it a
try. You might even like it.' Strummer was referring to a possible
reunion of the Clash for a one-off gig to celebrate their imminent
induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Simonon, though, was
having none of it. 'Joe was up for it, and so was Mick and Topper [Headon,
the Clash's drummer], but I wasn't,' he says, without a trace of regret.
'I was the one who always said no. In this instance, I really didn't
believe it was the right moment. A big corporate event like that, two
grand a seat. Nah, that wasn't in the spirit of the Clash, was it?'
In the end, he went to the
Hall of Fame ceremony to celebrate Joe Strummer's legacy and to support
his widow, Lucinda. 'I wasn't comfortable, though,' he adds. 'I just
hate all those bloody awards ceremonies. There's too many of them and
they really don't mean a lot to me. It's that looking back thing again.
It's not what the Clash were ever about, and it's not what I'm about.'
In September 2003, Paul
Simonon made a pilgrimage of sorts to the Hebridean Isle of Raasay,
where Strummer's ancestors came from. Chris Salewicz accompanied him.
'It was absolutely extraordinary,' recalls Salewicz. 'We spent days
finding this derelict cottage miles from nowhere in this stunningly
beautiful setting. Then Paul carted this big canvas up there and started
painting. Suddenly the heavens opened, and the wind started up and his
boots are so waterlogged he's taken them off and he's painting barefoot
on this canvas lashed to a big stone. He was like a madman on the deck
of a ship in a storm. Just incredible.'
It was, says Simonon, 'a
healing moment'. He continued painting there alone for a few days. Then,
when it was time to leave, he placed a Clash album inside the chimney
breast of the old cottage, had a drink to toast absent friends, and rang
Joe's cousin, Ian, in Texas. 'I told him where I was, in this house that
Joe's great, great, great-grandfather had built. We were both brought to
tears. It was quite powerful, really. That put me at ease with a lot of
stuff, helped me move on.'
He grins and takes another sip
of Spanish coffee. 'That's the thing about painting, it helps you work
stuff out. It's a way of making sense of the world, of yourself.'
Thirty years on from the
fabled Sound of the Westway, the quiet man of punk has made peace with
the past, and reinvented himself against all the odds. Then again,
that's what it was really all about in the first place.
· Paul Simonon - Recent
Paintings is at Thomas Williams Fine Art, 22 Old Bond Street, London W1
from 17 April-9 May