Wanted: Dread and/ or Alive
Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff reconsidered
By Alan Bisbort

More than a quarter century ago, reggae was responsible for the two darkest marks against my name. One, it nearly caused me to flunk a pass-fail course in college when, for my final project, I wrote a paper about reggae music and Rastafarianism, calling them vestiges of true Caribbean folk culture, certainly more so than the slick calypso spoon-fed to tourists. This, of course, is now the accepted truth about reggae, but at the time, when few Americans had heard of Bob Marley, it was a radical notion. Though I'd done original research, even using recordings unavailable in the United States, my clueless folklore professor did not share my precocious opinions (he loved Harry Belafonte and thought I was taking potshots at him). He took particular glee in giving me a D-Minus, drawing his minus mark all the way across the top of my paper and appending, "I just wanted you to see how close you came to failing this course." This ignorant man is still a respected member of his profession today.

My second dark mark, courtesy reggae, was an arrest for Driving Under the Influence. To wit: I was driving back to Chapel Hill, N.C., from Durham following a screening at Duke's student center of The Harder They Come, the 1972 film that starred the charismatic Jamaican singer Jimmy Cliff. My companion, who indisputably was three sheets in the wind, was so smitten with the filmCliff plays Ivan, a "country bumpkin" who becomes a sort of Robin Hood of Kingstonthat he insisted on acting out scenes with a cap pistol he brought along for the ride. His popping of the cap pistol in my face caused me to swerve my car and attract the notice of the local gendarmes. Because my friend was, like Jimmy Cliff's Ivan, not about to go down without a fight, we were both handcuffed and taken downtown to cool our heels in adjoining jail cells. My friend continued to speak in Jamaican patois for the rest of the eveninginsisting that he and I were "political prisoners, mon"though he'd discarded this affectation by the next morning when, hungover and chastened, we were released from our cells.

My point with this digression is that in 1973 in the United Stateswhen and where the above events transpiredreggae filled a void left behind by rock and roll. Reggae picked up the gauntlet of revolution that had been dropped by rock and roll, as the latter grew increasingly bloated, self-important, and "arty" (see: Yes, Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Rod Stewart, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Rick Wakeman, etc.). Reggae, by contrast, was as sharp as a shiv in the ribs, as real as the dirt in the streets of Kingston. I still remember lording it over my dorm mates for being the hippest among them with my copy of Catch a Fire by the Wailers, an album shaped and opened like a Zippo lighter. Reggae, in short, was something we desperately needed as a soundtrack to our lives because rock and roll wasn't cutting the mustard. We'd arrived too late to partake of the Free Love and Revolution for the Hell of It of our hippie elders. It was no surprise to me, a few years later, when reggae helped fuel the punk rock revolution of the late 1970s. It seemed like a perfectly natural segue.

Jimmy Cliff, not Bob Marley, first opened the door for many of us. As he says in the liner notes to the nifty new collection, We All Are One: The Best of Jimmy Cliff (Sony/Legacy), "I dubbed myself at one time as the shepherd of the music. The shepherd opens the gate, gathers the flock, and leads everyone through."

Though he helped popularize reggae music, Cliff may be the wrong artist to hold up as an example of reggae culture. For one thing, he never embraced Rastafarianism, and relative to the incendiary Third World anthems of the Wailers, his music was never overtly political. And while Cliff is as authentic a Jamaican as you could hope to findone of nine children born into dire poverty in Jamaica's back countryhe is too upbeat and book-learned to dabble in ganja-fueled esoterica. As Cliff recently said, "Everybody was Rasta, Rasta, so I also studied other things, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Zen… The hand has four fingers and the thumb. See how close the fingers are? How far away the thumb is? But it's a part of the hand and it can't do anything without it. That's me, the thumb."

That's a roundabout way of saying that Cliff was always the sunny side of reggae. His gentle spirit and hopeful temperament can be found in the titles of his best known songs, "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want It." They are both included in this collection, along with "Sitting in Limbo," a poignant song from The Harder They Come (inexplicably, his greatest song from the film, "Many Rivers to Cross," is not included here). He even had a hit in the 1990s by covering "I Can See Clearly Now," an earlier hit by Johnny Nash, a Texan trying to sound Jamaican (Nash in turn had a hit with an Americanized version of the Wailers' "Stir It Up").

Not everything Cliff touched turned to gold, or even fool’s gold. He made some bad musical decisions in the 1980s, teaming up with Kool and the Gang and K.C. and the Sunshine Band. It's painful to listen to the results (thankfully, only two of the fifteen cuts on this collection are from this down period: "Reggae Night" and "Hitting with Music"). Cliff was also coaxed into playing opposite Robin Williams in the woeful film Club Paradise, though his career was, happily, given a much-needed boost in the 1990s when some of his songs were featured on the hit soundtrack of Cool Runnings.

