boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe

Excitable boys

The genius, demons, and occasional bad behavior of Warren Zevon, Joe Strummer, and Doc Pomus

Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer
By Chris Salewicz
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 629 pp., illustrated, $27

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon
By Crystal Zevon
HarperCollins, 452 pp., illustrated, $26.95

Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus
By Alex Halberstadt
Da Capo, 254 pp., illustrated, $26

In the dying days of 2002, police in the county of Somerset, in southwestern England, responded to an unusual noise complaint. A sound system that appeared to have been set up inside a funeral chapel was booming out reggae tunes, folk music, and punk anthems around the clock, and nearby residents were being disturbed. Arriving on the scene, the officers assessed the situation and acted promptly: They instructed the DJ to carry on, and posted a two-man unit at the chapel door. Lying inside, they had discovered, was the body of Joe Strummer.

If you're unclear as to how the singer of a long-defunct punk-rock band came to merit an honor guard from his local constabulary, Chris Salewicz's large and generously comprehensive "Redemption Song" will set you straight. Strummer was born John Mellor in 1952, in Ankara, Turkey, the son of a British diplomat. With the advent of punk he reinvented himself, and from 1976 to its breakup in 1985 he fronted the Clash, so embodying the ragged, big-hearted energy of the band that its demise virtually guaranteed him a long spell in what he would refer to as "the wilderness." Journalist Salewicz (dubbed "Sandwich" by Strummer, who had a pet name for everyone) was along for the ride, a bobbing head at the first Clash shows and subsequently a lifelong friend to his troubled hero.

Baggy, unsqueamish, forgiving, in the end loving, "Redemption Song" gives us a Strummer who feels like the whole man. Here is the illuminated vagrant, sleeping on bare mattresses, whose grinding teeth remind a fellow squatter of the sound of an underground train ; the manic dope smoker who, on being offered a position in the Clash, consults the I Ching for guidance ("an extraordinarily hippie way," as a friend notes, "to decide to join a punk group") ; the floundering international rock star besieged by "low clouds of preoccupation" ; and the eager, vulnerable, boyish figure permanently darkened by the suicide of his older brother David. Here are the plentiful ups and the protracted , booze-sodden downs; the phrase "warts and all" comes to mind -- except that the warts, in this case, have been improbably transmuted into triumphant marks of humanity.

Salewicz's method is all-inclusive: Friends and colleagues of Strummer are enrolled not as expert witnesses but simply as voices -- thoughtful, doubtful, conversational. Some of them make a lot of sense, some of them none at all. The author's own perceptions, modestly offered, have the stamp of truth: During one of Strummer's epochs of post-Clash frustration Salewicz would encounter him from time to time on the streets of West London and "almost bounce back from the static coming off him."

Strummer died suddenly, at 50, of a previously undiscovered congenital heart defect, after taking his dogs for an afternoon walk. His death, in the manner of these things, laid bare a depth of folk feeling in his fellow countrymen from which the living man -- could he only have been made aware of it -- might have greatly benefited. Subtitled "The Ballad of Joe Strummer," "Redemption Song" is a fittingly rugged and discursive tribute to this legendary Brit.

About the character of Warren Zevon, on the other hand, there seems to be a limited amount of good things that can be said. Plenty of bad things -- faithless boyfriend/husband, worse-than-useless dad, tyrannous alcoholic, and right royal pain in the behind -- but not too many good things. On the evidence of "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," an oral history compiled by his widow, Crystal, it was almost as hard to be around the cranky, intellectual LA songwriter as it was to actually be him. And being him was difficult indeed: Highly respected and endlessly indulged though he was, there were demons at his back.

An acute case of obsessive - compulsive disorder invested certain soda cans and cartons of milk with glimmering menace ; any product that carried a health warning about cancer was bad juju; and there was also a mysteriously pressing need to buy piles upon piles of gray Calvin Klein T-shirts .

An oral history might not have been the best choice of format to tell the tale of Zevon -- the anecdotes are here, and the celebrity testimonials, but not the dimension of biographical sympathy within which we might be reconciled to a character like his. Oral histories are also light on criticism, or critical advocacy: At no point in my reading of "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead," for example, did I feel inclined to listen to a Warren Zevon song. This was not the case with Alex Halberstadt's "Lonely Avenue," which will send you scurrying off in pursuit of music by the Drifters, Bobby Darin, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Andy Williams, and Willy DeVille. Doc Pomus wrote for all these people, and when he died he was memorialized by Lou Reed on the beautiful, brooding 1992 album "Magic and Loss." Pomus's story was one of spectacular self-overcoming, the legend of a fat Jewish boy with polio-weakened legs who turned himself first into a nightclub blues "shouter" (on crutches) and then, with his partner Mort Shuman, into one of the greatest of the Brill Building hitmakers. Halberstadt takes us through it with sensitivity and style, always alert to the undertow of sadness that dragged at Pomus and thrillingly precise when describing his music: Writing of the "eerie portamento" that opens the Drifters' "This Magic Moment," he notes that the "rapidly bowed violins and cellos rising and falling in pitch above a loping bass line . . . sounded like an inspired fragment from Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack to Vertigo." Well played, sir.

James Parker, a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix, is the author of "Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES