Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography Of Joe Strummer
“Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography Of Joe Strummer” by Chris Salewicz
Reviewed by Marcus Gray
When you review a book on a subject you’ve written a book about too, you’ve got two options. One is, don’t mention the fact. In which case, anyone who knows - or subsequently discovers - your guilty secret, will overlook any praise you might offer, zero in on the caveats, blow them out of proportion and assume they’re motivated by sour grapes.
The other option – which appears to be the one I’m going for – is to ’fess up to the possible conflict of interests from the get-go. In which case, everyone will ignore any praise you might offer, zero in on the caveats, blow them out of proportion, and assume they’re motivated by sour grapes…
That’s how it is and will ever be, and this statement isn’t going to change anything: I’ve always enjoyed and admired Chris Salewicz’s work. As a contributor to the NME and the Face, he was one of the most level-headed and bullshit-free commentators on the late Seventies and early Eighties music scene. Always a Clash fan, his coverage of the band was extensive, empathetic and informative. He was never overtly critical of either their work or their ethical lapses, and, over time, this won him the band’s trust. But unlike other Clash-ophile writers of the period, Salewicz - or Sandwich, as he was affectionately dubbed by that incorrigible bestower of nicknames, Joe Strummer - didn’t allow his relationship with the band to turn him into a sycophant.
He didn’t swallow the Clash Myth whole, and he didn’t set out to sell it, either (even if, as is the way of these things, his dispatches ultimately helped shape it). There was no attention-seeking flash-and-bang going on in Chris’s stuff: no hard-line ideological stances, no pseudo-intellectual posturing, no self-aggrandisement, no purple prose. An interviewer and writer of considerable subtlety, he asked the right questions, addressed the key issues, gently exposed the contradictions, and - in the process - got closer than most to what made the band tick. His interviews really helped me piece together the Clash’s history for my own book Last Gang In Town, and I suspect I ‘borrowed’ more quotes from him than from any other writer. (He was typically gracious about this when I met him shortly after the book’s original publication.)
Although he grew even closer to Strummer after the Clash split, he didn’t let this friendship cloud his 20/20 vision. The obituary he wrote for the Independent following Joe’s unexpected early death - at necessarily short notice and while still shocked and upset by the news - was an exemplary piece of work: it captured Joe’s strengths and his spirit, but didn’t shy away from listing his failings and troubles. It was anything but a whitewash, and all the more moving for that.
Chris was the obvious person to write the official biography - and although it isn’t marketed as such, Redemption Song is as official as anything could be, including, as it does, interviews with most of Joe’s former band-mates and friends, plus all the surviving adult members of his family - and as soon as I heard he’d accepted the task, I looked forward to reading the result. It’s a good job I didn’t bate my breath, though, because it took him three and a half years to complete. You couldn’t accuse him of stinting on application and effort.
By the time I’d finished reading it, my copy of Redemption Song had so many scraps of paper bearing ‘notes to self’ sticking out of it that it looked like a small explosion had gone off at its heart… which I suppose is appropriate, in more ways than one. I wasn’t remotely bored at any point.
All writers have an angle, and this - in his own words, according to the promotional crib sheet accompanying review copies - is Chris Salewicz’s: ‘Joe’s life was like a Shakespearean tragedy, an archetypal piece of mythology. From the ocean-floor life of a squatter, he re-entered society as a kind of guerrilla warrior who solved the riddle of the Sphinx and rose to become a king. Hubris led to his downfall when he kicked Mick Jones out of the Clash… Plunged into depression and self-recrimination, he spent many years attempting to get the Clash back together before giving up in defeat and for a time diving even lower within himself. But then came the time when he was forced to confront himself, return to his art, and a successful re-birth. His story has the classic arc of a three-act drama. This is the reason I have given the book the title of Redemption Song, because Joe’s life story really did seem to be one in which he was forced to redeem himself…’
It’s a breathless, scattershot movie pitch of a synopsis, but it’s successful in putting across this key point: Strummer’s story is a subject with enough gravitas to deserve the epic treatment it gets. All 650-pages. The general gist of the ‘classic arc’ - rise, fall, redemption - is also a fair enough starting point in terms of structure and theme.
