"SOME NOTES ON LOVING REGGAE MUSIC"
BY LAURA JANE FAULDS
FEATURING AN ILLUSTRATION BY JEN MAY
Eight years ago I loved the Clash and my nails were painted sparkly turquoise. I flew to New York City to sit around in rooms and bars and talk about the Clash with my Clash-friends. It was around Hallowe’en-time, and it snowed in October and on the news they named the snowfall “Snow-tober” and my friend Charlie said “It would have made a lot more sense if they named it Oct-snow-ber” and we all agreed that Yes, it would have.
On the day it Oct-snow-bered, which might have been actual Hallowe’en, we went to a Hallowe’en party, and I half-assedly and insincerely dressed up as George Harrison. I wore a black & peach floor-length sari I’d cut into a jagged-hemmed minidress, black stockings, and Beatle boots. It was clearly not an outfit that George Harrison would have worn, under any circumstances, ever. I ignored the sign on the front door asking me to take off my boots and when the host called me on it, “They’re part of my costume,” I explained, and she said “Fine. We’ll make an exception if your shoes are part of your costume,” and I thought, “You’re silly,” which is what I thought Joe Strummer would have thought.
I have had no interest in dressing up for Hallowe’en for the entirety of my adult life. The thought of deriving pleasure from engaging with that custom is so unfathomable to me that I cannot help but come across as judgmental of those who do. Because I am.
“All your favourite Clash songs are the ones that sound most like reggae,” said Charlie, and I said, “Yeah, you know, that’s true.” He said, “Maybe you should start listening to reggae,” and I said, “Yeah, you know, I should.”
It was before iPhones then, I just had a little aqua Shuffle that clipped onto my jacket collar, and I deleted every song already on it and filled it up with Trojan Ska & Rocksteady compilations from Charlie and Nadine’s computer--
It was a nothing moment, meant to mean nothing, which ended up changing everything.
Music, for me, is a companion: a beloved puppy, trotting alongside me, perking things up during life’s dullest moments. Reggae has been the most faithful of pets since I first found it, but I never want talk about it, because when I do, people either want to talk about it or not talk about it, and both outcomes are equally annoying. “Vibes are all there is,” I like to say, and reggae’s are the best. And I worry that if I take them outside of myself, they will be either diluted or dismissed.
I have been hoarding these precious vibes in my heart for eight years. I am not so brazen to think that these words could match them; I hold myself to a much lower standard than that.
All I want to do here is explain it.
I flew on a plane and I was drunk on the plane. Every time I am on a plane and there is one slight jolt in the plane-body’s movement, or if I can hear the wing whirring, or literally any single thing that isn’t absolutely nothing happens, I think, “Well! I guess this is it for me,” and uncomfortably wait to die.
It’s a very bad death- a cheap death- plane death. It has nothing to do with the life you just lived, unless you’re a pilot I guess. It’s just bad luck. You have to die freaking out and screaming alongside a bunch of strangers whose faces and sweatshirts you vaguely recognize from being bored in the airport lounge together a couple hours ago. They are your last vision of life on Earth. Sorry this is so dark.
This particular flight was the most turbulent flight I’d ever endured (not counting the time I flew through the remnants of Hurricane Katrina, but I was on Xanax that time, so it doesn’t count). At one point the lights flashed on and off, from light to dark, which is the most obvious sign that your plane is about to crash and you’re going to die and you probably should have paid more attention during the part where they teach you how to put the mask on but honestly it doesn’t even matter because you’re about to crash into a cliff and die and- let's be real here- the mask is not gonna save you.
But I didn’t care. I had an iPod shuffle full of rocksteady tunes that sounded like rocks thumping around inside a Rock Tumbler, turning themselves into sparkly aqua gemstones, which you can make into a bracelet. Reggae is a celebration of the truest happiness, which doesn’t need to be balanced out by anything. It exists to remind you that happiness is a neutral state, neither manic nor transcendent, and that goodness is everywhere, and you don’t have to make a very big deal out of it— it just is. You could die in a plane crash listening to reggae and it would honestly be just fine. As far as reggae is concerned, life and death are the exact same thing.
