Following the tradition of good Christian mothers everywhere, my mother forced me to go to church when I was kid. I got out as soon as I was big enough to physically resist being dragged there. Years later I dug up a dusty box set of Mahalia Jackson recordings my father had ordered from Columbia House and realized I might have stuck around longer if the music I experienced in church hadn’t been so wretched and dull. I never heard anything that made me want to get up and move (more like get up and leave). Mahalia Jackson singing “In The Upper Room,” “Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho,” “Keep Your Hand on the Plough” or “You Must Be Born Again” puts the music I heard in church to shame.
All I learned from going to church is that if we don’t sin, then Jesus died for nothing. I guess I kinda missed the boat on that one.
I think it was Tom Waits who said the best thing to come from religion is the music. That means reggae music for me, because once you get into reggae, it doesn’t take long to notice certain religious themes all over place, namely Jah (God) and Jah Rastafari (God incarnate). The Rastafari movement is more accurately a form of religiosity than any kind of religion. It’s a bit half-baked, but it seems generally harmless and positive, so what hell. I can sing along to Culture’s “Jah Rastafari” and go along for the ride and love every minute of it. (I can’t make out half the lyrics anyway.) It’s all about peace, love and harmony, man, and giving thanks. At least I think that’s what it’s about.
I could load up half this song list with reggae music. Artists like The Congos, The Gladiators, Joe Higgs, Toots and The Maytals, Lee Scratch Perry, Peter Tosh — I got into all of them in a big way for many years. They all left a strong impression. One of the more eye-opening impressions, though, came from the Burning Spear album Marcus Garvey and the dub version of the album called Garvey’s Ghost — both essential to any roots reggae collection. The raw mix of Marcus Garvey seemed unusual. All the instruments were right there in your face, minimal effects, hardly any reverb. Dub mixes of most reggae songs are nothing but reverb and weird echo effects, but this stuff was front and centre, harsh and almost primitive. Songs like “Babylon System” by Bob Marley and “So Long Babylon” by Culture had that chant rhythm thing going on, too, but every song from Burning Spear felt tribal. “Invasion” and the dub mix of it, “Black Wa Da Da,” are the ones I’ve listened to the most. Here’s an MP3 of the original song and the dub version mixed together:
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was released 42 years. (That’s going to make some of you feel old.) It may not be a great movie, but it’s a fun and playful western that’s well-directed, well-acted and looks great. Robert Redford and Paul Newman are a couple of wise-cracking train & bank robbers who end up spending half the movie running from a posse, trying not to get killed or arrested. It’s not fast-paced, the soundtrack is dated and the story is pointless, but there’s lots of swashbuckling fist fights, gun fights, explosions and chase scenes on horseback — what the old folks call a delightful entertainment.
The dialogue and chemistry between Newman and Redford is what keeps it all afloat. It’s the kind of movie that’s pleasant to revisit every few years. (And it’s kind of nice to see what Robert Redford looked like before he botched up his face with plastic surgery. What the hell was he thinking?)
A friend of mine once came back from Jamaica with a suitcase full of poorly pressed reggae albums neither of us had ever heard of. One of them was The Same Song by Israel Vibration. We listened to that scratchy beat up record and marvelled at the music that came from it like anthropologists discovering the first cave paintings. The vocals were other worldly. “Prophet Has Arise” is an excellent example of the ingenious and bizarre vocal style of Israel Vibration.
Check out Licks and Kicks for a more conventional sounding reggae song from the album.
The Same Song is a one-of-kind record, more of an artefact perhaps than, say, anything by Bob Marley or the original Wailers. But for me it is to reggae what Mississippi John Hurt’s Stack O’Lee Blues is to the blues. Essential.