And Chris delivers a bravura three scene opening to his biography, with overtones of The Big Chill: Chris and various other of Joe’s associates reacting to news of the death; the funeral and wake, allowing Chris not only to introduce a substantial cross-section of the leading and minor characters we’re going to meet again within the pages of the book proper, but also establish his own rightful place among them; and the last substantial interview Chris conducted with Joe three years before his death, giving us a sense of their shared history. It’s an impeccable, swooping, widescreen set-up. The blood is pumping, the tears are flowing, and we’re only 19 pages in…
Next, the author takes us along on a painting expedition-cum-pilgrimage he makes with Clash bassist-turned-artist Paul Simonon to Joe’s maternal ancestral home, which Chris uses to frame and lift the obligatory and traditionally slightly dull (for all but the most die-hard fans) deep family background chapter…
Yeah, you can tell he’s written screenplays.
After a build up like that, a book really has to deliver, which in biographical terms means a substantially high proportion of wholly new information with a liberal sprinkling of startling revelations. Chris doesn’t disappoint.
He uncovers more about Joe’s family background than Joe himself ever knew (a claim confirmed by Joe’s long-term partner Gaby Salter), including how his paternal grandparents died. Joe was told it was in a railway accident; but his grandfather died of pleurisy when Joe’s father was a little boy, and his grandmother died 8 years later as a result of chronic alcoholism.
Despite his claims to have been an outsider and a musical, athletic and academic non-starter at school, we learn that Joe sang in the choir and played the recorder, was an accomplished cross-country runner - which partly explains why he was able to complete three marathons with no training in later life - and became a prefect.
He was also much more involved in the late Sixties ‘hippy’ counter culture than he would subsequently admit, not only smoking weed and attending festivals, but also throwing the I-Ching (including on the day he made the decision to join the Clash), and - for a brief time at art school - donning the flowing white robes of the Divine Light charismatic cult. Cue more tears: this time of joyful disbelief. Imagine that information leaking out to the NME in 1977…
I always had my suspicions about Joe’s bout of hepatitis in 1978 (officially, he had inadvertently swallowed an audience member’s infected phlegm projectile while on stage with the Clash), but was genuinely surprised to learn that Joe succumbed to the disease, like Sid Vicious the previous year, after sharing a dirty needle, probably while banging up speed with former Clash member Keith Levene. Strummer never admitted this to anyone who wasn’t there at the time, even in private. It’s left to his then-girlfriend, the seldom interviewed - and never before on this topic - Jeanette Lee, to set the record straight.
His hospitalisation and recovery set the recording of the Clash’s second album back months. When you consider that Joe made disparaging remarks about Levene’s drug use in relation to his late 1976 sacking from the Clash, spent the remainder of 1978 castigating Mick Jones for his cocaine use, and helped engineer Topper Headon’s dismissal from the band in 1982 for his heroin addiction, you cannot help but be amazed by his double standards. Apparently, he didn’t even give up weed in 1984, when - fronting the Mick Jones-less Clash Mark 2 - he was denouncing it to all and sundry as one of the chief reasons for the band’s recent wrong turn.
That’s the drugs. Now the sex. With a band as famously considerate of their fans and supportive of female equality as the Clash, you’d expect something a little better than standard rock piggery… but Joe was an enthusiastic sampler of groupie wares. OK, so no-one’s naïve about the lifestyle of musicians on the road, but it seems he couldn’t even keep it in his pants while on home turf. He was always trying it on with friend’s girlfriends and wives, successfully with Don Letts’ long-term partner Jeanette Lee (Don was letting him a room in his house at the time), decidedly less so with Paul Simonon’s first wife, Pearl Harbour (whose response to one instance of Joe’s meddling in her relationship was to kick him repeatedly in the shins with her cowboy boots). Evidently, this was a man with very little sense of loyalty in the areas that really count.
More poignantly, Joe was frequently unfaithful to his partner of 14 years, Gaby, both before and after the birth of their two daughters. On one occasion, he slept with the female estate agent who’d come to price their Ladbroke Grove house, and then boasted about it to his friends down the pub. Funny, yeah… for everyone but Gaby. Joe also began his relationship with wife-to-be Luce while he was still living with Gaby, and while Luce was still married to her first husband.
Redemption Song offers plenty of scoops, then, but not everything here is previously unknown. Readers of previous Clash books will be aware that Joe came from a Foreign Office background, that he and his brother David were sent to public school while their parents were overseas, that this made Joe feel rejected, and presumably had an even worse impact on David, who became withdrawn, then depressed, and then killed himself shortly before Joe turned 18. Joe subsequently kept his parents at arm’s length, and he too suffered periodic bouts of depression…
It’s also been on record for some time that part of Joe’s reason for moving out to the country in 1991 was so that his daughters could be privately educated, and that he left them with Gaby when he set up home with Luce in 1993, when they were aged 7 and 9. This after railing against his own parents for sending him to public school and effectively abandoning him at the age of 9. (According to Gaby, quoted by Chris, Joe was still berating his mother about this on her deathbed in 1986.) More doublethink. Joe couldn’t get over the great defining hurt of his own life, but – as is so often the case with damage of this sort – that didn’t prevent him from passing it on to a new generation.
It’s also an open secret that for the last 10 years of his life Joe’s drug use became heavier and more varied, from E to acid to cocaine: he was, after all, hanging around with 24-hour party people like Shaun Ryder, Damien Hirst and Keith Allen.
Even when the underlying information is not new, though, Chris adds immeasurably to our understanding of the private Joe Strummer by layering anecdotes and recollections from family and close friends. Although none of them appears to have an axe to grind - even Gaby - the overall picture is a potentially damning one, the devil being well and truly in the detail. You have to wonder what kind of partner and father Joe thought he was. Even when he wasn’t away touring, recording or ‘acting’, he was never really a convincing family man: up the pub or the wine bar with his cronies, or staying up all night in the house drinking with anyone willing to keep him company, or – failing that – on his own. It was left to Gaby to perform all the practical childcare with his own daughters, even before he left, and he repeated this pattern with Luce and his step-daughter Eliza.
Joe kept his life compartmentalised, with pockets of different friends in different places. Although ruthless when it came to dismissing from his band or his life those he perceived to be holding him back or attempting to control him, he could be cowardly when it came to other types of confrontation. He told Gaby he was leaving her in the back of a car, while Paul Simonon and his wife Tricia were in the front, so he wouldn’t have to face any immediate repercussions. And running away became an almost standard response to periods of stress in his musical career.
He was also given to dramatic changes of mind and shifts in opinion, sometimes agreeing with two opposing points of view within a matter of minutes. Wild enthusiasm for an idea or project was often followed by a total loss of interest… We’re homing in on something here. There’s a high incidence of what used to be called manic depression, and is now known as bi-polar disorder, in creative people, and Joe’s lifelong tendency to dramatic mood swings might suggest that he was at least touched by it. He was certainly susceptible to yer bog-standard depression, and the blues and dependency on booze do tend to feed each other.
Looking for revelation, I’ve concentrated on the tabloid sensationalist stuff here. Elsewhere, Chris will offer you examples of Joe’s amazing generosity (the drinks were usually on him; he gave thousands of pounds to beggars) and supportiveness (he gave freely of his time, company and advice to friends who suffered bereavement). For every example of unchecked egotism, there’s at least one of self-effacement or self-deprecation. Like a lot of famous, feted and highly charismatic people used to being the dominant figure in their circle, there was something of the sacred monster about Joe, but Chris never loses sympathy - his, or ours - for his subject even when showing him in his worst light. The Strummer he paints is complex, interesting, interested, and ultimately hard to dislike.
That’s the praise. Now the gripes. Or, if you prefer, grapes.
