PETER TOSH/ “I Am That I Am”
After the Wailers broke up in 1975, Peter Tosh spent the next six years releasing an album a year. In 1976, Tosh dropped Legalize It, the album many consider his definitive work as a solo artist. But if you ask me, that distinction should go to 1977’s Equal Rights. Here’s the breakdown.
Legalize It starts out strong with the title track, "Legalize It," (Tosh’s passionate defense of marijuana during which he claims that “the weed” is “good for” all sorts of diseases, even ones that no one’s ever heard of – ‘umara composis’ anyone?) and “Burial” (an anti-funeral skank – Rasta’s believe they are ‘ever-living’; “let the dead bury the dead,” says Tosh, “I’m a living man”).
On the other, we have tracks three, “Whatcha Gonna Do,” and seven, “Ketchy Shuby.” Both suffer from the same problem: they aren’t bad, they’re fun even, but they don’t live up to the high standard set by the hardcore roots Tosh is rocking on the best songs from the album. If either is your favorite song, I apologize in advance, but to me they sound like filler.
Track four, “No Sympathy,” has a different problem. It’s a damn good song partially sabotaged by someone’s insistence (I’m assuming it wasn’t Tosh himself) on dubbing American-style guitar solos all over the track. Look, I love blues guitar as much as anyone, but keep it the hell off my reggae records, thank you. Dread be dread.
Then there are the love songs. Again, I love love songs, but come on, Peter. Leave that stuff to Bunny and Bob. Listening to the imperious Peter Tosh wail “my heart feels the pain” (from “Why Must I Cry”) and “you said you loved me” (from “Til Your Well Runs Dry”) is like seeing your Dad bawl while watching a chick flick. I feel like grabbing my CD player with both hands and yelling, “Get yourself together, Peter! Man up!”
There are other classic moments though. “Igziabeher (Let Jah Be Praised),” as you can probably tell from the bafflingly unpronounceable title, is the real, real hardcore. As is the last track, “Brand New Second Hand,” which reunites Peter with two of the three I-Threes, Judy Mowatt and Rita Marley. But four classic songs out of nine does not a career-defining album make. I think people look at the cover art for Legalize It and figure any album featuring the artist smoking a pipe surrounded by acres of marijuana in every damn direction just has to be the greatest thing he ever did.
* * *
Let’s move on to Equal Rights
. Number of love songs – zero. Number of “fun” songs – zero. Number of American-sounding quasi-rock songs – zero. Number of reggae classics – nine out of nine. OK, maybe seven out of nine. Maybe. Here’s a quick track-by-track breakdown:
“Get Up, Stand Up” – Tosh’s cover of his own song first done by the Wailers. See last week for more on this one. Rating – 10 of 10.
– Tosh’s rewrite of the traditional spiritual “Sinnerman.” When that day finally comes, says Tosh (and I know you know the day he’s talking about – boiling rocks, seas of fire, nowhere to hide), “I wouldn’t like to be a flea under your collar, man.” Damn. Rating – 10 of 10.
“I Am That I Am”
– My all-time favorite Peter Tosh song. Pure, pure perfection. (More on this one below.) Rating – 10 of 10.
– Yes, that annoying rock guitar intro thing is in there but rest of this record is so hard, so brilliant, so god damn baaaaad that it overrides its own deficiencies. “If you eat asphalt,” Tosh sneers, “You better treat me good.” Which is what Kalamu was talking about last week when he said, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” If you still don’t know what we’re talking about, find an online bio on Tosh. Dude went out hard. Real hard. Rating – 10 of 10.
– Speaking of hard. Here’s what Peter Tosh had to say about peace and understanding and loving your neighbor and all of that ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff. “Everyone is crying out for peace,” he says, “but I don’t want no peace. I need equal rights and justice.” A little later he mocks “followers of Jesus,” with the line, “Everybody wants to go to heaven but none of them want to die.” Tell it, Peter. Tell it. Rating – what else, 10 of 10.
