The making of Peter Tosh Live at the One Love Peace Concert

BY ROGER STEFFENS

Sunday, April 22, 2018

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NOT long after the historic One Love Peace Concert was held on April 22, 1978, I met photographer Peter Simon. Reggae Bloodlines, his book along with writer Stephen Davis, was the first North American look at the vivacious reggae culture of Jamaica, following the same path around the Isle of Springs that my wife Mary and I had taken in June of 1976.

Peter had managed to plug into the soundboard at the peace concert and gave me a tape of the tumultuous performance that night of Peter Tosh. That, coupled with Carl Gayle's transcription of Tosh's incendiary “livatribes” in his magazine Jahugliman, convinced me that this singularly powerful event was something that everyone should be able to hear and read.

I lobbied for decades for someone to release a CD of the complete performance. Word had it that there was no video of this transformative event because Peter had demanded that videographers turn off their lights and cameras and stop disrespecting his rights. It was one of the biggest mistakes of his life. Had he allowed the filming, the full strength of his righteous fury would have been seen for all time to come, cementing his place in the pantheon as an absolute equal to his old partner, Bob Marley.

Danny Sims, the controversial music producer, decided to resuscitate his JAD Records label in the mid-1990s, and brought me aboard with French polymath Bruno Blum, to release all the 1967-1972 Wailers recordings. Many of these were previously uncollected, seven-inch rarities like Tread Oh, Sugar Sugar and Selassie Is The Chapel, songs worth hundreds of dollars in the collectors' market. Three box sets and other anthologies were released through the early part of this century.

The Tosh estate, through their lawyer, was then brought aboard as partners in three albums that would feature some of Tosh's finest works. I envisioned an album that would combine some of his most interesting interviews with a broad range of acoustic solo performances, called I Am That I Am. A second album would be of Tosh's fiery performance at the giant World Music Festival in the fall of 1982 in Montego Bay, which inaugurated the Bob Marley Centre there.

But the gem in the trio was the long-anticipated One Love Peace Concert performance, with all the speeches intact. Peter Simon provided the master tape and I put together extensive liner notes in conjunction with Carl Gayle and Tosh's then manager, Herbie Miller.

It was crucially important to me that we print the patois-filled actual words Tosh spoke that night — words that led to his being brutalised almost to death a few months later by the forces of Babylon in whose faces he had blown spliff smoke from the stage that night. And, in order that foreigners could better comprehend what he was saying, I asked Herbie to “translate” the text into standard English. In the accompanying booklet there are side by side transcriptions of both patois and English versions of Peter's condemnations of the ruling class, so that there would be no doubt whatsoever what he was saying.

Miller recalled that, “When it was suggested that there be a peace concert, and that Peter should participate in it, he was a bit hesitant. His reasoning was that all of the people involved in this peace initiative were people in Government and street toughs, who were really the ones who created this violent environment. So to Peter, these people could not bring peace unless they themselves were out of the picture. The event was important. He wanted to lend his voice to it, yet at the same time he didn't know how he could trust the people who were really presenting it.”

Peter's ebullient Irish publicist, Charlie Comer, described the scene from an onstage perspective: “We were surrounded by guns, all brand new guns! Hundreds and hundreds of them, machine guns! And I took Mick Jagger down there and we were on the side of the stage. I loved when Peter said, 'I don't want peace, I want justice,' and actually took the spliff and blew it right in their faces. Manley and Seaga were in the second row for protection, all the press were in front of them. They were gonna get shot first before the prime ministers, that's for sure!”

Jim Lewis, director of the Peace Concert film Heartland Reggae, remembers the events in similar fashion. “It was, like, on the edge. The audience vibes were very positive and they were going with it. But, on the other hand, they were also in check because anything could have happened. I felt this kind of elation, but reserved. It was very different, a non-joke concert. No one was clapping for the sake of clapping. If you clapped, you meant it.”

Ace photographer Adrian Boot adds, “The moon was directly above the stage and the air was crackly, thundery, as it so often is in Jamaica. So, there was this full moon and clap-claps of thunder — all of this sort of meteorological symbolism adding to the mystique of the occasion.”

Much had been made at the time about Peter's supposed criminal vulgarity, although an examination of his actual language shows that he spoke many sound-alike versions of the infamous B C swear words.

Sly and Robbie, working for Peter's Word, Sound and Power band, took a sizzling instrumental break in the midst of a ferociously propulsive 'Burial'. As it rippled to its boiling point, Robbie danced over toward Peter. “I told him to talk at that part. Me and Sly picked the spot where he talked. We decided on the spot. But, you know, the way people talk about that night — there wasn't really a lot of bad words, only one or two.”

As Tosh burst into his blistering diatribe about the concept of peace, his inevitable word play came to the edge of citable public lewdness. Demanding the legalisation of herb, he juggled some of Jamaica's foulest curses, turning them on their ears with his own sound-alikes like “bongo clippins”, “blood baat “(bath) and “Rasta Castle”.

“If it was for me alone,“ Tosh chided, “every police station would be closed and police would be home sleeping and hugging up his wife.” Then, his voice turning to ice, “This is just a system laid down to belittle the poor…Each time I go to jail it is only poor people I see in there…When Columbus, Henry Morgan and Francis Drake came here they were called pirates and were put in our school books for observation so that we could look at and live the life of pirates…I am not a politician, but I suffer the consequences.”

The condemnation was swift and self-righteous. The following day's newspapers ran accusatory stories blaming Peter for embarrassing the nation and disrespecting authorities. Rather than concentrate on what he was saying and taking his words with the seriousness with which he uttered them, the Jamaican press was filled with feigned, smug shock at his audacity.

Five months later, Peter was busted for smoking herb, dragged to a local police station, and thrown in a cell with seven cops. He was clubbed with a wooden baton for a reported 90 minutes, till his skull burst open and his brain could be plainly seen. It was a wound that took more than 30 stitches to close.

Tosh told me that the only reason the beating stopped was because he knew how to roll his eyes up into his head, pretending he was dead. His brazen bluster that brave night in Kingston's National Stadium will never be forgotten. Tosh didn't just talk the talk, he suffered the consequences thereof.

Roger Steffens is the author of So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley from W W Norton.

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