You’d expect factual errors in a 650-page book… Chris says early Clash song ‘1-2 Crush On You’ wasn’t released until it appeared on the 1991 box set Clash On Broadway, when in fact it first came out as a B-side in 1978… but that’s the only error I could identify without benefit of a magnifying glass and deerstalker. Compared with the numerous mistakes in my own book (some of which I was unaware of until I read Chris’s), it’s pretty disappointing for the nitpicking pedant in me. Hats – including deerstalkers - off.
That said, Joe’s cousin Iain Gillies emailed me recently to inform me that Chris gets some of Joe’s family background details wrong. In truth, though the research is thorough, the family section of the book is pretty convoluted and hard to follow. More importantly, Iain flatly denies Chris’s claim that Joe’s mother Anna was an alcoholic. He says Anna rarely had more than one G&T in an evening, and that all the family members who spoke to Chris - including Gaby, still Joe’s partner at the time of Anna’s death - are bemused as to how he came to this conclusion. If it is a screw-up, it’s a pretty serious one, not least because Chris repeatedly draws attention to Anna’s alcohol problem as presaging Joe’s.
Perhaps understandably, Chris doesn’t want to be seen to be going over the same ground as earlier books. There are times, especially during the Clash years, when managing this would be difficult for anyone. Sometimes he succumbs to the inevitable, and trots out material we’ve all seen before. Sometimes, even less satisfactorily, he just leaves out the information altogether. There’s nothing much here on the Clash’s finances or their relationship with the British music press, both of which dictated so many of the band’s career choices. Considering the degree of detail he goes into elsewhere, such omissions are peculiar.
Along similar lines, there’s a tendency to use new interview material to correct previous versions of events merely for the sake of it. In Last Gang, I dubbed the Clash’s late 1979-early 1980 style the ‘Hollywood Rock’n’Roll’ look. Chris has band associate Jock Scott calling it the ‘Mafia Beatles’ look and Paul Simonon claiming that it was actually inspired by the 1947 noir gangster movie Brighton Rock. The purpose of this is to assert that the band’s image at that time was entirely British and not remotely American, after all. Well, mmmm… Yes, there were British elements – Crombie overcoats among them – but the band also wore biker boots, Nicaraguan bandanas as cowboy-style neckerchiefs, hats sourced from former Mafia tailors in New York, and Fifties-style bowling shirts made by on-off Clash clothes designer Alex Michon. The most remarkable elements of this gladrag gumbo referenced bikers, cowboys, gangsters, river-boat gamblers and rockers: all American movie archetypes.
Most of my problems with the book are structural. Way too many loose ends are left hanging. Characters are shuttled on and off stage to serve the main narrative line of Joe’s life story, but we get no sense of them having lives of their own. When Joe joins the Clash, his old school friend Paul Buck (aka Pablo Labritain) - whose musical ambitions he has encouraged for years, hoping that one day they could be in a band together - is invited to audition. It doesn’t really work out… and that’s it. We aren’t told why, or how Pablo felt, or what he did next (join another punk band, 999). And that information was available to Chris: not only did he interview Pablo himself, but he surely must have seen the recent Mojo Clash special in which Pablo gave a full account of his brief time as Clash drummer.
Similarly, when Joe splits from Gaby after 14-years, Chris tells us that he relinquished all claim to their Notting Hill house on the condition that she continue to pay the mortgage on her own. Which wouldn’t be easy for her, as she had no job or serious work experience, and had two daughters to care for. We aren’t told how she managed, or what she did with her life thereafter. Even more perplexingly, Chris tells us that, while recording the Mescaleros second album a couple of years before his death, Joe persuaded Mick Jones to write music to half a dozen lyrics. None of these new Strummer/Jones songs was recorded for the album. When Mick later asked why, Joe told him he was saving them for the ‘next Clash album’. Having dropped this bomb, Chris quickly changes the subject. We never hear what those songs were about, or what happened to them, or what might happen to them in future.
