There is truth to the adage that one shouldn’t meet one’s heroes. Not that Clash front man Joe Strummer is one of mine, but he and the band were big influences when I was a teenager. Musicians (and artists in general) are not saints; they are humans. That sounds trite, I know, but it’s naive to believe that someone who straps on a guitar and pens a two-minute pop song has more to say than anyone else. Yeah, but try telling that to a teenager.
In his book Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer (Faber and Faber, 2007), veteran biographer Chris Salewicz attempts to do just that and generally succeeds: Strummer drank a lot of booze, did a lot of drugs, and didn’t treat the women in his life all that well. Standard rock fare, I’d say.
Salewicz opens with the news of Strummer’s death by heart attack, follows with the subsequent obituary, and describes the star-studded funeral. He then researches the family tree back about two generations, interviewing the man’s (born John Graham Mellor) distant Scottish relatives. Certainly background and heritage inform the artist and it’s important to know a bit about the Mellors, but I couldn’t help but think that many details were unnecessary. Fans shouldn’t see (nor want to see) dirty laundry, even it is no more soiled than anyone else’s.
Once we get past that rather long bit, we learn about John’s and his older brother David’s nomadic childhood and their time at boarding school (their father was a diplomat). This somewhat privileged background seems to rub Clash and punk fans the wrong way; we’d rather think of this bloke as a hard-scrabble, working-class hero, which is something that Mellor/Strummer wanted as well. And so in an attempt to achieve this status we move with him through various name changes and London squats.
As with most of us, his family hums along in the background, serving perhaps as a moral compass. His brother’s suicide in 1970 underscores the depression that seems to run through the family. David was shy and not well, apparently trying to find meaning by becoming a Nazi and joining the National Front. It would be ironically humorous if it wasn’t so tragic, and the incident marks Strummer for life.
From this Salewicz takes us straight on to the 101ers and the Clash, or what I like to call the “fun stuff.” It’s gossipy, juicy, and nerdy. Recording, song writing, touring, in-fighting, egos, hurt feelings, and confusion all give us a sense that the Clash earned their name.
When the Clash finally ended 1986, Strummer was unemployed. This is where musicians and the rest of us differ. When regular folks lose their jobs, they have a moan, polish their resumes, and get on with finding another job. Not quite so with musicians, or at least not with Strummer. Despite appearances, he did make quite a bit of money from music; not as much as some, but he was comfortable, which afforded him a bit more time for a moan before moving on to acting, movie-soundtrack work, playing with the Pogues, and forming the Mescaleros.
Overlapping this stage is Strummer’s love of music festivals, which seem to be more popular in the UK than they are in North America. It’s not a stretch that he was likely nostalgic for the communal feeling he experienced while living in London squats, embracing the festival campfires as a way to bring people together. He took this festival spirit and transplanted it to his country home.
Salewicz does a great job at hinting at other interesting stories and personalities, such as Mick Jones and Don Letts. To me, Jones comes off as a more musically interesting and less tormented guy. Letts was a filmmaker who shot the Clash in New York, later joined with Jones to form Big Audio Dynamite, and can now be found spinning discs for BBC 6 Music.
Great old photos and ephemera fill out this thorough book, bringing the words to life. Unfortunately, Redemption Song needed a firmer editorial hand. The content is too exhaustive and the text too repetitive. Perhaps the author didn’t take direction or perhaps none was given, regardless the result could have been tighter and more disciplined; at 619 pages, this book is far too long.
The book title Redemption Song is taken from the Bob Marley song of the same name. Strummer and Jones were massive reggae fans, responsible for introducing many white kids to the genre. Redemption is something I think we all seek. Strummer was particularly active in his quest, directly interacting with fans, getting involved with causes such as Rock Against Racism, and actively bringing disparate people together. This is why, despite the rock-and-roll trappings, his fans forgive him his many trespasses. Joe Strummer was earnest and his songs authentic in their yearning and urgency, remaining relevant to this day.