Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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It Isn't Only Rock and Soul and I Like It

In April of 1973 I spent eight days in and around Kingston, Jamaica, the hub of a musical form called reggae that my editor at Newsday, a paragon of foresight and generosity who actually proposed this assignment himself, either believed or hoped would soon hit big in the States. I had a wonderful time in Kingston, partly because I worked hard enough never to feel like a tourist, and returned with a three-part series. My first two stories contrasted Humphrey Davis, a waiter at the Sheraton who had invested all his "extra" money in two self-produced 45s, and Big Youth, a Rastafarian deejay from Trenchtown with eight singles in what passed for the Jamaican top 40, none of which had made him a cent. A third piece dealt with Toots's Maytals, Marley's Wailers, and other portents before fudging the question of whether reggae was soon to hit big in the States. I simply couldn't figure it out, and I still can't. If "big" is taken to mean "real big," though, I continue to lean toward a big no.

This judgment will be regarded disdainfully, I suspect, by those who believe there is already a reggae boom in this country. Well, so be it. As far as I can see, the boom has only reached stage one: corporate interest. For the first time sine journalists began to write about reggae four or five years ago, it is possible to buy American albums by substantial Jamaican reggae artists outside the triumvirate of Bob Marley, Toots Hibbert, and Jimmy Cliff--including Burning Spear, the Heptones, and (if they count) Third World on Island, the Mighty Diamonds and U-Roy on Virgin, and Peter Tosh on Columbia. And in a parallel development even more exciting for the U.S. reggae audience, the real thing can at last be apprehended in the flesh. The Wailers and the Maytals have both toured here twice--and My Father's Place in Roslyn has drummed up some gratifying Monday business with "roots night," often featuring less renowned reggae performers.

These are cheering developments. Let a hundred genres bloom, I say. Variety is the only corrective for the corporate rationalization that has been deadening popular music over most of this decade--they can't homogenize what they don't understand, and the more of it there is, the harder it becomes for them to understand it all. But just in case I sound too dispassionate, let me add that if there really were a hundred genres, reggae would probably rank in the top five or so. As I hear things, it matches bebop and New York hard rock for reliable formal satisfaction; of the six lesser artists named above, only Third World (not really a reggae band) has come up with a pleasureless album. Even counting more impoverished projects on Mercury (Byron Lee, Greyhound); Scepter (the Blues Busters), and A&M (a Reggae Spectacular catchall which misuses material from Jimmy Cliff's good little Wonderful World, Beautiful People album), that amounts to a cornucopia.

But it does not amount to a boom, because Americans aren't (yet) buying. Bob Marley has gained a healthy cult by now, and in that familiar presold pattern his latest album swooped up the charts into the teens before beginning its descent. Toots's more recent LP, however, isn't swooping so dramatically (179 to 158 its first three weeks in Cash Box); I would guess that it will reach the 80s or so eventually, and that Peter Tosh, combining his pop touch with hi fringe charisma as an ex-Wailer, might also have some success. Meanwhile, the Mighty Diamonds, who've been touring with Toots and whose LP has been in the racks a little longer, haven't shown up in the charts at all.

Let me repeat that I don't claim prescience; these are all good albums, reggae certainly isn't losing momentum, and the whole thing might suddenly go over the top. But it seems significant that the labels with the heaviest investment in reggae, Island and Virgin, are both in the oddball English category. Granted, Virgin's reggae is distributed by CBS, also proprietor of the Tosh. So far, though, the other American majors have barely essayed a dabble; Warner Bros. has stuck with Jimmy Cliff through three mediocre LPs--the man hasn't written an important song in at least five years--while Atlantic, MCA, RCA, and the rest admit ignorance and shop around for disco producers. What's more, by the standards of their own greedy circumspection they are acting wisely. When I'm informed that Toots canceled in Asbury Park because he'd sold only 10 tickets, I'm reminded that corporate rationalizers rule the world because their cynicism has basis in fact.

