As befits the fan base of a man who fronted a four-piece punk outfit famously described as “The Only Band That Matters,” Joe Strummer fans are an obsessive, insatiable lot. There are dozens of books about the Clash, most with stridently self-confident subtitles such as “The Real Story” or “The Complete Guide.” More than a half-dozen biographies specifically addressing Strummer have been published in the wake of his untimely death in late 2002, and I’ve read most of them. Count me among the obsessive and insatiable, and if “Straight to Hell” is playing on the jukebox, please shut your yapper.
The inherent problem with telling the story of a legitimately deified figure is how easy it is to forget he is all too mortal, complete with philosophical contradictions and moral foibles. London-based journalist Chris Salewicz avoids this handicap through sheer volume of exposure and a steadfast dedication to detail in Redemption Song (Faber and Faber, $30). Salewicz was friends with Strummer for nearly three decades and covered the Clash’s career practically from its inception, tracing the band’s rise and fall in such high-profile publications as NME, Q, and Mojo. He doesn’t shy away from unveiling the icon’s perplexing contradictions, both through public incidents and personal anecdotes. Of particular note is the description of the behind-the-scenes turmoil at the US Festival: Strummer insisted promoters give more proceeds from ticket sales “for the poor Latinos of L.A.,” despite the fact that the Clash themselves were demanding half a million dollars for their performance. “In fact, Jung had a maxim that all great truths must end in paradox,” writes Salewicz, “When I once mentioned this to Joe—who was like its personification—he seemed to really relish the notion.”
Thanks to his lasting, post-Clash friendship with Strummer, he also had the unenviable task of penning Strummer’s obituary for The Independent, a deadline he had to meet less than 24 hours after he received the sad news from Westway to the World filmmaker Don Letts about their mutual friend’s passing. It is this written eulogy and a heartbreakingly detailed description of the funeral that opens the book—a brutal and beautiful commencement that will hook even the most hard-hearted punk. Clocking in at 600-plus pages and deftly woven together with a mix of historical analysis and contemporary conversations with virtually every influential figure in Strummer’s life, Salewicz’s text rightfully earns its covers claim that Redemption Song is “The Definitive Biography.”
If Strummer was still with us, he’d no doubt appreciate the uneven but heartfelt nature of My First Time (AK Press, $17.95) editor Chris Duncan’s scrappy anthology of first-person accounts describing baptismal dives into punk rock’s life-changing mosh pit. With a variety of voices, ranging in age from a Gen-Y kid’s memories of his first Jawbreaker show to Big Takeover publisher Jack Rabid’s account of an influential Talking Heads performance, the patchwork of personal perspectives crisscrosses from Gilman Street to the Bowery with all the messy passion (and periodic burst of righteous indignation) that one would expect from the freshly self-realized.
Michael Azerrad’s closing chapter describing his first foray into the genre at a Dead Boys show, replete with juicy details about now-famous faces in the crowd, is an enjoyable read, yet it’s the more unconventional pieces that stand out, particularly “Punk Slash Goth,” Michelle Tea’s reflections on realizing her little goth heart might have room for punk when she learned Siouxsie Sioux was involved. Ultimately, what makes the collection valuable is the appreciation it gives to the moment before jadedness, affectation, or (shudder) adulthood takes hold. As Duncan writes in the introduction, “No matter how silly or misguided they may end up being, the urgency and power that a group of humans, with the same beliefs and ideas, can harness is intoxicating and infectious. I think that’s what does it; that’s what makes people invest their lives and take ownership of a scene, sub-culture or identity, even though they mature and inevitably change.”