Tom Nixon's Reviews > Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer

Redemption Song by Chris Salewicz
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Jul 27, 11

Read in May, 2010

I was on the M3 Motorway in England when I learned the Joe Strummer had died, courtesy of The Daily Mail. It was 2002 and we were in England for the winter for a change- for Christmas and so that Dad could teach a course in London and Paris over the winter break. Newspapers were still buzzing about the benefit concert for striking firefighters that Strummer had played some weeks before. He had been joined onstage by fellow Clash member Mick Jones, marking the first time they had played together since 1983. 2002 was when I was just discovering The Clash, exploring their singles and learning about their music. They were more complex than the Ramones, politically angry, not just plain angry like the Sex Pistols and they wanted to explore different types of music. Boiling anger, driving chords and deeply political, they made quite the impression on me. Stummer's death made me melancholy because there went another band I'd never get to see live on stage...

What I didn't realize then and what I know now was the depth of Strummer's musical explorations and sheer genius. Thanks to longtime Strummer confidante and British music journalist Chris Salewicz's definitive portrait of the lead singer of the Clash, I now know a lot more than I did before. Salewicz offers what amounts to an almost 'double-biography'- telling the story of John Graham Mellor (Strummer's real name) as well as the chronicling both the rise and fall of The Clash and then the formation of Strummer's new band, the Mescaleros which marked a triumphant return to form that was cut short by his death in 2002.

Strummer was born in Ankara, son of a British foreign office diplomat and went through the usual succession of public schools in the 60s and 70s before drifting into punk in the late 70s, first in the band the 101ers then eventually joining up with Mick Jones and forming The Clash. Strummer carried a lot of baggage with him, namely the tragic death of his older brother. You could make an argument that Strummer's wider view of the world could have helped drive his interest in such a wide variety of music. Rockabilly, Latin, Reggae- all of which and more can be heard throughout the Clash's discography.

My experience with biographies has been mixed at best. Some can be compulsive readable, others can be so interesting and so packed with details as to be exhausting. Salewicz has managed to produce a voluminous, heavily detailed portrait of a musical icon that manages to be compulsively readable as well as full of details that reveal new depths to The Clash as well as Strummer himself. I listened to more of their music because of this book and, more to the point, I appreciated more of their music and their lyrics because of this book. I discovered the joys of Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros (recognizable for providing the music to Brangelina's steamy tango in 'Mr. and Mrs. Smith')- 'Johnny Appleseed' is one of those tracks that you can tap your toes to automatically and is just drenched with sheer joy. 'Bhindi Bagee' actually happened and the line 'vaccuum cleaner sucks up budgie' from the Clash track 'Magnificent Seven' also ripped from the headlines.

Strummer jumped feet first into both America and Spain- we get to hear about how he went on a quest to find the grave of murdered Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca and actually met and wrote lyrics with famous American poet Alan Ginsberg. We meet John Cusack, get Strummer into the studio with Johnny Cash- a veritable who's who of the major icons of music, art and culture over the course of the past quarter century. Adrift after The Clash broke up, Strummer would eventually find love, happiness and mount a successful comeback to music with the Mescaleros that was tragically cut short by his sudden death. The best part about this book is discovering everything you thought you knew about The Clash, but didn't- and the saddest part about this book is wondering what might have been, had Strummer not shuffled off this mortal coil so suddenly.

Overall: I love The Clash more for reading this book. I love their music, want all their albums, want a London Calling poster for my burgeoning man-cave and want to eat junk food and listen to their music with a beer in hand, loving life. I want to go Glastonbury and sit around a campfire and tell stories and talk about life. Although I didn't need a lot of convincing before, this book sealed the deal: Joe Strummer is, was and always will be the man.
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