A major attraction of reggae is that it has resisted such rationalization. Because Jamaica is so underdeveloped, the music partakes of the crazy virtues of primitive capitalism, like early r&b only 10 times as chaotic. Marx still applies, of course: Money makes money, albeit for retailers as much as primary producers (when the two aren't the same), and the poor get fucked even worse than usual. But things are open. Sine the few Jamaicans who can really afford LPs tend to consider reggae rather common, favoring soul and disco, the basic commercial and artistic unit is the 45-rpm single, and at three minutes anyone can be a genius. Ambitious Jamaicans who in this country might hook into more conventional mobility patterns devote their dreams and energies to making records. There are no real charts; radio exposure is surprisingly sparse; record stores are plentiful but seem to stock almost at random (except for their own stuff); in a culture of curfews and life sentences for carrying a gun, even the fabled traveling deejay sound systems are disappearing. So records can and do move by genuine word-of-mouth, often beginning around record store loudspeakers, and since deejays are reggae's only live performers, artists appear and disappear, known only as names printed on labels. No one has heard it all.

Clearly, there's no way reggae will ever grow wild in the States. A few white (and fewer black) North American zealots are as avid as the West Indian immigrants, impulse-buying anonymous 45s heard along Flatbush Avenue and memorizing the timeslots of Caribbean showcases on soul stations. But because dollars and media are so plentiful in this country, such fans are all but indistinguishable from mere hobbyists--the element of cultural desperation present in Jamaica is lacking. And since most of the white collegiate types in the record industry's target audience--even those who love reggae like me--don't make the time to pursue such a peripheral pleasure, reggae (like so many difficult things) is repackaged for effortless consumption: gathered into albums, distributed to stores, and supported in exposure campaigns.

Now, because it is integral to pop, packaging rarely misrepresents the essence of commercial music even when it damages its content: We may wince at Aretha in her clown suit or Neil Young atop his London Symphony Orchestra, but we acknowledge that there's a horrible sense in which such juxtapositions are appropriate. In contrast, packaging rarely denatures genuine folk music just because it is so blatantly external to it--when the Golden Gate Quartet harmonizes behind Leadbelly his identity remains intact. But to repackage reggae, which is a commercial folk music, is by definition to distort its spirit. Humphrey Davis introduced me to the Heptones in a crummy bar below Torrington Bridge. They were celebrities surely, but their modesty befitted their overwhelming political impotence, and their fame did not cancel out their anonymity--both were implied by the way their music was sold. The paradox tends to disappear, though, when one sees the lyrics of their assorted hits printed song-poet-style on the slick inner sleeve of their new Island LP.

It says a good deal for the collective sensitivity of labels like Island and Virgin that their American reggae albums have grated as little as they have. Working with more consideration than, say, Arista seeking a hook-prone singer-songwriter, they have selected artists who are consistent and prolific enough to gather six or seven good songs in one place (the Mighty Diamonds, perhaps the Heptones) or who make the kind of loose, hypnotic music that works on LP (Burning Spear, perhaps U-Roy). But the rough serendipity of, for instance, Trojans Greatest Hits Vol. 1--on which Nora Dean, whoever she might be, is accompanied by a ma-ma doll on a lyric that seems to go "He got barbwire in his underpants" only to be followed by the Rudies aping Clarence Carter's accent on "Patches"--is definitely missing. (And that's a British record.)

Anyway, collective sensitivity only goes so far. It is just because neither "Barbwire" nor a cover of "Patches" is likely to hit big in the States that a more familiar kind of distortion has intruded: writing down. The titles of the new Bob Marley single, "Roots, Rock, Reggae" (credited to one V. Ford, but only as a copyright convenience I hear), and the new Toots & the Maytals single, "Reggae Got Soul" (co-composed by Toots's longtime producer, Warrick Lynn, who in turn co-produced with Island owner Chris Blackwell) speak for themselves, and so does Marley's (Ford's?) lyric. "We bubbling on top 100," he predicts cheerfully, and sure enough there he is now, effervescing fitfully in the 80s in Cash Box. If neither of these attempted American market breakthroughs ever gets to WABC--and while they probably won't, they might--it obviously won't be for want of design. Both songs--Marley's especially--feature not only reggae-primer lyrics but the kind of stubborn, banal tunes that give catchy a bad name. Such tunes (usually borrowed whole from someone like the Stylistics) are all too popular in Jamaica, but I always liked to believe that one reason Marley and Toots qualified as reggae ambassadors is that they avoided them.

