Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz

I was in the market for a telecaster after I regretted selling my custom built Warmoth tele.  The thing about the Warmoth I loved the most was the neck.  It had a unfinished smooth feel to it that felt very “worn in.”  After a little research, I stumbled on the Joe Strummer edition Fender Telecaster, which is heavily reliced.  The neck was supposed to have a great feel, so I bought it. I went on a Clash kick, which led me to borrow the biography from a buddy at work.  Strange how we end up where we are.

It took me longer to read the 613 pages than I originally guessed, and I have a lot of excuses.  My wife and I had our fourth child, a second daughter. We now have an even set- two boys and two girls.  I’ve been busy with the kids and various projects.  The book is dense, a veritable Moby Dick of rock biographies.  But the truth is, I’ve just been slack in my reading habits.

When I say the book is dense, I mean Salewicz includes dizzying amounts of details.  I think he recorded every trip Joe made to the pub.  In case you didn’t know, Joe was powerful thirsty.  That’s not to say the book isn’t good.  It’s very good. But you have to be committed to finishing it.

I was a little wary at the beginning because Salewicz obviously adored Joe Strummer, which often leads to biographers airbrushing their subjects’ warts and blemishes.  Once you get past the first three chapters, which recount the funeral, some of Salewicz’s last moments with Joe, and a trip to Joe’s ancestor’s home in Scotland; Salewicz gives a very balanced account of Joe’s life – his faults, as well as his virtues.

The book is fairly evenly divided between Joe’s early years, his years with the Clash, and his solo years.  If you don’t know, The Clash began as a punk band in the late seventies, but quickly turned into a genre-breaking band fusing punk, rock, reggae, and world music.  You’ll learn, with plenty of specific examples, Joe loved people.  The cast of characters is endless and includes some unusual suspects.  He genuinely loved music from all over the world, especially reggae, cumbia, and African music.  He always had a “ghetto blaster” with him.  Joe also loved a bar and could talk the owner into keeping it open until dawn.  Perhaps his last great love was a campfire, which connected all of the above – people sitting around drinking, talking, and listening to music.

Salewicz writes towards the end of the book, “…Those who knew him, that international group of interconnected old souls who formed his and The Clash’s posse, knew he wasn’t Saint Joe. No, he was much more interesting than that.”  Joe felt his biggest mistakes were firing two of the four essential members of The Clash- Topper Headon and Mick Jones.  But throughout his life, he wasn’t the easiest person to work with.  He had trouble handling situations, especially if they involved people close to him.  He could be the kindest guy in the world giving bums $50 bills, but whip a microphone at the drummer’s head on stage for missing a change.   He would apologize later, but the damage was usually done.

As with most biographies dealing with a hero, the reader wants the hero to rise above the fray (synonym of “clash,” me trying to be clever).  Joe was able to maintain his integrity through the years and revive his career in the late 90s and early 2000s with his last band, The Mescaleros.   But he was still heavily abusing substances  and just generally not taking care of himself, often only getting four or five hours of sleep.  His relationships with the muscicians in the band were often shaky, but perhaps that’s what fed his creative energy.  His last album, completed posthumously by the band using Joe’s guide vocal tracks, is a great, driving rock record.  Something Joe had been striving to make for years.  He officially died of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, but one has to think that the alcohol, drugs, and late nights took years off his life.

On an interesting note, the book literally fell apart as I was reading it.  Large chunks of pages came unglued from the spine.  I’ve never had that happen before, so I’m not sure if I did something to cause it or what.  The bad thing was I borrowed it from a buddy at work, so I ended up buying a copy to replace it.

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