No input, no output | Jim Jarmusch meets Joe Strummer, 1989

Jim Jarmusch and Joe Strummer
Jim Jarmusch and Joe Strummer, 1989 / Photo : Josh Cheuse

You cast musicians frequently in your films and one of my favorite bits of casting is Joe Strummer in 1989’s Mystery Train. What drew you to Joe Strummer as “Elvis”?

Joe Strummer is a friend of mine, someone I deeply admire. He’s quite an interesting actor, he’s very focused. He and I were sort of like brothers in a way.

Joe Strummer, in the most minimal way, taught me one of the most valuable things I’ve ever learned about human expression. That is what all of Strummer’s friends know as “Strummer’s Law,” these four words: no input, no output. You see that in The Clash, you see that in their openness to rockabilly, to reggaee, to soul music, to hip-hop. You know, see that openness.

In that way, The Clash are the antithesis of the Sex Pistols, who were super great in their style of reduction down to the essence. The Clash were open … like “Throw open the doors, see what the wind blows in on us.”

Strummer was a very important person in my life. He’s someone who I miss a lot. I try to ask him advice sometimes, even now, and see what channels back to me. A remarkable person. I was so honored to know him.

Jim Jarmusch Joe Strummer on Mystery Train

Jim Jarmusch and Joe Strummer on the set of Mystery Train (1989)

Jim got the idea to write a character for Joe Strummer, who plays Johnny in Mystery Train, a few years ago while they were hanging out together in Spain. All Joe had to do was grow sideburns and the rest of Johnny’s character fell into place. “I had sideburns anyway,” says Joe. “But I grew them like Elvis during his glitzy, early Vegas period. Once I grew them I felt more Teddy. Johnny was obviously a teddy who drifted to Memphis. Then I had to go to New York to rehearse. I was down in Grand Central Station and there was a gang of b-boys loitering in one of the hallways, and they went, ‘Yo, Elvis, what’s happening, dude?’ After the film, it was hard to revert to being normal, I had Johnny’s sideburns on and I didn’t shave them off for months. It was like being inhabited by some other being.”

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