Real Life Rock (06/30/80)

A scene from The Harder They Come, a new novel by Michael Thelwell: It is 1950, and in the Jamaican mountains a sixteen-year-old boy named Ivan watches the drummers who have been brought to play at his grandmother’s funeral.

Bamchikolachi leapt to his feet… He was watching a spirit in the air, something no other drummer was able to do. His feet began to dance from side to side behind the drum, his hands flashed, his face contorted, his grunts became more explosive, then suddenly with a sigh the tension left him and he slumped down as though drained…

The women standing among those who were not dancing let out a cha­grined sigh, echoing his disappoint­ment, and then spontaneously they were singing:

Bright Soul,
Wha’ mek you tu’n back?
You come a River Jordan
An’ you tu’n back!
Bright Soul,
Wha’ mek you ty’n back?

Soon enough the drummer begins again; this time the spirit is ready to be received, and the drummer passes it on to the dancers.

Old Mother Anderson began to wheel and dip. White foam appeared at the corners of her mouth.

“Yes,” she assented, “ayah, yes, yes,” and she began to yelp and gib­ber as she spun and whirled across the circle like a great, white airborne bat, her robe fluttering in the firelight.

“Ah tell you!’ Ah tell you!” Maas’ Joe Beck cried, barely able to keep his seat. “She gone now!”

In its more than twenty years of exis­tence, Jamaican reggae in its many forms has made a single major breakthrough in the United States: Perry Henzell’s 1972 film The Harder They Come. Michael Thelwell’s novel (Grove Press paperback, 399 pages, $7.95) is a free and wonderfully detailed retelling of its story.

Henzell based his movie on the legend of Rhygin, a Jamaican gunman of the late forties. Moving the tale forward in time and adding a reggae subplot, he cast Jimmy Cliff as Ivan, the country boy who comes to Kingston dreaming of success as a singer and ends up on the top of the pop charts and the most wanted list at the same time. With a doomed but innocent hero, hot new music and an exotic setting, the film—probably understood by American audiences as Jailhouse Rock plus Black Orpheus plus Superfly—remains the sole Jamaican export to have entered the shared pop myth that works as the collective unconscious of contemporary popular culture. (Bob Marley has countered the prepolitical adventures of Rhygin-Ivan with a fully politicized vision of Jamaican—and, by implication, African and Afro-American—history; in this country, his best-known song remains “I Shot the Sheriff”—in which he plays the part of Rhygin-Ivan.)

Like all readily accepted myths, that of Rhygin-Ivan is comfortable. He’s Jesse James, a glorious victim. We recognize the contours of his story instantly—and his story fits all too easily into that grand, American-made pop myth. Thelwell’s novel is important because, as a black Jamaican, he takes the story back.

Thelwell came to the United States in 1959, took part in civil rights organizing in Mississippi and now teaches Third World literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He recognizes, is attracted by, the strength of Ivan’s reggae legend (created, as a film, by a white Jamaican), but he also sees its inadvertent falsity.
As a movie, The Harder They Come worked because it was fast on the eye. As a novel, it works because it is slow. We’d hardly met Perry Henzell’s Ivan before he arrived in Kingston; Thelwell takes more than a hundred pages to get him there. Long before Ivan reaches the celebrated concrete jungle of Trench Town, we’ve been given a feel for the courtly, deeply ordered farming community he comes from. Its traditions are rich and capable of renewal: Obeah, evil magic, coexists with the Bible, spirits with the legacy of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. This is an essentially African world: It is civilized where Kingston is Hobbesian, whole where Kingston is schizophrenic. In the city, the youths imitate gangsters from American movies, hoping to live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse.

Cops and judges imitate their European bosses, taking the first steps toward Third World fascism. Only the Rastafarians have a claim on identity, based on a consciousness of suffering—and on a return to Africa none of them will ever make.

In Thelwell’s novel, each aspect of Jamaican life throws every other into relief, calls it into question. Henzell had no time to imagine Ivan’s grandmother, let alone her funeral; quite properly, he let nothing interfere with the momentum that made his film so memorable. Quite properly, Thelwell lets everything interfere with Ivan’s momentum. His Ivan is most of all not conscious—he sees only what is in front of him. Running through the extraordinarily vivid patois that dominates the book, that in fact gives it its life, is the sense that Jamaica is unique, that it has a history that must be seized and continued, that its contours are those of no one’s myth, but remain to be discovered. Ivan’s tragedy is that he is smart, brave, even noble, but cannot do this work.

