Now that it’s getting warmer, and my wife is threatening another cruise, I’m starting to once again smell coconut oil and think of palm trees and flaming sunsets.
And since I seem to have a soundtrack for everything in my life, I’m also smelling ganja, visioning natty dread, and hearing choppy reggae rhythms.
On our last cruise to the Caribbean, I brought along a book to flip through while sunning at the pool with the other overweight Caucasians. It was “The Encyclopedia of Reggae” by Mike Alleyne. The rebel inside me wanted to stir it up; to flaunt my rock credentials and prove that not every hedonist was reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “The Art of the Deal.”
The only favorable comment I received on my reading material was from the English couple we met. Reggae music has always been very popular in England, and the woman was adamant about expressing her appreciation of Millie Small and her 1964 bubblegum reggae hit “My Boy Lollipop.”
Sweet. But I would’ve preferred a high-five from one of the Jamaican waiters toting trays of pink-orange hurricanes and Bahama mamas. Instead, all I got were shouts of “Sippy-sippy!” and “So nice!”
So many rivers to cross.
Like a lot of folks my age, I discovered reggae music in the mid-1970s, when Bob Marley and the Wailers were riding high. I already knew the pop-reggae of Johnny Nash, and Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff.” But the live version of “No Woman, No Cry” by the Wailers was the first pure reggae song I ever heard, on FM radio, while enduring hormonal changes at a boys boarding school outside Pittsburgh.
The song was a minor revelation. My roommate was slightly hipper, musically, and he gave me a 30-second crash course on reggae. Jah music, mon! I was intrigued.
Then in college I got to hear live reggae, which is the best way to hear it. I fondly remember one band in particular: I-Tal. They hailed from Cleveland, but they sounded like they’d blown in from the Government Yards in Trenchtown. The fact that they had a cute blonde percussionist may have added to my admiration.
I also started buying reggae records: Marley and the Wailers’ EXODUS and LIVE!, Peter Tosh’s LEGALIZE IT, Bunny Wailer’s BLACKHEART MAN, and Toots and the Maytals’ FUNKY KINGSTON. I think all of these were on legendary Island Records.
There were other records I’d heard about through the grapevine, but they were very hard to obtain. Culture’s TWO SEVENS CLASH and Dr. Alimantado’s BEST DRESSED CHICKEN IN TOWN were two that I craved. Disappointingly, both were on small Jamaican labels and available via import only, so they were hard to get and cost a king’s ransom. Back then most of my expendable cash went toward records or beer. Usually beer. I have many regrets about that (the beer, that is).
All of the records I mentioned are highlighted in that reggae encyclopedia, by the way.
Reggae followed me after college, too. I remember playing a CD of Jimmy Cliff’s classic THE HARDER THEY COME in the car one day. My then-nine-year-old son Nick was in the back seat with his friend, Derek. Suddenly, a spate of Rastafari gibberish exploded from the speakers. Nick and Derek broke out laughing and asked to hear it again and again. Next thing I knew, Nick was sporting a t-shirt of Bob Marley.
Kids do the darndest things.
As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Burning Spear’s anthemic album MARCUS GARVEY. So reggae must still be following me. In case you’re curious, though, I’m not Rastafari, and my messiah isn’t the Emperor Haile Selassie I. My messiah is actually John Quincy Adams.
And I don’t catch a fire with collie herb. Well… at least… not in a while.
But reggae music is still a soundtrack in my life. And if anyone has a clean, affordable, vinyl copy of BEST DRESSED CHICKEN IN TOWN let’s do business. I and I will seal deal with soul shake down party.
Mon, ‘twill be so nice !!