Peter Tosh: Many people will fight you down when you see Jah light

Many people will fight you down
When you see Jah light

There’s a whole world of reggae fans who see Bob Marley as a musician who sold out his career to make pop songs. Others observe that after an attempted assassination attempt, it was natural for Marley to row back on his more militant politics. Peter Tosh also suffered for his crusading views, and took physical and emotional beatings for his works, but it only made him more determined. Even Tosh’s friends were inclined to describe him as bigheaded, arrogant and eccentric – but was Tosh only trying to protect his integrity in a world awash with pretenders? John Masouri has just produced  the first biography of the reggae star in The Life of Peter Tosh: Steppin’ Razor.

Tosh was much loved as a musician and singer but UK writer John Masouri’s biography sometimes makes for uncomfortable reading, though it’s a welcome addition to the library of serious music fans. Even those who loved Tosh found him to be difficult but Tosh had little time for ceremony in a world that he considered fundamentally unjust. Its subject proves to be a complex and unforgiving character with little of the ‘Redemption Song’ vibe that warms the hearts of Marley fans. “[Bob] was singing commercial songs acceptable in a commercial world” says Tosh, “but I sing songs of protest.” The book is generously leavened with anecdotes and juicy incidents, and readers will approach Tosh’s music with an extra layer of appreciation.

Peter Tosh is probably the greatest figure in reggae music after Marley. There are, Masouri notes, very few biographies of major reggae artists, which reflects the second-place that’s often assigned to reggae, despite its massive fan base worldwide. While Bob Marley’s life and times is the subject of countless biographies, Tosh has been ignored until now, perhaps for the same reasons that Chris Blackwell – known typically by Tosh as Chris Whitewell or even Chris Whiteworst – identified Bob Marley as the most marketable of the Wailers. As such, Masouri’s book is also about psychology, compromise, social discourse and human nature.

When archivist Roger Steffens asked Bob Marley how he felt about having so many white people in his audience, Marley was not too bothered, although he was upset that he couldn’t reach a black audience in the USA. Tosh, in contrast, was terribly vexed that he couldn’t reach that black audience. Deeply influenced by black nationalist philosophy, Tosh looked around himself and wondered why white men (including Marley’s biographer Timothy White) were denigrating reggae music and trying to defame his character and work. Marley, guided by Blackwell’s astute marketing and promotion, along with his own not inconsiderable songwriting gifts and charismatic performances, was prepared to compromise and rose to international superstardom at a speed that flummoxed Jamaicans. The Marley family have famously dominated the Grammy Awards for years, and Bob Marley continues to dominate digital reggae sales, relegating all others to also-rans. The uncompromising Tosh, meanwhile, charted a course that was uncannily similar to that of Fela Kuti. Tosh was well aware of the power of legacy, and planned to produce his own autobiography. He started recording himself and those tapes eventually formed the basis of the Stepping Razor: Red X documentary.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion now that Peter Tosh was simply ahead of his time. Had he survived into these times, it’s entirely likely that Tosh would be making a fortune advertising ganja in Colorado and Washington. He was one of the first musical artists to call for legalisation, and famously offered to advertise it in ‘Legalise It’. Tosh’s management, trying to generate additional income for the singer, managed to come up with an offer for Tosh to advertise bud – as in Budweiser’s Bud Light beer. Tosh would only have to say four words (‘This Bud’s for you’), he was told, in exchange for a considerable sum. Tosh declined the offer, and it’s quite difficult to imagine drinkers of Bud Light readily identifying with the militant Rastafarian. Tosh didn’t drink alcohol and he certainly wasn’t going to promote it. Tosh instead was seriously devoted to herb, and other writers have noted that Tosh would disappear in search of rumoured strong herb instead of staying at work. His devotion to the herb freaked out even some of his band members, as Tosh insisted on lighting up on commercial flights and in fancy New York restaurants. Masouri recounts that when someone stole Tosh’s stash of herb during a visit to California, Tosh called the police to report the robbery. An advocate of natural medicine, Tosh’s insistence on carrying vials of various (legal) herbal tinctures caused him so many problems in customs that his band eventually travelled on different flights. “Was Peter Tosh his own worst enemy?” writes John Masouri. “Possibly, but he wasn’t two faced…”

Forget what you’ve heard or read about Rastafarians not being involved in politics. Tosh supported the PNP during the 1972 and 1976 election, and was an admirer of Michael Manley, though he later became disenchanted with the entire political apparatus. Tosh was fond or bending the language to better convey his message and he had an acute understanding of politics. Politics became politricks, and the system became the shitstem. Tosh pondered deeply on problems and his insights were often brilliant. In ‘You Can’t Blame The Youth’, Tosh nails a central hypocrisy in Western education: how can we teach children that pirates and slavedrivers are great historical figures worthy of emulation, and then complain ‘when they don’t learn’:

When every Christmas come
You buy the youth a pretty toy gun.

Masouri has written about the Wailers before, in Wailing Blues, and is under no illusion about the seamier side of the reggae business: he seems to accept that the Wailers was eventually too small to accommodate the talent and egos of Bob Marley, Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh. There’s no way really to totally separate the stories of Marley and Tosh, even after they have parted ways, and a previous attempt at a Tosh biography foundered on this particular obstacle. On the first two Wailers albums for Island, Tosh was credited with just one song (‘400 Years’) on Catch A Fire and with one song (‘One Foundation’) on Burnin’ along with a co-credit on ‘Get Up, Stand Up’. Tosh and Bunny Wailer suspected that Blackwell was pushing Marley as the marketable face of reggae music.

