"Mek We Chase Way All Dem Vampire": Rediscovering the Mystic Man
Every music writer has his or her favorite Underrated Artist, and mine happens to be Peter Tosh. I should probably pick someone more obscure for hipster cred; after all, Tosh isn’t exactly unknown or unheard in music history. As a teenager, Winston Hubert “Peter Tosh” McIntosh and Bob Marley and Neville “Bunny Wailer” Livingston formed the Wailers, who became the first internationally renowned reggae band. After a fistfight with Marley over the band’s direction, Tosh quit the Wailers and had a fairly successful career as a solo artist. Even casual fans know that Tosh co-wrote “Get Up, Stand Up” and they might be able to sing the title phrase of “Legalize It”. So I’m not going to get any Captain Beefheart/Gary Wilson/Sir Lord Baltimore/Screamin’ Jay Hawkins points on this one.
But I think I’m right anyway, at least in this country, which seems to regard reggae as something that sprang full-born from Bob Marley’s head. But who taught Bob Marley to play guitar? Peter Tosh. Who wrote the first Wailers song to address rastafari philosophy? Peter Tosh. He was prickly, angry, tough-minded. When Rolling Stone magazine called him the Malcolm X to Bob Marley’s Martin Luther King, Jr., it might have been the most accurate comparison that doddery periodical ever made.
Tosh has also been compared to John Lennon for his cynicism and love of word play. According to him, he never delivered diatribes, but rather “livatribes”. He called the U.S. “A-sad-ica” because he saw nothing “merry” in it; he helped Marley see the “politricks” of the “shitstem”. And I have to mention my personal favorite, one of the all-time great multiple puns by a musician, “the Crime Ministers who shit in the House of Represent-A-T’ief”. Lennon’s weak and passive Monty Pythonisms pale beside the holy wrath of Tosh, who was truly one of the great lyricists of modern times.
This lyrical mastery should have been beaten into our tiny little heads when the Honorary Citizen box set came out in 1997, or when the amazing one-disc Scrolls of the Prophet best-of hit in 1999, or when Tosh’s first two solo albums, Legalise It and Equal Rights, were reissued. But this hasn’t happened yet. Maybe the time is now, considering that EMI-Capitol has just reissued six crucial Tosh albums, each one remastered with bonus material and new liner notes by Roger Steffens. Anyone who hears these underrated albums will understand how important Peter Tosh really is in the history of music.
Bush Doctor: The first time I ever saw Tosh was on Saturday Night Live. He was performing “Don’t Look Back”, and even as a 12-year-old I was mesmerized by the easy way he had with this groove and his big clanking dreads. (I didn’t know it was a Motown song; I was just a kid.) And then all of a sudden Mick Jagger came out and started singing along with him and ruined it. I have never been the biggest Stones fan (I still think Some Girls is the best album they ever did), and I considered Mick’s chicken-strut and attention-starved voice pretty embarrassing—but I liked the reggae dude plenty, and wanted to hear more of his stuff. Well, “Don’t Look Back” is the first song here, and yep, Mick’s all over it. This is a remake of a remake—the Wailers had done it back when they were a Motown-influenced vocal group—but if you can take Jagger’s slight preen, it’s better on disc than it was to watch.
This is a great album with a lot of re-worked Wailers-era material. “I’m the Toughest” was one of Tosh’s big hits as a solo artist before the Wailers had even split, and the version here is a bit more mellowed-out and wise than that one; still and yet, it’s cool as hell, with Tosh laying down the rude-boy line, warning his “little brothers” to not be “bad-minded” and implying that he’s gonna crack some skulls if they do. Another older song, the brilliantly-titled “Dem Ha Fe Get a Beating”, is even more explicit about what should happen to the wicked.
But, in marked contrast to the general stereotype of Tosh as a one-sided ranter, we also get the beautiful and strange “Creation”, six-and-a-half minutes of gorgeous sound collage. It begins with Tosh translating Genesis into Rasta over gospel “Hallelujah"s and breaking storms, and then morphs into a Psalms-like guitar ballad punctuated by sea sounds. It’s out there, man, in a way that the more prosaic—and fun—“Bush Doctor” is not. This funky title track lays it down there: marijuana is so good for you that it will cure glaucoma and end police brutality and class struggles. We also get six bonus tracks, including the introspective “Lessons in My Life” and extended versions of several cuts. Strong stuff.
