A year after Pol Pot declared “Year Zero,” England’s punk rockers set their own at 1976 -- the point when all that came before was deemed irrelevant. Like the Jacobins, the punks also had a thing for renaming. Thus a nice-looking kid from Surrey named Christopher became “Rat Scabies,” while a scrawny Simon from East London was rechristened “Sid Vicious,” after his friend John Lydon’s pet hamster. Lydon, of course, became Johnny Rotten.
Of all the punk noms de guerre, however, “Joe Strummer” offered something more than shock value. The name suggested that the production of rock music should be an anonymous, everyman pursuit, closer to turning a lathe than turning out an oil painting or poem.
But everybody’s got to come from somewhere. Strummer, the singer-guitarist for the punk era’s most accomplished band, the Clash, was born John Mellor in Ankara, Turkey. He was the son of Ronald Mellor, a left-leaning English diplomat, and his alcoholic wife. He was a boarder at an English public (that is, private) school, along with an older brother. For many years afterward, critics in class-sensitive England would call Strummer a hypocrite for championing the dispossessed in his lyrics and counting himself among them.
But as veteran British pop culture author Chris Salewicz makes clear in his new Strummer biography, “Redemption Song,” there are many paths to dispossession. While John Mellor charmed his way through school, his brother apparently responded to the pain of separation from their parents by joining Britain’s ultra-right-wing National Front and committing suicide at age 19.
These are a few of the telling nuances in “Redemption Song,” which, at 600-plus pages, violates the core punk tenet of brevity, yet offers an unvarnished portrait of a musician who could never manage to be average. In fact, he would lead a revolution -- though he was self-deprecating enough to know it wouldn’t extend far beyond the record bins.
“I’d like to think the Clash were revolutionaries, but we loved a bit of posing as well,” Salewicz quotes Strummer years after his band’s glory days.
The Clash story follows a VH1-friendly template, with a meteoric rise, a steep fall brought on by back-stabbing, egos and drugs, and a long quiet time during which everybody thought hard about what went wrong. At its core was the kind of classic songwriting duet that had always powered the best British rock: In this case, Mick Jones, a gifted guitarist with working-class credentials, hired away Strummer from a band the latter had formed while slumming in a London squat.
Jones was the better musician, but the prep-school kid was the great sloganeer and the walking antenna for Britain’s dyspeptic zeitgeist. The band’s eponymous first album was an aggressive head-butt to a flaccid rock establishment: They flipped the hippie mantra “Peace and Love” to “Hate and War,” and distilled decades of European exasperation with American culture into a simple kiss-off: The USA wasn’t evil, Strummer sang, but boring.
The album’s depth would come from an embrace of Jamaican rhythms and Strummer’s unflinching perspective on race. In the song "(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais,” (originally released as a single), he describes his disappointment in attending a reggae concert that he found too slick and poppy. Here was yet another pale white guy infatuated with black culture, but this one was honest enough to know that he would always be an outsider looking in.
While their punk rock peers the Sex Pistols petered out after one album, the Clash roared on, fueled by Jones’ fecund musicality and the expansive worldview of Strummer, who borrowed freely: the boogie of Eddie Cochran, the poetry of Garcia Lorca and Rimbaud, and the latest cumbia or rhythm emanating from the street. Between 1977 and 1982, the band released five increasingly complex albums and a string of singles that branched into R&B;, funk and hip-hop. It was one of the great creative runs in pop history, and it eventually earned them a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
True to its name, the Clash picked a lot of fights. It issued fatwas against bell-bottoms and stinky supergroups: At a Detroit concert, band members wouldn’t let Ted Nugent jam with them unless he cut his hair (alas, he never took the stage). Though acquaintances tend to agree that the band’s grasp of politics was shockingly naive, it named its 1980 triple album, “Sandinista!,” for the Nicaraguan Marxists who had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship the year before.
If some of the band’s positions seem ridiculous or misguided today, others seem noble, even prescient. Salewicz recounts that a group of white Australians the Clash had befriended turned a cold shoulder after the band invited Aboriginal activist Gary Foley onstage at a 1982 Sydney concert. At a 1981 gig in New York, Strummer tried to reason with an audience booing rap pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the Clash’s hand-picked opening act. “That’s not cool,” Strummer yelled. “Give ‘em a chance!”
Though the Clash never attained the massive success of the Beatles or Stones, they did manage to surround themselves with the era’s hipoisie. Salewicz drops the names -- DeNiro, Dylan, William S. Burroughs -- but he’s short on anecdotes.
Ironically, the book picks up steam after Strummer fires Jones. It was one of the great dumb moves in rock, one that Strummer later regretted, and after one lackluster album, the group disbanded. From here, “Redemption Song” becomes a poignant story. Strummer had good friends and occasional projects, including a brief stint playing with trad-Irish group the Pogues. But without the Clash, friend and collaborator Matt Dillon said, Strummer “was like a soldier without an army.”
Contradictions would continue to define Strummer: He was an all-night boozer and a notorious philanderer, but he loved his kids and family. He eschewed some of the trappings of fame -- he was accessible to doting fans and often preferred to hang out with assorted bums. But he also liked to spend his royalty checks on pink champagne and the sushi at Nobu.
He died of a heart attack in 2002, at age 50. In his last years, he had been working with a fine new band, the Mescaleros, who churned out a few songs as good as any by the Clash. He had scored a job as a DJ at the BBC, spinning a diverse mix of world music. He lived to see the U.S. and Britain take on the Taliban (a war the lyricist of “Rock the Casbah” wholeheartedly championed) and lived to debate the impending invasion of Iraq (a war, the book suggests, he was decidedly less excited about). The English public decided that the old sage of punk had earned respectability by dint of hanging around. In the years before he died, they treated him as if he were a national treasure.
Perhaps they recognized the consistency in Joe Strummer. He may have been a working-class poseur and a sorry excuse for a commie, but as Salewicz’s book shows, he never stopped engaging the world at large. Long after most music lovers had retreated into the privacy of their Walkmans and iPods, the aging Strummer would cruise the streets of London’s Soho with an instrument he loved as much, if not more, than the guitar: a cranked-up ghetto blaster.