The Reggae Road to Damascus: A Conversion Story

Everybody was crying, crying
Sighing, sighing
Dying to see the light
And when they see it, they see it’s not bright
Can this be right?
–Toots and the Maytals, “Pomp and Pride”

The Younger J has recently defended reggae as a genre (although perhaps not as much as about his love for pedal steel)—he will defend it against detractors and argue that it demands respect. I won’t debate this with him (because he’s right), instead I want to tell you another story. It is not a real story in that occurred in real time; it is the fabricated narrative of the mind—the tale of how I stopped worrying and learned to love reggae.

This is a story because it has a beginning middle and end; it is Aristotelian even in that the main character—me—undergoes a reversal and recognition. (There’s even a prophet in it, if we can call my brother that.) See, I used to hate reggae. I used to loathe it. It gave me psychic hives. Now I like reggae, I even love some of it. That’s the reversal. The trip to the recognition takes a bit longer.

Act I: The hatred

My dislike of reggae has its origins, as in most of my inexplicable and visceral prejudices, not in the genre but in the ‘milieu’. If you grew up in as white an area as the Younger J and I did, the only people you would know who liked reggae (with some exceptions) would be stoners.

For reasons that may or may not become clear in future entries, I didn’t really hate stoners, but I always hated the notion that doing or being something (e.g., a theater kid, a football player blah, de blah, de blah) necessitated signing on to a script, a concrete series of associations. People who smoked the ganja, those who jived with the jibba or who were one with the weed, all seemed to like and do the same things slavishly. You know the role: tie-dye t-shirts, patchouli, fucking burlap sweatshirts, phish bumper stickers.

The Horror. The absolute horror.

Now, I had many friends who were exceptions to this (and parents of friends as well), tokers who didn’t take on the whole persona. But, almost without exception, they all liked reggae. And I, my friends, just didn’t get it. I found the rhythm off-putting, true. But I found the Bob Marley t-shirts, the one-love invocations, and the goddamn rainbow color schemes ridiculous.

So, I decided, without analysis, without good reason, without reflection of any sort to hate reggae. And I did, with a zealot’s fervor. My brother, even young, told me I was wrong. But I ignored him. That’s what you do to prophets. (Or you stone them…)

Act 2: The confirmation

After high school, my arbitrary decision bloomed into full hatred. This hatred embraced Bob Marley specifically. And it all had to do with a restaurant and a six CD changer that was only half-full.

One summer I had a job bar-tending and waiting tables at a restaurant in a resort community. Because the whole town was a tourist trap, the manager decided to give the restaurant an ‘island’ feel (a strange choice on the North Atlantic coast; but this restaurant was doomed to fail). To complete this atmosphere of inflatable palm trees and poorly named tropical drinks, the music had to be thematic.
There were three CDs in the player for the entire summer. The machine shuffled between them. At most, there were three hours of music. One CD was some strange mix of eighties songs (“Do you really want to Hurt Me”; “Roxanne”; etc.). Another was Jimmy Buffet (I don’t know why paradise has a fucking Cheeseburger but merely thinking about it makes me angry). The third was the Best of Bob Marley.

Now, I was unfriendly to Reggae to begin with. After three months of hearing “Buffalo Soldier” and “One Love” every three hours almost sixty hours a week I was a homicidally insane despiser of Reggae.

Act 3: The Softening

The softening of my stance towards reggae has two influences, one of which is, admittedly, lame. The first is age: no one can stay angry about something stupid forever. Who can maintain a zealous prejudice against something as amorphous as a genre? (That’s not the lame part, unfortunately.)
The lame part is that as I aged, I also made several trips to the Caribbean and countries surrounding it. There, especially in the tourist areas, even if you are as far away from Jamaica as New England is, reggae is ubiquitous. It plays in open squares on staticky speakers. Bands drone through Marley covers in hotels, on cruise ships, in bars. Karaoke singers choose mostly reggae hits.

What a stereotype
At some point, during one of my sojourns, I found myself on the deck of a softly rocking boat, a drink in hand (and several more behind me), moving under a sharp sun in a cloudless sky with reggae all around me. As I moved, I was moving with and to the music. I felt it suffuse me. I felt at one with it, the sun and the waves.

Then I stopped. I looked around me and thought, “shit; as usual, I am an asshole. I have mocked reggae for years and here I am, a tourist, a colonialist, the whitest man in the universe suddenly having a quasi-religious experience where I “get” reggae as part of a calculated island-faring fantasy.
So, I dismissed it, even as I kept moving the same way. I accepted my part in the fiction; but I didn’t tell anyone. Officially, I still didn’t like reggae.

Act 4: The Recognition

Here’s where the prophet returns. A few years after my island adventures, I received a CD from my brother as a present. He told me not to be an ass, not to prejudge the CD by its cover. He predicted that if I listened to it, I would like it. I would more than like it.
The CD was the compilation Funky Kingston/In the Dark by Toots and the Maytals. I had never heard of the band, therefore I had no prior misconceptions or prejudices. I loaded the songs onto my iPod. They sat there a few days. While riding on the subway (after recently fending off another question from my brother about whether I liked his present) I selected the band and pressed play.

The first song, with a nice lead guitar line and some well-arranged horns, wasn’t like the soporific reggae I was accustomed to. But it was the second song that changed me. Or maybe I had changed enough to respond to it. “Pomp and Pride” is a revelation of—musically, vocally, structurally, lyrically, it may be one of the best songs ever written and recorded.

The song builds from an initial snare-drum call through a horn-arrangement over a dub-esque bass-line alongside a surprisingly complicated guitar line with an organ in the background to a song that is practically all chorus. Typically, songs that are all on that high-plateau bore me, because they seem static. The static volume of the song belies its dynamic status—it moves and changes as you listen to the lyrics that are, despite the happy, even carefree, feeling of the song, fatalistic and resigned. The contrast is moving, jarring, and, true to life.

I listened to it six times in a row. I got off the subway, ran to my apartment, and made my wife (then fiancée) listen. She looked at me, the reggae hater, like I had lost my mind. I had to admit to my years of wrong-mindedness. I begged for absolution. She shook her head in resignation. When we picked songs for our wedding, “Pomp and Pride” was my first choice.
I won’t spend any more time describing the rest of the CD in detail. To the song, it is almost perfect. Toots’ voice is a gift from heaven, gravelly and tone-sweet. The arrangements of the songs are perfect—they make use of the bands’ various strengths and always leave you wanting more. Toots’ covers are almost always inspired; some of his experiments are harrowing (I may have developed a totally different attitude towards religion if I had heard Toots’ rendition of the Lord’s Prayer at a younger age.)
Is there a lesson here? Obviously there is one about the folly of pre-formed opinions, about the ignorance of allowing the disagreeable aspects of a subculture prejudice you against everything that the culture has to offer. I can’t say I have completely overcome my ‘issues’ with reggae—I still can’t listen to Bob Marley—but my twelve-step program is working.
And you, brother?  Have you met any similar changes of fate? Or has age yet to work its magic on you?

2 comments on “The Reggae Road to Damascus: A Conversion Story

  1. T.A. Gerolami says:

    I tried to win you over with the soundtrack to The Harder They Come and Desmond Dekker (I know, more ska than reggae, but still) back when we were roommates, but I guess you needed more time.

  2. […] Marley and maybe a little Toots Hibbert.  Since then, he has spent considerable time getting into reggae and I now get to reap the rewards of exposing him to it so many years ago. I love this song and have […]

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