Mystic Man This was the second album Tosh did for the Rolling Stones’ label, and it shows in the swagger of the opening title song. This complicated and wonderful arrangement uses tight soul horns, echoey organs, and a locktight groove to proclaim how Tosh wanted everyone to see him. In between discussing how to observe the tenets of rastafari, he is able to still put himself out as a sexy dread: “I’m a man of the past / And I’m livin’ in the present / And I’m walking in the future / Steppin’ in the future / And I’m just a mystic man”. This confidence is mirrored in the nine-minute epic “Buk-In-Hamm Palace”, which celebrates reggae music, ganja’s powers of “itaficial respiration”, and the struggle against the downpressor man: “Lend me a paper / Lend me a fire / Mek we chase way all dem vampire.” The two bonus versions of this slow spooky tune are also pretty hot; the 12” mix adds some disco sheen—well, it was 1979—and the dub version deconstructs the original over and over again, with the emphasis on the bubbling percussion lines.
This is an extremely spiritual album. “Jah Say No” is intensity itself: “Must Rasta bear this cross alone / And all the heathen go free? / Jah say no / Must Rasta live in misery / And heathens in luxury? / Jah say no”. Tosh does not have a reputation as an especially religious character, but this song and “Recruiting Soldiers” give the lie to that misperception. The ending trilogy shows Tosh’s true concern: humanity. “The Day the Dollar Die” looks forward to the time when “I won’t need no pockets”; “Crystal Ball” has a hot cuica part and talks about the bleak future Tosh sees for “the city”, which he usually pronounces as “the shitty”; and “Rumours of War” believes in the paradise that will only come after conflict—Tosh predicts war in Beirut, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Namibia, Soweto, and Johannesburg, but somehow it doesn’t seem depressing.
Wanted Dread & Alive: Many lazy writers have repeated the same line for years—that these last two albums and this one are somehow bad because of their association with the Stones, who after all are the White Establishment dontcha know. (I saw one dude who claimed that Mick was a white supremacist, which would of course explain why he had signed Tosh in the first place and appeared on record and on stage with him, no? No?) I don’t see this 1981 album as a sell-out as much as just another damned fine record. It lifts off with a slow blast of proto-dancehall called “Coming in Hot”, a number that uses gun and heat-wave imagery to express the truly awesome power of Tosh: “I got up the other day / My heat it never went away / 103 on the hour / I had to head for the shower”, and “Reggaemylitis” continues this theme, analogous to “Boogie Fever” and “Rockin’ Pneumonia”. Some of this is even more slicked-up than the last two: the title track is a little too facile, Tosh dueting with Gwen Guthrie on “Nothing but Love” is nice but ultimately just a bid for chart success (and what the hell is wrong with that?), and “Rok With Me” is a sweet little lovesexy thing with more of the glossy than the matte to it.
But it’s got its edgy moments nonetheless. “Oh Bumbo Klaat”, which was left off the original U.S. version, is a spiritual chant based on one of the most devastating curses in the Jamaica of that time—merely uttering this phrase on the streets of Kingston could get you jailed back then. But it stems from Tosh’s encounter with “duppies”, evil ghosts who he thought were trying to paralyze him one night; apparently he yelled out this awful phrase and they disappeared. (Some think he might have been smoking a little too much. Hmmm. I wonder.) But he turns “Oh bumbo klaat, Oh ras klaat” into the key invocation in a hymn to humanity: “One thing I can’t overstand / Is why men don’t love his brother man”. The sincerity and rootsiness of “Rastafari Is” could conquer any army—dig those old-style Wailin’ Wailers harmonies! But the clear centerpiece here is my favorite Tosh piece ever, the epic slow jam “Fools Die”. Flute whisperings and ambient electric piano are the underpinnings to what is really one of the deepest and most heartfelt pieces Tosh ever did: “Vexation of the soul is vanity”, he tells himself, and reassures everyone in a soaring croon that “The poor man’s wealth is in a holy, holy place”. It’s a perfect album-ender, and it’s disorienting to hear three great songs coming after it: “The Poor Man Feel It”, “Cold Blood”, and “That’s What They Will Do” are really very wonderful numbers, and were included on various versions of the record, although I’ve seen about 50 different track listings for the UK and US editions.
Mama Africa: This was the last studio album released that Tosh lived to see, and it starts with one of the most surprising tracks he ever recorded. The song “Mama Africa” throws a whole lot of mbaqanga and Afrobeat into Tosh’s usual reggae stew, resulting in a pan-Africaribbean wonder that seems short at eight minutes: “They took me away from you Mama / Long before I was born / They took me away from you Mama / Long before I came on in”. This is followed up with more standard fare (the pedestrian “Glass House”, which you can pretty much write the chorus to without actually hearing it, the pleasant fight-on anthem “Not Gonna Give It Up”) before we get to the real heart of the record: two remakes.
