on 9 June 2007
Joe Strummer's mother - a statement from her family
This book has depicted Anna Mackenzie, Joe's mother, as an alcoholic and a depressive. Those of us who knew her as a sister or an aunt want to challenge this portrayal. She was a quiet, dignified and private person who was also to us unfailingly warm, welcoming, kind and tolerant.
She was the second child of nine, born on a croft and used to hard work from an early age. She became a nurse which in the 1930s was a job even more physically demanding than it is today. We are mystified by the references to her house as "shabby" and "run down". Neither she nor Joe's father Ron was interested in acquiring or flaunting household possessions. Nor did they sit about as if "they had been used to servants": Anna cooked and looked after the house while Ron was in charge of the garden and the DIY repairs and maintenance.
When we visited her in Warlingham or when she was at home in Bonar Bridge, there was no sign of her drinking excessively. She was a social drinker who had one or two gins in an evening - a habit which she probably picked up in India. She recalled with astonishment and disapproval the large amounts of drinking by others that she had observed in the diplomatic communities. At home, she'd usually go to bed early, leaving her nephews and nieces talking with Ron. He wasn't an alcoholic either though he drank more than she did. Nobody in Anna's family that we've spoken to can understand why she's been portrayed in this way. There's no drinking culture among the Mackenzie women.
Like most people, Anna had to cope with deaths in her family. Her older brother Donald died when she had just turned 17 and her older son David killed himself. She rarely referred to David and did not discuss how his death had affected her. That was not the Mackenzie way. She never struck us as depressed however; she was always reserved, content to lead a quiet life.
She loved and supported Joe; she approved of his principles; she worried about him. She admired Gaby and adored her granddaughters. Joe inherited many of her good qualities.
She was loved by us and greatly liked and respected by all those who really knew her. She deserves for all this to be known.
On behalf of Jessie Mackinnon, Iain Gillies, Anna Gillies, Mairi Macleod, Jan Macleod, Rona McIntosh, Alasdair Gillies, George Macleod, Jane Mackinnon
on 30 December 2006
One of the sentiments which appears throughout the book is that Joe changed people's lives but was unaware of just how much. I would count myself as one of those he made an impact on as a 14 year old hero worshipping him and the group, right up to the present day when the music and lyrics, especially the lyrics, mean as much as they always did.
The Clash opened me up to all manner of things through their songs including politics, history, literature and the wider world. Joe would mention Jack Kerouac or Neal Cassidy in an interview or name check Federico Lorca in the lyrics and I'd go and find out more about them.
We need heroes in our lives and the group were mine, Joe in particular but where this books succeeds so well is in humanising Joe Strummer as a real life, flesh and blood man saving him from the myth. Now in some ways that's quite a hard thing to take. Here's me in my 40s and still naive enough to subscribe to the myth almost as wholeheartedly as in the past and then I find out that not only is he full of the contradictions which I was aware of but he fell into the traps of sex and drugs to go with his rock and roll to a degree which almost took my breath away compared to what I thought The Clash subscribed to. Without the benefit of the book I might well have simply accused him of hypocrisy, of failing to live up to what I expected of him but what actually emerges is a man haunted by pain and self doubt, a man who took a world view but could not see the truth in front of him and destroyed the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.
How do you come back from that?
The story makes it clear, it took a long time and involved a lot of pain when Joe was haunted by his black dog of depression but throughout there was also joy, more music, reconciliation and a return to his roots. Thus a man, not a myth emerges and that is so much more real and makes it even more astonishing that, alongside the rest of the group and their influences, Joe had such an enormous impact on so many.
The writer is scrupulously fair in dealing with the other members of the group and for the first time I had a real feel for what Mick brought to his band. To me he'd always been the singer of the 'wimpy' ballads who looked like he wanted to be Keef Richards, very much in the shadow of Joe, the spokesman for the group. I know differently now and can see what a generous and talented guy he is. The same spirit is displayed to Paul and Topper also.
With its insights into Joe's family, his ancestry, his friends, music and other influences, this book presents the real man who managed to escape the restraints of the past and came to realise how much he was loved and respected for himself and not just as part of The Clash.
To take a hero and avoid a hagiography, pointing out faults without judgement and to leave the reader as much in awe of the subject as before but with eyes now open, that's a fine achievement in anyone's book.
on 10 September 2010
I've not long finished this biography and generally, I'm very impressed.
