Sunday, September 20, 2009

Midnight Confessions

Irene wrapped her hands around my waist and pressed my body to her flesh. “You have a girlfriend,” she teased. Across the room, Miss Jennie, looking almost bored, cocked her head and said, “Leave the bwoy alone nuh.” Irene rolled her eyes, blissfully unaware of the drum-drum, beating in my chest. Nearby a transistor radio played. She cupped my tiny face in her hands and pulled me closer. I followed my nose to the space between her breasts. Irene wasn’t the anorexic type; her ‘ladies’ were uncommonly elastic. Her voice was like warm honey. She splashed it Phyllis Dillon style, and intoned:

If you knew how much I love you
How much I need you
You wouldn't stay away

If you knew you were my one desire
You set my soul on fire
You wouldn't stay away

That was the moment I learned to fly. Irene wasn’t my Louis Lane and I wasn’t her superman. I never felt her pleasure. I was 9 years old. Who knew that the sky was going to be cloudy?

In the months that followed, the chattering began. Irene and Jennie were lovers, people said. Those who dared whispered the ‘L’ word. I was too young to know what it meant. But Phyllis Dillon’s voice told me all I needed to know about Midnight Confessions:

Staggering through the daytime
Your image on my mind
Passing so close beside you babe
Sometimes the feelings are so hard to hide

I would see Irene and Jennie most everyday standing in front of their gate on Music Street. Irene was always singing…always Phyllis Dillon. But now she was our Phyllis. The genie was out of the box and no one was going to put her back in. I supposed it all began with a 30-seconds snippet of a song I had overheard one day on the radio. I just had to hear it again. So for the first time, I took my obsession public, and sent a letter to the station. Days later Jeff Barnes, the disc jockey, read my letter on the air. “Lil Zigaboo is having anxiety issues,” he said. “This one is for you…our own Phillis Dillon, “Make Me Yours.” My heart did a flip. How could this be? This wasn’t reggae. It was soul music! I love "Don't Stay Away," but “Make Me Yours” became my favorite Phyllis Dillon song; the first record I ever bought. I listened to it over and over. Phyllis’s voice accompanied me as I made my tentative steps into adolescence from my first kiss to my first love, Dawn. And when my mother made me go and ask her back for the watch I had given her…the same watch she had sent me from foreign, it was Phyllis voice I heard, delicately echoing my emotions:

Win or lose, this is my game to play
Right or wrong, I'll play it my way
And if I make mistakes
It's my own heart that breaks
I've got to find my own way of life, myself alone

I thought of Phyllis Dillon recently. I was deep into my own ‘version to vision” as my friend Terry Wilson of The Midnight Ravers* calls it. I must have played the original Bettye Swann’s version of “Make Me Yours” and Phyllis Dillon’s version back-to-back 20 times. After all these years, I still can’t choose between them. And as I listened, I was sad and elated at the same time. Phyllis Dillon died a broken woman. The official cause of death was listed as the cancer that ravished her body in her final years. But long before her illness, Jamaica, the island that she loved so much, had broken her heart. After years abroad, she had finally resettled in Linstead, her hometown. Only to be preyed upon by charlatans, who demanded money and threatened her with bodily harm if she did not comply. She left Jamaica a bitter woman. It was a cruel fate for a woman whose voice had meant so much to so many. I’m so sorry, I’m sorry. I never got the chance to tell her how much she meant to me. As for Irene, I never did find out about her and Jennie, and I don’t care much. Wherever she is, I hope she found “a love to call her own,” even if it was Miss Jennie. It is what we all deserve.

*The Midnight Ravers show airs every other Friday 12 – 3 AM on WBAI in New York

Marcia Griffiths: Truly

Today, the Jamaican music scene is rich with female singers, from Tanya Stephens to Etana, Tessanne Chin, Alaine, Cherine Anderson, Queen Ifrica, and Tami Chynn. Recently Marcia Griffiths, formerly of the I-Threes, Bob Marley’s backup vocal trio, noted: "Most of the new or upcoming female singers in reggae started out singing my songs before doing their own originals. I feel very good about that."

