Rock & Roll Books
Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, The Definitive Biography
by Chris Salewicz
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 619 pp., $30
"The job of being Joe Strummer, spokesman for the punk generation and frontman for the Clash, never sat easily with the former John Mellor," writes veteran UK journalist Chris Salewicz, a former contributor to famed music mag NME, who has also penned biographies of Bob Marley and Paul McCartney. Born in Turkey in 1952, Strummer was christened John Graham Mellor, the author clarifies early on, yet on the very first page of Salewicz's stab at looking behind the music, his response to Strummer's death in 2002 tells us he never forsook fandom: "Oh-fuckin-hell-Oh-fuckin-hell-Oh-fuckin-hell."
Touted as Strummer's authorized biography, Redemption Song delves into the troubled, fascinating life of a rock & roll genius, a man who deserves his place in the pop music pantheon alongside Buddy, Elvis, and Bono. It's worth pointing out, however, that Salewicz includes an overabundance of details about the three decades he personally spent hanging with the Clash frontman, describing gigs by Strummer's 101ers, the band he put together while first squatting in London. What's missing is more sociopolitical context reflecting how punk became a global force and a fuller account of how the Clash's music conquered hearts and minds worldwide. After 600-plus pages, invested readers will wish the author/narrator would get out of the way so the singer might better speak for himself.
Tellingly, the biographer does quote Strummer on the subject of biographies: "It's quite interesting to read two books about the same person because they both give you a completely different picture. And you realize he was probably like neither." All told, despite sections about the rigors of touring, studio sessions, band politics, and Strummer's alcoholism which, along with the musician's drug use, the author is maddeningly ambivalent toward the book's subject remains a cipher.