I find it sad that a few on here have dismissed the book because they feel Salewicz is a hanger-on or a name-dropper. Chris actually knew Joe very well and they were good friends. In that respect, he has every right to recount a few personal encounters with the man within this book. In any repsect, there are very long sections of this book where the author does not mention his own involvement whatsoever, so I really do feel that those reviews are overplaying that aspect completely.
To view objectively, then, you have to take your hat off to the author. To piece together in painstaking fashion someone else's life from such a wide variety of sources is no mean feat.
What we end up with is an extremely candid, thorough and very enjoyable biography. The good and bad of Joe is painted by all those that knew him in here. It is strikingly honest and very warts-and-all. There is also content drawn from a huge collection of print and audio interviews and live shows, both well-known and obscure. Any fan of Joe or the Clash will be engrossed.
If I had to make any criticism at all it would be that perhaps there is too much coverage of very small or insiginifcant occurrences. I did begin to tire of receiving glimpses into Damian Hirst's self-absorbed life. But I'm nit-picking now.
This book is the result of a labour of love and it shows. With unique access to so many players in Joe's life, as well as original interviews with many of these people that readers wouldn't have read before, this stands head and shoulders above so many other biographies you come across these days.
on 15 July 2016
Before buying this book a review caught my eye which claimed 'Last Gang In Town' gives a better insight to Strummer's early life. I found that rather hard to believe, given that 'Redemption Song' is devoted entirely to the life of Joe Strummer whilst 'Last Gang In Town' is devoted to The Clash as whole.
However. Halfway through 'Redemption Song' I found myself agreeing with the aforementioned review. I felt I hadn't learnt that much more about Strummer's pre-Clash days, and what new information I did learn is not of any great depth. And when the book approaches Strummer's time with The Clash it becomes an abridged version of the now often-told story, at times reduced to almost bullet-pointing well worn tales.
So after making it approximately 60% of the way through 'Redemption Song', I would reccommend 'Last Gang In Town' as being the more engaging work for an overview of Joe Strummer and his career pre-Clash and with The Clash.
But for those seeking information about Strummer's post-Clash work, the final third of 'Redemption Song' is essential. It details his film appearances, solo recordings and circumstances surrounding each. So if solo Strummer is your thing, this section is certainly the best available written resource for you.
Although it must said, Strummer's various solo forays onto film sets and into recording studios are buttressed by one tale or another of heavy drinking or dope smoking. These fast become a bore rather than an enlightenment, and soon caused me to begin skipping pages when their mention arose. But that's no fault of the author, who is simply recounting the truth of Strummer's life.
Speaking of which I do feel it only fair to take a minute to speak in defence of the author, as several reviewers have made a point of bitching about him positioning himself into the story.
Now, the author had personal interactions with Joe Strummer at various points during his life, and was present when certain events tooks place. So within that context, how is it unreasonable for him to say that he saw this, or he said that, or this was said to him? To those complainers I ask, would you have preferred the author to invent an imaginary character to anonymously represent himself? Or maybe leave those conversations or events out of the book altogether? Because those are the only alternatives.
So, how do I sum up Redemption Song?
Well, If your interest in Joe Strummer tails off with the decline of The Clash, you'll probably find other works more enagaging and informative. If however you're a fan of the man's post-Clash years, this is without question the best written source, definitive as advertised.
One final point. For me the book throws up a huge irony. For a man who's work inspired so many people across the world in such a variety of ways, Joe Strummer's life story taken as a written whole is largely depressive and at times even demotivational. You don't come away from this book punching the sky and wanting to become rock star or begin a journey to change the world. Sadly, the shadow of Joe's personal demons hang far to heavy in the story for that flame to easily ignite.
on 23 May 2014
Arguably the best rock bio I’ve ever read – a truly great read.
Initially it seems that there might be too much detail…going back through several generations of Joe’s family, exploring their histories and personalities. But as the book, and Joe’s life, unfolds, you begin to understand how that background informs Joe’s story.
It adds to the sadness of his passing that the McKenzie family feel the author has incorrectly portrayed Joe’s mother, and you have to respect their right (and courage) to challenge the author. If anything, their comments serve to emphasise the difficulty the biographer has of portraying an individual as complex as Joe Strummer.
