Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer

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By Chris Salewicz (Faber and Faber, $30)

Despite the Clash's status as "the Only Band That Matters," for years there was little published on the revered British rock group. Only Marcus Gray's 1996 demystifying The Last Gang in Town attempted to recount the band's relatively brief but eventful history in any detail. However, since front man Joe Strummer's tragic death from an undiagnosed heart defect in 2002, there's been an explosion of books - covering everything from studies devoted to the group's politics to its recording techniques. Into this suddenly crowded field comes Chris Salewicz's Strummer bio, Redemption Song. It bills itself as the definitive biography, and it's a claim the author can make legitimately, as he was a longtime intimate of the group and regarded by Strummer as the "only journalist he trusted." The book's narrative is unique, too: Part traditional bio, part personal remembrance, and part investigative odyssey, it feels more like the result of a serious quest than a quick cashing in. Born John Mellor, Strummer was raised the privileged son of a well-traveled, and traveling, foreign diplomat. It was this itinerant childhood that helped him develop his curiosity about different types of music and cultures. An art-school failure, Strummer first came to fame leading London pub rockers the 101ers, but he ditched that band in 1976 in favor of the burgeoning punk movement. Pairing up with songwriter/partner Mick Jones, bassist Paul Simonon, drummer Topper Headon, and manager/provocateur Bernie Rhodes, he formed the Clash. As other punk groups fell by the wayside, the Clash evolved musically and personally, achieving an unprecedented global success before imploding under the weight of Strummer's leadership in 1985. With the cooperation of family, friends, and bandmates, Salewicz offers plenty of fresh insights, particularly concerning the suicide of Strummer's older brother and the singer's own lifelong battles with depression. Redemption Song, however, is not hagiography: The author doesn't hesitate to portray the many sides of Strummer's complex, contradictory, and often hypocritical personality, offering what should be the final word on the Clash and its leader. - B.M.