Of course, even if those ditties don't bubble up to 20 or so--if all they achieve is the nationwide FM airplay I'm sure Island will settle for--the concurrent move has already been figured out. The road out of the so-called underground follows the concert trail: the real thing, in the flesh, right on. But as I realized while watching Toots & the Maytals and the Mighty Diamonds go through their places at the Bottom Line a few weeks ago, the real thing is in a way the greatest distortion of all. Reggae is not historically a performance music. Although the greats all have some out of U.S. live experience, especially in England, the studio is their natural habitat. What this means is that stage presentations are conceived primarily to communicate the meaning of the music to a white American audience.

When I first saw Toots at the Beacon last fall, that was just what I thought his show achieved. It was as if the man had studied every soul performer to visit Kingston in his lifetime, fascinated by the shifting proportions of sanctified spirit-shouting and savvy showbiz, before bringing forth a synthesis in which all that Vegas was pulled back toward Africa and transmuted into pure ritual. But at the Bottom Line, by all knowledgeable accounts a disastrous gig, the ritual was reduced to rote, with "Reggae Got Soul" replacing the Otis Redding showstopper, and I understood, as clearly as I had understood how Vegas could become Africa, why my ecstatic comparison of Toots and Otis would have to be revised.

There is a tendency for white people to think of reggae as a kind of new soul sound, complete with politics, a way to love black music in the age of disco. Certainly its catch-as-catch-can commercial structure suggests this analogy, but as I've explained, that travels poorly. More durable is the explicit debt of reggae to Southern soul and r&b, which may be why it is so rarely noted that in Jamaica the wimp soul dimly audible in a group like the Heptones is far more prevalent than Orleans-Memphis-Macon funk. But I am now convinced that in the end the analogy is false and even dangerous. When Toots wrote of his own prison term, "5446 was my number/Right now someone else got that number," he offered permanent proof that he has power over words. But unlike the great soul singers whose timbre and delivery he so honors, he does not interpret these words--he chants them. This means a loss not only of verbal nuance but also of certain rhythmic delicacies of phrase. Compensating for these niceties is a greater overall rhythmic compulsion--a compulsion especially dependent on intensity of belief in both performer and audience. So reggae is indeed more ritualistic than the forms we're accustomed to--so much so that Americans inevitably have trouble understanding it.

Yet for want of a better way of making themselves understood, other reggae artists end up involving the soul referent. After repeated, careful critical attention, the Mighty Diamonds' album reveals them to be striking songwriters (and singers) whose melodic diversity must be coaxed to show itself. But at the Bottom Line they came on like the kind of group that used to do two quick numbers at the Apollo five or six years ago, complete with lame semipro choreography and catchwords like "feel all right" and "kind of slow it down here." This might have been charming, I suppose, but the songs are tough and strange, not cute, and the group wanted only to be ingratiating, not tough or strange. The emcee delighted in calling us "rockers," and although such words have a way of rising to the top of reggae jargon--"Mafia" is currently popular--I thought the timing on this one was suspicious. When the group demonstrated a reggae grind at the climax--"We call it . . . dub-wise!"--I felt patronized, as if I were being taught the limbo at Montego Bay.

Fortunately, there is another way. If Toots's very moderate breakthrough reflects his assertion that reggae's got soul, then perhaps Bob Marley's greater success rewards the way he links reggae with the fashionable combination of roots and rock. He has made the transition. When we say that Earl Scruggs or Ray Barretto, say, have "gone rock," we imply contamination by the mainstream. But when Bob Marley crosses over he reminds us of what a nice place rock once was to go. He is a visionary but not a fraud or a fool, with a continuing commercial shrewdness appropriate in a professional musician of a decade's standing.