The passion of his grandmother’s funeral hangs over the book like a duppi (the spirit of the dead, which returns to do good or ill), but once Ivan has seen his first movie, that passion seems unreal: not something he has experienced, but an old story handed down by an elder. When, six years later, Ivan walks naked through Trench Town with a gun in each hand, bleeding from the bullet wound that will kill him, the duppi comes down, he feels it, and it is Kingston that seems unreal. The reader understands that the duppi, Trench Town, the Rastas and the cops are all real.

Henzell’s film was vulnerable to absorption by preexistent pop myths because it was narrowly focused: because it was an action movie. Because one wasn’t given a large sense of Jamaican life, Henzell’s Jamaica could seem merely exotic, not a threat to the expectations one brought to it. Thelwell’s Jamaica is not exotic. It is complete, or as complete as it can be within the borders of Ivan’s story. It demands that we take Jamaica and its music on their own terms—that we find out what those terms are.

The book’s main flaw is in its time frame. To catch the rhythm of modern Jamaican social history, Thelwell places Rhygin-Ivan’s story in the fifties; this requires him to put ska, inspired by mid-fifties New Orleans rock, into the late forties. Thelwell himself has said that the rural culture he depicts at Ivan’s grandmother’s funeral was of the thirties. A reference to Woodstock (just before his death, Ivan returns to his mountain birthplace, only to find that hippies have taken it over) places the end of the novel in 1969 at the earliest, though the book is meant to end in 1956. This isn’t just confusing: Because readers take the details of realistic novels as history, such novels must be based in the most scrupulous historical accuracy. The forces that shaped and are shaping Jamaican music make sense in Thelwell’s book; reggae’s actual development makes very little.

It seems likely that reggae will figure in the most important popular music of the eighties as profoundly as the once-scorned records of the Stooges, the Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart figured in the most important popular music of the seventies. Already, there is more reggae on American radio than ever before; already, you can hear its brooding epistemology, its use of silence and weight, in the sound of the Gang of Four, Public Image and dozens of other groups. And yet because, over time, Ivan’s legend has obscured rather than revealed what is distinctive, what is Jamaican, about reggae, we are not in a position to understand what we are going to hear. That is where Michael Thelwell’s The Harder They Come may make a difference.

As for the briefest possible reggae wrap-up: The ideal introduction to the music is the new six-volume Creation Rockers series (Trojan imports). Each album begins in the ska era and moves right up to the present… The most satisfying album I’ve heard this year is Pre-meditation by the Melodians (Angstar-Skynote Ltd. import), best known for their transcendent “Rivers of Babylon” on the soundtrack to The Harder They Come (Mango). Pre-meditation is a reissue of mid-sixties rock steady material: moderate tempos, subtle instrumentation and vocals by the great Brent Dowe—or the Sam Cooke duppi. Leopolds Records (2518 Durant Avenue, Berkeley 94703, 415 849-1027) has it in stock… Recommended new work: Ijahman’s gentle and probing Are We a Warrior (Mango), which might be called Post-meditation… Toots and the Maytals’ hard neo-ska Just Like That (Mango), not up to their finest but a definite rebound from the lethargic Pass the Pipe… and “English Black Boys” by X-O-DUS (Factory Records import), which can be found, along with plenty of other hard-to-get reggae, U.K. postpunk avant-garde, and general good advice at Rough Trade (1412 Grant Avenue, San Francisco 94133, 415 986-3675), the just-opened outpost of England’s most adventurous independent record company. They live for mail order…

Real Life Rock Top Ten

  1. Iron City Houserockers, Have a Good Time (But Get Out Alive) (MCA)
  2. Durutti Column, The Return of the Durutti Column (Factory Records import)
  3. Rodney Crowell, “Ain’t No Money,” from But What Will the Neighbors Think (Warner Bros.)
  4. Chuck Willis, My Story (CBS reissue, 1953-56)
  5. Pat Benatar, “We Live for Love” (Chrysalis)
  6. Tonio K, “Say Goodbye,” from Amerika (Arista)
  7. X, Los Angeles (Slash)
  8. The Cure, “Jumping Someone Else’s Train,” from Boys Don’t Cry (PVC)
  9. Lester Bangs, Blondie, a biography (Simon and Schuster)
  10. Peter Gabriel, “Games Without Frontiers” (Mercury)

New West, June 30, 1980

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