Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Sense Outa Nonsense

In the 1975 pamphlet Race and Music, a 23-year-old poet and activist named Linton Kwesi Johnson came up with the phrase "dub poetry" to honor the lyricism of that generation of reggae DJs. Jamaican-born and London-raised, Johnson was a Black Panther veteran with an honors degree in sociology and a political base in Brixton. Three years later, he cut the spare, brutal Dread Beat an' Blood, and a year after that he found his own groove on Forces of Victory. But this natural musician never considered himself a dub poet--just a reggae poet, thanks. Promoting his fourth album, 1984's historic Making History, Johnson told NME's Neil Spencer: "Oku Onuora picked up on the term and popularised it around 1979 and developed the idea of the music dubbing the poetry, the poetry dubbing the music. I'm not clear on his concept of that."

After a definitive live album with the Dennis Bovell-led Dub Band, LKJ retired from music to study and organize full-time in 1985 (though he soon recommenced touring with Bovell in Europe, where he was something of a star). By then, scriveners all over the African diaspora were striving to uplift the toasting tradition. The only one to penetrate the U.S. reggae fringe, however, was a former Kingston telephone technician christened Allen Hope, who'd discovered the ital life and gone native as Mutabaruka a decade or more before. No Dennis Brown or Gregory Isaacs, Muta now helps make ends meet with two virtuous ventures into bootstrap capitalism: a Kingston health food store and a worldbeat sound system that plays yard dances in Trench Town as well as more predictably progressive venues. "A great showman," a typically matter-of-fact Johnson called him early on, and although Muta certainly merited LKJ's reservations (which began to disperse with 1986's The Mystery Unfolds), the faint praise did him a disservice. Unlike Onuora or Benjamin Zephaniah or the revered, murdered Michael Smith, Mutabaruka had a clear and present gift--his attraction to music seemed foreordained. In this as in everything else, however, he's proven more drastically riven than Johnson. LKJ's fluid swing has followed a consistent trajectory right up to Tings an' Times, the self-financed return he's now bestowed on Shanachie. Making History was far juicier than had seemed possible five years before, but his sensibility hadn't changed, only his level of execution. In contrast, Mutabaruka's attraction has always had repulsion in it.

Muta's personal Jah tells him to abjure smoke, and even in his minimalist days, his dub was more dancey than druggy. Only he wasn't so sure about dancing either: "Sometimes we dance too much. Sometimes the words get lost in the music," he once told some skankers in Chicago. This reflected a poet's principled objection to reggae's transmutation of suffering into entertainment. But it was also a compulsive piece of puritanism, a puritanism his music has always glossed over. Switching from bare lyrics to busy production numbers, he's not above transmuting recitation into Big Youth/Kurtis Blow-style singsong. And on his fifth album, Blakk Wi Blak . . . k . . . k . . . , he and producer Chinna Smith indulge in straight pop hooks (Ini Kamoze chiming "It's an Afrikan thing" on "Great Queens of Afrika") and something icky for guest vocalist Sharon Forrester: "let us walk on the sand/before the sea comes in/and takes away the lan."

The stroke on the new record is a return to ska's Judge Dread tradition in which Judge Betta Mus Come (a/k/a Judge 1000 Years) railroads Senator Sanky Singh (Edward Seaga) and Senator Change Mimind (Michael Manley) through People's Court. Raucous and righteous and mean, it was quickly banned on Jamaican radio, although it might yet win this self-made intellectual the street cred he's long been denied on every sound system but his own. But it's not the only stroke--as usual, Muta makes his point about half the time. Coming in the wake of a career-long battle with sexism marred by many condescending tips of the dreads, "Great Queens of Afrika" does the sisters proud. "Dispel the Lie" inveighs against ganja, and "Letter to Congress" inveighs against the destruction of the ganja trade. "Mad Reality" gets inside the insanity that's oppression's reward, and even that icky lyric is darker and more complex than you first think. Still, The Mystery Unfolds is where to begin, and for most outsiders it's also where to end. If on the one hand Mutabaruka is an all-over-the-place pop genius whose inconsistency is part of his reach, on the other hand he's a crank. He loathes Babylon so unforgivingly you wonder how he can stand touring here, and I wish he were the first (or last) to confuse the white ruling class's malignant neglect of AIDS and crack with a conspiracy in which these scourges were "created" to destroy black communities. The crowning indignity is the remake of his early 12-inch "Junk Food," which now features an 11-year-old stooge licking his lips over "soya ice cream." Wonder if he discovered it in Muta's store.