Marcia started her career in 1964, which means she has been a top-shelf recording artist for four and a half decade. Can you wrap your head around that? She may have hit her pinnacle internationally in 1970 with “Young, Gifted & Black” recorded as a duo with Bob Andy (as Bob & Marcia), but Marcia has had hit songs in every decade, and practically every year since her debut “Wall of Love” for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd at Studio One. Without a doubt, she is the only person that could conceivably be called the “Queen of Reggae.” Some of my personal favorites are, “Always Together” (w/Bob Andy), “Feel Like Jumping,” “Tell Me Now,” “Mark My Words” and “Truly.” Truly is the quintessential Marcia Griffiths song. It was recorded in the late 60s, and its soulful, reggae groove was arranged by legendary keyboardist, Jackie Mittoo. But make no mistake; though I am partial to that track, Marcia Griffiths is among a select few whose voice may have actually gotten better with age. She is truly a national treasure. So think of this as my flowers for Marcia. I am tired of paying tributes to people after they are gone. Marcia, this is for you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Garrison Cry

A week ago I had to put my dog, Marley, down. Call me crazy, but I could tell the moment it happened…I could feel the air being sucked out of the room. I didn’t anticipate the flood of emotions. As a young shortie growing up in Jamaica, I never saw a dog inside a house; they lived out in the yard. They didn’t lie on your couch or at your feet; they didn’t lock the Dachshund in the refrigerator like Marley did. They didn’t make memories … they weren’t a part of the family.  The next day I hurried home to find an empty house. I barely made it to the top of the stairs before the phone rang. “You heard about Steely, right?” I held my breath. I wondered if all the lights were out in the garrisons of Kingston, if the ‘daggering’ had stopped long enough for the garrison to cry. I hope that’s part of their ‘gangsta’. Wycliffe ‘Steely’ Johnson was the original keyboard player of the Roots Radics, the most dominant force in reggae during the first half of the 80s. They set the pace. Their dark deep grooves can be heard on the classic Scientist and King Jammy’s dub albums released on Greensleeves. Then later with his partner, Clevie, he helped to create Dancehall music. Sean Paul, Movado, and Vibez Kartel should throw their arms up in the air in a 21-gun salute.

Later that evening as the fams came and went, I sat silently, the voice of Imogen Heap taking up all the space in my head, playing with my equilibrium: “Temporal dead zone where clocks are barely breathing/Yet no one cares to notice for all their yamming on/I calm to hold it all together.” I excused myself. TJ said, “Where you going?” “I want to play-do wave forms in the hideaway,” I answered. She does not speak Imogen. She smiled at me instead, the way she always does when she thinks I am just practicing my aim. Upstairs in my hideaway, eyes closed, I laid on the floor, listening to Dido’s ‘Grafton Street’, her soulful voice washing over me. “No more lying still while we all come and go,” she sang. “No more watching sunsets that seem like summer’s holding on.”  My thoughts drifted to my friend, Clayton Downie, the unheralded reggae producer of the seminal reggae album, Black Slavery Days (Clappers, 1980). Weeks earlier I had received a similar phone call. Clayton was an analog mind in a digital world; he had simply lost his way. Dido’s voice was beginning to catch at my heart: “No more saying goodbye for the last time again.” But strangely, I felt more at ease; my mind was beginning to slow down and rest. I felt no pain. The earth was no longer crushing me.

The Big Sleep

Marley and Me
In the movie, The Sand Pebbles, a Chinese man, who is Steve McQueen’s assistant in the Navy Boat’s engine room, is being brutally tortured on the beach. McQueen grabs a rifle and shoots his friend, to put him out of his agony. If I am ever in that situation I hope someone loves me enough to do the same for me. 

Confession of a 4-Track Mind

In the beginning I was just a musician. Then I learned to produce. I started to assemble tracks, do sound collages, deconstruct rhythms, and that became my priority. I am a record producer who admires the harmodelics of Ornette Coleman, hearts the voices of Nina Simone, Sinead O’Connor, Sia Furler, and Yukimi Nagano, and have been known to listen to John Coltrane’s Live in Japan (yes, that one) at maximum volume, and Rosanne Cash’s “Blue Moon with Heartache” (the song) thirty times in a row; a dub fiend who grew up on Lee Perry and Augustus Pablo, and the mind-blowing sonorities of King Tubby and Scientist, but regularly listens to Charles Mingus, Prince, Debussy, Miles Davis, Bartok, Bach, Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Duke Ellington. I love Massive Attack, Portishead, Radiohead; the productions of Q-Tip, Madlib, and the late J-Dilla. I am inspired by the paintings of Egon Shiele and Cy Twombly, the visual geography of Japanese filmmakers, Akira Kurosawa and Mikio Naruse, and the hushed stillness of Yasujiro Ozu, whose narrative ellipses say more outside of the frames than within, much like dub, wherein the silence is more deadly than the ‘riddim’ warfare. You get the picture, right? There are lots of cats out there pushing boundaries, who are bringing something fresh to the game, reshaping old practices to new, innovative and exciting forms.  Yard Movement is my ‘connect’: a place to join with others, who are engaged in creative activities.  It’s the soundtrack of my life’s stories and journeys, of the words, sounds, and images that come with that, and the lessons learnt.