Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Bob Marley, Ska, Skinheads and Sir Charles Comer

I always instinctively knew how to play Reggae. Part of that, no doubt, came from listening to my father’s Calypso and Tango records. 

But Wexford also had a very informed music scene, probably because so many locals spent time working in London; whatever was happening over in the “big smoke” was soon rocking our pubs and dancehalls.

Thus did Ska - Reggae’s forebear - gain a foothold with Wexford’s aggressive Skinhead community.

This puzzled me since Skinners weren’t known for their love of Black people; yet they would have died for Prince Buster, the Jamaican King of Ska.

However, I was to discover later that Wexford’s affinity for Reggae and Ska ran much deeper, Ireland being a major source of Jamaica’s DNA. 

That came about through the longstanding rivalry between England and Spain. The English, in their magnanimity, offered freedom to certain Irish slaves and indentured servants if they would move from Barbados to Jamaica and protect the island from an expected invasion.

The Spanish invasion never materialized but Irish and Africans intermarried leading to the lilt of Jamaican patois and the music of this beautiful but troubled island.

Fast forward to New York in the 1970’s. The era tends to get a bad rap nowadays because of the crime rate, but for young musicians the city was a paradise. 

You could live for practically nothing down in the East Village. And that’s where Pierce Turner and I ended up among poets, painters, musicians, and the general dispossessed.

Philip Glass, then a taxi driver, lived upstairs from us for a time and we could hear him rehearse his meisterwork, Einstein on the Beach.

We also used to trek uptown to attend the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park. Before shows we often dropped into The Irish Pavilion on E. 57th Street where manager Joe Ruane would always buy us a round in his ongoing efforts to support Irish musicians.

‘Twas there we met Sir Charles Comer, Publicity Manager for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records.

Charlie – one of life’s great characters - had come over from Liverpool as a “go-fer” for The Beatles and worked his way up to knighthood in the adrenalized world of Rock & Roll publicity where he also represented Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Chieftains.

Charlie loved Turner & Kirwan of Wexford and was thrilled that we not only knew the names of his clients on Island Records but would also go to their New York shows.

Thus did we attend Bob Marley and The Wailers first concert in New York City. This event changed my life and a decade later I experimented with Reggae by way of such Black 47 standards as Fire of Freedom and Johnny Comes a Courtin’.

It was a hot steamy New York summer night. A thick haze of marijuana hung in the air as Turner and I worked our way up to the stage. 

The audience was mostly Jamaican with a generous sprinkling of music cognescenti attracted by the paltry $3 admission.

What a bargain to see Bob Marley at his prime. Even now I marvel that his music is still so fresh and vibrant though he long ago achieved universal legendary acclaim.

The Wailers were one of the great live bands: their earthy groove shook Central Park, and I-Three, the backing singers led by Marley’s wife Rita heightened the expectation with their hummed harmonies.

Then Bob seemed to float out from the wings. He began with the exhortation to “Lively Up Yourself “and well over 10,000 people proceeded to do just that.

Sometimes he played a golden Gibson Les Paul, more often than not he danced himself into a chanted trance, and we joined him there for the next two hours. 

At one point he descended from this ethereal high to sing “No Woman No Cry”, and you felt like you were back in the Jamaica of his youth eating “oatmeal porridge in a government yard in Trenchtown.”

Pierce and I eventually floated back to the Irish Pavilion, our lives forever changed by this Rastaman wizard. 

Joe Ruane bought us another round and, along with Sir Charles Comer, we toasted Bob Marley and how he had reunited the African and Irish diasporas on a magical evening in the New York City of the unruly 1970’s.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome short comments on Belfast Media Group blog postings but you should be aware that, since we've put our names to our articles, we encourage you to do so also. Preference in publication will be given to those who provide an authenticated full name — as is already the case in our newspapers. Comments should be short and relate to the subject matter and, of course, shouldn't be libelous. And remember, if you find that there isn't enough space on our blogs for your views, you can always start your own. There are over two million blogs out there, another one can only benefit the blogosphere.