I was on a train from Manchester to Birmingham, an old school “Strangers On A Train” train with compartments for 6 people. The other young guy in there didn’t speak but our quiet journey was interrupted at Stoke when we were joined by 3 black kids, a Rasta (it was a fashion at the time) and his younger acolytes. They immediately got down to it and began to build a couple of spliffs. I was not going to miss an opportunity to smoke up the collie with the bredren so put my hand in the way and intercepted the joint as it was passed across. A little presumptive on my part maybe. I had better produce some credentials and sharpish. From my bag I took out an LP that, at the time, went everywhere with me. Any problem with this cheeky white bwoy was solved.
“Blackheart Man” is the first LP Bunny Wailer released after leaving the Wailers. The story of the three Wailers is told in Colin Grant’s fine book “I and I: The Natural Mystics”. As in Lloyd Bradley’s earlier history of reggae “Bass Culture” the social and political development of Jamaica is inevitably entwined with the music. The story of these young men, as close as brothers, is a fascinating one. They presented a united front against tribulation because they shared a belief in and a passion about the music they created. When the wider world came calling there were differences about how to deal with Babylon. Bunny decided to stay in Jamaica then Peter Tosh left the group which had become Bob Marley and the Wailers. Spurred, I’m sure, by the desire to prove they could each stand alone each man delivered an LP which marked the point that reggae music had to be considered around the world not just in Jamaica and the UK.
This title song “Blackheart Man” tells of the fable warning children to “tikya” of strangers making a parallel with the ostracism of Rastafari by Jamaican society. Bunny’s lyricism, his calm, almost understated, declaration of his own beliefs makes it a powerful, convincing and uplifting work. The guy on the train handed my LP to his younger mates, “This”, he said, “tis a spiritual ting”, and he was right.
Bunny had provided harmonies and percussion in the Wailers. It is the attention paid to these flourishes which make the music on “Blackheart Man” more mellifluous than the anthems of Bob Marley (which are sweet enough). While no less an advocate of Rasta and opponent of oppression than his militant, proselytizing confederates, lyrically he concerned himself with a revolution of the spirit as much as of worldly things. Three of the 10 songs are concerned with the possibility of an ideal way of living. A fresh take on the gospel classic “This Train” closes the LP. “Dreamland” is a reverie on a Rasta African homeland and this track “Fig Tree” is a similar reflection on finding a paradise on earth. Now I’m a cynical man firmly anchored in the material world but songs as open and as fresh as this will make me think. I am not the first to make the point but there is a touch of William Blake, of the romantic visionary, about Jah Bunny.
“Fig Tree” contains the lyric “every man is a man and every mickle mek a muckle”. For years I admired this integration of Jamaican patois into the song. I was watching the great 1962 film “Billy Liar”, set in West Yorkshire, and was surprised to hear that very same phrase used. Say what !…this Scottish/Northern English saying was first recorded in the writings of George Washington in 1793 ! And I thought it was a Trenchtown thing y’knaa.
Bunny Wailer continues to make music and has made other great LPs but “Blackheart Man” is, in his own opinion, the most complete realisation of his musical and lyrical concerns. It is one of the great LPs, not just in reggae. My own admiration for him as a man and musician has endured for a long time now and will continue to do so. Listening to “Fighting Against Conviction” with it’s positive vibrations despite the struggles of life, with it’s sinuous Wailers’ groove and harmonies from brother Peter Tosh, makes a point more succinctly than I could ever hope to.
So, our conversation on the train was cut short as we entered the outskirts of Birmingham. We said our goodbyes as the boys were riding the rails and left to jump from the train before it reached New Street station. The compartment was filled with a lovely fug of marijuana smoke and I smiled to myself at the welcome and unexpected turn the journey had taken. Now I would have to get my stoned butt into shape to negotiate a crowded Friday night commuter crowd…oh shit. I took a few deep breaths and tried to centre my chakras, or whatever was necessary for me to put one foot in front of the other, when I was asked about the Bunny Wailer record. What the f…? There had been someone else in the compartment all the time. He had pulled his newspaper around his head and made himself invisible as soon as the others had joined us. He had done a good job too…I had forgotten about him. I was polite and answered his query but come on. There was a smoke to be shared, some good talk about life and music with some strangers and he had chosen to hide. That is not the way to live. As Bunny sings in “Reincarnated Souls”, “he who has eyes to see, let him look yonder”. Peace.