Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer
A Book by Chris Salewicz
(Faber and Faber, Inc.)
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2007, Volume 14, #8
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Writing a book about a musical icon is a tricky undertaking. If the person is as well known as John Mellor a.k.a. Joe Strummer was, it becomes a doubly difficult task. The Clash’s byline — "the only band that matters" — has been taken to heart by legions of Strummer’s hardcore fans. Many of them have read everything in print about the late guitarist, and consequently, their opinions about him already are fully formed. A quick online search for The Clash or Joe Strummer points a curious person toward dozens of books, articles, movies, films, and tributes about their fallen idol. As can be seen when considering the posthumous legends that have grown around John Lennon and Bob Marley, the essential humanity and fallibility of the subject of an author’s writing often are lost and replaced by an impossible, mythic structure. While these larger-than-life portraits can be comforting to those in need of a hero or an archetype, they do no service to the musician in question, and ultimately, they do no justice to his legacy. Thankfully, Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, Chris Salewicz’s warts-and-all depiction of Strummer’s journey on Earth, avoids all of these pitfalls. As a result, it emerges as the best book about popular music since Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s masterful biography of Neil Young.
Like McDonough, Salewicz was intimately acquainted with his subject. He knew Strummer for many years as a musician and friend. Unlike many authors who have penned books from an insider’s perspective, however, Salewicz doesn’t use his familiarity with Strummer as a way of aggrandizing himself. He only puts himself into the story when it is appropriate; he never assimilates himself into the narrative where he doesn’t belong. Wisely, he only reports what he saw and felt at the time, and he doesn’t aggravate, agitate, or push any theory or agenda. In short, Salewicz has the presence of an insider without being a wanker.
Over the years, many writers have tried to humanize Strummer, but Salewicz actually is the first one to succeed in this pursuit. Strummer’s politics and his campaigns — musical and otherwise — are all covered in depth, and a more literate and sensitive account of The Clash’s ascendancy and cultural importance has yet to be written. Still, this is not what makes Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer such an essential tome. Salewicz strips away Strummer’s myth, and rather than castigating him for possessing the same weaknesses and lack of vision as every other human, he somehow manages to make The Clash’s leader all the more likeable for his foibles. Strummer’s inconsistencies, his fears, and his trouble with both relationships and alcohol are all outlined in great detail, but there is no cruelty in Salewicz’s account. Often the incidents that he reports are insignificant to the story of The Clash or Joe Strummer’s rock ’n‘ roll persona, but by including them, Salewicz reveals the poignant and likeable side of John Mellor.
Salewicz relays the tale about the time that he and Strummer went for a stroll in a London graveyard, only to be locked inside by the gatekeeper at closing time. The story of the two of them meeting up with a pair of Japanese tourists in the cemetery — and the quartet subsequently boosting each other over the gate — is subdued and lovely, while, at the same time, it reveals a lot about Strummer’s essential humanity. Similar anecdotes about spliffs and tea at Mick Jones’ pad, while Strummer tried to work up the nerve to ask the guitarist to reform The Clash, are similarly informative and entertaining to read. Salewicz’s accounts of Strummer’s wilderness years and his work with The Pogues and The Mescaleros, his final band, are compelling and informative. This chapter in Strummer’s life has been sorely under-reported until now. Salewicz describes Strummer’s work, ideas, and life during these "missing years" in a way that gives consistency and flow to the entirety of the guitarist’s canon, rather than just his fabled years with The Clash.
What emerges from Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer is a portrait of a man who not only was committed to his art, but who also puzzlingly lacked the confidence to pursue his dream. A tireless worker and performer, Strummer surprisingly suffered bouts of depression and indecision. Joe Strummer, as described by Chris Salewicz, was as vulnerable as he was tough and uncompromising. He had the good fortune of finding himself caught in the center of a cultural maelstrom and the wisdom to take advantage of it by fronting one of the greatest bands in history.
Chris Salewicz is the rarest of rock journalists because, in addition to having a true love of music, he also is able to express his passion in a compelling and literate way. Two of his previous publications — Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom and Rude Boy: Once Upon a Time in Jamaica — are, when taken together, the best books about reggae in print. In both of these tomes, as in his biography of Strummer, Salewicz keeps the objects of his tales at eye level. He never digs a pit for himself, and he doesn’t hoist himself or his subjects onto pedestals either. Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer is an essential read, and it will be a long, long time before a better book about Strummer, in particular, or punk rock, in general, will find its way into print. ½
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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