1. Desmond Dekker
I remember walking to the bank a few weeks later and I was listening to Desmond Dekker and I could not believe how lucky I was! "What a wonderful life I get to live! Desmond Dekker existed and his name was Desmond Dekker, the best name, and I am a person and I can listen to his songs Any. Time. I. WANT!" Desmond Dekker songs and others like them, “Teardrops Falling” by the Versatiles,“Take It Easy” by Hopeton Lewis, “Engine 54” by the Ethiopians, their lovely loping cadences, crawling guitars, sweet smiles, beeps and boops and bops. Just a little up-down up-down up-down with the shoulders.
I was so broke then, I changed my twenty-six American dollars into whatever-they-were-worth-then CAD. I remember I had all the cash in a little plastic baggie. Now I’m old and have a job and cram all my foreign cash into a little crystal port glass I keep on my desk, then forget it next time I fly internationally, and amass some more.
This morning, today, in the present, I was walking to work very early in the morning, which is not something I normally do. I stopped into a Starbucks because I was too goddamned tired to drink a coffee that wasn’t twenty ounces-worth and listened to the same song I listened to on that day with the bank, “The Israelites,” which sounds like the beginning of something- like the sun rising, or the NASDAQ opening for business in a movie about the stock market. I walked through a park I’d walked through a million times and thought, “I’ve never been to this park before!” before realizing that it was a very well-known park that I know about as well as any person could ever know anything, but it was just so early! And “The Israelites” made it feel even earlier. The world was a completely different place.
I focused very intently on thinking of a metaphor for what Desmond Dekker’s voice sounded like, and then I realized: a Junior Caramel! I thought very hard about the word enrobed and I thought about the sheen, a spark of light, hitting the glossy ball of milk chocolate the wad of caramel was enrobed in.
2. King Tubby
The first time I heard King Tubby I was walking past that Catholic elementary school on Whatever Street that always posts a ‘Virtue of the Month’ up on the sign on their front lawn, one of those signs where they slot the pictures of the letters in the front of it, like a jokey Taco Bell sign in a meme. The Virtue of the Month that month was: Bravery.
King Tubby is a logical jumping-off point for anyone who is curious about finding out what dub is all about. Falling in love with King Tubby at that moment in my reggae self-education era reminds me of my early days of wine school, tasting a high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon for the first time. You think, “This is the best wine will ever taste,” “This is the best dub could ever sound,” but it really it just tastes or sounds like an extremely classic and on-the-nose example of something even greater, some wonderful world of dub or wine whose stranger, more exhilarating inhabitants you will eventually learn to discern the discreet excellence of without thinking. I loved King Tubby as I did in those days because I love dub, and King Tubby sounds like dub. If an alien who had never heard dub got off a spaceship and asked you, “What does dub sound like?”, it would be intelligent to play the alien a King Tubby recording.
But there is always a degree of remove with King Tubby, a veneer. A dub is a dance of noises, and on a King Tubby dub said dance is choreographed to an almost insincere degree of perfection. Even his “Dub You Can Feel” feels more like an equation than an expression.
Dub is the coolest and most cryptic reggae sub-genre. I love it more than any other genre of music and when I listen to the dubs I love the most I feel like a little person just climbed down into my heart through my mouth and sat down there, grinning, beaming waves of joy into my blood and bones and coconut meat. I have this statue of a lanky golden frog, kind of a Kermit-inspired guy, meditating and smiling. I bought it at the Salvation Army on a really depressing day and it made me happier than anything; I feel so happy when I look at him. I guess the Kermit statue is the little person I just spoke of. The way dub makes my heart feel.
Hopeton Overton Brown was King Tubby’s protégé. He named himself Scientist because he is a techie guy. His first album is called Introducing Scientist and the cover is seventies summer orange and in the centre are three thick rows of green, yellow and black circles and in the centre of the circles is a picture of Hopeton Overton Brown looking meek but rich with purpose in a pale blue polo shirt. In the lower left-hand corner of the orange it says “The best Dub album in the World…” in cartoony black. I agree with it.
My father is an audiophile. He constantly builds and tinkers with speakers and amplifiers, fiddling around with knobs and shit, sonic frequencies, ever-searching for some unknowable and addictively unattainable Perfect Sound. When he finds a new configuration of Speaker Stuff he likes, he texts me a bunch of stuff about amp names that I don’t understand, and then a few nights later I go over to his apartment to hear them, and he plays me “Love In Vain.” Mick Jagger sounds like a moonlit troubadour singing outside of your turret bedroom window and you can count every star in the sky. You live inside of Charlie Watts’ bass drum; you are a mite on Keith Richards’ nailbed. Yeah it sounds real good Dad.
We eat dinner and drink whichever deliriously exciting bottle of wine I brought over. I yell about it for a couple hours, my parallel obsession; you can tell where I got it from: it’s a cute detail; in the movie- you can tell he’s my Dad. Dad gets the wine well enough but doesn’t, same as how I don’t know if “Love In Vain” sounded better tonight or if it did two and a half months ago. I don’t know but I sort of know. We both do.
Now dinner is over and I am drunk and sounds sound good and I HAD WINE and I want to listen to all my favourite rocksteady songs on tonight’s new speaker vibe. Thing is: most of it doesn’t sound so hot. Most of these recordings, they were made for cheap, on dated, rudimentary equipment, all the guys playing their hearts out on one single strip of dusty tape. Socio-economic conditions in 1960s Jamaica were not so hot. These men were poor, making art compelled by God. No skeezy Denmark Street moneybags were telling any of these boys he was going to make them a star.
But Scientist on the speakers, you can tell his heart is somewhere different. He’s obsessed by the minutae, the intricacies of sound. His music is as precise as King Tubby’s, poised I would call it, but at the same time it’s floral, aromatic, languid, the mechanical nuance mirrored by an equally sophisticated emotional language, that thing that makes our hearts pang when notes sound nice together, whatever cosmic truths they might express.
If the greatest rocksteady tunes capture the buzz and provocation of a Beginning, then dub is for the juice of the Middle. It’s for lazing around inside the plain pure honey of a sunny afternoon, the gentle snap of a sugar cone. Smiling at a dog while wearing a baseball cap, putting your phone on Airplane mode. It’s for the easy, gorgeous meat of life. Meat like the meat inside a coconut.
When I was a little kid I liked small plastic figurines the best. I liked to carry them all around in a plastic grocery store bag and bring it with me everywhere; it was a comfort to me, I felt legitimatized by the proof of ownership. I had a sassy grey kitten wearing a diaper and sucking on a pacifier like it was a cigarette. If you put him in water his diaper would turn blue to say he was a boy. I had all of the Muppet Babies and a fuzzy naked raccoon who would fall over if you tried to stand him up. He was dead, I decided: the only possible explanation. There was a stonery skateboarding Boo Boo Bear and a squishy blushing bunny, Pinky, who was for bathtime. I liked them all as individuals, their cute own faces and distinct vibes, but my deepest pleasure came from gazing down at all of them together, one dazzling aesthetic cacophony, inside the bag.
Right now my phone background is a picture of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark Studios in Kingston, Jamaica. It is the only thing that has ever looked as good as looking down into that plastic bag.
This man is no minimalist. This is his space and it is his. Every inch of the wall is covered in a picture of something. There is a circular plaque of the scales for the Zodiac sign Libra, which is not even Lee Perry’s Zodiac sign. Somebody scribbled all over the plaque. There are Polaroid photographs of the Upsetters, and a wooden statue of a fish, hung north-to-south, mouth to the moon. Several framed portraits of Elie Selassie, and Lions, a ceramic owl, a star of David. Two playing cards: the Nine of Clubs, and the King of Hearts. Everybody wrote all over everything. A book about human anatomy is draped casually over the mixing board, open to a page about the inner workings of the circulatory system. A pamphlet, a zine, is shoved under the book. All of the amps and knobs and shit look like they’re about to fall apart from themselves. The headphones are fat wet goblets.
The whole image is thick with humidity, like all of the equipment has mould growing inside of it, and the pages of the books are about to curl up inside of themselves, like little shy flowers saying goodbye to the summer.
Every object is alive. Good vibes are palpable to say the least.
I am watching a video of Lee “Scratch” Perry recording a song at Black Ark on YouTube. It is in early seventies Sesame Street technicolour, and every person in the video is the most beautiful and best-dressed person I have ever seen. Lee Perry’s arms are cut as fuck and he is wearing a yellow tank top & teensy red running shorts. “There seems to be no kind of order or discipline,” notes the documentarian, “Scratch knows exactly what he wants, and the musicians respect that.”
Every person is smiling. The way Lee Perry moves, he is kicky and jerky, athletically navigating the knobs. The entire video, he is smiling. His smile is out of sync with his movements; he takes the music seriously, but not himself. It is not some sharp know-it-all grin but rather the softest, most beatific pure SMILE: a smile that designates happiness, and nothing else. It is the colour yellow.
