"The heir to Ras Tafari?" Peter Tosh lets the phrase fairly drip off the tip of his tongue. Imagine sarcasm with the consistency of honey. "Madness...It's pure bullshit."
What has brought forth this burgeoning irritability? The notion, bandied about in Timothy White's Bob Marley biography Catch a Fire, that the late singer may be the spiritual/cultural successor to Haile Selassie - Jah.
"I'll tell you, I just heard about the
biography. But these guys obviously intend to promote Bob Marley. They want
to promote Bob Marley even more than
Emperor Haile Selassie. And that's why
Bob Marley is where he is today, seen?"
Suddenly Tosh's emotional temperature bubbles over.
"They don't realize that Bob Marley IS ONE OF MY STUDENTS! I made Bob Marley 'Bob Marley.'"
Peter Tosh understands the value of
drama. Most people do. Sometimes,
though, we neglect the drama of values.
It isn't always an issue. But when a Rastaman meets the press, it ought to be. It's very easy to be absorbed by the novelty of Peter Tosh's culture - and forget that he has his own ideas.
For years we've been getting the dub version of Peter Tosh: That booming foundation of Rasta, the angry kick-drum, the heavy echo of injustices from long ago. Basic tracks. Undisputed essentials of the Tosh personality. But as you read on, listen for the A-side. Peter Tosh is worth it.
Before our meeting, everyone I'd
spoken to shared a vague sense of
discomfort about Peter Tosh. He was
too full of himself. A tough nut to crack.
Even the publicist arranging the interview
gave me a mildly distracted pep-talk about
how, OK, Peter may come off a little
spacey, but he's really a lovely fellow.
Dub version, dub version. But what if I told you the secret of secrets? For every minute you spend with the Stepping Razor and the Bush Doctor, you get two with Ward Cleaver in dreadlocks!
How else to describe a man with a dry, easy wit - a man who patiently frees your head from the bars of cultural contrariety ... and follows up the whole thing with a lecture on good eating habits?
Peter Tosh was born to keep the butcher's thumb off the scales of justice. Well balanced? The man travels by uniycle! But when his sense of justice is ruffled, the floodgates tend to open and give the situation a good washdown. These outlashes are not the Armageddon of personality some people take them to be. Tosh is just weighing all the factors and distinguishing them with emotion. For purposes of illumination.
Now sit up straight and pay attention.
"I taught Bob Marley music, seen?
And when my student is promoted
and reach a potential of acceptance ... well, it's very good, but at the same
time, remember the teacher. And they always
tend to forget the teacher. They pretend as if
the teacher never existed, seen, and pretend
as if the student's potential is bigger
than the teacher. And that is wrong,
"Eighty percent of the songs that Bob Marley wrote was co-written by me and never credited. And not only co-written, but musically architected by me. Because I am the music, and I was the music. When I met Bob Marley, Bob Marley wasn't playing no instrument, so he did not know how to design a song. He could only sing out of his mouth. But the world don't want to accept that shit, seen? They want to keep me in the back, keep Bunny Wailer in the back like we weren't doing NOTHING, like we were just baggages. THAT'S WHY I HAVE TO WRITE MY BOOK! And when my book is written, then they will know."
There will be a lot to tell. It has been
20 years since the Wailers - forever,
principally, Marley, Bunny (Neville
Livingston) and Tosh - came together to
become the cardinal reggae aggregation in
the music's history. It has been nearly a
decade since Tosh "left." Since then, he
has survived: survived a devastating automobile accident that killed his girlfiiend;
survived more than one brutal beating at
the hands of the jamaican police; survived
the animosity of politicians and businessmen; survived the death of Bob Marley.
His faith and philosophy have helped him to cope with these most tangible tragedies and disappointments. His solo career has finally established him as perhaps the reigning reggae representative outside of Jamaica. But Tosh still seems concerned with the nebulous forces that disrupted the Wailers.
Ten years' passing haven't clouded the issue. The '70s were the era of the front man, and Bob Marley was the obvious choice for the Wailers - just as you'll never see the phrase "Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones" anywhere beyond your bootlegs.
Tosh, who to this day sings "I don't want peace, I want equal rights," clearly balked at this development. Although he recorded solo while still a Wailer, he clearly did not regard this as a conflict of interest. To Peter Tosh, "the Wailers" was a rock-solid entity unto itself.
