Undercover: Summer Reading (08/07/80)

Nearly everyone with the slightest interest in reggae has seen Perry Henzell’s 1972 film, The Harder They Come–indeed, most of us may have always judged the music against the images of the film. Michael Thelwell, a black Jamaican who teaches literature at the Univer­sity of Massachusetts, says that with The Harder They Come (Grove, 399 pp., $7.95 paper­back) he “tried to write the novel from which the film might have been derived were the process reversed.” He’s succeeded: reading Thelwell’s reimagining of the tale of reggae singer and cop-killing outlaw Ivan, you can’t help but think of what Hen­zell left out.

The novel turns on Thelwell’s decision to write the dialogue, and much of the narrative, in Ja­maican patois: “Ah six pickney me lef a yard, stop de raas bus, Ah say” It’s a risk; the same sort of choice made a mess of Alex Haley’s Roots. There, slave speech sounded forced, second-­hand, and it robbed the book of credibility. In The Harder They Come the strange, occasionally impenetrable talk of country folk, rude boys and Rastas draws you in like a never-ending, prosaic incantation, and the action surrounding speech is so vivid you confront the dialogue as a new sound, a new way of making sense of the world. After a hundred pages or so, you don’t even need the glossary Thelwell has appended: you can almost understand a conversation by its rhythms.

Behind Ivan’s story, Thelwell has placed the story of the coarsening of Jamaican life over the last fifty years: the story of how racism, a colonial past, street violence, the violence of multinational capitalism and the Rastafarians’ withdrawal of legitimacy from Jamaican society has produced a situation in which open warfare has become an integral part of Jamaican electoral politics. In such a context, the glamour and excitement of Ivan’s legend, while never compromised, no longer overwhelms Jamaican history as such–nor does Ivan quite work as a symbol of that history. Rather, he disappears into it, and thus Jamaica itself becomes visible.

The 500-foot rock bookshelf

Rock Family Trees by Pete Frame (Quick Fox, $7.95 paper­back). Anyone who’s seen Frame’s hand-drawn genealogical charts in Zigzag or on LP jackets knows how wonderful they are; this book, superbly printed and complete with huge fold-out pages, collects thirty heroically detailed personnel reconstructions, some covering mere bands and others entire musical movements. The charts of U.K. punk and L.A. country rock are so complex, and yet so elegantly organized, as to defy credibility; crammed into every corner are discographies, quotes, critical opinions, good stories and rumors just shy of confirmation. Frame may be the most obsessive fan rock & roll has ever known–and the only true pop lunatic to have kept both his sanity and his sense of humor.
Whitburn
Top Pop Artists & Singles: 1955-1978, by Joel Whitburn (Record Research, Box 200, Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin 53051, 662 pp., $50 paperback, plus $1.25 postage). Whitburn is also an obsessive, and his compilations of Billboard chart information are the essential rock reference books: if he’s yet to make an error, I’ve yet to find it. This enormous volume (perfectly cross-indexed, with side comments and death dates noted when relevant) is meant as his masterwork. It contains only one flaw–but that flaw is fatal. Previously Whitburn listed a record by the date of its chart entry, which, while not as good as the actual release date (in many cases, impossible to ascertain), at least allowed one to come up with a decent picture of pop history. Here, Whitburn has let his passion for ranking an artist’s records trash the usable past. Not only are discs listed in order of “popularity” (according to a wholly arbitrary chart-posi­tion/weeks-on-chart formula), but the date given is now that of a record’s highest chart position, which may not even fall in the same year in which the record was released. I shelled out fifty bucks for this book, and all it’s done is confuse me.

View From a Broad, by Bette Midler, photographed by Sean Russell (Simon and Schus­ter, 160 pp., $12.50). A world-tour diary. Shock: it’s a winner from first page to last.

Small Labels Catalogue 1980 (Record Business Publications, Hyde House, 13 Langley Street, London WC 2, 47 pp., $1.25 plus postage). Listing more than 3750 discs from 380 labels (it says here; I didn’t count), this booklet is a great service to the collector and all that, but most of all it’s fun. As a guide to the labyrinth of independent record production in the U.K., it contains so much unlikely information you’re less apt to read it than play with it: to use the thing as raw material for crossword puzzles, “celebrity” or punch-drunk solipsistic awards ceremonies. (Best label name: Dining Out. Most cultish: Plan 9. Best song title: “Caucasian Guilt.” Best group name: European Music Authority. Album on which Blind Boy Grunt most probably plays harmonica: The World’s 100 Best Loved Hymns Volume 4 by the Cregagh Presbyterian Church Choir…) And isn’t that what rock & roll is all about?


Rolling Stone, August 7, 1980


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