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The Cosmic Journey of Jimmy Cliff

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A lot happened on Cliff's first trip to New York: Blackwell happened to be at the World's Fair and saw Cliff perform for the first time. Cliff, meanwhile, had one of the key musical experiences of his life, getting his mind seriously blown by James Brown at the Apollo. "I had friends who worked on the cruise ships, and they used to come back and tell us about how they saw James Brown or Martha and the Vandellas there," Cliff says. "So when I went to New York, the first thing I wanted to do was to go to the Apollo."

Outside the Apollo, Cliff was handed a newspaper called Muhammad Speaks. Already interested in Malcolm X, he headed to Harlem's Temple No. 7, where he met Louis Farrakhan. "I became part of the Nation of Islam for a while," Cliff says, a move that was met with derision from the media and from musicians back home. "That was a big thing," he recalls. "'Wow, what's Jimmy doing over there? He's supposed to be over here.' But, you know, it was my journey."

Cliff no longer adheres to any formal faith, but he's always been a seeker: He has spent time in ashrams in India, adopted and left behind a more traditional Islamic faith in Africa, studied Shaolin kung fu with two different teachers.

But that hard-to-pin-down identity probably hurt Cliff with American reggae fans – along with records that strayed far from the roots sound Marley popularized. In the years after The Harder They Come, Cliff grew into a stadium-level act from Nigeria to Brazil, while his legend faded in the States. There were occasional flashes of sideways success, like his co-starring role in the corny 1986 Robin Williams comedy Club Paradise, or Springsteen making "Trapped" a hit via the We Are the World album. But by the turn of the millennium, he and America had mostly abandoned each other. "I had one agent who kind of robbed me of a lot of money," Cliff says of the years he stopped touring here. "I wanted to come back organized."

After the Hall of Fame, the timing seemed right, but there was one thing he needed to have in his pocket to really reintroduce himself properly: "I needed a really good record."

'How fun was that?" asks a slightly winded Tim Armstrong, rocking a Sixties-cut black suit and a fedora cocked back to reveal a slice of heavily tattooed scalp. "Jimmy sounds strong, huh?" It's the April night before Coachella's first weekend, and the Engine Room, the band Armstrong assembled to back Cliff on the new LP, have just blasted through a supremely high-energy dress rehearsal in a hangarlike studio in North Hollywood. "He just loves performing," the 46-year-old Armstrong says, shaking his head in awe. "Whether it's playing in front of three people or 30,000, he's bringin' it."

Just a few minutes earlier, Cliff – wearing a different cool Windbreaker and matching snap-brim cap – was twirling, leaping, duckwalking and kung-fu-ing his way through the set, with Armstrong and the Engine Room skanking away behind him. On tunes from "Afghanistan" (a modern-times version of "Vietnam") to a punchy, muscled-up cover of Rancid's "Ruby Soho," the sound is pure Leslie Kong: chunk-a-chunk bass, spiraling Hammond organ, sun-kissed horns, Showtime at the Apollo backup vocals and Armstrong plinking away on his beautifully battered Gretsch guitar. "These guys are crazy trainspotters," says "Native" Wayne Jobson, a reggae DJ friend of Cliff's from the old days. (He's also an old buddy of Keith Richards' and the co-executive producer of Richards' two deep-roots reggae records with Wingless Angels.) "This stone-crazy punk guy can tell you what amp, what strings were used in 1968 at Treasure Island [studios]," he adds, marveling at the performance he just witnessed. "The guys in Jamaica don't know that stuff anymore. They know dancehall and some reggae, but not the rocksteady."

It's a chilly, wet, bummer of a week in L.A., but when the band leans into Cliff's version of the Johnny Nash classic "I Can See Clearly Now" and Cliff lets rip with a gates-of-heaven-worthy "briiiiiiiiiight sunshiny day," it suddenly feels as if Earth has shifted slightly closer to the center of the solar system. As soon as the song ends, Cliff calls for "The Harder They Come." The band cranks up around him, and suddenly I start to feel this crazy serotonin-surge of joy radiating from the base of my skull, the kind of pure happiness that reminds you that we really do live in a wonderful world full of beautiful people, despite all the evidence to the contrary. "I hope it rains tomorrow," Armstrong says on his way out of the studio. "And then – right when we play 'I Can See Clearly' – the rain stops."

Armstrong gets half his wish. The next afternoon, for the first time in the desert festival's history, rain is spitting down on Coachella, as the monster main-stage PA sways ominously in the wind. It's pretty much the most un-reggae weather this side of a blizzard, and the festival feels depressingly empty. Cliff's set is scheduled to begin at 5:10 p.m., but as the hour comes and goes, the only people onstage are a bunch of tech-crew-looking dudes pointing in a concerned way at the rigging and conferring intensely as the wind picks up.

Finally, 20 minutes behind schedule, Cliff and the Engine Room appear onstage, facing a sparse crowd. After all the time we've spent together, knowing how titanically great this show could be, I'm simply crushed on Cliff's behalf. But then something magical begins to happen. As the Engine Room kick into "You Can Get It If You Really Want," fans start streaming away from whatever buzz band is playing on the neighboring stage. They leave behind the dance tent's apocalyptic boom-boom-boom and the VIP zone's B-movie actresses and the beer gardens' booze. Cliff – in a spectacular gold and black getup and matching, vaguely Karate Kid headband – begins laughing happily as the fast-swelling crowd responds with an affirmative roar when he shouts, "How you feeeeeeelin'?"

Suddenly, the air fills with the smell of Cali medicinal weed, and some guy with an enormous Jamaican flag appears as if out of nowhere and begins majestically waving it above the crowd. By the time Cliff revs up "Many Rivers to Cross," I'm surrounded by a vast – totally, completely, fully psyched – audience, all warming themselves in his musical sunshine. The rain never quite stops, but somehow it doesn't matter. Because Jimmy Cliff is singing "I Can See Clearly Now," and he's about to do "The Harder They Come." And for now, at least, that feels like all the sunshine anyone could ever need.

This story is from the July 5th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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