If it’s terse in some places, Redemption Song is repetitious in others. There are occasions where Chris gives us the same information, or same quote, twice or even more often, sometimes several hundred pages apart, sometimes just a few lines apart. Interview quotes can ramble, crossing over the same ground several times without adding to the sum of all knowledge in any meaningful way. In a book this size, those things are going to happen a few times, but it shouldn’t happen as often as it does. How often do we need to hear Jim Jarmusch’s Big Chief Thundercloud anecdote, or Chris’ assertion that the bad energy coming off Joe when he was walking down the road in his Wilderness Years was ‘literally’ enough to knock you off your feet?
Too much time in the authorial spliffbunker? Or too much time researching and writing and not enough time editing, rewriting, re-editing and re-rewriting?
Other instances of repetition are, I’d like to think, more deliberate. The famously impossible-to-interview Bernie Rhodes supplies just three or four relatively brief quotes many pages apart, and each time says essentially the same thing: that Joe Strummer wanted to be Bernie Rhodes. But the unintentional repetition elsewhere did make me pause for a moment between thigh slaps to wonder if this was indeed the subtle authorial touch I would prefer to go on believing it to be.
Chris takes great pains to tell us that Joe seldom told friends about his brother’s suicide, and when he did, he played it down. Then he undermines this assertion by having practically everyone who ever met Joe recount the circumstances under which Joe told them about his brother’s suicide. Every visit to the parental home of 15 Court Farm Road is an excuse to go through the litany of grief once again: abandonment, depression, suicide, resentment, guilt. Reviewing the book in the Independent On Sunday, Nick Coleman identified this ‘gnawing at the event that seems to have informed young Johnny Mellor’s life most cruelly’ as one of the things that Chris does particularly well in Redemption Song. I dispute that. I don’t deny that it was the crucial event in shaping Joe’s life - I said as much in my own book, not that I’m claiming any great insight: it would be difficult for even the most bumblingly amateur of psychologists not to draw that same conclusion - I just challenge the assumption that I need to be presented with the same information a dozen or so times in order to grasp its significance. The repetition is ultimately dulling, and therefore has the opposite effect to the one intended. In the end, I didn’t care any more: I just wanted it to stop.
Aside from the opening chapters, the narrative line is supposedly pretty straightforwardly chronological - the chapters are helpfully subtitled with the relevant dates - but Chris keeps getting ahead of himself by a few days or months, and then backtracking. It’s confusing: sometimes you end up scratching your head and wondering if B preceded A or D caused C. I can’t work out what the point is. It just muddies the waters.
There’s also this other thing Chris does from time to time which I’m going to call the Salewicz Shuffle. An example would be where we’re told it wasn’t Bernie Rhodes - as Mick had previously suspected - who was responsible for the decision to sack Mick Jones from the Clash, but Joe Strummer. But then, a few pages later, we seem to have arrived in a parallel universe where it was indeed Bernie who made the decision, or at least manipulated the situation. Which is where we came in: with the version of events as already laid out in Last Gang In Town, albeit with some added extra detail. The effect is both disorienting and deflating. You end up feeling you’ve been spun, in more ways than one.
After the big opening, I was prepared to go along with Chris’s talk of Strummer’s life as following the arc of a classic three act tragedy, but in the end, I wasn’t convinced that either the arc or the conceit itself was load-bearing. The rise gets 320 pages, the fall 200, and the redemption just 100. Under such circumstances, in order for it to convince, the redemption would have to be both undeniable and stratospheric. Several factors conspire to ensure it isn’t.
Whether the Mescaleros represented a genuine return to greatness is arguable on all sorts of levels. Despite generally good reviews for albums that were genuinely impressive, sales were meagre, the audiences at the less-than-sell-out shows I attended were almost exclusively made up of balding male forty-something Clash fans, and the band tended to pander to them with sets more suited to a Clash tribute band. The impression I get from the interviews he gave at the time, reinforced by anecdotes in Chris’s book, is that Joe himself was not wholly convinced he was back from the wilderness.
