Do suburban white kids still listen to reggae? Before the internet, and without a radio station to show me myself and goad me to a scene, music was my brother’s school jazz band, car rides with my parents’ home-dubbed cassettes (Rubber Soul, Hank Williams, old tapes of Ruth Brown’s Harlem Hit Parade radio show) and afternoons with my best friend Drew at the city library music shelves.
I still think of Everett’s library. There must have been a lonely and brave soul somewhere in their purchasing office behind the stacks, because their music selection was weird, brave, and beautifully cosmopolitan, a cry into the vacant vast surrounding of Navy yards, shady cul-de-sacs, and slumbering malls. Drew and I fixated on Rounder and Trojan’s old reggae anthologies. Ska was cool that year, so, thanks to our anonymous librarian, we followed it backward to its Jamaican progenitors– groups like the Skatalites, who played commercial dance music, a hard-offbeat open-air-dancehall take on American R&B– but where we really sank in was into rocksteady.
That slowed-down (Jamaica’s summer 1966 was supposedly too hot for ska’s quick clip), re-Africanized, and increasingly political reorientation of Jamaica’s music spoke to us. Our vague alienation felt some answer, I guess, in the tension, urgency, and militant stirrings of the music. As a suburban youth-grouper, I found the might of Rastafarian prophecy transgressive and familiar at once. And, of course, we worshipped Lee Perry, the ranting mystic and studio wizard, whose beats sounded tough and whose productions sounded (in its parched vocals, sudden bursts of found sound and toasting, and dissolves into echo) three-dimensional. Give Me Power, one anthology said simply. The harmonies on its title track (from one of Perry’s many one-and-done groups) were delicate, the sentiment was mighty, and the strength couldn’t be shaken off.