‘Jesus would have been a good punk’

Ex-Clash drummer Terry Chimes explains he’s ready to take atheists on in TV debates

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on 28 March 2014.

Terry Chimes

On holiday in Rio in 2000 Terry Chimes couldn’t keep his eyes off the Christ the Redeemer statue. “I kept being drawn to it, and I didn’t know why,” he says. He had been thinking about a remark by the Hindu guru Ramana Maharshi, who described Christ’s Resurrection as a metaphor for the spiritual self coming to life and the ego dying. Once he came back to England, he was gripped by a spiritual “super thirst” and shut himself away for two weeks to read books about Christianity. The “dam burst”, he says, with C S Lewis.

The passage, in the book Mere Christianity, was about pride. C S Lewis wrote that if you take pride “in thinking that you are more spiritual than someone else, then Satan will rub his hands with glee”, says Chimes. As he read the words he had the “chilling awareness” that he had been in “just such a trap for 20 years”. He put the book down, sat on the sofa and, he says, had “the most extraordinary experience of my life”. In his autobiography, The Strange Case of Dr Terry and Mr Chimes, he describes it as a “presence coming through me in strong waves”. “At that moment,” he writes, “everything material and concrete seemed like nothing compared to the power and majesty of this presence. Everything in my world seemed to be instantly shattered, leaving me feeling tiny, naked and exposed. At the same time I felt the most extraordinarily powerful love… there were many tears, but also the most profound feeling that I would always be loved until the end of time and beyond. I also realised at that moment that my life could never be the same again.”

Chimes had been raised a Catholic but hadn’t believed in anything other than a vague “higher power” since he was 12 or so. “I was searching forever,” he says. “I read every book going. I tried different types of meditation. But I was always one step away from finding what I needed.”

I meet him for lunch in Loughton, Essex, where he lives. He picks me up in a shiny new Mercedes – the number plate spells CH11MES. He is dressed smartly, in a blue blazer. His life has taken some sharp turns. He is not, I think, someone who’s afraid of change. First, he was a drummer for The Clash, and toured with bands like Black Sabbath. Then he became a chiropractor (that is, a therapist who manipulates parts of the body to try to fix joint or spine problems). His next big adjustment is that he’s about to get married. His fiancee is from Manila and they met online. They talked via Skype for two months before he flew out to visit her. We sit down to eat at Zizzi. Chimes, seeing the waiter alarmed at my recording device, jokes that it’s “for feedback”. He is a rapid talker, rattling off one-liners before I’ve had time to open my mouth.

He explains that, after his Damascene experience, while he might “get annoyed with God”, he’s “never ever doubtful for a microsecond that he’s there and real and knows me very intimately”. He goes to Mass at Our Lady of Lourdes in Wanstead, where he’s also part of a meditation group. (He meditates for half an hour each day before work.) He says he “tells the world” about meditation because he thinks it’s so good, but hardly anyone gives it a try. “I don’t know why. I think they think it’s some kind of witchcraft or something.” The aim of the group, he says, is to sit there, clear your mind and become “more aware and share in the love between the Father and the Son”. He adds: “I don’t know if they think we take our clothes off or what we do.”

Chimes says he has told his old bandmates about his conversion but that they were not particularly interested. “They always thought I was a bit weird anyway,” he says. He does not, though, see any great contradiction between punk and Catholicism. “Jesus would have been a good punk in a way,” he says. “He was interested in freedom, in honesty, in doing the right thing, and all of those things are kind of aligned in the way the punk thing came along.” He describes punk as a reaction to bands “sitting in private jets, earning a fortune, not being in touch with their fans”. Those bands were “a bit like legalists in the Church”, he says.

Chimes was only in The Clash for about a year before he decided to quit. The reason, he explains in his book, was that he wasn’t enjoying it. He was constantly arguing with everyone else. He thought they all got carried away with their idealism, saying things like “we won’t earn any money, we’ll give it all away”. He says: “I wanted to play music and they wanted to change the world. I didn’t mind changing the world but it had to be done realistically.”

He carried on drumming for a dozen more years, and even rejoined The Clash for a while, before training as a chiropractor, which, he says in his autobiography, gave him a “more profound happiness” than he ever had on stage. Now, after a break of almost 20 years, Chimes is back in the music business again. His band The Crunch have recorded an album and are performing at festivals in Spain and Sweden. On April 9 he is playing at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, central London, where, at a Clash gig in the 1970s, a brawl broke out and he was kicked in the face by a fan. “Hopefully it will be more peaceful,” he says.

Chimes admits he has a tendency to “get angry with things when they’re not right”, and before very long we are talking grumpily about the anti-Catholic press. He laments the fact that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were under constant attack during their pontificates. He gets “quite offended”, he says, by people saying how much nicer Francis is, simply because the press has laid off for a change. “They need to see beyond the headlines and actually realise all three were great men. We can’t compare them and say which one is better. It’s not a beauty contest.”

Chimes says, in fact, that he would like to speak up for the Church in the public square. “I feel atheists are getting far too much airtime and there’s no one there to fight back. They might drag on a local bishop to argue but he’s sometimes a bit too nice and doesn’t confront these people.” I must sound surprised by the idea, because Chimes is insistent. “I think it will happen,” he says. “I don’t mind arguing with people.”

Chimes invites me back for tea at his house, which has some grand touches. There is a small waterfall in the garden and, at the top of a staircase, a large painting of the Crucifixion. In a few days he is off to the Philippines to help plan the final details of his wedding. “The more atheistic the world becomes the more people are obsessed with weddings and Christmas,” he says. His mother, who is too frail to travel, will watch the ceremony on Skype.

His life is full of fresh starts: a marriage, a band, a book. I wouldn’t be surprised if becoming a voice for the Church will turn out to be another.