“African” – This is the track Kalamu mentioned last week. Like everything else on this album, it’s a winner. Rating – 10 of 10.
“Jah Guide” – Probably the most roots-sounding song on this album. For that alone, I love it. I also love Peter’s vocals on this one: all those low, long notes; his voice thick with passion and emotion. “When I’m trodding through death’s valley, I know, Jah guide.” Rating – 9 of 10.
“Apartheid” – I heard this song a lot when I was a kid. The only reason I don’t like it as much as I once did is because the lyrics are topical and their relevance isn’t as immediate as it once was. That ain’t Peter’s fault though. Rating – 8 of 10.
There it is – as close to perfection as you’re going to get. Filler? Forget it. Drop the needle (so to speak) anywhere you want on either side of this album and you’re bound to hit a classic. Not only is Equal Rights
the best Peter Tosh album of all-time, not only is it one of reggae’s all-time best, I’d also include it on a short-list of black music’s all-time best. If you don’t already own it, you really should.
* * *
I’ve gone on so long about the Equal Rights
album that I don’t have time for what I actually intended to write about this week. Here’s the short version (maybe I’ll get deep into it another time). While on honeymoon a couple weeks ago, I found a copy of the Bible in our room. In between snorkeling, and bike riding, and sight-seeing, and eating and drinking way too much, and, um, other activities, I read Genesis and most of Exodus.
Chapter three of Exodus is a conversation between Moses and God. God appears to Moses in a burning bush and tells Moses he is to go to Egypt and convince the Israelites that he (Moses) as been sent by God to free them from their stifling slavery and lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey. But Moses isn’t sure the plan will work. Specifically, he doesn’t know what to call God so that the Israelites will belief God actually exists.
Exodus 3:13 is a question from Moses to God (I’m quoting the King James Version although I was actually reading the much easier to understand ‘New International’ Version):
When I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? What shall I say unto them?
And from Exodus 3:14, God answers:
And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.
I almost dropped the book.
As I said, “I Am That I Am” is my favorite Peter Tosh song and one of my all-time favorite songs, period, and hear I was sitting in a rented bungalow up in the hills of Santa Catalina finding out that, for all these years, I had no idea what one of my favorite songs was actually about!
All of it started making sense. The strangely-worded title. The name-dropping in the outro. “I am the son of Jacob.” Who? Well, according to Exodus (or maybe it was still in Genesis…I get confused), Jacob – whom God renamed Israel – was the father of twelve sons. The offspring of those twelve sons would eventually become known as the Israelites (because they were all descended from Jacob AKA Israel). Therefore, the twelve sons are the heads of the oft-mentioned (in reggae, at least) Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Later, Tosh also says, “I am the son of Moses,” so it’s worth mentioning that Moses is a direct descendant of Jacob. If I remember correctly, Moses is one of Jacob’s seemingly innumerable grandsons.
Anyhow, even if you’re a non-believer like me, the Bible makes for fascinating reading. Even moreso if, again like me, you wish your favorite reggae songs made more sense. Make your grandmother proud and pick up a copy of your very own today. ;-)
—Mtume ya Salaam
Last week as part of my response to Mtume’s write up on Tosh, I recommended the documentary on Tosh that is based on an oral diary Tosh kept on cassette tape. Thursday night I watched the documentary again.
Again, I’m strongly recommending fans of roots reggae in general and of Tosh, or fans of the original Wailers, or fans of Bob Marley “Get Thee This Documentary
Other than to profess my admiration for the trio harmony of Bunny, Bob and Tosh, a harmony that ranks with the best of small group harmonizing that’s ever been recorded anywhere on the planet; other than marveling once again at how sweet three hardcore men can sound; other than giving thanks for being born in time to hear them; and other than offering much respect to Mtume for reminding me to remember the original Wailers; other than that, I’ve got nothing else to say. ;->)
—Kalamu ya Salaam
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