Monday: To Hell With A Bullet
6.30AM. Decidedly sparse summerwear packed into a bag and I'm off.
The plane journey bounds into a good start when my foot becomes a trip wire to the toilet. Air hostess gives me murderous looks.
In the club class sits Cilla Black. I ask for a graphology sample and she showbusinessly responds. On her way to a blind date in Torremolinos no doubt.
1.15 we arrive. A barefoot in sandals man arrives with a Straight To Hell T-shirt and drives me the hairpin bends from Malaga to Almeria, a clean undisturbed town in the southern foothills. A freelance butler in his spare time, he regales me with tales of the Royal Family and Charles & Di's infinite capacity to say "Fuck you."
We reach Blanco Town at sundown to see a hold up in the hardware store and George in his Rambo gear. All is chaos. Cameras, countless people, and producer Eric Fellner saying "Hi Lucy," smelling sweetly of jacuzzis and the credit card tax bracket. But Straight To Hell is a cheap B budget film costing less than $1 m and shot in three weeks, a socialist Cox enterprise with every participant on 6 profit-sharing point system.
A man bawls out the general hubbub: "Would you be quiet! We're about to shoot!" He has sunblonde hair, a headscarf, shorts and wild eyes. Some California beach bum, I surmise. "That's Alex Cox." Oh.
10pm and we're in the hotel. Me making some mad attempt to talk to Cait O'Riordan and Declan McManus, their arms entwined on a sofa and table piled high with drinks. "The last thing you need in a story like this is a verbatim report," says Elvis, switching off my walkperson. "It'll be a hard job getting a straight answer out of anybody here. They're crazy from the heat."
"Just observe," Cait advises.
Tuesday: Mad Dogs & Englishmen...
Alarm call 7am and I'm back on set. The 40-minute drive from the Hotel Residencia Grand to the location is a balm for disordered nerves. Once out of town the mountains of the Sierra Nevada roar gracefully as if to be
appreciated. Apart from film furore the main features of this mini-Hollywood area are dust and silence. It is one man's job to regularly stir up the dust before each take, but often the wind, unbidden sends it eerily scudding.
I 'hang out'. Breakfast with Cait and Declan is characterised by my spilling tea all over them. They are very polite. Five minutes later Xander Schloss, actor and Circle Jerk, sends his skimming too. I don't feel so bad. The two McManuses strum show tunes and tell me to cover myself with sun block. Elvis delivers a version of The Hollies' 'King Midas In Reverse'.
We walk from the 'tents' fa makeshift food area) to the first take of the day — the killing of Shone McGowan. He plays Bruno, key member of the resident McMahon clan who destroy any stranger daring to come into town. Religious fundamentalists, they don't drink, swear or smoke — their only addictions being coffee (which they steal and sell contraband) and killing. Simms (alias Joe Strummer), Norwood (Sy Richardson), Willy (Dick Rude) and Velma (Courtney Love) are the disruptive quartet of crooks who arrive from afar to clash with the locals. Here, Strummer ("I've been waiting all night to do this") shoots Shane. "Don't look at the camera," shouts director. And soon we're engaged in real pathos as Shane trundles up behind an abandoned Chevrolet and with three short sharp shots Strummer sends him to the ground. Once dead, Zorra Pogue lifts his head and chuckles an irresistable wheezy Muttley laugh — clapped out teeth 'n' all.
Lunchtime. Joe Strummer and I trudge to the tents, my recorder in hand. Have you found acting difficult?
"It's all timing. Obviously music helps 'cos you get into timing and singing."
Do you see much difference between your approach and that of trained actors?
"They keep five or six things running at one moment. The really good ones don't get out of the frame or block other people, they still remember what they're supposed to be, the way they're gonna say their stuff and the reason for saying it. I've learned about their control."
In working for Cox he says "it's best to keep quiet, know your lines, and do it really good." I wonder if Simms is a heroic spagetti Humphrey Bogart but "not really, he's a dirty rat, a poseur who knows his guns but when he comes to getting it right he's pretty damn useless."
We park ourselves at a table. Are you writing any songs now?
"I sing about England all the time," Strummer says. "It took three people and a motor scooter down in Almeria to make me realise what a trick they've been playing on us all these years. I was outside a cafe thinking of England, and suddenly this scooter went past with a big fat woman sitting side saddle, bum sticking out over the pillion, guy driving with a fag in his mouth and a kid standing in front of him on the running board, just tootling up the high street, middle of the afternoon. A cop was leaning against a lamp-post wearing Rayban Wayfarers, smoking. Nobody batted an eyelid. In England, you’d have 20 cop cars come speeding out, there’d be vans, the SPG, the response unit, and they’d drag these people off their bike, arrest them… we’ve unnecessarily tightened the screws. Then you think of the booze laws and how they treat us like children, everything fits in, matrons, etc. The English somehow seem to like it”.