A PERTINENT DIALOGUE
Was there animosity between you and Bob Marley?
"No. No animosity. The shitstem designed the animosity, seen?"
Was Marley affected by the emphasis on him? Did he believe the promotion or was he just swept along with it?
"Well, it's like he wasn't concerned about that. Maybe that was his intention, because nothing was said after he saw what was done, seen? I wouldn't know if he helped them to create it, but he accepted the fact that they divided us, seen? [A hint of pain in the voice.] And he said nothing about it, so ... silence is consent."
We all know the ego is a strange bird.
What if the shoe had been on the kicking foot?
Ponder the concept: Peter Tosh and the Wailers.
You might as well indulge yourself, because Tosh sure as hell won't. As if he were teaching arithmetic to an extremely dull child, Tosh leadenly reiterates: "It was the Wailers, seen, it was a group, seen. The power of we three come together to make the power of the group the Wailers."
"Me and Bunny used to be the harmony of the group, and we sang harmony like birds. We two sing harmony, sound like five. Bob Marley never sing harmony, no time."
Harmony was Bunny's middle name.
More mystic than egotistic, he apparently
felt the jagged vibes between Tosh and
Marley like a blast of Santa Ana wind.
When Wailer recording sessions started to
resemble episodes of Divorce Court,
Bunny quietly skanked away.
While no less prolific than his brethren as a recording artist, Bunny has not pursued stardom with commensurate gusto. Reggae connoisseurs consider his to be the sweetest of the Wailers' three voices; the combination of talent and reputation should have guaranteed Bunny stardom equal at least to Tosh. Instead, Bunny has maintained the lowest of profiles.
"He is doing what he is doing," Tosh
reports of his former bandmate. He
pauses for a split second, as if silently
contrasting Bunny's lifestyle with his
own. "And ... he's cool. He's making
music and intending to make move.
Which could be Africa, anytime.
"Plus, you know, we are working together to make an album and keep the name of the Wailers alive."
Well, no, I didn't know. The notion sounds dazzling, but Tosh's voice dips into the portentious range. He's not known for his sentimentality; nor would Tosh keep the group's name alive only for posterity. This "reunion" shows he has not resolved the issue of the Wailers. There are still factors to be weighed, evidence to be reintroduced.
New testimony: "When we left as 'the
Wailers,' Bob Marley took unto himself
some other people and called them 'the
Wailers.' And that is what is now causing
Tosh's tone is like fast-hardening cement. For him, the furor over "the Wailers" is not just a matter of clinking egos, but a case of stolen identity.
The real issue is unity. In discussing competition within the reggae community, Tosh displays a healthy perspective. "Anything that is more than one always becomes competitive. It's not a matter of direct competition, but people are trying to do their best ... and people who are weak in this world many times are controlled by ego. And they many times get carried away, seen? They begin to put all confidence and trust in themselves, not knowing from whence inspiration cometh. And one or two years later they fade away, they've lost all inspiration. They don't remember how to create."
Between Tosh and Marley, then, was the natural competiton of two people trying to do their best. They were stirred up by outsiders who related to competition only as a win/lose situation.
The depth of Tosh's perspective
becomes intensely apparent when
asked if he felt a sense of loss when
Marley died. The question begets a small
"No, I never lose NOTHING. When my woman die, I never lose nothing, so when my brother die, I lose nothing. I don't fret about it."
Perhaps he'll see them again?
"No! If them come back here, I will see them, but if them still out there, I won't."
But when Tosh goes "there". . .
"I won't go there. I have been there so many times, mon. You think it is joke-business I am talking - I AM NOT. The gift of Jah is eternal life. Everyone who goes to Sunday school will read that the wages of sin is death ... so the preacher say. And he says the gift of god is eternal life. So what does that mean? What does 'eternal life' mean? Go in the coffin and come out back?! I will be HERE. Who are going to die will die ... and they will never see who live. I'm not going anywhere, I promise you that."
Tosh's Rastafarian foundation supports
him, though it may confuse others. "I was
born Rastafarian," he asserts. "You cannot turn a Rasta man, you have to be
born a Rasta.
"What makes you confused is when you try to be influenced by too many things. But if you keep your eyes on one thing and keep moving towards this one thing - you may stop by the way to pick up something and to look at it, but you say, 'No, this is not it,' and you keep going."