For year's this was the consummation reggae wished most devoutly, and we have seen on what basis. If the ritualism of reggae requires an uncommon intensity of belief in its audience, where better to tap such belief than at a rock concert, which as we recall from counterculture days apotheosized modern ritual. Where else use cannabis as a sacrament and music as a weapon to achieve a posturban utopia? For as so many '60s holdouts in reggae's American audience have noted, the lost hippie way was much like the Jamaican way--by which is always meant the Rastafarian way.

Rastafarianism is too complex, vague, and contradictory to define here (or anywhere, I suspect), but it is necessary to mention that it is a religious back-to-Africa movement which holds that Haile Selassie, the Ras Tafari, is (or was, since Selassie is now dead; I'm not clear on that) God. Noteworthy throughout the '60s for the sense of self-worth it instilled in adherents who like so many cultists (compare the early Methodists) were drawn from the poorest of the poor, it has in the past five years gained in Jamaica something of the position of, hmm, the hippies in the U.S. around 1968, especially in music. Without doubt the Rastafarians have grown tremendously, but sine there is no membership roll, no hierarchy, sine looking like a Rasta is often a matter of hairstyle, it's sort of hard to tell who's for real. In 1973, I was assured by an American-educated Rasta (one of the few, believe me) that Big Youth was genuine and Marley almost definitely so but he had his doubts about Toots. Now less reliable informants tell me that Marley is genuine and Toots almost definitely so but they're not so sure about the Mighty Diamonds. The thing is clearly fashionable, both at home and abroad, so the commercial temptations are obvious. Personally, I and I will go with the Mighty Diamonds. But we're not so sure about the white youth who entered the bathroom of My Father's Place one Monday and addressed me as bruh-tha.

It seems so obvious that I feel silly pointing it out, but apparently it must be reiterated: this is not Jamaica. Crossing cultures is often rewarding, but it's always inexact, and if the essence of reggae is as inaccessible to Americans as I've suggested, what can it mean for a kid in Nassau County to favor a religion that advocates repatriation to Ethiopia? Not that the kid goes that far, of course--the African part is only for Jamaicans, he'll say, maybe even symbolic. But ganj as a sacrament is something about which all right-thinking men can agree. Remember the title of Peter Tosh's LP: Legalize It.

Well, I can't argue with that. But remember too, that just as marijuana is a different sacrament in Jamaica than here--more serious (less fun), I'd venture, and also more dubious, since smokers of herb are not the most active of men--so legalizing it is more than a significant but peripheral civil liberties matter. It means the end of a major excuse for harassment by a notoriously irresponsible law enforcement establishment, and a new cash crop in a desperate economy--a crop Rastas cultivate better than anyone. When Tosh sings "Legalize it and I will advertise it," he is not just making up rhymes.

Or take another crosscultural issue: men and women. I've used the male impersonal ("right-thinking men," "active of men") in the past two paragraphs because that's the way it is in Jamaican culture, especially Rastafarian culture. (It was the way it was in hippie culture, too.) American reggae addicts no doubt dig roots like the Mighty Diamonds' "Man was made to suffer, Yeah/And Woman was made to feel the pain." But do they also get it on with the Heptones' "I've Got the Handle," which handle is used to beat uppity women into submission? I certainly hope not, but I'll hold my bet. At least the Heptones are part of a political reality so painful that the elected president is now moving toward Castro (good, right?) and sponsoring legislation banning criticism of the government, which not only isn't so terrific in itself but will make some of the greatest reggae illegal. In America the only excuse for such sexual inhumanity is self-indulgent dopiness, or self-indulgent dope.

What I am trying to say is that even if there is a reggae boom it won't be a revelation. If anything, it will be the opposite. Pray Bob and Toots and the others (where are you, Big Youth?) keep their spirits intact, pay attention to the music, and reserve your own counsel. This is simply not a good time for broad cultural movements--not to mention broad countercultural movements--in this country. However wondrous it is to rejoice with a genuinely interracial audience and an artist as powerful and complex as Bob Marley, don't take that intensity of belief for more than it is. I miss the '60s, too; I miss great rock and sweet soul music; and I love reggae. But until history is ready I figure I'm going to have to save myself.

Village Voice, July 26, 1976