Redemption Song by Chris Salewicz

Mole, Snakehips and Charlie Pigdog
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In 1980, following the triumphant release of the London Calling album and during the recording of what would become Sandinista! the Clash had arrived at that state of critical mass to which all rock groups aspire. On the one hand they were beloved, adored by hardcore subculturalists, radical poobahs, bourgeois consumers and music critics alike; on the other hand, they were making pots of money. To make life even richer, they still got on with each other reasonably well and could yet harbour the splendid thought that what they were up to might make a difference in the world.

These divine passages in life do not as a rule last for long. But the Clash's lasted longer than most. The Clash stood for something. No one was clear what this was in very precise terms, but the group's feet were planted all right and it was easy to clock the general direction, ideologically speaking, in which their noses were pointing.

It was at this point that the group's singer Joe Strummer (né John Mellor) returned from the States to continue work on the sprawling Sandinista! in London and to address pressing relationship difficulties with his girlfriend. He promptly moved out of her Chelsea flat and persuaded Clash-insider/violinist Tymon Dogg that an empty house he'd spotted in Bloomsbury might be ripe for squatting. "The irony was," observes Chris Salewicz in this readable new "authorised" biography, "that finally Joe's bank balance was extremely healthy and he could easily have afforded to rent a flat." Instead Joe expressed his new rock-star flushness by forking out for the most expensive pair of bolt-cutters he could find, and a can of bolts to practice on.

Such Brechtian gestus fill Redemption Song from cover to cover. Some of them are edifying, some absurd, some pathetic, some funny. Strummer's was a life lived on the premise that, given that other people are always looking at you, what you do in front of them - how you demonstrate yourself - defines you as a person, not only to those onlookers but to yourself. It's an adolescent (and perhaps public schoolboy's) way of being in the world and, in Strummer's case, a quixotically loveable one. Certainly there have been few figures in rock quite so revered for their stand-taking. Strummer struck attitudes as a reflex, and one of his greatest gifts was to make onlookers feel that his attitudinising somehow always amounted to more than empty posturing.

The media loved him because he loved to include the media in his private ideological circus, while getting sloshed. Joe always gave good copy. Fans loved him because he put everything into his performance, and then carried the performance on long after the performing had officially stopped. His mates and his women loved him because he needed them. The musicians he elbowed out of his groups loved him because, one imagines, they saw his vulnerability and so forgave him his controlling mania.

Salewicz, a Clash-insider/journalist, evidently felt this way. The opening chapters of the book threaten a tidal bore of sentiment, beginning as they do at the funeral, in the huggy thrum of the mourning Clasherati, then pursuing the singer's ancestral ghosts to a windswept Scottish island straight out of Powell and Pressburger (whereupon Paul Simonon, the group's bass player and resident artist, dashes off an on-the-spot painting of Grandma Strummer's croft and deposits the canvas in the ruined chimney breast of the building itself). But for the most part, this is a warm yet sensible account; one charged with, but not overwhelmed by, heart.

The book does three things particularly well. One is to keep gnawing at the event which seems to have informed the young John Mellor's life most cruelly: the suicide of his recessive, National Front-supporting elder brother during John's teens, on a bench in Regent's Park. The creation of the "Strummer" persona - theatrically furious, endlessly didactic, essentially fugitive - appears to have grown out of a compulsion to stay psychologically locked in that moment of crisis without ever explicitly acknowledging its existence.

Another good thing about Redemption Song is the rendering of the sticky strings which, in the early-to-mid 1970s, led the moribund hippie subculture to the nascent punk one. Strummer was an archetypal middle-class art-school squatter of the period, supercharged with outlaw "honesty", unburdened with any sense of responsibility, yet somehow determined to make life feel meaningful on non-existent resources.

You will not be astounded to learn that "Woody" Mellor spent much of his time squatting the rancid chambers of "Vomit Heights" in the company of such archetypal creative folk as Dick the Shit, Mole, Snakehips and Charlie Pigdog (who, you will be astounded to learn, really was a dog). The metamorphosis of Johnny Mellor into Joe Strummer is in many ways the most important passage of the story. "I started out a hippie, and I ended up a punk," reflects the most self-questioning punk of them all. "I'd say the difference was, hippies were trying to believe in the illusion of an alternative world, and punks knew that to create that alternative world something had to be done."

The third virtue of Redemption Song is simply the clarity of the human portrait. You do feel that Strummer is real, in all his compelling yet irritating, generous-spirited yet selfish self-importance. "He wasn't Saint Joe," concludes Salewicz, risking an assertion of the obvious. "No, he was much more interesting than that. If you knew him you'd love him. But you'd be mad not to recognise he was a piece of work."

Towards the end of his life, Strummer developed a thing for campfires - a kind of quasi-Druidic obsession with creating focal communities (in which environment, no doubt, Joe might establish himself as the most focal of all communards). The gathering of campfires became a philosophical practise. He'd like nothing better than to sit round a campfire with his mates, from Damien Hirst to whichever scruffs he'd picked up at the Glastonbury festival, and to just chew the fat - and drugs - all night, interpreting the world. Here was a fully ideologised version of the secure home environment he'd never enjoyed as a child of the diplomatic service.

This was a continuation by other means of his habit, developed in early Clash days, of creating a "spliff bunker" in the recording studio: a den beneath the piano, secure behind walls of instrument cases, to which Strummer would retreat for hours at a time to sleep, write, footle and smoke ganja while the world went on with its business above his head. He carried on this practice right to the end - a rebel soul in search of a shed.