REDEMPTION SONG by Chris Salewicz


The Ballad of Joe Strummer, the Definitive Biography
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A laborious consideration of the life of the Clash’s late front man.

Salewicz (Reggae Explosion, 2002, etc.) covered the career of singer-guitarist Joe Strummer for years, as a correspondent for the New Musical Express and other U.K. periodicals. The writer grew very close to his subject, but that intimacy does not enhance this sprawling, messy authorized biography. Like his band, Strummer embodied the contradictions of the late-’70s punk-rock movement: Born John Mellor in Ankara, Turkey, to a British foreign-service officer and educated privately, he recreated himself as a squatter in London and got involved in the city’s pub-rock and punk scenes. The Clash became punk’s poster boys; cast as righteous rockers while signed to a major label, they were often accused, in the words of one of the band’s own songs, of “turning rebellion into money.” Strummer gets somewhat lost in the shuffle during the book’s long central section, which recounts the Clash’s triumphant, contentious history, though he does emerge as a conflicted character capable of equal measures of love and ruthlessness. (He expelled lead guitarist Mick Jones from his own band.) The book stops dead during a section about the musician’s lost decade after the Clash’s breakup; Strummer’s film work, escalating drug and alcohol abuse and often aimless travel are enumerated in wearying detail. The tale comes back to life in the late chapters recalling Strummer’s musical renaissance with the Mescaleros before his death from a heart defect in 2002. Only a true Clash devotee is likely to make it that far. Salewicz tells his story with the vanity of a court biographer, and he displays a confounding love for endless, unpruned quotes and tour itineraries; some chapters bear obvious evidence of their genesis as music-weekly pieces. He is relatively uncritical of his buddy’s frequent meanness and chronic infidelity, and there is little insight into the sources of his long-term depression and alcoholism.

Intelligent editing, less fact-churning and more analysis would have served this overlong tome well.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2007
ISBN: 0-571-21178-X
Page count: 592pp
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2007


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