Chris Salewicz was a close friend of Joe Strummer, the cool outlaw rock icon, whose impassioned politicized lyrics, humour and confrontational stance as The Clash frontman projected him to dizzying heights of fame. The Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. Strummer's untimely death in 2002 spawned huge and deeply respectful responses amongst his friends and fans from the far reaches of the four corners of the globe. The inspiration, influence, respect and love felt for Joe Strummer was overwhelming.
As Salewicz indicates in this interview, he had to write Redemption Song. It is a detailed, open and honest biography of the man. From the perspective of a close friend for 30 years, Salewicz has managed to not only capture the energy, angst, and poetic beauty of the musician, songwriter, political activist, poet and cultural icon, he has skilfully articulated Strummer's fears, his complexity and reveals the man's down to earth humanity. Never shirking in laying bare the demons that fuelled Strummer's gut-wrenchingly dark low times and the wilderness years following the demise of The Clash, Salewicz writes with compelling authority. With rich detail culled from his friendship with Strummer himself, his many many friends and, of course, his family, Salewicz makes a very persuasive case for him to be added to the long list of protest singers that include Woody Guthrie, John Lennon, and Bob Marley. He certainly convinced me. A sincere and rivetting biography of a warm, outspoken and searingly articulate man, whose drive, integrity, passion, and artistic accomplishments ensure his centrality within forms and discourses of music and popular culture.
I had the chance to talk with author, journalist and film producer Chris Salewicz recently, following the release of Redemption Song;
I have just finished reading Redemption Song Chris, it is certainly the definitive biography of Joe Strummer, in my opinion. What inspired you to write the book?
The day after Joe's funeral, on December 30 2002, I sat down to write all my thoughts and impressions of what had just occurred. I finished two weeks later, with exactly fifty pages written. Speaking to my agent, I mentioned what I had been doing. He asked to see it. Then he came back to me and said, "Do you realize you've just written the first chapter of a book?" By that time I sort of did, and we went from there. A couple of people told me it was my job to write Joe's biography, and although I initially tried to escape this task, I knew they were correct. So this is what happened.
How long did the book take to write?
It took me three-and-a-half years, an interesting length of time to study my mood-swings. Needless to say, I went mad several times!
What do you feel is different about your book to others written about him?
To be honest, the only other book specifically about Joe is the one written by Kris Needs. When I told him I was writing one, he said, "Right, I'm going to write one too." Which rather surprised me. But he took a book he was already writing about The Clash and added Joe's name to the title. But I knew the real story: I knew what had gone on, and I knew almost all the witnesses.
He packed in so much to his life, what were Joe`s most interesting/compelling characteristics?
Joe loved detail, and getting detail right – which stems from his art-school background, I think. I love his view of "Just get on with it," which is something we could all benefit from. Although Joe didn't always follow his own advice, of course – I'm thinking about his wilderness years from roughly 1985 for the next ten years. But also I loved the fact that Joe – and the rest of the Clash – were so funny. They knew that you should never take anything seriously, whilst at the same time being totally serious about everything. They were not a political group, but great satirists.
What would you say were the defining moments in his life?
I think that the suicide of Joe's brother David in July 1970 fired the rest of his life. As he said, "He chose death: I chose life." It clearly was a traumatic catalyst in his existence. But also meeting Bernie Rhodes and Mick Jones in April 1976 when the Sex Pistols supported Joe's pub-rock group The 101'ers had high significance. As did his misjudged decision to fire Mick Jones from the Clash in August 1983. And I think that meeting his future wife Lucinda was of great significance: after that he seemed motivated to start his music career again.
His alcohol intake was a regular feature throughout the book, how much do you think Joe was dependant on it? Was he an alcoholic?
I think Joe liked a drink. And other things too. It was all fuel, to keep the whole deal going.
Redemption Song is full of fascinating detail from Joe, his family and his immense set of friends, were there any difficult aspects of writing such a thorough and informed, book?
I was concerned that I would hurt those close to him, and therefore trod very carefully over certain issues. Needless to say, I didn't always succeed…
What would your top 5 Strummer penned songs be?
"White Man," "Coma Girl," "Straight To Hell," "Clampdown," and "London's Burning." (I'll change my mind tomorrow).
What do you think set him apart from his contemporaries, say Elvis Costello, for example?
That he was a true man of the heart and really cared for people and humanity. Even though he didn't necessarily always care enough about himself.
What would you say his legacy was?
Beautiful lyrics, extraordinary stage performances, the birth of World music, and a far more egalitarian world than existed in 1976. The music and attitude of The Clash has seeped into the entire culture. Of course, Joe believed his true legacy might be the global campfire scene!
Was writing the book a way of helping you to put your great love and friendship with Joe into some perspective?
Of course – although I didn't realise it when I started out. And I also didn't expect it to be as traumatic and heartwrenching as the process turned out to be. On many occasions tears were running down my face as I was writing.
What would you think Joe would make of your book?
Joe's fine on my book. The day before I came to the US on my book tour I had a dream in which Joe seemed to be about to punch me on the nose. But as his fist grew nearer to me, it unfurled and he put a spliff in my mouth.
Thats a lovely dream! What is your next book to be about?
I'm not telling you yet!
This book is one of the best biographies I have ever read. I know Joe lived the life he did, but you have written about him in such a way as to make me feel at times Joe was sitting next to me. Reading your book also made me think back about my life, in relation to what Joe Strummer was doing then, which very few books do. I have to admit to finding it difficult to couch these questions actually, the book had so many answers!
Thanks so much. I'm touched by what you say. Your questions were great!
With very warm thanks Chris Salewicz and Greg Ekelman at SpecialOps Media
Read more about Joe Strummer
Redemption Song – The Ballad Of Joe Strummer is published by Faber and Faber. Available in all good purveyors of written words.
Joe smoking photo courtesy of Anthony Saint James.