Each week I get a notification from Rock’s Back Pages that draws my attention to about 60 new articles or reviews that have just been added to its vast library, and about once a month an old piece of mine, either an interview or a show or LP review, crops up amongst them. RBP is an online library of pop writing curated by Mark Pringle and Barney Hoskyns, and to date it contains 304 articles of mine, the vast majority from Melody Maker, and the number keeps rising.
In some ways Rock’s Back Pages acts as an aide-memoire for me as, of course, do old copies of MM. On RBP last week, for example, there was my review of Jefferson Starship at New York’s Academy of Music from MM dated 13 April, 1974, so this confirms that I was in New York during the week before. I have completely lost count of the number of shows I reviewed in those years, especially when I was in America.
Because they are more substantial I can usually remember doing the interviews that crop up on RBP but sometimes I read one of these old show reviews and can’t for the life of me remember writing it, let alone the show. Did I really see Jefferson Starship at the Academy? I can’t recall the show at all but must have done I guess, as here’s what I wrote: “Jefferson Starship went into orbit last week, circling the Village area and making several landings into the Academy of Music to entertain sell-out audiences. Putting aside some preconceived ideas about what the evening's spectacle would produce, I took in the opening show at the Academy and came away pleasantly surprised.”
This week on RBP, however, there’s an interview of mine from November 1976 with Peter Tosh, one of the original Wailers, and I definitely remember spending an hour or so with him and his entourage in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan, largely because Tosh was deeply intimidating and all bar me were stoned out of their heads. Also, he talked in rhymes, mumbling in Jamaican patois that I found very difficult to understand, and when I came to transcribe the tape later I had to play it back time and time again to faithfully report what he had to say.
Tosh was tall and thin, with a mass of dreadlocks, and he wore jet black sunglasses with leather sides so I couldn’t see his eyes. “He eased forward in an armchair, took a massive pull on a newly rolled joint and allowed the smoke to drift upwards across his features until he was almost totally obscured by clouds,” I wrote.
Alongside him in the room were five or six other Rastas, one of them a white guy with dreads who kept nodding off. They were passing round these massive joints rolled from crinkly paper. There was a big bag of herb on a coffee table and not once during my interview was there a moment when at least two spliffs weren’t on the go. All of Peter’s friends mumbled in agreement at what he was telling me, things like “You gotta go through some humiliation to reach to tribulation” or “communication is justification” or “exploitation is the manifestation of subordination” – there were lots of -ations – and the more he warmed to his subjects, the more it seemed to me as if I was participating in some sort of Jamaican religious ritual, with Peter as the preacher, his friends as the congregation and me taking communion for the first time. I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not I was being taken for a ride.
Peter had strong feelings about legalising marijuana. “Yes mon. Dat is de message mon. I see no reason why man should be incriminated for a thing dat man cannot make. Dis was created de same de trees was created, de same way de birds and de bees was created. Dis,” he continued, waving his gigantic joint in the air, “is a part of the creation. Man is trying to show man dat dis thing is a part of dangerous drugs and poison. What am I? If I use dangerous drugs and poison 24 hours a day, what am I?”
“A dangerous person?” I suggested. Then I wrote: “Tosh let out a huge laugh, coughing dangerous and poisonous fumes into the air that smelled infinitely preferable to the exhaust from the cars that droned by on 57th Street below.”
I asked Peter why he had left Marley and The Wailers, and he responded by telling me my question was back to front. Marley left him, he said. "You wanna aska why Marley leave me... well, dere was some spiritual vibration between de group. Bob is a leader, he is a singer and writer. All de years it is Bob dat de people has been hearing about and in all dat time we have been writing and making de music and haven't had the opportunity of putting it out to de people. De inspiration and ideas dat I got faded and it is a sin to get talent and hide it, just totally a sin. We can't go on living in sin all de days of our life, mon, and it was de same father who inspired Bob go sing who inspired I and Bunny, so we have to go out and put de message dere. And dere were other causes that come between us but we couldn't go through dat bullshit because I had de message and de message is to play music. Bunny and I had messages and dey were getting wasted, mon. We are strong together because unity is strength but the unity between de three minds have to be coordinated together. If two minds are together and one mind is somewhere else it fails to function, mon."
Looking at my interview on RBP this week I’m amazed that I managed to stretch it to 1,500 words, most of my quotes in Peter’s Jamaican patois like the ones above.
In 2013 I published a book about Peter Tosh called Steppin’ Razor, and its author, John Masouri, told me that Peter loved intimidating timid young white writers like myself. John knew Peter well and told me it was a big joke to him. Behind those inscrutable shades, he said, Peter would have been laughing to himself. I half suspected this, and certainly came away from my encounter with Peter with a feeling that he was one of the good guys. So my grief was genuine when I learned he had died of gunshot wounds sustained during a robbery at his house in 1987.