Tosh had written “Stop That Train” for the Wailers long before it appeared again in the form which most people knew it, on the Burnin’ album; this version isn’t quite that, but definitely reclaims it as a Tosh song. He sounds reenergized, lethal even. This is followed by a crucial remake of “Johnny B. Goode”, in which Chuck Berry’s character is now reborn as “the leader of a reggae band”. This version saw some real live radio action back in the day, and it stands up nicely. But “Where You Gonna Run” and “Peace Treaty” seem tired, resigned to lie there on side B in too-synthesized form. Not even a remake of Tosh’s best dis song, “Maga Dog”, can lift the second part of this record above “Only Great”. And nothing can be learned from the three extended-version bonus tracks.
Complete Captured Live: Peter Tosh was one of the most mesmerizing live performers in the world. Anyone who heard last year’s release of a 1976 concert in Boston called Live and Dangerous knows this, and Tosh’s performance at the One Love Peace concert was already infamous before it was finally released in 2000. (Quick reminder: Tosh insulted Prime Minister Manley, opposition leader Seaga, and all the members of Parliament who were attending the concert, and then lit up a huge spliff onstage. Five months later, he was arrested and beaten by police until they thought he was dead because they could see his brains through his skull.)
But 1984’s Captured Live album originally consisted of only 42 minutes of music, and pretty weak tea at that. Sure, it had killer versions of “Coming in Hot” and “African”, and a 13-minute version of “Rastafari Is” that features live dubbing techniques and a really cool growly rasta lecture from the man himself; but it also pumped up sub-par songs like “Not Gonna Give It Up” and “Pick Myself Up”. This disc is the starting point for this reissue, which wisely adds another 50-minute disc of unissued material, including staples like “Don’t Look Back”, “Johnny B. Goode”, and “Get Up, Stand Up”. Why the hell these weren’t included as part of the original release, I don’t know—if they had been, America might have caught more of a fire. In the medley of “Equal Rights” and a blistering “Downpressor Man” you can hear the audience listening, scared maybe for their belief systems; “Glass House” actually takes wing; and a nine-minute “Mama Africa” lopes sweetly to close things off.
It’s not quite as important as One Love Peace, but then again what concert ever was? This record was made in Los Angeles after Tosh had already been through so much (jailings, beatings, car crashes, comas), and he doesn’t have as much to go off about as he once did. Having already changed the world somewhat back in the ‘70s, the ‘80s didn’t really have much for him—and certainly he cared more about Jamaica than he did the U.S. This may be the biggest difference between Tosh and Marley—the latter was always careful to make The Big Universal Statement, whereas the former was strongest whenever he was talking about his island and its citizens and its problems.
No Nuclear War: Tosh was murdered in 1987 by Dennis Lobban, a hanger-on whom Tosh had supported for years who lost it and went on a shooting spree in Tosh’s home after a failed robbery. Rumors abound that Lobban was aided by the government . . . but this will never be proven or disproven. This album was issued just a few months after his death, and it serves to drive home the truth that most unissued material is unissued for a reason. The title track is underthought: “We don’t want no nuclear war / With nuclear war we won’t get far” certainly qualifies for at least two Bad Writing Awards, in the categories of “Duh” and “Huge Understatement”. It’s certainly worn out its welcome after four minutes, which certainly doesn’t make its running time of 8:01 easy to take. “Nah Goa Jail” doesn’t seem to have anything on its mind except not to get caught smoking, and “Fight Apartheid” repeats Tosh’s bad habit of copying hooks from himself.
There’s a little spark to “Vampire” and “Lessons in My Life”, but this is a lost cause from the word go . . . it’s safe to say that if Tosh had wanted this stuff out, he would have found a way to do that during the three years after Mama Africa. It’s a sad footnote rather than a triumphant rediscovery—but it’s still a pretty good reggae album, especially in the dubby squiggles of “Come Together” and the really pretty amazing gospel number “In My Song”
I don’t really know how to wrap this up, so I’ll just end it by saying that Peter Tosh was a genius and that these six albums are fascinating examples of his quick wit, his political commitment, and his holy fire. He is just as much an architect of reggae music as Bob Marley, and history—these albums—will prove me right.
// Notes from the Road
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