Was ever a rock band more appropriately named than The Clash? In the slipstream of The Ramones and The Sex Pistols, they completed the holy trinity of punk bands and, from their formation in 1976 to the disintegration of their classic line-up six years later, embraced contradiction and paradox until tensions internal and external pulled them apart. No rock band before or since ever explored the conflicting imperatives of left politics and hunger for rock stardom to a greater extent, or put that contradiction to better use as a source for their creative engine. They were everything they said they were, and much that they said they weren't. They were also, between 1978 and 1980, the greatest rock band in the world on more wild nights than anybody else.
Their iconic singer and lyricist Joe Strummer, as hoarse a foreman of the apocalypse as anybody since Bob Dylan's protest heyday, died in late 2002 at 50, of a congenital heart defect which could have killed him eight minutes or 80 years into his life. A uniquely passionate, committed and inspiring writer and performer, he embodied The Clash's confused dynamic: a downwardly-mobile ex-public-schoolboy reinvented as born-again proletarian; a living byword for strength, honesty, courage and integrity who could be weak, duplicitous, cowardly and corrupt. He once replaced a booked support band because another band offered him a bag of weed as an inducement. He could be compassionate and callous; charming and boorish.
Chris Salewicz is the most drily urbane of rock writers. This biography of Strummer finds him in the throes of an inner riot of his own, in the form of clashes between his natural sardonic deadpan and his personal affection for his subject; between his love for Joe and his keen awareness of his subject's flaws. As both professional chronicler of Strummer's career and intimate friend for a quarter of a century, he was uniquely qualified to write this book.
He explores Strummer's secrecy-shrouded family history, his tangled relationships with the women who loved him and bore his children, and with collaborators who had most to do with his life before, during and after The Clash. With tunesmith/guitarist Mick Jones, his Clash creative foil, he had an onstage partnership which rivalled Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, or David Bowie and Mick Ronson, as well as forming a songwriting team to rival Jagger and Richards, or Morrissey and Marr.
In interviews and songs alike, they completed each other's sentences: a low gruff voice and a high smooth one. Yet when Strummer decapitated the band's creativity by firing Jones, he doomed The Clash to a protracted death-rattle and himself to a troubled afterlife: scoring and acting in movies for Alex Cox and Jim Jarmusch, unable to form a viable new band until the late 1990s.
The book is almost absurdly stuffed with anecdotal goodies. While Strummer was in LA recording his first solo album, his hero Bob Dylan not only wrote him a song but delivered the demo tape. Strummer was so overawed by Dylan that he refused even to listen to it. Visiting INXS singer Michael Hutchence in a Memphis hotel, Strummer found the leather-trewed antipodean Lothario surrounded by mini-skirted teenagers, and asked him what it was like to be a sex symbol. "You're Joe Strummer," Hutchence said, "You should know." "I was never a sex symbol," Strummer told him, "I was just a spokesman for a generation."
Intoxicating and sobering, loving and clear-eyed, this is as close to a model rock biography as we have seen for some time. "I was there too," Strummer sang in "London Calling", one of his greatest songs, "and you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!" Salewicz is entitled to say the same, and more.
Charles Shaar Murray's 'Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and postwar pop' is published by Faber & FaberReuse content