In Memoriam: Desmond Dekker

PopMatters Events Editor

Bob Marley? Bah. Desmond Dekker was cranking out hits when Bob Marley was still in boy-shorts, well, metaphorically speaking. Suffice it to say that Dekker had established himself as the reigning king of Jamaican music well before Marley’s dreads attained their legendary, nappy sheen. Of course Dekker, unlike Marley, didn’t die young and so he, like his music, was subject to the long decay of the unlionized legend. And yet, when he did pass last Friday, succumbing to a heart attack, the loss was all the more monumental. After all, it’s harder to lose a man you love than to mourn a long-lost legend.

Dekker was the base upon which generations of ska and reggae fans built their interest in Jamaican music, but there was never anything flashy about my affection — no T-Shirts or posters on the wall. It was a more ingrained feeling, an understood reverence. His music was always there, blaring from the speakers — a sweet, soulful soundtrack to a thousand nights in a thousand dancehalls, punk clubs, and basement blow-outs. His tunes weren’t played on the ebb of a craze, or propelled by the excitement of new discovery. They were fixtures, the underlying sounds of a scene.

A progeny of the great Derrick Morgan, Dekker broke into the UK charts countless times in the late ’60s and early ’70s (and even managed a top ten hit in the US with his classic cut “Israelites”). A reggae superstar by any standard, he championed and perfected that little-known reggae precursor, ska. His tunes set the standard for genre’s first wave and remained mainstays in the two that followed.

Dekker had hits, sure, but it was the slow creep of his music that made him a legend, the way he slipped unnoticed into that most permanent of places in your heart. And, in the same way that his records never stopped working, the man himself continued to spin round and round until the last.

In celebrating Dekker’s life, its important to not only remember what he did, but what he continued to do right up until the days before his death. He continued to perform with the energy of a boy, propelling his hits through the air with all the energy he could muster — and, even in the end, that was a lot. I know from experience. A little over a year ago, I saw him in person.

At the time, I was both overcome with excitement and wracked with fear. A man with that many hits shouldn’t have been playing the Knitting Factory (a small club which packs in a few hundred at best). Sure, the show sold out, but not quickly. Why? As Dekker emerged, I was afraid I saw the answer. Maybe everyone else knew something I didn’t — that Dekker had lost his touch.

It’s true, time had melted Dekker’s pretty mug. He scampered quickly onto the stage, pumping disconcertingly bony knees into the air. His face was worn and jowly — his body emaciated and frail. Facing the excited cries of the crowd, he seemed an unremarkable figure, an old and battered man.

But, when Dekker opened his wilting lips, I realized that those who had doubted were fools. His spirit and voice remained wholly intact:

“Dis was my first number one,” he cried as his band broke into “Honour Your Father and Mother”.

Over mid-tempo guitar upstrokes and the sound of soft brass, Dekker delivered the song in his immaculate upper range, summoning the same precise energy that he conjured when he laid the track in 1963. Little rasp hindered him as he pushed his voice into the feminine realm of soulful, high-pitched song.

It was at this point I realized that, in that moment, both he and I were unbelievably lucky. For a performer of age and legacy, there are two types of gigs: ones trading on the legend and ones trading on the music. Seeing Dylan live in 2006 is an experience, but musically pale in comparison to seeing him in, say, 1968. A performer like Ray Charles, on the other hand, stayed strong until the day of his death.

Like Charles, Dekker maintained his musical prowess into old age. On this evening, classics like “007 (Shanty Town)” and “Licking Stick” came out in full force. The former saw two versions, one slow and soulful and another bouncy and rhythmic — both classics executed masterfully in one go.

The crowd adopted Dekker’s accent, hopping together as they spoke each word in time. There was no quiet awe in this crowd, none of the reverie given to his recordings. Rather, the room was brimming with a ruckus, youthful energy, fueled by Dekker’s delirious, excited, and often indecipherable stage banter. The singer threw his small frame into chaotic distress, shaking limbs in conspicuously odd directions — his movements animated and clownish. Like his “sexy” ’70s regalia — flowing, unbuttoned black and gold shirt and leather pants — it was odd and unquestionably entertaining. And, of course, he delivered “It Mek” and “King of Ska” like a markedly younger, and more sensibly dressed, man.

So, again, where were the people?

It wasn’t until later that I considered this question. Batting it around now, it dawns on me that Dekker was never really that huge in the US. He wasn’t a sensation, more a looming presence in small scenes. And he wasn’t cool like other performers — he had been a pop star after all. Perhaps the elitists had spurned his tuneful melodies that night for the more progressive orchestrations of his contemporaries. A shame. I’ve seen the rest, and Desmond was, well, the best.

And he closed the show as such. Drawing out the opening notes of “Israelites,” his biggest hit, Dekker threw a depthy soul-startling moan into the microphone: “aaaaaaAHHHHHHHHHHH,” then stopped and walked from the stage. Ever the showman, the bastard was gonna make us work for it.

Thunderous cheers filled the room as a slow chant rose, “Des-mond, Des-mond, Des-mond.” Dekker eventually relented, shimmying back on to the stage to pick up where he left off. Caressing the opening notes, Dekker’s eyes began to bulge as the shoe-stringy bass kicked in, and he replaced his croon with a boot-shaking reggae bop.

The hopping reached a frenzy, and I felt the floorboards begin to warp and bend under my feet. Finger in the air, I mouthed the words between leaps. The band brought the song to a melodic end, and Dekker did a round of hand touches before leaving the stage. Despite being a respectable music critic with issues about overt, ecstatic fandom, I did something I’d never done before: I reached for his arm. He grabbed my hand like a friend, shook it firmly, and then disappeared.