Salewicz fulfills the book on Strummer
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In Joe Strummer’s perfect world, everyone would lay their problems out on the table and dust them off without a second thought. It’s worth noting, though, that problems are present even in his perfect world.
As Chris Salewicz illustrates in Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, Strummer’s life was a series of contradictions. He rallied against the rich while the Clash did nothing to leave him in the poor house. He preached peace and love while letting his temper get the best of him from time to time. He believed that people should be true to themselves always, while openly admitted to occasionally “playing the part” of Joe Strummer onstage.
In order to paint a truly beautiful portrait, the artist must love his subject, and Salewicz, a longtime music journalist who grew up around the Clash, considered Strummer a friend. And because he respected Strummer as much as he did, he wasn’t afraid to include some less-than-flattering details. How Strummer almost incomprehensibly let Bernie Rhodes run the Clash into the ground, or how his habits sometimes led to bad decisions, were not taboo in Redemption Song. By the same token, Strummer’s stunning acts of generosity, including going to an ATM in order to randomly give a homeless man £200, or his insistence on signing every last autograph, were given the loving treatment they deserved.
No stone is left unturned in this chronology of Strummer’s life. From early days bouncing from spot to spot with his parents through boarding school, his brother’s suicide, busking in the streets, the 101’ers, the Clash, the wilderness and the thrilling, triumphant Mescaleros years, Salewicz is sure to clue the reader into every meaningful event and brings the readers as deep into Strummer’s psyche as possible.
Salewicz’s portrait does not set out to cast Strummer as a saint, but rather as a man, conflicted but ultimately trying his best to do what was right. As he writes, “[T]hose who knew him … knew he wasn’t Saint Joe. No, he was much more interesting than that. If you knew him, you loved him. But you’d be mad not to realize what a piece of work he could be.”
But, even with these and other issues, the most important facet of his character was that he was always, above all else, true to himself. He acknowledged his shortcomings, was always the first to admit being in the wrong, and constantly worked to be sure that his friends, family and fans, who had allowed him to leave the squats and live the life of the troubadour that he’d always dreamed, would be treated fairly and with respect. Strummer didn’t get off on being at a party at Lou Reed. He wanted to spend time with the bartender who drove a truck by day to pay the bills. He’d want to know how the line cook in the restaurant got by. He was the champion for the common man, and as such never saw himself as a celebrity or any sort of special person. Indeed, his fame and recognition always seemed to surprise him.
Though he obviously matured as an artist and a person as he grew older, what’s most revealing in this book is just how young Strummer lived until the end. Getting very little sleep while on the road in the later years of his life (reportedly four or five hours a night, tops), Strummer was committed to doing things right. Sign every autograph, give every interview, and keep the shows fresh and furious. Accounts of his shows with the Mescaleros were especially revealing:
...They crossed the Pennines to Liverpool, to perform at the Locax club the next day. If Joe needed reassurance, the Merseyside show was a critical hit; the Guardian reviewer wrote, “Strummer has a clutch of new material and a new skin-tight band. He leaves us with a ‘Tommy Gun’ so startling I drop my can of lager and grown men are seen to weep into the streets.” It was working.
Through it all, from dingy clubs opening for the Sex Pistols to Shea Stadium to campfires at Glastonberry, we get a complete picture of both Joe Strummer and his true self, John Mellor. Not just the rabble-rousing front man, but the individual fighting for the common man, the indie actor, the father, the husband and the self-conscious artist.
Strummer once described his guitar playing as all-or-nothing. He couldn’t do the “fiddledy-bits,” so he was either playing all six strings or none of them. True to Strummer himself, nothing was left aside in this account. Salewicz hits everything here, good, bad, and otherwise, leaving nothing to legend. He doesn’t jump around in an effort to create a slick, glossy sound, he hits every string with authority. It’s not always pretty, but with punk, rock ‘n’ roll, and Strummer, it was never supposed to be.
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