I've cut down on animal fat myself, but when I catch a pop musician proscribing other people's pleasures, I reach for my remote. As with so many of the true believers now gathering on the black side of the musical color line, nonbelievers can only take the grains of truth in Mutabaruka's music with a grain of salt. Especially white nonbelievers, of course--but not exclusively, because Mutabaruka is a puritan. What could the man who intoned the deathless "It no good to stay in a witeman country too long" have thought of an LKJ who wished Rastas would go back to Africa so they'd find out Nigeria and Ghana were Babylon too? Linton Kwesi Johnson has Brixton in his bones: "We're no longer immigrants. I've been here since I was 11; I've always been British, and Jamaica has always been British since the 16th century." An unflinching black power man who labeled the SWP "liberal racists" when Rock Against Racism was in flower, he never undersold the broader view: "I believe in humanity, that all races have more in common than they do different. If you're not thinking in international terms in the 20th century you're backward."

Plenty of rock and rollers give good interview, but nobody in popular music comes near Johnson's political smarts. Where you worry that Springsteen or Jon Langford or KRS-One will commit some goof or gaffe, you check LKJ to clarify your own thinking--instead of pop papers asking his opinion of the insurrection of '81, he had Alexander Cockburn soliciting his analysis. Yet what's just as remarkable in a very parttime recording artist is the way--with help from Bovell, sure, only how come Matumbi never cut it?--his music bites received wisdom in the ass. Tings an' Times picks up on the jazzily orchestral live double as if he'd never gone away. The instrumental spaces that first made themselves known on 1980's Bass Culture keep opening up, and though on such a scant album--just six songs (plus a dub)--filler must have been a temptation, that isn't what the breaks and solos feel like (even the dub is fun). The riddims skip by on the patented ska-speedy tempos, but the arrangements are catchier than in the past (which is why the dub is fun), graced with tricky guitar hooks and colored with fiddle and accordion that sing Hungary and Algeria and Colombia and the Rio Grande all at once (sing in international terms, you could say, and I bet Muta brings all these colors to Trench Town). Linton himself always talks, never sings, but between his sly timing and the gentle wisdom of his timbre, his assumed patois is like Leonard Cohen with funkentelechy. The speech of his people is music to his ears, and the music of his people is manna.

But unlike Oku Onuora, say, he leaves no doubt that the words come first. The subject matter of Tings an' Times is somewhat specialized--if Linton stooped to silly phrases, he could call it a concept album about political fatigue. And after six years of keeping his hands in Thatcherism's face, assuaged by television writing and university appointments and other perquisites of sagedom though the effort may have been, this is a theme the man understands deeply and cogently and aphoristically. As sheer linguistic craft, his stubbornly polysyllabic, quietly colloquial adages and parables are telling art and visionary politics. Pushing 40 now--and if in a way it's hard to believe he's still that young, it's just as hard to believe that his oldest kid is now in college--"him consider how young rebels get old."

"Sense Outa Nonsense" is a witty homily about innocents and fools played out as an animal fable, its punch line not words but a regretfully disparaging sound. "Story" gets behind black masks: "is a hard act to master y'know/ dis smilin' and skinnin' your teeth." (Though I've followed Linton's spelling on titles, I'm barely transliterating his patois.) "Tings an' Times" starts "beat doped demoralized/ dizzied dazed and traumatized" and goes on from there. "Di Good Life" utters the name of socialism--"some say him is a ghost/ some say him is a sage/ but nobody know him rightfully yet/ or where him come from"--in a bought-out time when "we got we MP and we black GP/ blacks pon de radio blacks pon TV/ we sir and we lord and we MVP." "Di Anfinish Revalueshan" somehow finds hope in all this confusion and compromise. And in "Mi Revalueshanary Fren," Linton tries to reason with an old Marxist about glasnost. Problem is, the Marxist has wigged out--all the reason is on Linton's side. Painstakingly, he articulates his questions "bout de meaning of de changes in de east for de west"--"bout de consequences and implications/ especially for black liberation." He's afraid perestroika is a "Pandora's box": "people power just a shower every hour/ and everybody claim dem democratic/ some are wolf and some are sheep and that is problematic/ for tings like that you wouldna call the dialectic." It's hard to stop--his lyrics are as quotable as his interviews. But the point is the Marxist's constant reply, a quick, catchy litany cum refrain of deposed dictators ending with the assertion that history will soon dispense with apartheid as well. Analysis, analysis, who's got the analysis?

It's a sad, funny song, as sophisticated as Newman or Sondheim, except that it's ironic rather than mired in irony. I know not everybody gets off on sectarian disputation, and that even progressive American whites may regard the struggles of black Britons as a distant concern. But if Mutabaruka's eccentricities exemplify the pitfalls of ecumenicism, then LKJ's overview makes him as much a world artist as Bob Marley ever was. If you believe that all races have more in common than they do different, perhaps you're in the market for some undefeated realism. There's not too much of it for sale anywhere these days.

Village Voice, Apr. 23, 1991