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Friday, October 12, 2007

Redemption Song: The Biography of Joe Strummer

The story of the Clash is fairly well known. Young squatter scruffs from England get excited about the exploding punk scene, form a band and become punks' most enduring symbol, all the while conquering the world, in just about five years time. Then the band implodes at it's peak of glory, and the remnants go on to do other things, such as B.A.D. (Mick Jones), drugs, (Topper Headon), art, (Paul Simonon) and...other things (Joe Strummer).

Last month I finished reading Redemption Song, a well written biography of Joe Strummer, who was the heart and soul of the Clash. As the main lyricist, he was the man who wrote the songs, which were then crafted into music largely by Mick Jones. The two formed a nearly perfect team with a strong dynamic tension that produced what I believe is one of the greatest albums of all time, London Calling. Predictably, that same tension eventually broke the band apart, not dissimilar to the way the McCartney/Lennon conflict killed the Beatles. All that pressure and heat sure does produce the diamonds though, thank goodness.

The book carefully details Joe's childhood and family life, which is necessary in any biography to be able to understand what world the subject came from. I often have to remind myself that famous personalities are rarely born into fame--that they were normal, unremarkable human beings before they became who we know them to be. Joe Strummer, who's real name is John Mellor is no exception. He was a regular kid, went to school, and was unremarkable. One day, while stumbling through his directionless college years, he picked up guitar. He eventually formed an ordinary local band, and had a good time drinking and chasing girls.

Then almost overnight, the punk music revolution arrived, and he and his mates got swept up in it, and the next day the Clash were being hailed as the great punk hope.

The book continues by thoroughly detailing the life of the Clash, which was essentially the life of Joe and Mick. Clash fans will enjoy reading the moment to moment details of the bands journey and likely learn a few things about the band they didn't know. I sure did.

As this is a biography about Joe Strummer, there is much more to it than just his days in the Clash. Joe wrote and performed music for nearly twenty years after the effective end of the Clash, which was when he fired Mick Jones. Ironically, it was Mick who is credited with being the founder of the band.

While Mick Jones' post-Clash life was filled with significant commercial success with the various incarnations of Big Audio Dynamite, Joe's was far less so. The book painfully details the remainder of Joe's life both onstage and off. Although he never achieved the same commercial success that he did with the Clash, or that Mick did with B.A.D, Joe's legend and gravitas as punk's most passionate and soulful poet only grew stronger as the eighties turned into the nineties.

No one seemed more surprised by this than Joe himself. He suffered mightily from a lack of confidence in his own abilities and was burdened with guilt about having fired Mick Jones and killing the Clash. But as a testament to just how cool he was, he readily admitted not long after the fact that it was his fault that the Clash broke up, and ultimately he and Mick remained close throughout the post-Clash years. In the late nineties when it seemed he had finally put to rest the ghost of the Clash and was ready to finally reclaim his mantle as punk's John Lennon, he died of a broken heart. Literally.

After reading about his life, it seems to have been the most appropriate way for him to die, although much too early. Joe Strummer in his fifties would have made the new century a far more tolerable place to live.

If you are a Clash fan, or even just a fan of the punk movement in general, this is a book you'll want to pick up.


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