Is he open to the possibility that somewhere down the road something he never conceived of will show itself?
"I don't go down the road, I go up the road," Tosh laughs. "I don't like 'down the road'; I've been come from 'down the road.'
"My psychology teaches me to expect the unexpected, seen? So I'm always prepared."
Nine out of ten people would call
Peter Tosh arrogant. One former
acquaintance of mine says he thinks
Tosh obscures his most important
accomplishments - influencing a
generation of reggae guitarists, for
example - with his boasting.
Tosh sure seems to fit the bill. When I fail to grasp a rather esoteric religious point, he gestures toward the lager in my glass and concludes, "You cannot understand that and drink beer ... Michelob, seen." Soon after, he states (albeit the quote is out of context), "I live higher spiritually than you."
But I wasn't offended. When looking at another's culture, it's easy to misjudge the intensity of a statement - to hear nothing but the dub throb.
So Peter Tosh likes to argue. Coming from a country where a national pastime is debating scripture, he could read aloud from the Brooklyn phone book and sound like he was spoiling for a fight. Don't forget the A-side: the man who will break down the components of an argument like the squares of a Rubik's Cube just to clarify his position.
It's not easy to build a bridge to such a personality. People who try often weave one from the most convenient material: hemp and dreadlocks.
"Yeah, we know that. But, then again, it's just as far as we have people whose minds are lower than people, and people who see deeper than people, people who hear deeper than people, seen? But we know that irrespective of how high or low they see or hear, we still have to teach them, we still have to awaken them. And musically is the easiest way to get across."
The situation is different, if not much
better, in jamaica. Back home, Tosh is a
celebrity on the receiving end of adulation
that can cross over to harassment.
"I am a diplomat, so I know how to move amongst the people. You go to the fish shop, you go here, you sit down, then you go here, now we don't know where we are going. . .," He giggles at the effect of his comings and goings.
"'Here, here, Peter, he was.' That's the way I love it. I come and go freely. Me move like the people.
"Most people don't want to deal with me because most people say I'm hostile, some people say I'm arrogant. Them have all different kinds of names to class me and most people who hear these things are in fear to even talk to me. So, with that, I get around."
When people connect to the star and not the person, Tosh says, "I teach them. My duty is to teach them. And I am always successful, because when they see me that way, I see the level of thought and mind they function off.
"Psychology teaches you everything. When you know psychology, you can deal with any kind of situation, any kind of people any time, anywhere. I think that my psychology teaches me to do that and I think that I am doing my best, seen? I have leamed to live through all situations. I have learned to be absent in my presence. So I am able to cope."
How does he compare his experiences inside Jamaica and out?
"I've been respected more outside of Jamaica than in Jamaica. And I have been treated better outside of Jamaica. I don't go to jail out here, first thing. I'm not being brutalized by the police out here, second thing. And I don't see too much bad-minded people who don't want to see our progress but want to see our destruction."
I suggest the latter batch of folk are all over the place, and Tosh only notices them more in Jamaica, where he's in the thick of it.
"Well," he concedes very drily, "I prefer where I'm not in the thick of it."
That may explain Tosh's various
ploys to break into the rest of the
world - like the Rolling Stones fiasco.
To be fair, Tosh got a lot of exposure in their spotlight, dueting with Jagger during a hip, hot tour. But apart from "Walk and Don't Look Back," his three records on their label didn't click. Some of Tosh's most enduring fans now regard those albums as sub-par. Tosh himself sees the failure as symptomatic of his relationship with the Stones.
"I was inhumanely treated. But, as I told you, I am always prepared. Because if I was not prepared, I'd be exhausted and frustrated."
He feels the records were, willfully or accidentally, under-promoted and incorrectly marketed. Considering the Stones' reputation as a corporate steamroller, didn't Tosh anticipate the inevitable wane of their attention?
"I do not judge a man by his looks until he do what he does. It is not to say that I would not have known, but if I had told the world before it had happened, that would be libel, seen? I know it is a tragedy, but I know I must be compensated. My trust is in the allmighty and I leave all these cases that are difficult to him." Tosh smiles. (Cut to the Glimmer Twins in purgatory, sweating.)
Then there's Tosh's recording of "Johnny B. Goode" "as seen on MTV." Rumor has it he was less than enthusiastic about that.
