Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer
By Chris Salewicz
Faber & Faber (5/15/07)
Available At Amazon.com
The question still rings out like a challenge and accusation across three decades: “Where were you in ’77?” If you worked for one of the three major British weekly music papers, the answer to that is simple: you were in bed with The Clash. The championing of punk by the papers when it was still an underground movement the previous year refined itself after the Grundy Incident and national exposure down to the championing of the one group that was considered acceptable by everyone, including record companies. After all, no other punk group got a one-hundred-thousand-pound advance to sign to a major. It was safe to promote The Clash as the vanguard of New Music, and the reporters covering punk pitched in with an enthusiasm that can be seen given the time separation as downright embarrassing.
(As usual, one of those reporters, Caroline Coon, took it one step further and decided to turn metaphor into reality. The woman who came up with the Do It Yourself ethos decided to follow it, using Paul Simonon as a walking sex toy in an attempt to relive her radical youth. She’d even end up managing The Clash for a brief period.)
One of the worst offenders of the journalistic credo of separating yourself from what you cover was Chris Salewicz. His articles in the New Musical Express on The Clash were always the most enthusiastic. As such, he developed a deep and lasting friendship with the members of the group, one that still exists to this day. This is not to say that Salewicz was deficient as a journalist. He did his job, and he did it well given the particular necessities of the time. But I was taught that it wasn’t a journalist’s job to be a cheerleader. It’s something that’s informed my writing to this day, and, yes, I do get uncomfortable with some of the writers on this site who don’t follow that principle. Objectivity is a virtue, after all.
However, Salewicz has been able to use his deficiencies to his advantage, writing a number of books on subjects that he has been personally enthused about, and doing so in an engaging way. His latest work takes him back to The Clash, and an attempt to get a hold on one of the most enigmatic of punk performers, Joe Strummer. Salewicz apparently considers it a badge of honor that people have told him that he was the only journalist that Strummer “trusted”. Those admissions at the beginning of Redemption Song: The Ballad Of Joe Strummer left me a bit queasy. Biography-as-encomium is a genre that leaves me cold. I detest books that set up their subject as some sort of plaster saint. Salewicz doesn’t do that here, but it’s not for lack of trying.
The attempt starts on the cover. The subtitle of the book is “The Definitive Biography”. At that point, Salewicz paints himself into a corner. The definitive book on British punk has long been writtenâ€”Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming. The definitive book on The Clash has also long been writtenâ€”Marcus Grey’s Last Gang in Town. Of course, Savage’s story ends in 1991, and Grey’s in 1995. It’s no coincidence that the strongest portions of Redemption Song are those that focus on Strummer after Grey’s book ends, dealing with his time with the Mescaleros, as he tried to revive a career in the doldrums.
The story of the man that became Joe Strummer is a rather simple one. Born as the younger of two sons of a member of the Foreign Office, John Mellor’s early life was one of adventure and disconnection as he moved from place to place, wherever Ron Mellor was needed by the British government. In order to stop the constant moves, the Mellors placed their sons in a boarding school when John turned nine. The Mellor boys reacted badly to being placed in an alien environment in, what was to them, another foreign land (John was born in Turkey, while his father was born in India, and neither had really lived full-time in England). David, the elder, withdrew into himself, leading to his suicide at a young age. John became a rebel and bully, something he would remain for the remainder of his life.
Salewicz sets up no type of judgments on Strummer’s behavior, either as a child or as an adult. The story of Strummer’s youth is well-trod ground by now, and Salewicz provides nothing really new or noteworthy. We all know that Strummer essentially dropped out of society as his schooling ended, becoming a hippie, renaming himself “Woody” (and coming up with the connection to Woody Guthrie post-hoc, something that provided him with a connection to other Guthrie acolytes like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen), entering the squatter’s movement in London, forming the 101ers and renaming himself Joe Strummer after his guitar-playing style… it’s a well-known story, and every angle was covered during the orgy of Clash press coverage thirty years ago. Grey’s book provides many more details than Salewicz provides. However, if you’ve never read Grey’s book, Redemption Song is a good primer on the forces that created Joe Strummer.
But the strength of Salewicz’s book, as said, comes in areas that Grey didn’t cover. During the last half-dozen years of his life, Strummer attempted to reconnect with his mother’s family in Scotland, and Salewicz uses them as sources in an attempt to display another side of Strummer, one that wasn’t publicly known. Unfortunately, it ends up being the same side we’ve already seen. All of his mother’s relatives loved Joe, as apparently did everyone else Salewicz talked to. No one hated Joe Strummer, not even the people he treated badly. Mick Jones and Topper Headon forgave him quickly for Strummer turfing them out of The Clash. The Clash substitutes he assembled for that last, disastrous Clash album give him a free pass. The members of the Latino Rockabilly War and the Mescaleros, whom Joe treated like hired hands or worse, all love, love, love him, and not even the four and a half years after his death have changed their minds. Even Gaby Salter, who spent fourteen years with Joe and bore him two daughters, then was dumped to the curb when he met Lucinda, won’t say a bad word about him. It’s only in between the lines that you can find stuff to dislike about Strummer.