The supposed redemption is not distinct enough from the fall. Chris continues to beat the depressive drum throughout the last 100 pages, with Joe clearly unsure of his own worth: vacillating about what to do next; shedding collaborators at a rate of knots; still in the shadow of the Clash (and, evidently, plotting by means both straightforward and devious to reform that band if at all possible); and – lastly and perhaps most importantly – plunging ever deeper into the mire of full-blown alcoholism. Various characters are wheeled on in the closing pages to state that he was wonderful and well-loved, and that he in turn loved everyone, but this fails to achieve the necessary uplift: there’s a sense of being trapped in a locked cycle much like Strummer’s own eternal nocturnal one. To this reader, even the Strummerville campfires that both the participants and Chris load with so much spiritual significance come across as merely a means of keeping the drink flowing hour after hour, day after day, and keeping loneliness, the dark and the blues at bay.
More stress for the integrity of the arc: front-loading the book with all the heavy duty drama surrounding the death makes for a strong start but a weak finish. Like the ashes from Joe’s urn, it just sort of trickles away…
Which brings us to my next beef with Redemption Song: lack of a different sort of judgement. I know Last Gang In Town was considered far too judgemental by some, and I know – because he told me in an email exchange about a year ago – that Chris didn’t agree with all of the conclusions I drew about the Clash members, their characters, lives and art. I also said at the beginning of this piece that he was not the sort of writer to push his own opinion to the fore, preferring to reveal his truths in an understated way. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Chris doesn’t get on his high horse - or even shake his head and tut that much - about Strummer the philanderer, Strummer the backstabber, Strummer the coward, Strummer the hypocrite, Strummer the drunk or Strummer the despot. Not that he hides any of this bad stuff from us: he just has other people do the dirty work for him, ushering them centre stage to lay their telling quotes before us while he stands in the wings, finger on his lips.
It might be against Chris’ nature to judge, but it’s a requirement of classical tragedy for the author (even if it’s in the guise of narrator or chorus) to comment on character and events during the performance and offer a summation at the end. And it’s a tradition for any lengthy biography, especially of a deceased subject, to attempt a weighing up of that subject’s strengths and weaknesses. Chris did this well enough in his Strummer obituary - reprinted in the opening pages here - but the nearest we get to it at the close is: ‘…he wasn’t Saint Joe. No, he was much more interesting than that. If you knew him, you’d love him. But you’d be mad not to recognise he was a piece of work.’ It’s a double-edged assessment, maybe; but, read it twice and you’ll have to concede that for something so short, it’s neither sharp nor pointed. It would crumple if you tried to prick your finger with it. It isn’t even presented as Chris’s own opinion, the above quote actually beginning, ‘But those who knew Joe Strummer, the international group of interconnected old souls, who had formed his and the Clash’s posse, knew…’
As I neared the end, far exceeding my mild irritation at the repetition, and deepening sadness at Joe’s bourgeoning depression and alcoholism, was my growing anger at the spineless or self-serving passivity displayed by members of this ‘international group of interconnected old souls’ when it came to addressing Joe’s self-destruction. Not so much the far flung satellites he saw for a day or two every once in a while, but those who were closer to home and in more regular contact, and therefore in a much better position to see what was really going on through the campfire smoke.
My reading of the information presented here is this: for much of the last 10-years of his life, Joe hung around with serious abusers so he didn’t have to face up to the fact that he was one too; and with unquestioning admirers and dependents so he would never be challenged or have to justify himself. When Damien Hirst made the decision to quit booze and drugs, Joe was appalled, taking it as a personal rejection. Apparently, no-one around him saw this as a cue for an intervention chez Strummer. In fact, the only person who voices the thought that Joe’s gang included too many vampiric layabouts - enabling and encouraging Joe’s excesses while robbing him of all ambition and focus - is his former acting agent and manager Gerry Harrington (dumped by Joe for actually trying to manage him). The fact that Chris offers fulsome thanks and praise to most of the interconnected old souls in his acknowledgements - and, indeed, gives them such a glorifying collective title - suggests that he doesn’t quite see things Gerry’s way.
