'I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.' - Bruce Lee


Toots & The Maytals

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 24, 2014
Category: World

The Filson Briefcase

THE MOVIE TO SEE: There’s really only one, unless you like robot warfare or a dead woman’s eyes in a foreign child. “Chef” is funny, profane, timely, what used to be called “a romp.” You will cheer for the chef, fall in love with his kid, smile knowingly at his co-workers, his lover and even his mean boss. And you will, I promise, leave the theater smiling. Just watch the preview — delightful, yes?

WEEKEND CLASSIC: This week was more of last week. Enough. Time for joy. And this voice delivers nothing but.

The year was 1973. The Harder They Come was a cult movie, and my friends and I listened to the soundtrack like addicts. I mean: 24/7. The Wailers (before Bob Marley became God and the group was relegated to back-up status) came to town, and I met them, and Toots and The Maytals came to town, and I met them too.

Toots Hibbert was more fun. We zoomed around in my friend Steve’s open-air Jeep one night like the college kids Steve and I almost were. Toots came from a very different background, to say the least, but it was his good mood that pushed us onward. But then Toots always seems to be in a good mood.

We wanted to believe that we were on the ground floor of reggae, and he let us. Much later, I did the research and discovered that Toots had helped pioneer the music about a decade before I happened upon it. The son of a Seventh Day Adventist minister who preached in the Jamaican hills, he grew up dreaming of Kingston. He migrated there in the early 1960s, got a job in a barbershop, and hooked up with two other country boys, Raleigh and Jerry.

Toots is the Jamaican blend of James Brown and Otis Redding. He has a voice like a rasp — he can shout all night. Short, barrel-chested, endlessly smiling, he loves to perform, loves that people like his singing, loves the idea that music can bring people together in a way that fuses spirituality and, well, sex.

Toots and The Maytals had some hits in Jamaica, and then, in 1966, he was convicted of what he calls "a trumped-up ganja charge." In his words:

I didn’t have any ganja, I didn’t even start smoking yet. They didn’t have no cause to do that, but they found some cause. People try to do things to hold you back in life. So they put me in jail for about nine months or so, and that’s where I wrote the song (“54-46, That’s My Number”). They gave me the privilege of using my guitar. I didn’t have to do other work, just play guitar.

And then, in 1968, Toots and The Maytals recorded "Do the Reggay," the song that named the music. As he recalls:

There was the beat in Jamaica, reggae was played long before I started singing. And there was a slang, like a nickname for someone who don’t dress properly — like if you are barefoot, people would call you "streggae." They say, "Hey, that guy is streggae, don’t talk to him." If a girl don’t dress properly, like don’t have on any top, they call her streggae. So one morning, we just said, "Let’s go along and do some reggae." Those days we’d just make stuff up, anything. A bird flies around the corner, you write a song about it. So we just say (singing): "Do the reggay, do the reggay," and that’s it. A few words, y’know? And nobody paid it any mind until it started to go all over the world. I saw it in the Guinness Book of Records. So I thank God that I did something good, and I didn’t even plan it.

By the time I met this modest, friendly guy, he was huge in Jamaica, having already recorded most of his 31 hits. [To buy "The Best of Toots & The Maytals" from Amazon and get the MP3 download free, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

Naturally, his countrymen were crazy about this:

I’d only seen "The Harder They Come," and was hooked on the addictive “Pressure Drop.”

This CD collects the Greater Hits. There are more to come; clearly, he’ll go to his grave singing. He should. "I try to give my audience the real everything," he says. By which he means: music that makes you get up and dance.

Many make this claim. But by mixing R&B and reggae and his own beautiful soul, Toots pulls it off. He’ll never be as rich and famous as Bob Marley was, but he’s plenty satisfied with what he’s got. You will be too.

