Joe Strummer, Smokey Hormel and Joe’s daughter - Rick Rubin’s garage - West Hollywood, CA
© Jim Herrington
Beware, this story drops more names than a drunk mailman.
I was in Los Angeles shooting an album cover for a Russian bluegrass band… really… and after the photo shoot I was invited to their gig at the Roxy on Sunset Blvd. I went, and afterwards there was a big party for them next door at the infamous Rainbow Bar & Grill. There were people I knew from Nashville there, Tony Brown from MCA Records, he’d played piano with Elvis Presley in the ’70s, and some others. At one point Tony spun me around and said, “Jim, have you met Joe Strummer?” Well, no I hadn’t, and hello Joe. The night wears on and by the end of the evening it was just Joe and I left sitting at the bar drinking. I was living in Nashville at the time and Joe was digging whatever country music stories I was spewing out, he really liked old country music. I finally asked him, “So Joe, why are you in town?” He responded with, “Oh man, you won’t believe it… I’m in town to do sing a duet with Johnny Fucking Cash! In fact I did it earlier today already, up at Rick Rubin’s house.” Joe was beside himself, couldn’t believe his good fortune, thought he’d died and gone to heaven, as anyone would. We kept talking and drinking and finally Joe said, “I’m going back up there tomorrow, you want to come?” I said well sure and Joe proceeded to draw a “map” on the tiny corner of a napkin. I still have it, by the way… it looks like a chimpanzee tried to write the letter “Y” on the back of a postage stamp. Useless, as maps go, but I feel now that it’s a cartographic oddity worth saving.
The next morning I arrived at the front gate of Rubin’s house a bit hungover, rang the intercom, “Jim Herrington for Joe Strummer”, and the giant iron gate slowly swung open and I drove in. The driveway circled around your typical Hollywood Hills 1920’s Mediterranean-style mansion, owned at some point by this or that silent film star, I forget which one, and I arrived at the back of the house where Joe comes strolling out of the garage with a big grin saying, “Hello mate, you made it!” Maybe he remembered the map and was surprised as well…
I went into the garage with Joe and every horizontal surface was covered with large sheets of 13 x 19 sketching paper filled with song lyrics written in black Sharpie. On tables, on the floor, all across Rubin’s yellow Corvette, lyrics everywhere. I asked what he was up to and Joe said, “Well, I’ve really already done my bit with Johnny yesterday, I’m not even supposed to be here… now I’m just trying to write a song to pitch to him.” He rolled a joint, we smoked it and he started telling me about the song… that maybe it could be about Johnny Cash, or a guy like him… but Johnny could sing it. Kind of autobiographical. Lots of Southern imagery. Then he says, “You’re from the South, help me out.” So I threw out some lines and he liked one, “King Cotton’s down the road” and he wrote it down. At that point, Cash, who’d been inside recording with Rubin, was leaving and he came out through the garage, looking a bit more frail than when I’d last seen him. We said hello, I’d met him a couple of times before. After Cash was gone Joe and I took some photos then went to Rubin’s kitchen to make some tea - Joe: “Fuck, does he ONLY drink green tea?” and then went down to the studio and I met Rubin and Smokey Hormel, who was playing guitar on some of the tracks. The day goes on, we do some more photos, Joe records a demo of the song, finally it’s late afternoon and I have to leave.
I stayed in touch via email with Joe until his sad and untimely death less than a year later. I sent his wife a print of one of the photos I took of Joe, Smokey and Joe’s daughter, which she apparently displayed somewhere in their house because later on I got a call from Damien, a family friend who had seen the photo there and was touched by the picture of his friend and inquired if he might be able to buy a print for himself. Seeing as it was a family friend, and due to the circumstances involved, I charged a very nominal fee, basically the price of printing and shipping it over to England. A few weeks later he gave me another call to say he’d received it and thanks. He was calling from his house in Jamaica this time and I learned that “Damien” was, in fact, Damien Hirst, who with a net worth of around $300 million dollars is the richest artist in the history of art. And to think that I rounded off the FedEx charges in his favor…
More time goes by and I’m tucked into a booth in a crowded coffee shop one day, having lunch. A guy I vaguely know walks in and as he’s walking past my table looks at me and mumbles, “Your song’s on that album…”
“My song…? What song, what album?”
“The one you wrote with Joe Strummer.”
I’d apparently told him the story at a party one night and he’d remembered it. And sure enough, the song in question, Long Shadow, had shown up on a posthumous release of Joe’s last album with his band The Mescaleros. Now, I never claim I “co-wrote” a song with Joe, but I did get the record… and sure enough, there’s that line…
But years later I still can’t help wondering, did Johnny Cash ever record it, as Joe had intended, and did he sing my line?
This tale is all kinds of awesome. Jim Herrington’s one cool dude, folks.