"Peter Tosh, Reggae's Rebel"

27 Sep "Peter Tosh, Reggae's Rebel"

New York Times
September 27, 1987

ON SEPT. 11, PETER TOSH was senselessly murdered at his home in Kingston, Jamaica, at the age of 42. Since Bob Marley had died of a brain tumor six years earlier, two of the three founding members of the Wailers, the Beatles of reggae, are no more. Now it’s up to Bunny Wailer to carry on an extraordinary tradition.

Tosh’s sad death prompts a reconsideration of his legacy, especially since his first studio album in four years, “No Nuclear War” (EMI America ELT-46700, LP and cassette), was released here almost simultaneously with his death, and since the first Tosh CD, a reissue of his first solo album, “Legalize It” of 1976, has just appeared on the mid-price Columbia Collector’s Choice series (CK 34253).

The Wailers emerged from the Trench Town slum of Kingston, Jamaica, in the mid-1960’s. By the early 70’s, they were far and away the most popular and admired of all reggae groups, even if Jimmy Cliff, with his sterling tenor and starring role in the film “the Harder They Fall,” still surpassed them in international fame.

But in 1973, Tosh (born Winston Hubert McIntosh) and Mr. Wailer (born Neville O’Riley Livingston) left the group, after the release of its first Island album, “Catch a Fire.” Originally, the trio had shared lead vocals and songwriting – there was yet another male singer and one woman vocalist at first, but they departed early on -even if Marley was perhaps the most often featured. The 1973 breakup followed years of tension about Marley’s growing prominence and, it was said at the time, the fostering of that prominence by Island and Chris Blackwell, the label’s owner and chief producer.

To call the Wailers the Beatles of reggae is an attestation to their popularity and influence, not an evocation of their sound – although there is a wonderful photograph from the mid-60’s, worthy of a time capsule, showing the three young men in dark mod suits and shiny leather shoes. Even with the admixture of various pop sweetenings in the 70’s, and with the shifts of reggae fashion within Jamaica itself, the basic Wailers sound was always darker, more sinuous and more urgent than the brighter Beatles.

In that sense, the truer parallel is the Rolling Stones, so it was not surprising that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards took an interest in Tosh, signed him to their own label in 1978 and appeared with him on his “Bush Doctor” album, which included a Tosh-Jagger duet on the Temptations’hit, “(You’ve Got to Walk and) Don’t Look Back.”

Even in that early photograph, Tosh stands apart, taller than the other two and ominously masked by dark glasses. If Marley’s was the charismatic centerpiece of the original Wailers, and Mr. Wailer seemed the quieter mystic, then Tosh’s image was the aggressive fighter, the juvenile delinquent turned artistic and political revolutionary. He was the John Lennon of the Wailers, sometimes abrasive and sometimes erratic and always outspoken, even when being outspoken didn’t always serve his best purposes.

The exact circumstances of his murder have not yet come out, and they may never. At first the killing was described as a petty crime turned ugly – three men breaking into the Tosh home, forcing him and the other six people present to lie down, ransacking the house for cash and then shooting all seven, killing Tosh and two other men. More recently, however, it turned out that at least one of the killers knew Tosh, casting some doubt on the random violence theory.

Still, the irony remains: Tosh was brought down by the very ghetto violence from which he had emerged, and which he had fought as hard as he could to alleviate. His best early songs (one of his first contributions to the Wailers was called “I’m the Toughest,” but above all there was “stepping Razor,” with its remarkable evocation of swaggering yet fearful underclass assertion) caught this dangerous mixture of street-punk violence and nascent political protest.

That got him into trouble, countless times. In 1978 he took it upon himself at a Kingston stadium concert to harangue the Prime Minister at the time, Michael Manley, and his conservative opponent (and current Prime Minister) Edward Seaga -both of whom were in the front row -about the evils of politics, the destitution of the poor and the hypocrisy of outlawing “ganja,” or marijuana. Five months later, Tosh was beaten senseless by the Kingston police, who also broke one of his hands; he showed the scars on the cover of his 1979 album, “mystic Man.”
Even by then, Tosh and the other Wailers had fallen under the influence of the Rastafarian sect, that volatile blend, still only dimly understood outside Jamaica, of black self-assertion, belief in the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s divinity and use of marijuana as a sacrament. Increasingly, his songs preached a more conciliatory mood, still raging against the evils of a system that perpetuated desperate poverty but holding out an image of a divine love, as well. All of which made his murder at the hands of three of Kingston’s most desperate poor all the more ironic.

Tosh’s American albums don’t do him full justice. He is better heard on some of his self-produced singles of the 70’s, released in Jamaica and due for a memorial anthologizing in this country. And at his best he was a mesmerizing live performer, lanky and charismatic and capable of spinning out what on a studio LP might seem formless and perfunctory into a tribal chant of enormous power (some of that impact is conveyed by his “Peter Tosh Captured Live” LP of 1985).

The albums produced under the Rolling Stones influence are too diffuse, and the latest record, while it contains some nice hymnal Rastafarianism on the second side, doesn’t match his first two Columbia albums. Of those, “Legalize It” (“it” being marijuana, of course) has its distinct merits. But the winner is its sequel, “Equal Rights,” which offers his version of the Wailers anthem “Get Up, Stand Up” (which he wrote with Marley), the apocalyptic “downpresser Man,” the haunting “I Am That I Am,” “stepping Razor” and a strong second side of political and Rastafarian numbers. Columbia should reissue that one on a CD as soon as possible.

Despite its huge influence on English and American rockers, reggae never quite caught on with the mainstream American audience as much as its most fervent proponents had hoped; it was too exotic and cultish for that. Personally, Tosh could be irascible and, to Americans (white and black), confusing, simultaneously arrogant and defensive.

But with his songwriting, his choppy rhythm guitar-playing and his rasping, forceful baritone, he was a reggae artist of unique accomplishment. Bunny Wailer can never take his place, just as Tosh rightly resisted any notion that he could replace Marley; they were all their own men. But it would be wonderful if the last remaining original Wailer could now step forward, out of his preferred posture of shy self-effacement, and carry on the legacy of one of the great bands of our time.