Magazine article The American Conservative

The Clash, Still Calling

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Clash, Still Calling

Article excerpt

The Clash, Still Calling [Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, Chris Salewicz, Farrar, Strauss B Giroux, 640 pages]

By A. G. Gincarski

THREE DECADES REMOVED from 1977-the year that punk rock emerged in Western consciousness, never to vanish completely-the legacy of the British rock band The Clash is assured. UnUke the music of so many of its contemporaries-including the progenitors of punk, the Sex Pistols-the best of The Clash has held up over the years, transcending the limitations of the punk genre. But until now, no author has attempted to explore fully The Clash's rise and faU and the band's broader historical and artistic significance.

Chris Salewicz's Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer remedies that oversight to some degree. This is probably the most detailed biography that will ever be written about the former Clash front man. Its strengths and weaknesses stem from the same source: namely, the journalist's friendship with the subject. While such intimacy allowed Salewicz considerable access to Strummer's friends, loved ones, coUaborators, and supplicants, it did so at the expense of his critical eye. As a result, Salewicz glowingly describes obvious career failures and dedicates literally hundreds of pages to chronicling utterly quotidian events. Such muddUng along is more an annoyance than a terminal flaw, however, as there is much to appreciate about this ambitious and comprehensive biography.

John Mellor-the man the world came to know as Joe Strummer-was born in Turkey in the summer of 1952, the son of a British foreign-service officer described by the biographer, without any real support, as a "socialist." Throughout John's formative years, the MeUors would move aU over the world in London's service. This rootlessness affected the entire clan and was a central theme in John's life.

One of the definitive moments in his coming of age occurred in 1970, when he was 17, when his elder brother David took a hundred aspirin and ended his life. Months before, David had joined the National Front and become enthralled with Nazism in what Strummer describes as a "cheap paperback way," decorating his bedroom with Third Reich memorabilia and snapshots of the Führer. As is so often the case when young people go neo-Nazi, political extremism was a mask hiding internal turmoil: in David's case, he had fallen into a deep depression. Likely out of deference to Mellor, Salewicz glosses over this significant event. "Each time I asked him [about the impact of his older brother's death], I wish I hadn't, so great was Joe's recoil into himself," Salewicz writes, seemingly to justify his insufficient inquiry and the proforma answers given by Strummer.

After David's suicide, Mellor attempted art school, but didn't find it to his liking. "I realized they weren't teaching us anything," he wrote to a confidant at the time. "They were teaching us to make arty little marks on paper. They weren't teaching us to draw an object; they were teaching us to make a drawing that looked like we knew how to draw the object. And then we got hold of acid, and started to take acid, and then it looked even more transparent. And that was it, really; I had to peel off and it was either work for a living or play music."

As we know, Mellor chose the latter option. Not too long after his art school experience, the future Joe Strummer formed a band-the-101ers-with people he squatted with in London. The band was an ordinary pub-rock outfit, nothing more, and it was clear to observers that the best thing about it was its kinetic front man. Among those observers were future Clashmates Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, who allegedly approached Strummer after a 101ers gig and told him, "We like you, but we don't like your group."

Soon thereafter, Strummer consulted the I Ching, which told him to "go with his friends," and, deciding that his "friends" were Jones and Simonon and not the lOlers, Strummer parted ways with his former bandmates. …

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