Friday, July 10, 2009
Here's another in my series of re-visiting old vinyl; albums that meant a lot to me when they were new but haven't been heard in quite a while.
This one must be one of the all-time highlights, it's an album that literally changed my life, it's another of those 'forks in the road', probably the first reggae album that I ever bought and one that set me on a path for the next twenty odd years. It's the sound track album of the 1972 film of the same name, directed by Perry Henzell and starring Jimmy Cliff. It was screened in '72 at the LA film festival, FilmEx, which is where I first saw it, I've seen it many times since then, I have a VHS copy and have also watched it everytime it came on TV or to the local Art theater.
Jimmy Cliff was originally hired to play the lead and to also write the music, when the film was in the editing stages and the music was needed Cliff backed out so Perry spent a weekend listening to Jamaican music and he then made a selection of his favorite pieces; a choice which set many like myself on a path which was almost immediately augmented by Catch a Fire, the Wailers first album, also released in '72. There's so much to say about this film, it's based on a true story, that of Rhygin, a '40s gunman - the original rudeboy, it's very honest, it shows western Kingston as really was in the 60's, it's almost a documentary of Jamaican life, it was very difficult to make, getting financing was almost impossible and almost everyone involved took IOU's in lieu of cash, it was a total labor of love. The acting throughout is amazing since many characters were not actors but real people cast to do what they did in life. It was an instantaneous smash hit in Jamaica, everyone went nuts, they'd never seen real Jamaican life on the screen before but it was a different story in the US and the UK, no one wanted to touch it, Perry couldn't get a distributor anywhere. Finally he hand carried it to all the festivals and to some college town cinemas and it slowly began to take hold; remember, no one had ever heard of reggae outside of Jamaica. The Observer's film critic, George Melly was the only English critic to see it and he gave it a rave review which also started some word of mouth and it slowly spread but it still took 6 years to recoup the production costs.
My most recent viewing was this week, I looked at the HD digitally re-mastered new release DVD and if you enjoyed this film the first time around you should get the new version and really enjoy it's pristine look and sound. Plus there's the usual package of extra treats which includes a great documentary on the making and release of the film by Chris Browne and several interviews and an excellent series of slides with music. Cliff's reneging on the music is probably the best thing that happened, it forced Perry to choose a selection of music all of which went on to become classics; the album was released on Chris Blackwell's Island label and became their all time best selling reggae album.
I have a tiny personal story related to the film; in the early '80's I was sitting on a beach under a palm tree in Negrill and off to my right, about 30ft away was a gruff looking middle aged Jamaican guy, he caught my eye as I glanced at him. He came over and said "So you recognised me eh?" I was a bit non-plussed but as I looked at him I suddenly realised that he was Preacher-man from the film, he didn't look quite the same in swim shorts and without his dog collar. So we sat and chatted for a while and when it was time to leave we swapped cards etc and he said "If you're ever in Kingston, give me a call, we could get together". His name was Basil Keane and he was a dentist, he was cast in the part because he looked like a preacher.
About 6-7 years later I was sitting in a motel in Kingston awaiting my van which couldn't arrive for another week so I gave him a call. He remembered me instantly, asked where I was and said he'd be over immediately. Well he invited me to stay with him for the week and I gladly accepted, he was an avid jazz fan and I'd brought dozens of C90's so we had lots to talk about. That was on the Sunday. We really hit it off for the next few days, he was single and I suspect a bit lonely and we spent hours chatting, drinking and listening to music: until Wednesday morning. He left, not saying where he was going or when he'd be back: later that day I assumed. Five o'clock came and went, it got dark and he didn't show, finally I went to bed. The next day, Thursday, more of the same, I ate and went to bed. Friday, late in the day he appeared looking as though he'd been on a serious binge and when I asked him where he'd been he clammed up and refused to answer. I thought all of this was very weird but since I was a guest and I'd only known him a few days I shut up. The next morning he was bright and breezy as if nothing had happened, we had a pleasant breakfast together and then he said he'd like to take me to meet his girlfriend. We drove there, she lived in a modern condo with white marble tiled floors, we sat chatting and then she said she'd fixed some lunch so we sat at the dining table, eating, drinking and being very social. Suddenly, out of the blue for no apparent reason Basil exploded, he stood up cursing, grabbed the wine bottle and smashed it to the floor and all the glasses soon followed, the white tile was covered with shattered glass. He gradually calmed down but no explanations were forthcoming, the girlfriend was obviously very embarrassed and finally we left and returned to his house; to say that the atmosphere was tense would be an understatement but since my van was due the following morning I bit my tongue and put up with it. When it arrived I departed and spent a wonderful 3 months traveling through the island and popped in a couple of times just to say hello. I never saw or heard from him after that.
Hope that bit wasn't too boring, anyhow here's the music:
1. You Can Get It If You Really Want - Cliff
2. Draw Your Breaks - Scotty
3. Rivers of Babylon - The Melodians
4. Many Rivers to Cross - Cliff
5. Sweet and Dandy - The Maytals
6. Harder They Come - Cliff
7. Johnny Too Bad - The Slickers
8. Shanty Town - Desmond Dekker
9. Pressure Drop - The Maytals
10. Sitting in Limbo - Cliff