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.

Touching From a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis

wilsonknut.comI was a little shocked by Touching from a Distance.  The biopic Control, which sticks to the mythical post-punk  ideal of Ian Curtis as a tortured epileptic poet / musician who was torn between his love for two women, is based on Deborah Curtis’ memoir.  She even had a hand in producing the biopic.  What’s shocking is Deborah does not champion that myth in her memoir.

Deborah makes it clear very early in the memoir when discussing the budding stages of her and Ian’s relationship that Ian had some issues that went beyond the typical late-teenager brooding.  He told her from the beginning that he had no intention to live past his twenties.  He loved the melodramatic.  He had wild mood swings and was often unpredictable and awkward socially.  One day he was kind and generous, the next he was controlling and cruel. As Ian and the band become more successful, Ian shut Deborah out of that part of his life, going so far as to tell the band and friends invented stories about Deborah and their home life so there would be no communication between the two parties.  He became a master manipulator, juggling two lives.

It would be easy to chalk up Deborah’s recollections as that of the scorned woman, but I felt she was genuinely trying to figure out the big question everyone has when a loved one commits suicide- why?  And I don’t think she felt obligated to safeguarding his mythical rock status if it kept her from getting closer to answering the question.  It was a liberating read in the sense that the fans rarely get to see how petty, selfish, and cruel our heroes are.  We hold them above such base human characteristics.  The media sells the myth.  We focus on the talent, the art, as if that is all that makes them who they are.

Deborah never doubts or demeans Ian’s talent.  She often applauds his work ethic and drive.  He was a great performer.  The music is what it is- beautiful and original.

But in the end, Ian had little connection to the realities of life.   He went from living with his parents who took care of him, to living with Deborah who took care of him, to being in a band where the manager took care of him.  His mental disorder, whatever it would have been diagnosed as, was compounded by the fact that he never had to focus on anything outside of  himself, and everyone wanted him to give more.  Ultimately, he did the most selfish thing he could think of.