In between the sweet portraits of the man are the moments and the subtext that redeems this book somewhat. You just have to find them. Yes, it’s wonderful to hear about Salewicz and Simonon going on a trek to find Joe’s ancestral home in the Hebridies. But it’s thrillingly disconcerting to piece together the portrait of the post-Clash Strummer, a man totally lost. Salewicz won’t say it straight out, but in the decade-and-a-half between the final dissolution of The Clash and the point where he started to receive critical acclaim for his work with the Mescaleros, Strummer was a disagreeable alcoholic who had a constant nimbus of pot haze surrounding him. Virtually every anecdote of Salewicz’s personal encounters with Strummer begins with them lighting up a joint. Strummer couldn’t work in the studio without setting up a “spliff bunker”, a contraption of cases where he could isolate himself, toke up, and write lyrics. Pot and booze is a combination that does not lead to a favorable mindset when it comes to dealing with other people. Or maybe those are just my experiences, and Strummer was completely different.
How lost was Strummer? His best efforts during his “wilderness years” were things he ended up doing with Mick Jones, the only man who could provide the music to set off Joe’s lyrics. But his relationship with The Clash became ambivalent. He’d hate to be reminded of the band, and he chafed at the CBS contract that Bernie Rhodes signed that essentially put his work with the group into a lifelong arrangement, but it was The Clash reissues that provided him with the money to live his lifestyle and attempt to find his own way. There’s a telling anecdote in here from Strummer’s final year of life. He sent a bunch of lyrics to Mick Jones, about a half-dozen songs’ worth, and Mick wrote the music. Mick thought that these would be for the Mescaleros’ next album. When they didn’t turn up on Global A-Go-Go, Mick asked Joe what was up. Joe told him, “No, these aren’t for the Mescaleros. They’re for The Clash’s next album.” It took the Mescaleros to get Strummer comfortable with the thought of The Clash. When Mick Jones walked out on stage to play with Strummer in 2002, at what would end up being Strummer’s final concert (a situation that Salewicz paints as a spur-of-the-moment decision by Jones), the ball was rolling. Despite Simonon’s protests, The Clash would reunite in 2003 when they were inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was a certainty. It was stopped only by Strummer’s death.
I remember the excitement that I felt when I read about Jones joining Strummer on stage that night. To me, and a lot of people my age, the Clash may not have been The Only Band That Mattered, but they were damn close. I felt that the post-September 11th Era needed a group to blow away the miasma of bullshit and show the world exactly what was going on with the Bush/Blair Axis of Obfuscation. No one did it better than The Clash when they went up against the varsity team of Reagan and Thatcher; the JVs wouldn’t even be a challenge. Simonon could be talked into it, I felt; he could put down the paintbrushes and create sonic works of art again. Strummer’s death five weeks later from a congenital heart defect destroyed that image. For someone whose personal feelings about The Clash and its members permeate this book, Salewicz doesn’t relate his own feelings about that moment and what it could have meant. Of course, he knew exactly how intransigent Simonon was on the issue, and that tempered his own feelings. In general, Salewicz doesn’t service Clash fans very well in this book, and that was his intention. He wrote this book for Strummer, and parroted Strummer’s own prejudices and feelings. The writing was an act of exorcism, not intending to inform as much as confront the world with what his friend felt, something that Strummer never did in prose form. This book is substitution, with Salewicz putting himself into his buddy’s shoes and attempting to write what Strummer might have done if he’d confronted himself enough to write his autobiography.
Joe Strummer had a half-century of life, much of which was wasted potential. When he set out to work, he did so with a clarity of conviction. He spent his last decade confronting the decisions he’d made during those moments of clarity, attempting to reestablish bridges that he’d burnt. He did it with the 101ers that he’d abandoned to join The Clash. He did it with the audience in his tours with the Pogues, the Latino Rockabilly War, and the Mescaleros, not to mention his BBC World Service show. He did it with the former members of The Clash, and got close to bringing them back together, knowing that it was the best moment of their lives and they could have those moments again as they approached an age where they were satisfied with their lives and their demons were dismissed. He did it with his mother’s family that he’d ignored and dismissed for three decades. It’s those attempts that Salewicz emphasizes. But is it a fair portrait of the man? I think that Strummer himself would say that it isn’t. It’s the type of book that someone would love to have written about them after they die. But Strummer was always honest, and he’d be the first to say that this book should have contained more of his worse moments. He was always one to believe in fairness, after all.