The Clash singer and guitarist eventually spent months in Spain and volunteered to produce for a local band, releasing an obscure album in a little-known chapter to the life of the widely influential British musician.
Filmmaker Nick Hall explored Strummer's Spanish sojourn in a documentary that premiered Saturday in New York at the third CBGB festival, named after the city's celebrated but defunct punk club.
The five-day festival showcased dozens of rock-themed movies and nearly 200 bands at venues around New York, culminating Sunday with a free concert in Times Square headlined by Jane's Addiction.
Times Square, then much grimier, was where The Clash nearly set off a riot in 1981 as the fire department tried to shut down a show that was vastly oversold.
Hall said that Spain at the time was less integrated musically with other Western nations but that Strummer was drawn to the Movida Madrilena, the counter-cultural scene following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
Strummer brought a political edge to rock, with The Clash taking up causes from immigrant rights in Britain to leftist movements in Latin America. The Clash delved into the Spanish Civil War in "Spanish Bombs" off the classic 1979 album "London Calling."
In the Clash's only UK number one single, 'Should I stay or should I go?', Strummer and American musician Joe Ely repeat lines from the main lyric in Spanish.
Strummer traveled several times to Spain and at one point even vowed to dig the ground with a spade to find the grave of slain writer Federico Garcia Lorca in the Andalucia region around Granada.
In a recorded interview with a local journalist broadcast in the movie,Strummer was asked why he came to Spain.
"How do you say 'reason' in Spanish? 'Razon'? Muchos razones," Strummer says in ungrammatical Spanish. "Obviously because I am obsessed with Andalucia."
Strummer — first introduced to the country by a Spanish girlfriend – said he found the atmosphere "depressing" in Britain where conservative Margaret Thatcher had just won a second election decisively.
Hall named the film "I Need a Dodge: Joe Strummer on the Run" after an improbable episode several years before the singer's death in 2002. Interviewed by Spain's Radio 3 during the Glastonbury festival, Strummer repeatedly asked in broken Spanish if anyone had seen his Dodge car.
Members of Radio Futura — a top Spanish group at the time — explained in the film that Strummer had asked them to help buy a Dodge, an American car that was conspicuously large for narrow European streets.
The film follows a search for the Dodge, which Strummer apparently left in a garage as he suddenly returned to England in January 1986 when his then girlfriend Gaby Salter, whom he had all but forgotten about, gave birth to their second daughter.
The result of Strummer's time in Spain was an album by the band 091 called "Mas de Cien Lobos" ("More than 100 Wolves") that had a polished pop sound pushed by a Spanish label that barely knew The Clash.
After petitions by fans, Granada last year named a square after Strummer. But his melancholic experience contrasts with that of estranged bandmate Mick Jones, who after being sacked by Strummer found success with Big Audio Dynamite.
Hall spent four years on the documentary, saying he was drawn to the story as it followed the lines of what he wanted to do with fiction.
"I had in mind a fictional feature film based loosely on this idea of an English singer who was like the 19th century literary adventurers," Hall said.
Incidentally, the CBGB festival also featured the New York premiere of a film with similar themes, "Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed," which dramatizes John Lennon's 1966 trip to Spain.
The film, Spain's nominee for the best foreign language Oscar, stars Javier Camara as a Beatles-obsessed schoolteacher who tries to meet Lennon.