As a result of all this cross-pollination, Cliff seems to occupy a position among reggae cognoscenti roughly equivalent to the one Sammy Davis Jr. occupied vis a vis R&B and soul music. Like Sammy Davis, Cliff was overlooked by people who felt he was not righteous enoughor that he was too slickfor their turntables. The great thing about reissues is that the music can be enjoyed out of the context of its times; no one is looking over your shoulder to check your bona fides. Thus, I recommend We All Are One as a means to plug holes in reggae knowledge and as an introduction to an enduring musical talent. Obviously, the next step is to get Cliff's soundtrack The Harder They Come, watch the film (but don't drink and drive), and check out Jimmy Cliff in person the next time he tours near you.

Jimmy Cliff, like Toots Hibbert (who coined the term "reggae"), has one thing going for him that other stellars of reggae like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh don't have: He's still alive and making music.

Winston Hubert McIntosh (1944-1987), better known as Peter Tosh, is a different kettle of fish altogether. A founding member of the Wailers and an exceptional solo reggae artist in his own right, Peter Tosh was shot to death in his Kingston home by three intruders, only one of whom ever stood trial. Having early on gained a reputation as something of a street tough, fully earning his nickname of "Stepping Razor," Tosh was always an outspoken artist, an international gadfly, and a thorn in the side of the Jamaican government (on three separate occasions, he was severely beaten by Jamaican police).

He, Bunny Wailer, and Bob Marley formed a group in 1962, later known as the Wailers. A versatile musician, Tosh played guitar, melodica, piano and organ on the early Wailers albums and did session work for the ubiquitous American Johnny Nash. Tosh's rich, soulful baritone was the most polished aspect of the Wailers' vocalizing. When Tosh left the Wailers in 1973, it was thought that his departure was an impulsive mistake, an egomaniacal plunge made because Bob Marley was stealing the limelight. Some of Marley's greater popularity no doubt contributedÊ and it was quickly confirmed when, in Tosh's absence, the Wailers became Bob Marley and the Wailersbut Tosh was every bit the equal of Marley in the original lineup. He was the tall, skinny, deep-voiced guitar and keyboard player, and he wrote many of the Wailers’ memorable early tunes ("I'm the Toughest", "400 Years," "Stop That Train"). And all the while, he continued to record and release material as a solo artist, under the names Peter Touch, Peter Macintosh, and Peter Mackingtosh.

Fourteen years after his death is as good a time as any to reassess Tosh’s work, especially in light of the impending July reissue of most of his prolific output, though with the absence of his best known albums, Legalize It (1976) and Equal Rights (1977), the two excellent, righteously angry albums he recorded for Columbia (reissued in 1999 by Sony/Columbia Legacy). Those that will be reissued, separately (i.e., not as a boxed set) are the ones he did for EMI America: Mystic Man (1979), Wanted: Dread & Alive (1981), Mama Africa (1983), No Nuclear War (1987), and Complete Captured Live (2 CD set). EMI America also has the rights to Bush Doctor (1978), the lone album Tosh recorded for the now defunct Rolling Stones Records.

That's a lot of Tosh to tackle in one toke. The short of it is, for my money, the best of this plethora are Bush Doctor, Mystic Man, and Wanted: Dread & Alive. But the long of it is as follows.

Bush Doctor is the best produced, partly because the Rolling Stones became personally involved with the sessions. Tosh so impressed Mick Jagger that the Stones made this the first release off their own record label. And Sir Mick felt duty bound to join Tosh in the studio for backing vocals on "Walk and Don't Look Back," which explains why this was the biggest hit Tosh ever had. Tosh didn't need the help of fading rockers, though. The Jagger-less remaining cuts are even stronger and possess a more traditional reggae sound. The record opens with the title track, which takes the form of a Surgeon General's report on the hazards of cigarettes. As for what the good doctor would prescribe for what ails you, this would be the herb (you guessed it!) cannabis. Tosh pitches pot's benefits for sufferers of glaucoma and asthma (and he's been proven right), but he can't stop himself before proclaiming pot as the panacea for police brutality and disrespect for humanity as well. At times, Tosh was a regular Bong Quixote (though I'd imagine if Saddam, Sharon, Qaddaffi, and Arafat all took a few bong hits they'd mellow out a bit).

