Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Posthumous: Redemption Song (Strummer and Cash)

Joe Strummer: Redemption Song
Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer: Redemption Song 

[purchase Streetcore]
[purchase Unearthed]

When Bob Marley wrote “Redemption Song,” one of his masterpieces which was influenced by a Marcus Garvey speech from 1937, he had already been diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life within a few years, and clearly was thinking about his own mortality. It was a rare acoustic track, and was released as a single in 1980, and on the album Uprising. Because Marley didn’t die until 1981,  the song was not released posthumously. 

However, two very fine, and related covers, of “Redemption Song” were released after the performers’ deaths, so I don’t lose any points for theme violations. (Sorry, I've been watching the Olympics.)

In 2002, Johnny Cash was working with producer Rick Rubin on what would become American IV: The Man Comes Around, the last album released during Cash’s life. Joe Strummer, who was on vacation in Los Angeles, decided to hang around the studio, because he was a fan of Cash—he even extended his vacation an extra day to spend time with Cash. During this time, the two men reportedly discussed a wide variety of topics—Cash’s role in the early days of rock and roll, and Strummer’s role in the early days of punk—and their love of Jamaica and its music. Strummer was, of course, a big fan of ska and reggae, and was influential in including it in The Clash’s music, and Cash owned property on the island. 

With some apparent nudging from Rubin, they decided to record a duet of “Redemption Song.” "Originally, the song was supposed to be a duet, and we recorded it as a duet. But, just in case, both Johnny and Joe sang the whole song several times," Rubin recalled. It did not, however, make it on to The Man Comes Around (which is fine, because that album is already incredible) 

In December, 2002, Strummer died due to an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, before he was able to complete Streetcore, his final album with The Mescaleros. The album was pieced together from early takes of songs and subsequent additions by producers Martin Slattery and Scott Shields.  Although it may not have originally been planned for the album, they included one of Strummer’s solo takes of “Redemption Song,” featuring only his vocal and guitar, additional guitar from Smokey Hormel, piano added by Rubin, and atmospheric harmonium added by Benmont Tench. It is spare, rough and affecting.

Rubin and Cash were working on compiling a box set of unreleased songs and alternative takes from Cash’s tenure at American Recordings, when Cash died on September 12, 2003 of complications from diabetes. He was only 71, which frankly shocked me. Unearthed, a five disc set, was released a little over a month later, and it included the duet with Strummer. As good as the solo Strummer version was, the duet—although similarly arranged—is better. Obviously. adding Johnny Cash to a song is likely to improve it, and his voice was filled with the gravitas that only increased as he aged. Second, there’s some great acoustic guitar from Tom Morello. Although I don’t think that this is a case of a cover improving on the original, it gives Marley a run for his money. 

I should add that in or about 2003, some friends of ours got a black dog, and named him Cash, in honor of the recently deceased Man in Black. In 2004, we got our own black dog, and named him Strummer, in honor of Joe (and my family’s love of music) (coincidentally, our Strummer died 7 years ago yesterday). The two dogs did spend time together and probably barked together, but they never figured out how to do “Redemption Song.”