Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Peter Tosh: A Lifetime Of Trick Language

Twenty-five years ago today, Peter Tosh (born Winston Hubert McIntosh, on October 19, 1944) died in mysterious circumstances, after enduring hours of brutal extortion and torture at the hands of three armed men. Depending on which account you read, Tosh's murder was either a robbery attempt that went horribly wrong, or a conspiracy orchestrated at higher levels (stemming from his intention to bid for control of Jamaica's national radio broadcasting network, an angle explored in the documentary Stepping Razor: Red X).

Frequently forgotten, amid all this morbid speculation, is Tosh's keen lyrical wit, and satirical inversions of the English tongue, which he often called “trick language.” I first came across his sensibility in the summer of '81, at a used record store, on the Ball State University campus (Muncie, IN). I was in town for three weeks of journalism and forensic speaking camps, and had a fair bitt of free time on my hands – which meant seeking out the fellow record collectors that I met in my workshops, and making the pilgrimage with them, in quest of those obscure, untamed sounds.

And there, in this hole-in-the-wall shop, is where I picked up Equal Rights (1977), which most commentators have saluted for its re-working of the Wailers' standard, “Get Up, Stand Up” – the only one  to be recorded separately by the group's featured vocalists, Tosh, Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer – and “Stepping Razor.”

However, being an aspiring lyricist myself, I picked up on “Downpressor Man” – versus what you'd normally expect, “Oppressor Man” (“DOWN-pressor” versus “UP”-pressor, right?), and the title track, which is one of Tosh's most enduring anthems (“I don't want no peace/I want equal rights, and justice”). That's an important distinction: what's the point of pacifism, I hear him saying, if you can't speak freely, and get the same treatment as everybody else?

Having discovered reggae that summer – and, honestly, driving my parents, classmates and anybody else in shouting distance crazy, by playing LPs like Babylon By Bus for countless hours – Equal Rights spent a lot of serious needle time on my turntable, as I tried to decode those squiggly rhythms on this horrible cheap bass guitar and amp that I'd only just bought, inspired by the likes of Paul Simonon, Jah Wobble, and the Wailers' Aston Barrett...it made for a lot of frustrating afternoons and evenings, as I asked myself, just how DO they make those sounds, anyhow? Having a soundtrack like Equal Rights didn't seem like a bad start, in my eyes.

Snce Tosh's death, writers have tended to focus on the bad boy image – an easy option, given the photos of this towering dreadlocked rebel, who often played a guitar shaped like an M-16 rifle. It's not hard to easy why any discussion of Tosh's music often seems to begin – and end – with “Legalize It,” his pro-marijuana anthem, or the urban bad boy declarations of “Steppin' Razor” (“If you wanna live, you better treat me good”).

However, there's a wealth of material to be uncovered, for those who want to dig a little deeper – such as on “The Day The Dollar Die,” which finds Tosh at his most impassioned, and eloquent: “I see Johnny with his head hanging down/Wondering how many shillings left in that pound/Cost of living is rising so high/Dollar see that, had a heart attack and die/Bills and budgets awaiting/Finance Minister is anticipating/Unemployment is rising/And I hear my people, they're crying”). Another of my personal favorites -- and one that hardly anybody mentions these days -- is "Fools Die," which is making the Youtube rounds as we speak: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDbicVxyzBY

That's only one example, and that's before we get to Tosh's interviews, which were always a feast for Trick Language Aficionados everywhere – whether in referring to “Boo York Shitty” (New York City), “Chris Whitteworse” (Island Records supremo Chris Blackwell, whom Tosh saw as too eager to promoting Bob Marley as Wailer-in-charge), “Christopher Come-Rob-Us” (Christopher Columbus), “Crime Ministers” (prime ministers), “Damagers” (managers), “Lucifer Son Of Devil” (LSD, not a favored drug in Rasta circles, then or now) “Reducers” (producers), “Shitstem” (system), and many, many more – all evidence of a vivid creative imagination, one that reviewers often (wrongly) dismissed as strident, or overwrought.

Then again, if people didn't get the message, that's understandable. Unlike many of his cohorts, Tosh was unwilling to back off – a posture that nearly cost him his life in 1978, at the hands of a beating from Jamaican police. Compromise adds zeroes to paychecks, especially in the music business, though Tosh's signing to Rolling Stones Records apparently did little to help him reach quite the same superstar heights as Bob Marley.

That being said, Tosh's strange death coincided with one of those mysterious comeback cycles that the Music Biz Gods love to serve up – his final effort, No Nuclear War, would win a Grammy for Best Reggae Album of 1987. If he was watching from a cloudbank somewhere, Tosh would surely have enjoyed the irony – especially after reworking the Chuck Berry standard, “Johnny B. Goode,” to gain airplay for Mama Africa (1983), the last album to appear during his lifetime.

And what would he make of the same Jamaican government that he often roundly condemned as deaf to poor peoples' concerns making plans to award him its Order of Merit?  Time has also apparently caught up with the critics, as well, following the re-issue of Equal Rights and his first solo album, Legalize It (1975), in special deluxe Columbia Records editions. Also in the pipeline is a Tosh bio-pic, directed by his friend, Lee Jaffe, and Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDaniel.

All these developments appear to confirm the wisdom of Tosh's most oft-quoted remarks about songwriting: “Words are not things that should be taken the way they are pronounced, so be careful of the words that you use. Try to define them spiritually within yourself before you use them.” In a time when pop musicians seem to have less and less to say, does this mean that we'll see a new generation of “Intelligent Diplomats,” brandishing an equally militant sensibility? Time will tell. – The Reckoner

Jamaica Observer: Young Tosh Reflects On Father's Work


Jamaica Observer: Finding Tosh's M-16

Peter Tosh Dictionary

This Piece of History (M16 Guitar) Should Be In A Museum - Copeland Forbes

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