|THE CLASH: Mick Jones, Topper Headon, Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon|
By Chris Salewicz.
I have just finished reading this book and it took around four nights and a weekend. It is around 650 pages, the same length as Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness but I don't know whether anything can be inferred from that. I cried some tears at the last page, being a huge Strummer and Clash fan. It was great that he reconciled with Mick Jones at the end and also with Gaby. Mick joined Joe on stage in November 2002 in a benefit concert for the striking workers of the fire brigade union.
The book does a great job in filling us in on Strummer's "wilderness years" which lasted from around 1985 to 1998. Also it fills us in on much of his romantic escapdes and his battles with depression. I almost came away wishing that I had not known some of this. If Strummer was still alive, I doubt that the biography would have exposed him so fully. He really has nowhere left to hide after this book. Salewicz clearly is confused when he recounts Joe's romantic associations during the Gaby years. He is unsure whether to moralise against Joe or to brush it to one side as just a great man's excesses of love for humanity. Although Salewicz comes off as somewhat confused and a fence-sitter, he does a fair job in tackling some difficult issues connected with his subject.
The book presents many examples and stories of Strummer's genuine kindness and fraternal ethics. Many of the stories are new. I like the story of Joe buying Simonon an extra pair of sunglasses when both were broke in 1976 and of how he later paid 30,000 pounds to one of Topper's drug dealers to save Topper's legs. Overall, I feel the perspective we gain of Strummer in the book is probably a fair and balanced one although it leaves him hopelessly exposed and more vulnerable in death than he was even in life.
The discussions of the boarding school years and Strummer's pre-Clash adulthood covers much ground already covered in Pat Gilbert's excellent Passion is a Fashion (see my review for that book on this site) and Jon Savage's England's Dreaming. Salewicz adds little here. What is new is some revealing interview responses from two of Joe's multi-cultural rock chicks, Jeanette Lee and Paloma. Also new is some insight and information about John Mellor and the Croydon home. Don Letts plays a less significant role in the book than I feel he did in real life. The Sex Pistols too are largely ignored by Salewicz suggesting that he has not placed the Clash within their true historical context. John Lydon shared many views with Strummer and should have featured more prominently in the book. Was he even interviewed?
I preferred Gilbert's book over this one because the Clash was a cohesive whole and focussing on one member in particular takes away some of this. I feel that we gain a better picture of the unique association between the Clash's members and their favourite Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove haunts from Gilbert's book (which oddly is not mentioned at all although Gilbert's name appears in the lengthy Acknowledgements at the back of the book). Probably no other band in history except for perhaps the Jamaican reggae artists have been so tied to a time and place as the Clash (although much of their message remains timeless).
I feel that this book presents Mick Jones in a somewhat more favourable light than Gilbert's book. Somewhat oddly we gain a deeper knowledge of Jones (but not of Simonon, Headon, Chimes or the three Mark II guys)from Salewicz's book than from Gilbert's which is supposedly only a Strummer biography. Gilbert does a far better job than Salewicz regarding the Clash Mark II. The Mark II years are not covered well by Salewicz. Possibly he felt he did not need to re-invent the wheel here given Gilbert's brilliant look into this era.
The book tends to be overly detailed and I don't rate it as a five-star book. Nonetheless, it is very good. Strummer should be remembered as one of the most important social commentators of the twentieth century.
By Jack Frost, first published on Amazon.com 26 February 2008.