When, in the conclusion she offers, Luce describes Joe as ‘fun, the Pied Piper of happiness. You knew you were going to have a good time with Joe, and that life was going to be great,’ you have to wonder… It’s hard to be objective so soon after the death of a loved one, but had she really not noticed that - according to Chris - she and Joe had been following completely different life cycles for most of the past four years, or that her ageing husband hadn’t been working long hours so much as staying up drinking and drugging himself into an early grave? (Yes, I know the primary cause of Joe’s death wasn’t lifestyle-related, but a 50-year old man can’t carry on like he did and seriously expect to see 60.)
There is no suggestion in Redemption Song that Joe’s womanising continued after he left Gaby and married Luce. Given that his addictions and compulsions were showing no signs of abating in other areas, that’s not a typical behavioural pattern. It might be that Chris consciously decided to omit any tittle-tattle in order not to puncture the grieving widow’s bubble, but perhaps it’s even more disturbing to believe that - as co-founding Mescalero Ant Genn suggests here - the once rampaging Strummer libido was kept in check not so much by newfound conscience and loyalty as by alcohol-induced indifference.
By the end, it was all about booze for Joe and self-delusion for those around him. Chris gives me the information to lead me to this destination, but I’m not sure he ends up at the same place himself… because he doesn’t pause long enough to tell me what he thinks, and the signs aren’t any too clear.
It’s not as though the author is reticent about pushing himself into the narrative elsewhere. In his efforts to sell himself as Strummer’s rightful Boswell, he is at pains to detail and find significance in almost every encounter he has with the man. He takes a full page to explain how he prevented Joe doing a Keith Moon, and crushing roadie Johnny Green with a runaway car. And he tells us no less than three times - his modest rejection of the hero’s mantle a little less convincing on each occasion - how he helped Joe repel a bunch of home invading muggers from a Carnival party at Strummer’s house in Notting Hill. Similarly, Jem Finer’s wife Marcia may well have approached Chris at Strummer’s wake and told him, ’Joe always used to say that you were the only journalist he trusted. And he said he loved you as a friend. He really loved you,’ but do we really need to read it in full?
Chris’s description of Joe at a party shortly after the beginning of his relationship with Luce stands out for a number of reasons: ‘Joe was all over his new love, edged into a corner of a room and kissing and cuddling, not speaking to anyone else. To the assembled throng it seemed very teenage lovey-dovey. But that evening in Joe’s face, you could see something of his perpetual hurt; his new emotional release had broken down the defences of his façade and he had reverted to a shy, nervous young boy; you could see that part of him almost wanted to cry, as though he was overwhelmed with gratitude for being loved and allowed to love. In the thralls of amour at Daisy’s party, it seemed to me Joe returned to the frightened and needy young boy in the car that almost took out Johnny Green in Aberdeen; unguarded, almost shockingly vulnerable, and – here, now, with Lucinda – grateful. He looked about sixteen years old. Which, not to put too fine a shine on it, was the age of John Mellor when his brother David ended his days. You felt that night that you could see that part of Joe’s emotions were frozen at that age, in trauma: part of his neediness, part of his ambiguity in all its forms, even when he was in love. Prove to me that you really love me! His joy was screaming, even in the prettiness of his adoration.’
You’ll note here an example of the repeated circling back to David’s death (and also the reference to another moment in Joe’s life that Chris would like to think of as pivotal, because it was one in which he played a heroic role). But what I want to highlight is the stuff that’s highly unusual for Chris. Firstly, he’s delving into protracted analysis of Joe’s demeanour, behaviour and character, something which, as I have mentioned, we almost never find elsewhere. Secondly, his response is a roiling concoction of supposition, projection, amateur psychology, melodrama and overblown romanticism exploding through the dam of his usual restraint. Thirdly, possibly because he’s so far out of his comfort zone, his writing is also all over the place – gushing, repetitive, approximate – and very much out of keeping with the rest of this elegantly phrased book. If there’s a breakdown or meltdown on display here, it’s Salewicz’s, not Strummer’s. Editor, please!
