Redemption Song Review
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During my first year of college, my Mohawk-sporting boyfriend taught me all about punk music—with a special focus on his personal favorite band, The Clash. The whole punk scene was pretty unfamiliar to this small-town Midwestern girl, but it was love at first listen—and it began a life-long relationship (one that long outlasted my college boyfriend). I even remember the day I heard the news of the death of The Clash’s lead singer, Joe Strummer. I remember wearing black, in mourning. But I never new that much about the punk legend—until I picked up journalist Chris Salewicz’s massive biographical tome, Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer: The Definitive Biography.

Salewicz isn’t kidding when he calls the book “definitive.” Redemption Song is an overwhelming 613 pages of small print—and after making your way through it, you’ll feel that you really know Joe Strummer.

As a journalist who met Joe in the early days—and who eventually became a friend of the punk star, bumping into him on the street, hanging out with him at the pub, and even attending each other’s kids’ parties—Salewicz is the perfect person to tell the story. But he does it without drawing the attention to himself. He doesn’t constantly remind the reader of his relationship with Strummer. He doesn’t give a lot of his own personal opinions. He just tells the story, with the help of the other people who knew Joe best—from his family and his childhood friends to band mates and fellow musicians to Joe himself. There are so many quotes, in fact, that it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s saying what—but that’s my only complaint about this book.

Redemption Song is a fascinating book about a fascinating man. Salewicz opens the book by talking about Strummer’s death in 2002—about writing his obituary, attending the funeral, and traveling to Joe’s family home in Scotland with Clash drummer Paul Simonon. Then he jumps back to the beginning of Joe’s story—before the beginning, actually—by telling about Joe’s parents and grandparents. Finally, he gets to Joe—starting with the days when he was just little Johnny Mellor, the son of a British foreign officer in Ankara, Turkey. With each chapter, Salewicz takes readers through a couple of years of John Mellor’s life—from boarding school to art school to his brother’s suicide, an event that changed him forever. John Mellor was a wandering artist who lived in squat houses in Notting Hill and began his musical career as a busker—and he eventually became a musical legend, a punk prophet who loved to hang out in bars or around a campfire with his friends and his fans. Redemption Song takes readers through each year of his life, both in words and in pictures—through each recording session, each tour, each relationship, each triumph, and each mistake.

Salewicz and the rest of his sources resurrect Joe Strummer on the page. And though reading this book is a massive undertaking—one that will take weeks, if not months—by the end, when you read the final chapters, you’ll feel as though you’re reading about the death of a friend.

For devoted fans of Joe Strummer and his work, there’s no question that Redemption Song is a must-read. But even casual fans and music lovers in general will be enthralled by this richly detailed biography.

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