If the author was incorrect about this in any way so, it’s probably the only errant point. The book is without doubt superb. The detail is incredible, but never tedious. It’s exactly the kind of detail you’re looking for…the very reason you’re reading the book. From the moment the music starts with the 101’ers it is utterly absorbing. Even throughout the more fallow periods of Joe’s career it still makes great reading, and even gains momentum throughout the Mescaleros and the inevitably sad conclusion.
You come away feeling even greater compassion for Joe than before, because he comes across as so human. Undoubtedly a genius, but also flawed like the rest of us. He was a mass of contradictions – confused and conflicted at the icon he became, his politics and polemic not always cohesive, capable of great compassion but also of indifference. Joe the Rebel. Joe the Believer. Always willing to challenge the status quo and with an unshakable belief not only in the right of the individual to challenge authority but also in the ability of the individual to change things.
So, yes, this book really is as good a rock bio as you will find. Detailed, anecdotal, informative, insightful, balanced. It’s heartfelt, but stops short of being a eulogy or hagiography. Very highly recommended.
Can't believe nobody has written a review yet!!
After many years of waiting..well it seemed like it..The Strummer biog hits the shelves...I was in two minds about this...yeah...I wanted to buy it because I'm a total clash head...but did I want to read it... a friend of mine said to me ...why do you want to read about bands and artists..it takes away all the mystery and "legend". Well..I've read all the others..so I guess I had to read this too. It kind of fills in a lot of the gaps...a more personal angle than the Marcus Gray Clash biog..it's written in a very "I was there" way..with contributions from people who were close ..which makes this different from the others.
I have to say there was a darker side to Joe than I imagined..he the man who faxed and then posted a personalised Birthday greeting to me ..a complete stranger after a mate of mine hassled Tricia to get this.
If you were the only other person in a tube carriage with Joe Strummer..what would you have said ? ...I couldn't speak...I was dumbstruck at the sight of seeing him there.
From a personal angle..there were parts of Joe that mirrored my own father..(Not drugs or booze !!) But the incredible work ethic ...and the heart problem. I remember when I heard Joe had died saying that I hoped it was nothing sordid....like drowned in a bath after a deadly cocktail of blah blah blah...I was relieved that it was not...am I sick..I don't know...but the book reveals that Joe was certainly caning it and burning the candle at boths ends most of the time.
Mr "Sandwich" has produced a really well written,well researched book which I don't think anyone will top.
Respect to The Clash, families and his friends and band mates for their honesty.
Top of your Christmas list..if you can wait that long
on 8 January 2014
Just finished this and I'm immensely impressed.
You get the good and the bad of Joe - and the vast majority is good.
Chris Salewicz obviously knew Joe well - and his and other people's love of the man, his generosity, warmth, humanity and passion shines through.
Despite being a Clash obsessive, many facts were new to me.
A must read for anyone who was ever inspired and uplifted by Joe Strummer and his music.
The world is a poorer place without him.
on 23 September 2007
Like many others I expect, I have read many of the recently published books on The Clash. Also, like many others, Joe Strummer was someone I always admired and respected for what I thought was his consistent approach to life. In many ways, his approachability, whilst remaining endlessly creative, was inspiring and contrasted admirably with the clichéd back-of-a-limo rock star.
Turning to the book, I cannot see that it will never be surpassed. I thought it was very well written and although inevitably the personal relationship with the author sometimes interfered, it cannot be denied that without that relationship, some of the information and insight in the book would never have been possible. It is written with love for its subject.
However, I found the descriptions of Joe's womanising both surprising and depressing - I had not read about these before. Some of the characters in the book suggest that he was an undiagnosed alcoholic and it is difficult to argue with that - the previous notice from his mother's family makes for uncomfortable reading. Similarly at least one source states that he was crying out for therapy and again this seems fair - the suppression - if not denial - of his feelings towards the death of his brother were obviously very influential throughout his entire life.
The interesting point regarding the "Cherokee decision" - i.e. always take the most reckless option - seems to have been followed ruthlessly throughout his life, yet it cannot be denied that the two crucial musical decisions he made - i.e. the sackings of Topper and Mick - were in retrospect mistakes. The respect with which he held Bernie was incomprehensible at times, as was Bernie's frankly ludicrous statement that Joe wanted to be him.