Masouri’s conversation with guitarist Al Anderson is particularly revealing about the guitarist’s loyalties, though he served both Tosh and Marley. At the famous peace concert in Jamaica in 1978, Marley drew prime minister Michael Manley and opposition leader Edward Seaga onstage to join hands, in an iconic but ultimately misleading image. When Tosh took the stage, he ordered cameras to stop filming, before delivering what Masouri calls “the most incendiary speech in reggae history” – simultaneously writing himself in and out of history. The incident sums up the contradictions of Tosh’s life. Tosh’s speech outraged the Jamaican police and establishment, and months later the police took their revenge, taking Tosh to the police station and beating him savagely for an hour, despite the attempted intervention of Marley and other people. The beating left Tosh with lasting damage including blinding headaches and broken hands and contributed, in the opinion of his acquaintances, to a decline in Tosh’s physical and mental health in the following years.

Even fans of rock music often have copies of Bob Marley’s Legend and Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come and Legend, of course, was a victory of marketing. Although an album of Tosh’s greatest hits would perhaps not measure up to Marley’s greatest hits (despite their overlapping careers as Wailers) circumstances militated against Tosh. Tosh’s music was spread across several labels, and lacking a pivotal figure such as Chris Blackwell, there was no-one to draw together Tosh’s legacy. Elsewhere, we find that Tosh’s influence has simply been written out of musical history. While Keith Richards features prominently in Masouri’s biography, Richards’ own biography Life does not make a single mention of Tosh, despite the fact that the Rolling Stones label brought Tosh on board partly as an effort to give Richards a sense of purpose during one of his low points in the late 1970s.

Tosh simply doesn’t come across as a mellow type, though Masouri does attempt to separate the private and public personas of the performer. Tosh’s detractors were legion, but Masouri is particularly critical of the UK music press, who railed against Tosh for his perceived departure from ‘authentic’ reggae. (Melody Maker named Tosh ‘Fruitcake of the year’.) It’s not clear to anyone who has seen the Red X documentary, but Tosh had a redeeming sense of humour. When Tosh became interested in martial arts, he got the other Wailers to try to rush him in order to practice his defenses, somehow reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau and Cato.

Marley’s rising star lifted the reggae scene in general and although Tosh is not content to play second fiddle, he soon gained his own contract and sets about releasing a slew of highly-regarded and uncompromising albums including Legalise It, Bush Doctor and Equal Rights. He retained his dignity even in the face of being courted by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, who craved Tosh’s militant and uncompromising aura. For comedy value, check out the video (below) of Tosh and Jagger singing ‘Don’t Look Back’ can see Tosh cringing as Jagger minces alongside him, looking completely bombed.

At times, Tosh comes across as superstitious and misguided. Although he’s badly in need of interested backers, he’s occasionally blind to those who genuinely want to help him. Jerry Garcia, leader of the American psychedelic rock band The Grateful Dead, became a huge Tosh fan, coming to the live shows, and wanted to sign Tosh to the band’s own label. When Garcia of the Grateful Dead finally got through to Tosh on the phone, Tosh told him: “You’re called the Grateful Dead, right? Well, you should be fucking lucky to be alive”, before hanging up. Tosh wasn’t alone in this regard, as Jerry Garcia received a similar response from Bob Marley when he tried to offer Marley a contract.

Tosh seemingly had no consistent advisor to moderate his wilder impulses, and his friends and acquaintances were standoffish towards his later girlfriend Marlene Brown, who declined to be interviewed for the book. When one acquaintance inquired what Tosh will do with the money from an advance from Colombia Records, he responded that he’ll use the money to arm freedom fighters in Africa. It was this type of rhetoric and intention that frightened the life out of conservative music industry bean-counters.

Tosh is often found railing against both real and perceived slights, often to comical effect. When disagreement arises between Tosh, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare during the Mystic Man tour, the musicians refer to Tosh as ‘Mistake Man’ while Tosh refers to the musicians and ‘Slime’ and ‘Rob Me’. They later make up though when Sly and Robbie want to introduce Black Uhuru to the world by bringing them along on one of Tosh’s world tours, Tosh opposed the idea, unwilling to share the limelight; similarly he got vexed when Rolling Stone records tried to sign Max Romeo. Other more menacing incidents presage darker moments towards the end of his career. At one stage Tosh threatened Chris Blackwell with a machete; in later years, he actually attacked and hospitalised former allies. In 1987, in an incident still shrouded in mystery, Tosh was murdered by gunmen in an attempted robbery at his home in Kingston, but Masouri puts paid to rumours that Tosh’s attempt to buy the RJR radio station was the reason for the assault.

Steppin’ Razor suffers occasionally from an uneven mix of present and past tenses, and is perhaps overlong in its efforts to anecdotally flesh out the complexities of Tosh’s personality and career. In mitigation, the anecdotes are often the best parts of the book as they allow various characters to speak for themselves and there is rich detail and enough juicy gossip to power a reggae soap opera. There is no discography, which Masouri says was an oversight by the publishers, who also apparently omitted the acknowledgements. You can’t help but feel that Masouri saw a lot of these stories first hand yet he’s admirably even-handed. For all his mysticism, idealism and magical thinking, Tosh emerges from this book as a very human being and John Masouri has done reggae history a service.

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