"Well, it's all in the business. That's the way the whole music business has been designed - not to cater for cultural music, but to depreciate and destroy the presence of the music. I was asked, I wasn't compelled to do Johnny B. Goode.' I wasn't interested much - not to say that I'm not interested in the song, it's just that I'm not interested in doing other people's things. I like to create my own things, seen?"
AND NOW IT'S TIME FOR
LIVE AT FIVE
Tosh races from the interview to appear on the local NBC-TV news. Lightweight in tone and heavy on the ratings, Live at Five tosses Tosh into the conversation pit with newscaster Sue Simmons. The two of them create an allegorical tableau worthy of off-Broadway. Simmons is black, but isn't about to ditch her plum co-anchor spot for repatriation. This is New York. This is bright-lights show business.
The spot opens with a short clip from the 'Johnny B. Goode" video, but something sounds peculiar. Was there flamenco guitar in this production? The mystery is solved when the camera opens up on Tosh. Eyes hidden behind ever-present darkers, he's in possession of an acoustic guitar which he strums and plucks throughout the interview. Musical worry beads.
Simmons is, as a rule, very good at these snack interviews. Her questions are thoughtful, but, by necessity, very Live at Five basic. Tosh goes on automatic pilot, punctuating stock recitations with an occasional (and decidedly non-deferential) "yes, my dear." As he works the bugs out of his flamenco run, one wonders whether his distance is motivated purely by boredom. Could it be the habit of a culture where an anchorwoman looks after the anchorman's children? Or is it shyness?
In the last seconds of the interview, Tosh deadpans a line about the destructive qualities of the "shitstem," and Simmons bids a brisk and formal farewell to the Not Ready for Prime Time Punster. She, too, has the deadpan expression of a weary professional.
Showtime! And-uh oh. Talk about
being an outsider!
At the very moment Tosh hits the stage at New York's open-air Pier 84, about 20 of his countrymen attempt to crash the gate. It's a drastic move, but what can you do when the show of your dreams is sold out and the ticket you intended to buy was snapped up by a spliff-smoking preppie for a scalper's ransom?
The tiny mob storms past a small guard of freckle-faced ticket-takers, who freak out and slam shut the huge section of cyclone fencing that passes for a gate. This move proves very unpopular with the remainder of the ticket-holders. After a long and cautious appraisal, the powers that be decide to re-open the facility.
I am caught, literally, between the reggae and the hard place. By the time I get through the gate, Tosh is well into his set. At least I think it's Tosh. An entire audience standing on their seats - the give-away of a headliner in progress - makes it a certainty.
The last time I saw Peter Tosh perform was a good seven years ago. Back then, he had the presence of a crocodile, trudging across the stage with a very ominous and deliberate motion, as if the air were water.
But this Peter Tosh dances about in the garb of an African emissary. He ends each song with a flourish of synchronized arm waving like Elvis of Vegas, and fronts an extremely cranked-up band. This Peter Tosh could almost be called an entertainer.
A purist next to me complains to his friend. Hundreds of girls in topsiders and alligator shirts, pudgy from non-ital diets of institutional food, shout "Jah!" like their elder siblings shouted "Yeah!" They crane their necks as Peter races through "Walk and Don't Look Back." Maybe Mick is here...
My Peter Tosh interview did not
begin on a sensational note, nor
even an historical note. As Tosh
sat behind somebody's desk, distractedly
peeling a lichee, I asked if he was happy. It
seemed the obvious thing to ask someone
who looked so damned miserable.
Tosh looked slightly taken aback. He gazed out the window. Then he spoke quietly of learning to make the best of a situation. He voiced a sweet, sad hopefulness that conveyed the reality of being Peter Tosh. I could convey it better to you, but I had forgotten to release the pause mechanism on my tape recorder. (It is only thanks to the eagle-eye of Tosh's traveling cook that the rest of the interview made it onto tape.)
I will compensate, though, with a quote that does equal justice to Peter Tosh's wisdom - that indicates the drama of values may serve some purpose after all.
The question was if he'd been approached by any political factions for his endorsement. Tosh allowed that the intent was clearly afoot, but the futility of garnering his support was virtually a given.
"They know I don't support politricks and games. Because I have bigger aims, hopes and aspirations. My duty is not to divide them, my duty is to unify the people, 'cause to divide people is to destroy people. And destroy yourself, too."
Trouser Press magazine, December, 1983