While Tosh takes on Christian hypocrisy in "Stand Firm," advising you to "live clean, let your works be seen," in "Dem Ha Fe Get a Beating," he sounds like a gospel preacher, replete with angelic choir, and his lyrics ("I can't stand this much longer/ The wicked keep getting much stronger") sting like a beating. The album also contains "Creation," on which Tosh pushes the boundaries of reggae as far as he ever would. It is the most interesting and most complicated song he ever cut, opening with a riff on Handel's Messiah, over which he intones "In the Beginning, the Word was Jah…" Surprisingly, he does not kick into a predictable reggae drum syncopation; rather, he strums an acoustic guitar while the sound of seagulls and ocean waves bathe the listener in Edenic wonders. Then for the next five minutes Tosh sings about his reverence for life in a voice as rich and evocative as Marvin Gaye's on What's Goin' On. Were you to play this cut to a blindfolded jury, no one would guess it was Peter Tosh.

Instead of moving in a new direction, Tosh next released Mystic Man, a return to pure and traditional reggae, and my personal favorite among all the recordings mentioned in this column. The title track is a Tosh tour de force, allowing him to lay down the law to his adherents, denigrating the harmful effects of champagne, cocaine, morphine, heroin, frankfurters, hamburgers (it's hilarious to hear him pronounce these last two and then call them "garbage"), while extolling the countless health benefits of (you guessed right again!) marijuana. This is quintessential Tosh.

There isn't a dull track on this album, though none stands out with the greatness of the aforementioned tracks on Bush Doctor. Still, "Jah Say No," with its traditional, almost calypso feel; "Fight On," a catchy, low-key exhortation one can imagine blaring from the beaten-up transistor radios of Kingston street vendors; "The Day the Dollar Die" my favorite Tosh song, a meditation on the oppressive nature of money; and "Crystal Ball," with its incorporation of African percussion, are all stellar pieces of work. The songs on this album, more than any of the others, were also staples of Tosh's live set. He could particularly stretch out on the magnificent "Bukk in Hamm Palace" ("light the spliff, light the chalice, we're gonna smoke down at Bukk in Hamm Palace"), three versions of which are provided on this new reissue.

Wanted: Dread & Alive is another perfect encapsulation of traditional reggae as shaped by Tosh. Indeed, this may have been Tosh's best all-around solo recording, and it would be a classic were it not for one cut: the egregious "Nothing But Love," a schmaltzy duet that sounds like a reject from a Peaches and Herb session. This mistake is compounded on the new reissue of Wanted: Dread & Alive, which includes two versions of this song that only pad out the CD and drag out our misery. Fortunately you can quickly skip to the next track, which I fully recommend doing. Besides those two tracks, there isn't a misstep or sour note on this album, and some of the songs, like "Fools Die for Want of Wisdom," "Cold Blood," and "Rastafari Is," are as good as anything Marley or Cliff ever recorded.

Mama Africa is a bit of a let-down after Wanted, but it contains some stellar tracks, like the punchy "Glass House," a remake of the old Wailers song "Stop That Train," and "Where You Gonna Run." As technology caught up with Toshor vice versathe traditional sound of his reggae began to be airbrushed out, and it's most noticeable on this album. A synthesizer propels many of the cuts; at times it sounds like a wheezing squeeze box, or even that horrible mouth-guitar-gizmo that Peter Frampton used on Frampton Comes Alive, the musical equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard.

No Nuclear War is a hodgepodge of rasta clichés (except for the prophetic "Vampire," which harks back to his earliest Wailers days) and is advised only for collectors who want a complete collection. By the time Tosh recorded this album, things seemed to be closing in on him, and the work feels slapped together, disjointed, and not particularly sincere.

Finally, the 2-CD set, Complete Captured Live, is best avoided. Though it includes nearly all of his best known tunes, the performances are not distinctive enough to warrant releasing separately, and they don't hold a lit spliff to his studio versions. Not to mention that the touring band that he fronts is dominated by a synth player and an arena rock style drummer who smoothes out all the chucka chucka rawness of reggae and makes every song sound like an extended Chuck Berry jam. The authenticity of the music is lost in translation, and it becomes just another pop music commodity, smothered in pot smoke and dreadlocks.

Ultimately, Peter Tosh will always be seen as an enigma, a complicated and gifted artist who never quite put across his "vision" the way Marley was able to. This may have been because his own behavior made him seem less sincere than Marley. The idea of a "mystic man" constantly involved in violence is hard to swallow (it's also hard to see how anyone who smoked as much pot as Tosh did would have the energy to foment world revolution). Although he preached revolution in his music, his best known issue was the legalization of marijuana. As a self-styled "bush doctor," he dispensed timeless wisdom about everything from dietary habits to socialism, but he shirked personal responsibility in his own life, leaving behind ten children and no will. He plunged himself into a four-year spiritual journey after Mama Africa was released, only to return to the studio to record arguably his worst, or least inspired, album. And a month later he was dead.