“We accept it”.
“It’s Oxford Street, with all those yellow lines on the road, and nice arrows and nice little pedestrian islands with policeman and red buses. Its fuckin’ Bill & Ben and Dixon Of Dock Green. Look at the Highway Code book – it’s fucking sexually repressed men in boardrooms inventing and designing the culture of England.”
Do you think English mentality a bit wimpy?
“It’s seriously insane. D’you know how many six year-old-kids get molested, gagged and thrown into canals in England? It doesn’t happen in Spain, I checked it out with a lawyer in Granada. Go away for a while and it gives you such a perspective. When I’m walking up Notting Hill High Street I never think like this ‘cos my head’s in the mud, where they really keep it.”
Aren’t you from public school?
"Yes I am. Where’d you think I learnt a word like raucous? I went to City of London Freeman School.”
Does that make Clash revolutionary fervour somewhat hypocritical?
“It wasn’t really a high-class experience. It was brutal. I went on my ninth birthday into a weird Dickensian Victorian world with sub-corridors under sub-basements, one light bulb every 100 yards and people coming down ‘em beating wooden coat hangers on our heads. People would throw shit in someone else’s bath and stuff their heads in it. It was a third rate public school where people with money sent their dumb kids.”
The first kick against authority…
“Well, Jesus, it was such shit. It brutalised me. When I got to a position of power I was a bad guy. I remember slapping a guy – he was only nine or ten – across the head, c’pow! and his National Health glasses falling … just ‘cos he irritated me. The upper classes have it so sorted out that all our adolescent gibberings are just spunking in the face of a hurricane.”
Still the cynical guy with the mellow heart he explains to me in detail the function of a bullet.
“if you’re playing a gunman in a film you have to know your guns. “
What does it feel like slinging a gun?
“Yeah, I’m only telling the truth. It’s hard to resist a gun. Hold it. Aim it at someone’s head and pull the trigger.”
I do just that. Morag the make-up girl looks up in surprise.
Over lunch I manage to capture Alex Cox – busy, busy man – who devotes answers to me between mouthfuls with the same concentrated energy with which he directs his films.
“It’s going great. I wanted Strummer and The Pogues because they’re all really charismatic, great faces, and natural actors.”
In scriptwriting were you thinking of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly? “We were thinking of this town. Obviously it’s in the vein of For A Few Dollars More, but it’s also a Django spoof, Django being the spaghetti western hero who had his head stamped on, his hands cut off, but he always came through in the end.”
As you had spiked hair during the shooting of Sid And Nancy and you’re now in rough garb-with an exaggerated moustache, do you assume a theme character for each film?
“Yeah, I’m a fucking outlaw, a hooligan. If you’re communicating an overall feeling it’s better coming from that place of tension or outlawery than if you turn up in suit and tie. The director is an actor himself, the one who gets the actors to act.” He even sleeps on set to “feel the vibe, hang out and explore the place”. It is a practice run for William Walker, the film to be shot this January in Nicaragua about a madcap late 19th century colonist.
“I’m practising my Spanish, and learning to deal with people in a different way. Making films in London and Los Angeles is quite controlled. I’ve rarely had to raise my voice. Here I scream all the time just to keep it going. I’m working in a hot climate. It’s not nice and gentlemanly like TV, it’s a rude, crude environment with discourtesy, pushing and shoving.”
William Walker will be a comedy about “how badly Americans behave abroad – good intentions and ambitious ambition. It has to be funny ‘cos Walker was such an unpleasant character, a coward and a liar – you can’t make a film about that seriously ‘cos he’s an idiot.”
He says how cast and crew are “loose and young and keen”, unlike the bratpackers he sent packing for arrogantly refusing to have a haircut.
“There’s no time to waste. A couple of ‘real stars’ came two days ago. Grace Jones and Denis Hopper, who were marvellous, very willing, with a sense of maturity and responsibility. The idea is to squeeze into this film star names who will make you more money when you sell it.”
Dealing much in the anti-hero motif I ask Cox whether his films are too macho.
“It’s more about the cult of machismo than macho itself. Beat up cars and disgusting guys who sweat all the times: brooding sexual tension, eyeball-to-eyeball staring and flinging arms round each other saying with gruff bravado ‘Boys, I love you guys so much!’ Also the sexual roles are fucked up. Why shouldn’t the guys get all tearful and weepy, the women stand around spitting and chewing tobacco. Women aren’t an archetype. They’re tougher than men.”
He tells me about the planned sequel Back To Hell featuring the French foreign legion. Can I be in that one?
“Yeah, you can be staked out in the hot sun to die while the vultures circle overhead.”
Roast the journalist! Roast the journalist!
Evening comes, and we are destined to climb the mountains for a final shot. Courtney Love helps me up the slope. She plays “a white trash pregnant bitch called Velma, some weird hillbilly from an incestuous background who’s really fascinated with charms and magic.”
