Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz

It’s reasonable to be skeptical whenever a book preemptively claims to be the “definitive” source on a particular subject, and so I admit I had some doubts when I first learned about Redemption Song. After all, there are already two books on The Clash that critics have deemed as definitive works — Pat Gilbert’s Passion Is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash and Marcus Gray’s The Clash: Return of the Last Gang in Town — and both extensively detail Joe Strummer’s indispensable lyrical and musical contributions to the band. Strummer is as worthy of biographical treatment as any other musician in rock history, but the question remained how Chris Salewicz would creatively recount his Clash-era career within the larger narrative of his life.

As it turns out, my concerns were unfounded, for Salewicz has written a biography that is largely exemplary in its descriptiveness (over 600 pages) and concept. A veteran British music journalist who shared a close relationship with Strummer up to the latter’s death in December 2002, he is no doubt familiar with previous literature on the Clash, and has responded by particularly emphasizing Strummer’s post-Clash career and life. Indeed, a few reviewers (notably Robert Christgau for the New York Times) have disagreed with Salewicz’s decision to dedicate slightly more analysis to this period, especially if one believes that Strummer’s solo work pales in comparison to Clash classics London Calling and Combat Rock.

This is a legitimate criticism, as I discuss below. Yet besides that fact that Salewicz has distinguished his work from that of Gilbert and Gray, there are two distinct advantages to his particular approach. The first is that he allows readers to reconsider the value of Strummer’s late 1980s output (including film soundtrack work and the 1989 solo album Earthquake Weather) and his more recent albums with the Mescaleros. The book’s title — taken from the classic Bob Marley song that Strummer covered near his death — suggests a loose thesis along this line of thought. Although he went through what Salewicz calls the “Wilderness Years” during most of the 1990s, his marriage to Lucinda Tait in 1995 and formation of the Mescaleros shortly thereafter represented a recovery of his sense of purpose.

This doesn’t mean that his later output matches up to The Clash’s best material (which isn’t really a revelation), but Salewicz finds that much of it does demonstrate Strummer’s songwriting skills and versatility. Songs such as “Trash City” (originally from the 1988 soundtrack to Permanent Record) and “Coma Girl” (from the posthumous 2003 Mescaleros album Streetcore) are good examples of his ability to stick to stripped-down 4/4 rock. Yet as the director Sara Driver mentions in the book, his diverse love of music led to an “archaeological” ability to synthesize different styles and genres in his songwriting.

This ability first emerged when The Clash began employing reggae rhythms into their song structures, and Strummer would later incorporate African and Latin strains, folk, the rockabilly he had first honed as the leader of the pre-Clash group the 101’ers, and other “world music” elements. Salewicz’s musical analysis is arguably at its best when describing this particular talent, and is also particularly useful now that almost everything from this period (with the exception of Earthquake Weather) is digitally available for those that want to further explore Strummer’s work.

Even more importantly, the book’s post-Clash emphasis establishes that even while Strummer may have found redemption, there always remained “endless contradictions that seemed to fuse him together.” Salewicz conducted over three hundred interviews for Redemption Song, and he utilizes lengthy quotes and anecdotes from his sources to piece together how complex (and often frustrating) Strummer was. He expressed concern about drugs even while imbibing massive amounts of alcohol and pot (which he supplemented with harder drugs later in his life). His loyalty was one of his most admirable character traits even though he was a womanizer and sometime autocratic towards his bandmates. Finally, his politics — a defining aspect of his lyrics — were at times prescient, but a confused jumble of quasi-anarchic beliefs at their worst.

Salewicz’s own analytical detail also helps in this regard: he is rarely judgmental about even the worst of Strummer’s behavior, but nonetheless captures how Strummer’s albums and live performances embodied his substance abuse, restless energy, and disparate interests. In short, what emerges is a very human picture, where he struggled with the same ambiguous impulses that are inherent to human nature. While hagiography is a common component of music biographies, too much can severely hinder even the best research; Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross’ 2001 biography of Kurt Cobain, is an excellent example. It’s to Salewicz’s credit that he provides readers the opportunity to experience this picture without having to encounter an excessive amount of rock-star worship.

Elsewhere, Redemption Song remains comprehensive in its treatment of Strummer’s childhood, his experience with the 101’ers, and the rise and fall of the Clash. He was in many ways an intensely private person, and there is plenty of evidence for Salewicz to suggest that two specific events — his parents’ decision to send he (at age nine) and his older brother David Mellor to boarding school, and David’s suicide nine years later — were at the root of at least some of his later struggles. The latter event so traumatized Strummer that he refused to discuss it with almost everyone (Salewicz included), and led him towards both leftist politics (as David had joined the extreme right-wing National Front before his death) and identity experimentation. Christened as John Mellor, he became Woody Mellor during his brief stint at London’s Central School of Art and Design, and then Joe Strummer upon the formation of the 101’ers.

As the book segues into Strummer’s decision to leave the 101’ers for The Clash in mid-1976 — an abrupt move on his part that marked the beginning of his occasionally autocratic band decisions — the section on his time with The Clash is a solid overview of the band’s historical arc and its place at the forefront of the punk movement. Salewicz again takes a hands-off approach here with regard to his interview sources, which provide much of the context for this section. Ultimately, he covers territory that most readers find familiar, and (as mentioned above) most likely explains why he provides less specific analysis of the band’s recorded material than elsewhere. Yet there could have easily been a more sustained discussion on The Clash, London Calling, and Combat Rock that wouldn’t have detracted from the remainder of the book. If anything, such discussion would have been highly beneficial considering what Strummer and the Clash have meant to Salewicz as a journalist and fan. While I disagree with most of Christgau’s review for the Times (including his overall opinion of the book), he raises a valid point in this regard.

Two other problems stand out, though they are relatively minor. The first is that the book’s length and its reliance on other voices both lead to certain sections dragging more than others. I found parts of the “Wilderness Years” to be slow simply because Salewicz continues to include plenty of quotes from his sources, but there is simply less “going on” in the narrative, making it more difficult to keep track of everyone. Given the sheer amount of information that Salewicz has included, though, this is unsurprising. Slightly more surprising is the lack of a bibliography, discography, or list of interviewees, any of which would have been useful to the reader, especially considering the book’s target audience.

Yet setting aside these faults, Redemption Song is quite an achievement, as it is not only the definitive account of Strummer’s life as its title promises, but also adds an important perspective to the existing literature on the Clash. The result is a must-have for fans of Strummer and the Clash, while other readers will find a very respectable and highly readable rock biography.

RATING 8 / 10