Lee Perry is my guy, the one I care about the most. His music is messy and deranged and kooky and fluid and smooth. Loving Lee Perry is sort of like loving wine; he has made so much music that you can spend your entire life hacking away at it and you’ll still barely make a dent. There are glossy clubby Lee Perry dubs from the 80s and chubby good-natured Upsetters instrumentals from the 70s and sad slow Lee Perry dubs from no time or everywhere, faraway overcast sky sounds like you’re sixteen on drugs and time slowed waaaayyyyyy down and you’re worried it’s going to last forever but it didn’t: only seven minutes passed. Sometimes he’s a straight-up freakshow, disfiguring an easy groove with an ugly, guttural grunt; others, he’s more of a textbook swayey reggae guy, his thin dribbly voice bolstered by oscillating melodica. And his mid-sixties singles “People Funny Boy” and “I Am The Upsetter” are simply the most perfect three-minute pop songs ever written: Suck it The Beatles.
All of these Lee Perrys are very valuable in the moments I need them, but my favourite Lee Perry is singer/songwriter Lee Perry, Joni Mitchell/Todd Rundgren Lee Perry, when he sings songs that sound like they were written by an alone person, alone.
I’m a writer, so I have no choice but to do all my shit alone. My roommate is having a party as I write these words down. I can hear the people shouting in the background, and they sound like they’re having a nice time, but at the same time I know there’s no way in the world they’re having as nice of a time me, alone in a room, having all my stupid little writery fun with myself.
I like songs that sound like they were written by a writer: supported by no one, backed only by a malignant alphabet.
In the middle of January I thought I was dying of cancer. I went to the doctor’s and changed into a paper gown and a stranger rubbed some goo onto my body and rubbed a little charger over the goo. I left the place and listened to Lee Perry on the subway— it was the same as how the other night, my friend at work and I finished up with a difficult service and sat outside the restaurant and he said, “I just want to see a beautiful person, I hope that some beautiful people walk by us, so I can be reminded that beautiful things still exist in this world”— I understood.
I got off the subway and the cold was a ninety-degree angle, a gritty slice of Comte cheese. Lee Perry started singing “City Too Hot” on my headphones and it felt like a mean joke. Now it is July and we are having a heat wave and I love it. In the morning I do YouTube Pilates workouts in my bedroom and the beads of sweat on my shoulders look like glittering stars in the sky and when I hold a plank my hands leave sweaty handprints on the floor and I slip.
I love sweating. It means that I’m alive.
In the winter “City Too Hot” bugged me because I thought Lee Perry was complaining about the heat, something I felt he had no right to do. In the cold I feel like a sick shrivelled-up shrimp. The air is my enemy; it makes me feel decrepit and worse. In summer I seek out the sun; I travel to work a half hour early so I can find park my butt down on some curb down the road, splay out in a spot where the sunlight hits me directly. My tall-can of sugar-free Red Bull matches my baby blue sneakers, and the sun to my skin makes me feel like I’m an iPhone charging, with the lightning bolt in the middle of the tube. I think of my dead baby grandfather growing up on the streets of Casablanca, and I feel grateful for the cold-running Maghrebian blood he gave me, which allows me to be this person who has never had to fear the sun, be sunburnt, in her life.
In my safe-space of summertime I listen to the words of “City Too Hot” and realize that they’re not anti-heat; they’re about Lee Perry feeling the way he felt on the day he wrote the song, which is all I want art to ever be about. Mostly, he’s irritated by the dead-inside people he isn’t friends with louding it up on the streets of Kingston that night, all fiery and sexed up by the dirtiest depths of hot summer, and poor Lee Perry just wants to be alone! There is an immediacy and pragmatism to my favourite Lee Perry lyrics: in “Throw Some Water In,” a song that is basically just workout advice, he tells us, Service your body if you want it to function/ Exercise and build up your structure/ Go to sea and learn how to swim/If you can't afford up a gym. “City Too Hot” is similarly results-driven: City too hot? Okay cool fine. I’m going to go cool out on a hilltop. No use making a fuss about it
He’s just going to go breathe some palmy air and peacefully hang out with himself like a golden frog atop a mountain, sit solo and brainiac up some brilliant new groove that will delight and inspire a Canadian wine writer of French-Moroccan descent some forty-years in the future.
Hot is a word that can mean a million things. You make art for the people you make it for.