01 Sep "REASSESSING THE BRILLIANCE AND BELLIGERENCE OF REGGAE's TOSH"
The Boston Globe
September 1, 2003
by Christina Pazzanese, Globe Correspondent
When it comes to reggae music, there’s Bob Marley and then there’s Everyone Else. Fair or unfair, much of the world’s awareness of reggae begins and ends with Marley, first as a member of the Wailers and then as a larger-than-life solo artist.
But the bright light of Marley’s talent and charisma too often eclipsed other deserving talents, especially those of his gifted Wailers partners, Neville “Bunny Wailer” Livingstone and Winston “Peter Tosh” MacIntosh.
Defiant, uncompromising, and a magnet for controversy, Peter Tosh was a “Stepping Razor,” as he sang of himself. The re-release of seven mid-career solo albums on CD, including his only live album, may give fans a chance to reassess his complicated legacy.
“He’s one of the most overlooked figures,” says noted reggae historian and collector Roger Steffens, who interviewed Tosh on a dozen occasions, the final time just days before his murder in 1987.
“When I hear Peter’s name, the first thing that comes to mind is ‘freedom fighter,'” says Neville Garrick, a longtime Wailers associate who worked as the group’s art director. Garrick was one of the few people to maintain an active friendship with all three Wailers after their breakup.
Outspoken if not militant, Tosh didn’t just sing about revolution – he was an outlaw in his own country in many respects. In April 1978, as Tosh stood smoking a huge spliff before an audience at the “One Love Peace” concert in Jamaica that included
Prime Minister Michael Manley, opposition party leader Edward Seaga, and an assortment of police and dignitaries, he intoned fa mously, “I am not a politician; I jus’suffah de consequences.”
Tosh then decried the government’s entrenched corruption and broken economic promises, as well as the police-led campaign against Rastas and marijuana smokers and growers, before launching into a blistering rendition of his own protest, “Legalize It.” The singer paid the price for his candor months later when police arrested and beat him mercilessly for hours, leaving him for dead on a downtown jail-cell floor.
Steffens attributes Tosh’s diminished stature both to his unwillingness to court the white rock media that descended on Jamaica in the 1970s to cover Marley and to Tosh’s distaste for reining in his legendarily acid tongue.
Perhaps it was also a matter of bad timing for Tosh. By the time Island Records released the Wailers’ debut, “Catch a Fire” in 1973, the Wailers as a trio had already been recording together for a decade with seminal Jamaican producers such as Lee “Scratch” Perry and Joe Gibbs.
In the end, there would be only one more album, “Burnin’,” before damaged egos and disputed finances finally pushed Tosh and Wailer out permanently.
Both of them arguably did their best work after leaving the Wailers.
Tosh’s first two solo efforts for Columbia Records, “Legalize It” and “Equal Rights” are now acknowledged classics. His backing band featured a young Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare working at their creative peak.
The records brilliantly addressed two issues with which Tosh would soon become synonymous: the decriminalization of marijuana and the demand for justice and equality.
When Keith Richards and Mick Jagger heard Tosh performing in Jamaica in 1978, they offered him a contract on their fledgling label, Rolling Stones Records. The resulting albums, “Bush Doctor” and “Mystic Man,” are part of the seven-disc reissue series, which also includes Tosh’s later work for EMI, “Wanted Dread & Alive,” “Mama Africa,” and “Captured Live,” as well as his last, the posthumous “No Nuclear War.” A forthcoming greatest hits compilation will round out the set.
The series updates a 1996 reissue effort by EMI but now includes “Bush Doctor” and “Mystic Man,” two records that haven’t been out on CD in “a very long time,” says Kenny Nemes, EMI product development manager. Nemes says all six discs include completely remastered music, alternate versions, and previously unreleased archival material, as well as new photographs and liner notes that include interviews with Tosh and various band members.
The series captures Tosh at difficult career junctures. No doubt anticipating substantial commercial success for “Bush Doctor” and “Mystic Man” with the clout of the Rolling Stones behind him, Tosh clearly had to have been disappointed with the lackluster sales, given the critical and financial success of his Columbia work.
Further, many long time fans of Tosh’s heavily political roots reggae rejected the various attempts to mass-market Tosh during his EMI tenure: “Don’t Look Back,” the 1978 duet with Mick Jagger that delivered Tosh to the rock audience Marley already owned, along with their December 1978 performance on “Saturday Night Live,”fueled criticism that Tosh had sold out.
By 1981’s “Wanted Dread & Alive,” Tosh saw Sly & Robbie, his ace rhythm section, depart to pursue their exploding studio career. But on “Mama Africa,” his so-called comeback rec ord, he was revitalized by the musical and cultural influences he picked up during his extended sabbatical in Nigeria as a guest of master drummer Babatunde Olatunji.
The title track, with its juju-style guitars and heavy roots- reggae rhythm, is a timeless gem, a blueprint for the African-reggae genre that grew in the early ’90s thanks to artists such as South Africa’s Lucky Dube.
Perhaps the most important release of the series is the newly expanded two-disc set, “Complete Captured Live.”
“It’s one of Peter’s finest performances,” says Steffens, who attended Tosh’s last LA concert, in 1983. With his revised backing band, Tosh restored his reputation as a phenomenal live performer in what would become his final US tour. Michael Collins, the disc’s producer, also filmed the sold-out show, which is on the DVD “Captured Live,” due out Oct. 1.
The widespread perception that he and Bunny Wailer were nothing more than Marley’s backup singers, or “luggage,” as Tosh once said, was a perennial sore spot. Although songwriting credits on nearly all the early Wailers tracks listed Marley as the songwriter, it is commonly known that all three wrote such classics as “400 Years,” “Stop That Train,” “Stepping Razor” (famously recut by Tosh for 1977’s “Equal Rights”), and the anthemic “Get Up, Stand Up.”
Whether the EMI reissues will reinvigorate interest in Tosh and his body of work is unclear. Certainly a talent and personality as large and complex as his deserves the thoughtful first-rate treatment given here.
As Tosh explained his artistic motivation to the Boston resident and Marley biographer Timothy White, who died in June: “All I have is humiliation and aggravation. That’s why I write the kind of songs I like, because who feels it, knows it.”