I finished the book with a sense of sadness, but fully reminded that Joe's talent was special. I suggest you buy this book and read it with an open mind, listening to The Clash and The Mescaleros whilst doing so - it will remind you how exceptional his talent was.
Joe Strummer was, in many ways, just your average rock'n'roll hero, doing drugs, sleeping with myriad girls, lurching between gigs. His pronouncements and actions are a litany of contradiction and often nonsense but sprinkled with the occasional profundity that hinted that a greater intellect dwelled within. He was a creative and prolific songwriter and, the bit that elevated him from the average to the extraordinary, half of one of rock'n'roll's greatest songwriting duos, Strummer-Jones. Both blessed and cursed, the ultimate blessing for the rest of us came in the six or seven years the Clash proper existed, the curse with his hand in the destruction of the Clash, although there is an element also of blessing within that act: it saved them from becoming a parody of themselves in later life.
Chris Salewicz has captured the life of Strummer, warts and all, in this intensely detailed but somewhat, therefore, overlong biography. We see the transformation of John Mellor into Woody and finally into Joe. We see him at his private school, in his squats, at art school, rioting in Notting Hill, defending his home from rioters in Notting Hill, hunkering down in his spliff bunkers in recording studios, and sharing his love between, amongst others, Paloma, Gaby and Lucinda. There's Joe the schoolboy, Joe the claimant, Joe the father, Joe the leader of campfire soirees at Glastonbury, and Joe the friend of Damien Hurst, Keith Allen, John Cusack and Jakob Dylan, Bob's lad. The Joe we see is sometimes charming, sometimes idealistic, sometimes cruel and sometimes duplicitous. He occasionally surprises, as when he adopts a take-no-prisoners stance over al-Qaeda and 9/11. He is constantly haunted by his brother's suicide.
There are plenty of musical tales. Salewicz retells the story of an incident involving Vivien Westwood at a so-so Pistols gig which livelied it up and created the legend of punk violence, and there are accounts of concerts from various phases of Strummer's career, although as with Pat Gilbert's Passion Is A Fashion it feels like there is more detail from and interest in the US gigs than those played in the UK. Some seemingly important events, such as the 1980 gigs at the Electric Ballroom, are skated over with a mere assertion that they were momentous, with no indication of what made them so, with one notable exception being a July 1982 show at Brixton Fair Deal which I attended myself, and therefore already know why it was momentous.
Other items are of lesser import and are at the level of reporting what was in his laundry (actually not quite, although there is a hint that at one time Joe wasn't aware of the existence of such an institution). Towards the end in particular Salewicz indulges in disclosing paragraph-long inconsequential trivia which appear to be there only because he's heard them or he lived them, not because they have any special relevance or add particularly to the story in hand.
Nevertheless, Salewicz's presence at some of the events he recounts (it's he who has Strummer's back when he is evicting the Notting Hill rioters) lends authenticity to a tale which, while it was unfolding, was mired in a Clash/Strummer mythology partly incidental, partly of their own or Bernie Rhodes's contrivance. He debunks several myths, including the one that the Clash's 1981 stint at Bond's in New York was part of the Bernie master plan. In fact, Epic wouldn't finance the sixty-date tour Rhodes wanted, so the Bond's residency was the expedient substitute.
This isn't a flawless account, nor for that matter a complete one (you'll find more information in other sources, if you feel the need), but it's worth checking out if you want a better understanding of what made Strummer who he was, and the Clash what they were.
on 27 November 2007
Joe Strummer spoke to me, spoke for me and my generation. Strummer and Mick Jones were my heroes and The Clash were and still are the greatest band that ever plugged into an amplifier. I stuck with this book because of the subject, if it had been about anyone else I would have dropped it after page 2. I have never come across a more self-serving, self-publicizing author. In every chapter we get rudely interupted by the author jumping off the page and telling us he was there and he influenced this, and he said that, and he could have been their manager, and he was the only journalist they trusted etc etc. On page one the ego of this guy informs us that he was the only person who could be trusted to write Joe's obituary, and then he reproduces said obituary so that we can validate how great a writer he is. I don't write many reviews but this author really annoyed me and needlessly spoiled the biography.