Get Lit: Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, by Chris Salewicz

Categories: Get Lit
For all the anti-establishment rabble-rousing of his music and endless booze-and-spliff-permeated pub musings, Joe Strummer was stoked the Clash was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was furiously working toward reuniting the classic lineup for the 2003 ceremony, if only to rip through “White Riot,” “London Calling” and “Rock the Casbah” one more time.

After nearly a decade and a half of meandering, things were going exceedingly well for Strummer in late 2002. His new band the Mescaleros was playing sold-out shows, his wife was a much-needed grounding influence, and he watched with pride as many of the day’s biggest bands pledged their fealty to and admiration for “the only band that really mattered.”

But this godfather of punk rock would not live to see the Clash reunited, or even the induction ceremony itself. Instead, on Dec. 22, he died at home from a congenital heart defect (an artery going through his heart instead of around it), after walking his dogs, at age 50.

The man born John Mellor packed a lot into his half-century of existence, enough that Redemption Song runs more than 600 pages. Author Salewicz, a Strummer/Clash intimate and early chronicler of England’s punk scene, has written a masterful, literate and extremely accessible book.

And though close enough to Strummer to share family vacations and earn a nickname (“Sandwich”), Salewicz is hardly a hagiographer. He conducted more than 300 interviews, providing a definitive and balanced portrait of a man who may have adored his fans, but kept even his closest mates at an emotional arm’s length.

Joe Strummer was a man of many dichotomies: a diplomat’s son with a private-school upbringing who chose to live in squats to prove his earthiness; a man who could be exceedingly distant and unfaithful to girlfriends, yet hand over $5,000 on a whim to a street beggar; a performer who gladly accepted the Clash’s half-million dollar fee to headline the US Festival, then berate other bands and show organizers for not handing over cash to social causes (which he conveniently neglected to do himself).

The Clash’s music, with its combination of styles (rock, reggae, ska, punk) and subject matter (politics, oppression, social issues), remains perhaps the most vital of any group from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Strummer was both buoyed and beaten by the group’s legacy and his primary role (with help from Svengali-like manager Bernie Rhodes) in dissolving it, first by firing heroin-addicted drummer Topper Headon, then, amazingly, canning co-founder and crucial songwriter Mick Jones. Today, Headon would simply be packed off to rehab and Jones would clear his head by cutting a solo record before returning to the fold, but not back then.

Strummer spent his post-Clash years wandering through stints with acting, producing and soundtrack writing. Though he seems to have realized his mistakes almost immediately – pushing to collaborate with Jones’ new band B.A.D. almost immediately after firing him – a true Clash reunion was never in the cards. Jones’ one-off guest spot at a Mescaleros gig a few weeks before Strummer’s death – the first time the pair shared a stage in 20 years – will only be a “what if” for rock historians to ponder.

Redemption Song, along with Marcus Gray’s Last Gang in Town, are essential reading for any Clash fan. Salewicz’s prodigious skills as a writer, along with his personal knowledge of his subject and his world, elevate this book from mere biography to something much deeper and poetic. – Bob Ruggiero

Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, By Chris Salewicz, Faber & Faber, $30
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