Short takes

Two-thirds of a terrific book about “The Great Gatsby”

Did the film of “The Great Gatsby” leave you with Fitzgerald fatigue? “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby” will revive you. Better, it will excite you, for Sarah Churchwell, professor of English Literature at the University of East Anglia, has focused on a single year — 1922, the year “Gatsby” was conceived — and delivered an original way to read the book.

1922 was the year the “Twenties” happened, and Churchwell gets it all: the dancing and boozing, the new slang, the lights and noise of Manhattan. And she chronicles, in greater detail than I’ve read elsewhere, Scott and Zelda. He kept detailed notebooks and scrapbooks, and they chart a year of ruin, much of it on the North Shore of Long Island: “February: Still drunk… April… Another fight. Tearing drunk.” His household budget recorded $80 a month to “house liquor” and $100 to “wild parties.” (In 1922, Fitzgerald averaged 100 words a day; elsewhere in 1922, Eliot published “The Waste Land” and Joyce published “Ulysses.”) So when Fitzgerald produced “Gatsby” in 1925, people read it the way we once read Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” — as a novel of current events. Riveting stuff. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

If “Careless People” is so hot, why doesn’t it get a feature review? Because a third of the book is given to a sensational 1922 crime, the double homicide of an Episcopal sexton and a choir singer. The investigation was botched and the crime was never solved — it was just the kind of scandal that makes headlines and stays news. Churchwell believes Fitzgerald used the case to plot some of “Gatsby.” Maybe he did, but I tired of it quickly; if I had been Churchwell’s editor, I would have begged, on bended knee, for her to cut it. So will you. But if you skip that murder — Lord, that sounds strange — “Careless People” is a revelation.

Tom Fels: Shadow Work

When Tom Fels, my old friend from the sixties, isn’t curating exhibitions or chronicling the era we once shared (most recently, Buying the Farm: Peace and war on a sixties commune) he works in what he calls the “supply side” of the arts, in this case photography. Over the past few years he’s been making three-by-two-foot cyanotypes in a process nearly as old as photography itself, but rarely seen in recent decades. His lush, sensuous work is featured (until September 7) at the Albany Institute of History and Art.

Blackie: The Horse Who Stood Still

I can now reveal that Paige Peterson, the New York artist who became world famous for illustrating my adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas Carol, has illustrated another book. It too has an unlikely hero: a horse that stood for 28 years, pretty much without moving, in a California field. Blackie had been a rodeo horse and a crowd-pleaser at Yosemite, but it was his late-life career as a fixture in Tiburon that’s celebrated in Blackie: The Horse Who Stood Still. As a child, Paige would bring him sugar and carrots; in this book, with a rhymed text by Christopher Cerf, she feeds us quirk and whimsey. Ideal for kids who have exhausted the Dr. Seuss books and who may not be ready for Tiny Tim.

Reader Mail (Advertisements for myself)

From Paul Zengilowski

My children will turn 19 and 21 in a few weeks and the birthday gift choice falls to me. My wife and I bought them books by the bushel when they were young — some they chose, more often though, we exercised our parental prerogative. That stopped as they entered their mid-teens and felt more confident in their choices than in ours.

I’ve not bought them books in years — with two exceptions. The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias, was a high school graduation gift. Knowing that having the money talk with them would be fruitless, I passed on to them my financial bible. I’d read it when it was first issued and it has served to keep me mostly on the financial straight and narrow over the last 30 years.

The second exception is their birthday present for this year: The 100 Essentials. Should they read only those two books, I’m confident they’ll enter adulthood with important and foundational knowledge that will serve them well.

from Marcie

You recommended Queen’s Gambit to me about six weeks ago when I asked for the most grabable book you could think of. I loved it. It’s difficult to articulate precisely what the dark magic of that book is, but I found it fascinating — the characters, all of them, were like no others I’ve encountered. The relationship between Beth and her adopted mother was so subtle. I love that Tevis never capitulates to cliché or sentimentality. Elegant. Thank you for urging me to read it.