Bob Marley with a Bullet

It I dream, mon, every Rastamon's dream, to fly home to Ethiopia and leave a-Babylon, where de politicians doan let I an'I brethren be free an'live we own righteous way

August 12, 1976
Bob Marley on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Bob Marley on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

Man to man is so unjust
You don't know who to trust . . .
Who the cap fit
Let them wear it

—"Who the Cap Fit" Rastaman Vibration


Two heavy Sahibs are presiding over a small dinner party in the Jonkanoo Lounge of the Sheraton-Kingston. In the background the house band is playing calypso versions of such Rum Culture standards as "You Go to My Head" and "I Get a Kick Out of You." They are Chris Blackwell, the young Jamaican Caucasian heir to a tea and spice plantation who founded Island Records, and Michael Butler, the "hip millionaire" who backed "Hair.'

Butler is in Kingston in connection with a new reggae musical he hopes to put on the Broadway boards by next fall. It will be called "Irie' and presumably it will do for the Armageddon of the Rastas what Butler's previous production did for the Aquarius of the hippies.

Asked if he intends to hire a real Rasta cast, Butler yawns. "Well, I'd like to . . . but I don't know how many Rastas belong to Actor's Equity in New Yawk."

The two young millionaires look like two peas in a pod. But it becomes obvious that Blackwell is not all that thrilled about Butler's intention to translate his beloved roots music into a slick Broadway musical. Until a few years ago the rip-off on the grand scale was standard practice in Kingston, with greedy shyster producers paying musicians $10 or $15 for a session and pocketing the royalties themselves. Black-well is credited with almost singlehandedly changing all that; he at least pays his artists advances and gives them a fair share of the royalties, and the precedent he set forced other labels to follow suit. He is also most responsible for spreading the gospel of roots beyond the Trench Town ghetto and the Third World. He did it by literally busting his hump – pedaling around London on a bicycle in the mid-Sixties with stacks of singles under his arm, personally delivering product to record stores and hustling disc jockeys to at least give a listen to this contagious roots music of the Jamaican Rude Boys.

There is this story they tell, possibly even true, about the incident that made Black-well devote his life to spreading the fever. It, seems that some years ago, Blackwell's car broke down in the Blue Mountains – Rasta country – and he was forced to seek shelter in one of their primitive encampments. Being white and growing up in Jamaica, Blackwell was understandably wary of the Rastas. But when the righteous brethren extended hospitality as though he were one of their own, he dedicated himself to making the indigenous roots music of these good and much maligned people a household word on both continents.

Thus, when it is suggested that it would be ironic if Michael Butler rather than Bob Marley finally breaks reggae in a big way in the States, Blackwell says, "Yes, that would be most ironic indeed."

Then Butler asks, "By the way, Chris, where does one go to hear some good live reggae music here in Kingston?"

A sly Cheshire cat smile spreads across Blackwell's face. "I'm afraid, Michael, that one doesn't," he answers. "You see, reggae isn't really what you would call a live music per se . . . The only place it really exists is on record."

Butler is crushed, but Blackwell isn't quite finished. "I'm afraid, Michael, that the only live music you're going to hear in Kingston is the kind of terrible tourist crap we're listening to right now," he concludes, as the house band climaxes, loud and corn-ball, its raucous calypso rendition of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

Didn't my people before me
Slave for this country
Now you look me with a scorn
Then you eat up all my corn

—"Crazy Baldhead" Rastaman Vibration

The first time I met Rastafarians in any significant numbers and felt the full impact of the wild, freaking frightwigs they call dreadlocks up close was over at Tommy Cowan's rehearsal studios, in a small stucco building surrounded by several dilapidated shacks on a back lot in North Kingston. Six or seven Rastas and three white visitors were crowded into a small room filled with ganga smoke, listening to a new single, "Babylon Queen-dom," by former Wailers rhythm guitarist Peter Tosh. There was a lot of sly signifying going on.

Tosh showed up at the studio wearing a "Legalize It" T-shirt (a promo item for his single of the same name – banned from the public airwaves but available in every ghetto record stall) with wildass natty dreads wigging out and probably enough cannabis resin in the Sherlock Holmesian "chalis" jutting out of his Fearless Fosdick jaw to put him in the Herb Jail until such time as Babylon finally saw fit to fall. In other words: a Rasta right down to his corn plastas.

Back in the mid-Sixties Tosh, Bob Marley and Bunny Livingstone had formed the island's most popular recording group in the Trench Town ghetto when they were still called the the Wailing Rudeboys. Tosh was here, talking with Gregg Russell, a sullen young man with one wild dread sticking smack out of the center of his forehead like a rhino horn. Like most Rastas who chain-smoke the sacred herb as a sacrament, Russell appeared to be semicomatose.

The only Rasta who looked slightly less than righteous was Tommy Cowan, a beefy record producer whose relatively tame dreadlocks seemed not quite kosher. But Cowan thrust a fist into the air with the others and said, "Jah Rastafar-I" with the same righteous fervor when Tosh sang, "Babylon Queendom, take back your dollahs!"

Considering that these very Rastas were compromising their staunch separatist principles for nothing other than Babylon's despised dollars by consenting, however reluctantly, to this experiment in culture shock and publicity which had come to think of as the "Greening of the Rastafari," the line seemed ironic indeed. But when I mentioned this to Tosh, he patiently explained that the money of Babylon was mere paper which would be useless when Babylon finally fell.

"Render unto Caesar what be his, mon, and giveback what mine," he said, seeming very satisfied with himself for coming up with just the right quote. "Let de Rum Culture keep dem paper money, mon, paper dat is so cheap it not even suffice for rollin' de spliff!"

Ganga has never exactly been legal in Jamaica, but nobody in the Rum Culture got excited about the Rastas and their copious dope smoking until rumors of "a cult of violence" started a campaign of constant police harassment which continues to this day.

"Dem dat enforces de laws of de Rum Culture claim de Herb Mon him violent," said Tosh. "But dem no notice when de Rum Mon crash his car into de schoolbus an "destroy all de innocent childrun inside . . .  Dem claim de Herb Mon him kill, but it de Rum Mon who murder in a drunken rage – yeh mon! Herb Mon him no kill . . . him jus' sharpen de blade, sharpen an' polish de blade while meditatin' on him revenge . . . Den him smoke anodder spliff an' him get to feelin' righteous, mon, an' sleep, forgettin' to commit de crime!"

Then a new face appeared in the door, sniffing suspiciously and saying "Phew, mon, what dat smell in heah?"

The outsiders must have been anticipating the same hippie in-joke about the heavy ambiance of dope in the room until he let go with the punch line:

"Mon, it smell like Am-ur-i-ca in heah!"

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