“She doesn’t wash and wear cologne, she’s into tackiness, anything with cherries and strawberries on it. She stands in the bullets and knows she’s not gonna get killed.”
Though having the lead female starlet role, Courtney is not a member of the famed US brat pack.
“I’m not upper middle class and I was never popular at high school. I have tattoo and I’m subculture, a teenage bag lady.” She has little respect for the glamorous bit-parters: “Grace Jones was psychotic with her stardom. Her make up artists worked with a pair of binoculars and took eight hours to do her face. It was scummy Stagelight make up, tacky as hell”.
Maybe sharing a flat with Lydia Lunch years ago helped Courtney cultivate her tough girl image.
“She never did the dishes and would lie on her bed sometimes screeching ‘let’s go beat up some girls’. So we’d go downtown and beat up gurls. I feel a bit ashamed of that now… “
We reach the mountain top, and already the sky is red and shrouded purple. Simms, Norwood, Velma and Willy are to look over Blanco Town and gasp in awe. Velma lets loose the lid of her suitcase and sheave of stolen money fly out. As the gang set off down the hill, Cox, director at work, picks up armfuls of notes and sends them fluttering in front of the camera. It’s that moment of creative stillness like the softly raining garbage in Sid And Nancy, that has a sense of magic.
Wednesday: Murder and sexual tension
Pogues, Brandy and insults for breakfast.
“Where d’you get those shorts Luch? Get ‘em orf.”
The day has started. Revelling in the Pogue Pit (a ramshackle building on set), Shane, Spider and Andrew piss-take the director. Film has a ritual before each take – a “silence please … silencio por favour” – then checking “speed… sound… lights” then to start cameras “turn over”. At this point all the Pogues roll over. Outside it’s “action!”. In here it’s mayhem.
“Anywhere on Green Lanes north of Manor House!”
Spider and Shane try to find the Tube’s most boring places.
Bursts of giggles.
“I shat in a street in Hertford”, Spider says gleefully.
“Didn’t you have thingy’s daughter up against the wall?” asks Shane.
“She came from Harlow New Town and was 15. I didn’t fuck her but I did have my hand up her skirt. I said I was looking for drugs.”
“In her knickers?” asks cow girl matriarch Letitia.
“That’s what Customs do, isn’t it?”
Shane spots my machine. “You’re not recording this are you?”
“Why’s the light on?”
Lunchtime is loud. Spider was shot in the morning: he’s covered in fake blood and like Macbeth’s Banquo is presiding melodramatically over the feast, threatening to go up the road and scare passing drivers. Strummer takes a pot shot with a rock at Courtney’s nipple. She chases him in stark revenge. Pogues manager Frank Murray moans about the state of his costume, “it fucking stinks man”, while Shane and I compare Cladagh rings. “Yours is pointing to your heart”, he says, “that means you have an Other Half.”
Afternoon filming is a subdued affair. Hangovers abound. I sit beside co-scriptwriter and young UCLA film school star Dick Rude in “The Dodge”, a rickety beat up car which is the off-scene establishment of the ‘crackpack’. “Alex is a martian”, he says. “Look at him closely. His hands are huge.” Dick tells me about the new movie he’s planning. “It’s called The Bride Of Jesus or The Making of the Medité. Medité is a kebab made out of ground beef and pork and it’s shaped like a turd. You barbecue it and burp it up later. This story is about a guru who shits out these medités. They’re the surreal element in the film ‘cos they’re never quite explained.”
Along the lines of where there’s shit there’s gold?
“Along the lines of food is shit, money is nothing.”
9pm and we watch the “rushes”, untreated piece of film shot that day. Everyone cheers as Sy Richardson’s cool, cool gaze; James Pogue’s performance as a lust-touched Mancunian McMahon. The cuts are rough but flickering out are inklings of a film, very funny and a definite cult hit.
Thursday: Return to Hell
Today is my departure from hell and the Hotel Grand. Elvis and Cait share a taxi to Malaga airport and discuss the film. Costello has been cast as Hives the butler, prim, precise and perfect. What do you think of your part?
“All I’m doing is obeying. ‘You have to have the coffee in this scene and hand it in’. Though you catch the horrible disease of ’actor’ after a couple of days and start saying things like ‘Hives would have a shotgun because he’s used to shooting quail and grouse. ‘ I like to get out of my character off-screen. I don’t like to ‘method out’”.
Cait questions me once again about my “brief”. She does not like the NME. “Take my advice and work for Melody Maker. They appreciate talent. They don’t swamp it under the senile drooling of old men like NME does – they let you “have your head”.
“Have your head and eat it”, Elvis jokes.
I board the plane four hours later, star-weary and dust-laden, with slips of handwriting samples, a few crumpled counterfeit notes, and an unwavering sense of Blanco Town, wind-blown, sand-blown, ferocious and gloriously hell-bent.