Tuesday, June 07, 2005
From The Misty Past
This gem appeared in the e-mail the other day, and I've been staring at it ever since. I don't actually remember listening to Marley play the guitar, because my major memory of this evening was of various Wailers and hangers-on getting me extremely stoned and then pulling a quick room switch to get rid of me. Marley always seemed to have a visceral dislike for me, but he also gave me one of the most amazing evenings of my life.
The picture dates from 1973, and besides me, on the bed in the cheap hotel the band was staying at on Lombard and Van Ness in San Francisco, we have Chuck Krall shooting a photo, and a gentleman in a tie, whom I can't identify. I met Chuck through Lenny Kaye, who at the time was merely a journalist, not the linchpin of the Patti Smith Band, because Lenny knew I was interested in reggae -- I'd been the first person to write about it in an American magazine, Creem, in 1971 -- but I knew very little about it. Chuck was a boyhood friend of Lenny's, a veteran of the dancefloor on American Bandstand who later told me there was rampant sex in the cloakroom there, and he'd spent a couple of years in the Peace Corps in Jamaica. He also had a rare booklet, a study of Rastafarianism which had been suppressed after publication, and laid out its tenets in rather neutral prose, which was unusual given the Jamaican government's feelings about the religion.
Chuck listened to the records I was getting in the mail from Trojan in London, and was able to decode a lot of the patois and odd references on them, although not always correctly: the biggest gaffe he made was in telling me that Rastas considered the British to be their oppressors (true enough), and I could hear them referring to England as "bobby-land" on the records (uhh, that'd be "Babylon," Chuck: I'm pretty sure he figured that out after a while). He also regaled me with stories of his time in Jamaica, and when I finally got to go there in 1975, his memories were indispensable in helping me figure out where I was and what I was doing.
Lenny lived in New York, but Chuck lived in San Francisco, which was convenient, and, since he was shooting rock photos, we became good friends, and I used him for stories I did for Creem and elsewhere. We hung out quite a bit at Winterland, which kindly allowed journalists backstage, and he must have a hell of a collection of negatives documenting that era.
Anyway, when the Wailers came to San Francisco on their first tour, we made sure we had access. The band was little-known and reggae itself was mostly a cult phenomenon based around people who'd seen The Harder They Come, which had premiered in San Francisco. After the debacle which followed this photo, Chuck went back the next day without me, and shot a picture which has been reproduced a lot of Marley standing on the balcony of the motel with a teacup in his hand. At the time his dreads were quite short, but it's recognizably him. As I remember, they played at a club in North Beach somewhere, and I wasn't impressed; I still maintain that the Jamaican records were slowed down some for their American release, and certainly the original Tuff Gong singles sound peppier to me. I also had a much larger aural database of reggae to draw from, thanks to Waxie Maxie and the folks at Trojan, and I frankly thought there were other performers who were just as interesting, if not more so, like the Maytals.
On that 1975 trip, I was there ostensibly to report on a Wailers reunion at the National Sports Stadium in Kingston that was part of an event which also included a tennis tournament, a screening of a Joe Frazier match, and this concert, which would feature the Wailers, Stevie Wonder, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, who never showed up. During a rare moment of rapprochement, Rolling Stone assigned me the story, and the shady black organization which had organized it provided me with the ticket and accommodations in the Sheraton, although I later moved to the Pegasus, next door. The whole trip was filled with amazing moments, including being chased down an alley by a gunman and interviewing Big Youth pooslide at the Sheraton, much to the doorman's disdain. "There's a Mr. Buchanan here who says he's your guest," he'd said over the phone. "I don't think he is." Oh, I said, Augustus Manley Buchanan? Tell him to go to the pool; I'll be right there.
But the outstanding moment was sitting on the dirt floor of the slave quarters at 10 Hope Road, the ancestral Blackwell mansion Island Records head Chris Blackwell had given Marley, watching the entire band rehearse the show for the next night. Present as an audience were me, Malcolm, my photographer, and Mark Jacobson, who was writing the event up for New York magazine. Just the three of us. Marley gave us the runaround, of course, and I was frustrated: I was moonlighting for a brand-new magazine which was starting up in San Francisco called Mother Jones, and doing a story on reggae without a quote or two from the only artist in the genre anyone in America would recognize was going to be tough. As I had back in '73, though, I was comforted by Aston "Family Man" Barrett, the Wailers' bassist: "Bob, 'im sometimes like dat." Same thing he'd said back then, and still true.
The other notable quote from back then was one I still hold is the reason I never much liked the Wailers' records, along with the slowed tempos. At one point, Bunny Wailer saw me with my notebook, and, although he doesn't much like white folks, came over and asked if I was writing a story. I told him I was, and he said "Den tell dem dis: dem t'ree Wailers! T'ree! Is Bunny, Peter...and Bob. T'ree." But, as far as Island Records were concerned, there weren't.
Now Bob's dead, Peter's dead, 10 Hope Road is a weird sort of commune, the Marley estate is in confusion, and Bob's image is on the box of tissues I'm currently blowing my nose on as part of Zewa's "Legenden" campaign (the other images are Elvis and Marlene Dietrich). Chuck, however, has just turned 60, and the good news was splashed across the bottom of that picture he sent me: Chuck Krall Still Photographs. Good for him. And, I have to say, he still looks the same. Here he is with Lenny a few weeks ago: