It was the summer of ’76 when I first heard the effervescent syncopation of a Bob Marley recording:
Pop-a-top-a, pop-a-top-a, irie ites, whoa whoa.
Wit dat proto-Gullah Belafonte tone to it, mon. Wit dat religious reverberation, mon. Lyrics conflating African slave descendants’ displacement in Kingston with the biblical Babylonian captivity. A revelation.
The sun shall not smite I by day
Nor the moon by night.
This mythic element provided a depth rarely encountered in pop music, which usually traffics in blooming young love or sexual swagger or the pitter patter of tear drops. Check out these lyrics by the Melodians from the soundtrack of Jimmie Cliffs’ movie The Harder They Fall:
For the wicked
Carried us away captivity
Required from us a song
Now how can we sing King Alpha song in a strange land?
“Psalm 137” in a percolator.
I listened to a lot of reggae and ska that year and actually made it down to Jamaica a couple of times careening in a rented car along winding roads in the left lane with the car radio blasting calypso, ska, and reggae. At Beverly’s, the record store in Mo Bay, you took LPs out of their sleeves and test ran them on a turntable before you plopped down your Jamaica currency for a Yellowman or U Roy disc.
At Rick’s Cafe before it got all touristy you’d see dread-locked natives who looked as if they’d been carved out of ebony hit on spliffs the size of Louisville sluggers.
Hertz car-rental clerks in the airport trying to sell you ganja.
Women carrying baskets of fruit on their heads trying to sell you ganja.
House bands trying to sell you ganja.
Hitchhiking entrepreneurs lean forward from the back seat offering to take you to see their plants with “buds as big as your fist, mon” while you skim past wrecked cars abandoned on the side of the road. You round a bend that suddenly opens to a glinting expanse of turquoise that looks as if it just might be pirate-infested. Up ahead coming in the opposite direction a barreling Opel almost clips your right side rearview mirror.
Exotica fueled adrenaline.
And, yes, Babylon, too.
In Negril, next to the funky Sundowner Hotel where Judy Birdsong and I stayed stretched the protective barricades of Hedonism II behind which, as rumor had it, a clothing optional beach offered unlimited daiquiris and nude limbo contests. Having paid for everything up front, these people generally stayed inside of their little compound getting to know each other while JB and I would hit the local dance hall for the two-to-six super mix dance contest. Back then, Jamaican dancers didn’t move their feet but sort of undulated to the rub-a-dub sounds percolating from ragged PA systems.
On road trips you could buy Red Stripe beer from shanty stores just a little larger than a Port-o-let. Lightening crackled overhead along the crests of mountains. We were, as David Bowie put it, young Americans, young Americans, young Americans (singing in our chains like the sea).
Years later, when I found out that Bob Marley was a goner, I suffered a Don McLean-like “Bye Bye American Pie” Buddy Holly-less-ness. Eventually the novelty waned, and reggae faded from my own speakers as I returned to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the Boss, Warren Zevon, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Lester Young, and Muddy Waters.
Yet, even today, whenever I hear Reggae, my mood brightens No matter what the singer’s chronicling – the government yard in Trench Town, a Concrete Jungle, 400 years of slavery, or Johnny Too Bad – there’s that positive vibration bubbling beneath the pain and suffering.