That’s by far the most extreme blip in consistency of authorial tone, but it’s not the only one. As his subject is the life rather than the work, Chris understandably keeps a low critical profile throughout, contenting himself with sketching outlines - I can’t think of any major re-evaluation or twists of interpretation he offers about the Clash’s output, for example - but he makes another sudden leap from the page in defence of Earthquake Weather.
It’s an odd juncture in the narrative at which to become animated. Strummer’s first solo album was both critically mauled and commercially ignored (worldwide sales were a highly embarrassing 7,000), and the response effectively shit-canned his mainstream recording career for the next decade. Emotionally, I can see why Chris might want to hail the album as an unjustly neglected work; but objectively: it deserved everything it got. Joe knocked out all bar a couple of the songs immediately prior to recording, not bothering to wait for inspiration. There are few memorable tunes, and – one or two numbers aside – the lyrics are derivative, sloppy and lacking in direction and conviction. My respect for the album plummeted even further when I learned from Chris that three months of expensive studio time (if not labour) went into one of the murkiest and most throwaway productions I’ve ever heard. No amount of remastering or revisionism will make this a great or even a good album.
The real story here is, why was it so bad? The material Strummer wrote immediately before recording it, for Permanent Record and Walker, was much stronger, and so was the material he would write immediately after, for I Hired A Contract Killer. Chris details some of Joe’s bizarre behaviour during recording - leaving the musicians to arrange and record their own parts, hiring a drummer straight from a mental hospital, hiding from visiting record company A&R man Muff Winwood - but seems content to attribute this to nerves and lack of confidence rather than what the evidence would suggest: artistic suicide, whether conscious or not.
Without question, I picked the best title for a Clash-related biography. Last Gang In Town might be kind of obvious (I remember Pennie Smith actually groaned when I told her what it was going to be), but it nailed the romanticism of the Clash, and the faith and hope their followers - and, if only for a while, the ever-fickle music press - projected upon them. Pat Gilbert’s choice, Passion Is A Fashion, was totally perplexing: Joe Strummer wore the phrase as a slogan on his trousers, but only for about five minutes in 1976, and it’s not particularly appropriate to either the band or the book. Kris Needs opted for Joe Strummer, which you’d think was pretty straightforward… except his book was really a biography of the Clash. Chris Salewicz’s book is definitely a biography of Joe Strummer. From his talk of redemptive arcs, we know why the title Redemption Song appealed to him, but… a Bob Marley song that Joe covered towards the end of his life as a rough guide for a duet with Johnny Cash? It hardly taps into the wellspring of Strummer’s creative contribution. The Road To Rock’n’Roll would have been better (‘there’s a lot of wreckage in the ravine…’)
But the subtitles are where the action really is. Mine was originally The Story and Myth Of The Clash, which set out the book’s stall - even admitting that said stall was an Aunt Sally - and added more than a dash of irony to the main title. Pat Gilbert went for The Real Story Of The Clash, which threw down the gauntlet (and, perhaps not wholly unintentionally, suggested mine was anything but). Kris Needs went for And The Legend of the Clash, which at least finally admitted the true subject of his book (and offered an alternative to ‘story’ and ‘myth’). And now here comes Chris to trump us all with The Definitive Biography Of Joe Strummer… What next? The Absolute Bestest Book About The Clash (Or A Member Thereof) Ever, Rendering All Previous And Future Efforts Irrelevant For All Time?
You have to laugh. But the truth is, it’s going to be hard for anyone to top Redemption Song. It might be the pot calling the kettle black to say it – my own book is possibly even longer than Chris’s; and though I don’t appear in trakMARX very often, when I do it’s always to write at least 6,000 words more about the Clash than strictly necessary – but Redemption Song needs tightening up, a damn good edit, a few structural tweaks, and a more consistent authorial tone. Maybe before the paperback edition? Even as it stands, though, it’s hard to see how it could be bettered when it comes to solid information or illuminating anecdotes.
As the ultimate mark of respect, I’ve just cancelled the 15th revised edition of Last Gang.
Sandwich, you the man!
Marcus Gray – tMx 28 – 01/07
LinksCheck: very long amazon link
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