30 June 2016

Reggae Phase

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I had a serious reggae phase in approximately 1984-1985, when I was 14-15. It started with Bob Marley, as all reggae phases do. Survival (1976) and Rastaman Vibration (1979) had been in my father’s vinyl collection since the early 1980s, when a record-store clerk thought he might like them, but they weren’t my Neil Diamond- and Barry Manilow-listening father’s cup of tea, and I didn’t get it right away either. It wasn’t until I heard either Live! or Legend – probably Legend, which was so accessible and would have hit my radar when it came out in 1984 – that the floodgates opened. From there, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, and other popular acts of the day.

My first favorite non-Marley reggae albums were the ones that came out around that time: Mama Africa by Peter Tosh, True Democracy and Earth Crisis by Steel Pulse, Anthem by Black Uhuru, Making History by dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Island’s Reggae Greats collections by Burning Spear and Toots and the Maytals. From there, I worked backwards to other recordings by those and related groups – for example, Bunny Wailer’s 1976 masterpiece, Blackheart Man – and broadened my scope to include harmony trios (The Gladiators, The Meditations, and The Wailing Souls) and crooners (Dennis Brown and the Cool Ruler, Gregory Isaacs). My interest lay firmly in roots reggae and “rockers,” as opposed to dub or dancehall.

I can say with certainty that I was attracted to the music, not the “lifestyle.” I’m not saying I didn’t inhale, only that inhaling was never really my thing. That’s why I feel comfortable dropping the name of my main partner-in-crime during this period: Eric Garcetti, who has since become the Mayor of Los Angeles. Eric’s political future was bright, even in the mid-80s, when he was a highly effective lead prosecutor in a mock trial of Richard III in our 9th-grade European history class. One of his non-academic interests was music, which he indulged apparently without concern for his long-term prospects. Luckily, he didn’t go so far as to actually play in a reggae band, which would definitely have been career-limiting:

But anyway, the Garcetti Connection enabled the Roger Steffens Meeting. Roger Steffens was, inarguably, the center of the reggae universe in Los Angeles in the 80s. For one thing, he had a four-hour radio show called the Reggae Beat that aired on KCRW on Sunday afternoons. He played records, interviewed major artists – his first guest was supposedly Bob Marley himself – and occasionally turned over the mic to Hank Holmes, who played obscure 7″ singles from his personal collection. He also founded and contributed to The Beat magazine, and maintained a substantial archive of reggae-related material, including the world’s largest collection of Bob Marley arcana.

Garcetti’s mother was involved with KCRW somehow – possibly a prominent donor or on the board – and arranged for us to meet Roger in the studio. He showed us around and made friendly conversation, but I was dumbstruck; he asked me what records I’d bought lately, and I couldn’t think of a single one. We saw him again in the lobby of the Wiltern Theater, before a Linton Kwesi Johnson concert that was significantly delayed. Roger was discernibly frustrated; he felt the situation was symptomatic of an overarching problem in reggae. Not long after that, he dropped out of the scene, citing pervasive carelessness and lack of professionalism.

Eric and I and our friend Greg were welcome at the Wiltern and other mid-sized theaters – Linton Kwesi Johnson was great once he finally got going, and I’m pretty sure we saw Toots & the Maytals there – but the Kingston 12, the 21+ club in Santa Monica that presented all the hippest shows, was out of reach. Mostly, we went to the big venues: Reggae Sunsplash at The Greek Theater, for example. There was also a consistent reggae presence at the Universal Amphitheater, including a trance-inducing Burning Spear show, but the most memorable event was The Wailers on November 4th, 1984. This was Bob Marley’s actual backing band, including – if I am not mistaken – Tyrone Downie, Earl “Wya” Lindo, Al Anderson, Junior Marvin, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, Carlton Barrett, and the freaking I-Threes. There was also a young Ziggy Marley, who was a teenager, hadn’t yet formed the Melody Makers or grown dreadlocks, and sounded EXACTLY like his father. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself:

My commitment to reggae music reached its apotheosis – or maybe its nadir, if fancy words for highest and lowest points are permissible – when I made it the topic of an assignment in a 9th-grade speech and debate class. My “speech to inform” touched on the history of the genre, its musical characteristics, the influence of Bob Marley, and the role of Rastafarianism. In fact, the speech started with some Rasta schtick in patois, because we’d been taught to start with something conspicuous and entertaining. There was also a soundtrack – Bob Marley’s Rastaman Chant – for context and atmosphere, “blasting” from one of those Panasonic portable cassette players with six keys, a silver speaker, and a retractable handle. I earned an A+ for that speech, but what I really remember is our teacher’s inability to pronounce “reggae:” he kept saying “ragay” despite repeated corrections.

I don’t know when or how I lost the reggae thread. My last concert may have been Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers at the Hollywood Palladium on the Conscious Party tour in 1988; an OK show, but short and ultimately unsatisfying. Around 1987-1988, I developed an obsession with REM’s Document, and also discovered The Grateful Dead. Again, I was drawn to the songs, although this time the lifestyle seemed more accessible. I wasn’t going to become a Rastafarian, in part because I couldn’t grow dreadlocks and didn’t smoke marijuana, but also because I wasn’t into religion. On the other hand, I could hang around in a parking lot in a tie-dye eating veggie burritos.

I had a nostalgic moment in 2003, when I was sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco, waiting for Suzanne Vega et al so we could board the bus and drive to Los Angeles. The Kabuki is where all the bands stay, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when David “Dread” Hines from Steel Pulse exited the elevator and walked across the lobby (I knew it was him because of the trademark vertical dreadlock). When I listened back to the old Steel Pulse records, I remembered why I liked them, but didn’t feel the same pull.

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