Monday, April 04, 2005


it's taken me a surprisingly long time to get round to reading this 'other' Bangs collection, and it's pretty damn good. Of course, there's a lot wrong with Bangs and his writing, but his passion and his bitching and his honesty win you over...

There's a flawed but fantastic piece in this book called 'Innocents In Babylon' about an Island Records-funded press junket to Kingston in (I think) Spring 1976. This makes it about the earliest 'in the field' piece about the Jamaican reggae scene I can recall reading - as opposed to dry histories or accounts of reggae / ska in the UK.

Bangs' piece is part travelogue, part history, part gonzo (something he sends up very well ) and part political/social account, all framed within a week being ferried around Kingston on Chris Blackwell's budget.

There are some parts of the text which make for slightly uncomfortable reading - Bangs veers from being patronising to inappropriately pitying at points - but it is at least a frank account of one (recently converted) reggae fan's first encounter with the music's source. Bangs is good on the corruption and danger of 1970s Jamaica, and on the parlous and unequal structure of what passes for the music business. And, in meetings with the likes of Marley, Burning Spear, Ras Michael and others he manages to be by turns scornful, awestruck, amused and embarassed. His description of Marley's reasonings as

"kind of a third world cross between John Sinclair and Jehovah's Witnesses"

amused, and he captures brilliantly the sheer awkwardness of most of the encounters - particularly when one of Marley's crew and a Jewish hack get into a confused confrontation about the Twelve Tribes. And there's no way Peter ('Carly's brother') Simon could read an account of his behaviour at a Ras Michael grounation without experiencing a sphincter-clenching embarassment. Unless he's as much of a tool as Bangs paints him. But the section that struck me most - which summed up the piece's tricky mix of insight, enthusiasm and smattering of condescension - is this, also taken from Bangs' trip with some other hacks to what they believe is a full rasta grounation but turns out to be just a rasta music class for schoolkids:

Older rastas from the neighborhood came wandering up to the house, some of them
ragged, and I looked at them and then at Tom Hayes, who was wearing a pair of
pants that probably cost $50, a Billy Preston t-shirt (I was in my Grand Funk)
and a razor cut, and the irony turned to an absurdity so extreme it became a
kind of obscenity. It was, at the very least, embarrassing, for me and for these
people, and I seriously doubt if for all the talk of brotherhood of Rastafari
there is anything beyond that embarrassment which they and I will ever be able
to share. What I mean to say is I've been on lots of press junkets before, but
this was the first into Darkest Africa. What I meant to say is that a whole
bunch of people were flown, all expenses paid, to Jamaica, so that we could look
at these people, and go back and write stories which would help sell albums to
white middle-class American kids who think it's romantic to be black and
dirt-poor and hungry and illiterate and sick with things you can't name because
you've never been to a doctor and sit around all day smoking ganja and beating
on bongo drums because you have no other options in life. I know, because I am
one of those kids, caught in the contradiction - hell, man, my current favourite
group is Burning Spear. But I wouldn't want to organise a press party in that
village they come from in those hills they sing about. And not because I don't
want to pollute the "purity" of their culture with Babylon, either - because
there is something intrinsically insulting about it.

posted by dubversion at 6:18 pm

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