As the frontman for the Clash, Joe Strummer was the beating heart of punk rock, his Manichaean morality buttressed by the diverse, buzz-saw sound of his legendary band. But as much as anyone who ever saw the Clash perform live or fell in love with their records, including 1979's epochal "London Calling," might be inclined to disagree, Strummer was no superhero, but rather a flawed, troubled man.
London writer Chris Salewicz's new bio, "Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer," attempts to provide a comprehensive picture of that man, from his childhood as the son of a British diplomat to his triumphs with the Clash, his wayward years following the band's dissolution and the peace he found before his death at age 50 in 2002 from a congenital heart defect.
Salewicz spoke to Salon while visiting New York on a book tour.
What are you bringing that's new to the story of Joe Strummer and the Clash?
Joe's story hasn't been told in a comprehensive way. It's got the arc of a Shakespearean tragedy: the rise from humble beginnings, the huge success, the fall. Then there's some redemption at the end. I also wanted to show that Joe Strummer was a bit of a construct. [Musician] Jem Finer, who basically led the Pogues, said the person he was friendly with was John Mellor, which is Joe's real name, and the person who he went on tour with was Joe Strummer. Joe Strummer was the one that could become the clichéd rock star, staying up all night and doing a lot of snarling. That should come as a bit of a surprise to everyone with a deified vision of Joe as Mr. Humility. Jeanette Lee, who dated Joe, said people think he didnb
Was the depression he felt in the late '80s and early '90s a result of feeling adrift after the Clash broke up?
It's more complex than that. He was torn apart with self-recrimination for kicking [guitarist and songwriter] Mick Jones out of the group and for kicking [drummer] Topper Headon out -- though that had a lot to do with Headon's drug problem. He would say to his wife, "I've done people wrong, I've done terrible things to people." But Joe had a lot to deal with. When he was in Memphis filming "Mystery Train," he and [the film's director] Jim Jarmusch went to visit Michael Hutchence from INXS, who was waiting for them in all his leather-clad glory. Joe said to Hutchence, "It must be hard to be a sex symbol." Hutchence said back to him, "You should know." But then Joe said, "I'm not a sex symbol, I was a spokesman for a generation." After the Clash, he knew he wasn't a spokesman anymore. That's a bit of a comedown.
How happy was Joe at the end of his life?
He was a lot happier than he had been. He suffered from depression -- a bit of what Winston Churchill called the Black Dog. He was in a terrible state at the end of the '80s; he was hard to be around. But he was largely able to overcome that before he died. He felt he'd attained and achieved something and was at peace with himself. Though he did still throw things at people onstage when they played the wrong note.
-- David Marchese