I should really be a better writer…

Pasted below is my review of Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer By Chris Salewicz

This review was to run in the print version of The Memphis Flyer’s literary supplement, but due to my belligerent disregard of the needed word count, it’s online-only. Still, it appears that a lot was cut. Online is better than no-line.

Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer By Chris Salewicz Farrar Straus and Giroux, 640 pp., $30

Introducing: Everything you’ve ever want to know about Johnny Mellor — aka Woody Mellor, aka Joe Strummer (of the Clash) — who tragically passed away in 2002 due to an undiagnosed heart condition. But talk about exhaustive biographies: Chris Salewicz’s Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer takes the cake. Most music biographies fall victim to too much pre-fame, pre-relevance, and youth coverage, and Redemption Song is no different. Occasionally in the opening pages, Salewicz does flash-forward and back through Strummer’s adolescence, the Clash era, and post-death accounts from friends and relatives. For the most part, though, Redemption Song follows in chronological order, and the highlights of the first 160 pages — some of it slow reading — are as follows: 

Strummer’s older brother suffered from depression and committed suicide when Strummer was 18. This had a massive impact on Strummer’s life and creative drive, including Strummer’s pre-Clash concern, the 101′ers, a decent pub rock band that never released recordings while together. Salewicz also traces during this period the ongoing development of Strummer’s stoicism offstage and drama and high energy onstage, behavior that came to its fruition with the Clash. Naturally, the Clash sections of Redemption Song beat out the book’s beginning and end in terms of readability. Most interesting is the fact that the band was created by an impresario, just like the Sex Pistols, who had Malcolm McLaren. The Clash was more or less masterminded by a lesser known but equally brilliant London scenester/hustler by the name of Bernard (”Bernie”) Rhodes. The political phrases pasted on Strummer’s Telecaster, for example? That was Rhodes successfully launching a trend that carries on to this day. 

Salewicz’s writing is workmanlike, and he gets the job done. It also helps that the author was a good friend of Strummer’s. This intimacy benefits Redemption Song, peppering it with minute details that a less familiar biographer might not know. After the Clash folded, Strummer busied himself with sporadic projects, including but not limited to soundtrack work for Sid and Nancy, co-writing much of the second Big Audio Dynamite (Mick Jones’ post-Clash project) album, and recording a 1989 solo album, Earthquake Weather, which turned out to be a flop. 

The closing portion of Redemption Song is given over to Strummer’s final three to four years with the Mescaleros, his handpicked band, which made a respectable impact by jumping all over the musical map: reggae, roots-rock, ska, and much cover material. It was with this group that Strummer reignited the spark that burned hot during his days with the Clash.  Clash fans are encouraged to check out Pat Gilbert’s Passion Is the Fashion: The Story of the Clash. For Strummer fanatics, see Redemption Song. — Andrew Earles 


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