Burning Spear: The Man in the Hills Makes a Movie
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of interviewing Winston Rodney, a.k.a. Burning Spear, on a number of occasions. On August 12, we sat down in person for the first time to discuss his early partnership with Jack Ruby, Delroy Hines, and Rupert Willington as well as his long-awaited documentary. Our conversation naturally moved from a discussion of the early days to reflections on the difficulties of life as a touring musician to observations about his recent trips to Kenya and Poland.
Douglas Heselgrave: Youíre making a documentary right now. Whatís the main idea behind the film?
Burning Spear: The idea behind the documentary is to tell my story from whence till this time. There are a lot of people who donít know the true essence of Burning Spear and where Burning Spear has come from, the things Burning Spear went through, the things that Burning Spear is up against, and the things that are up against him. I think telling my story is very important to a lot of people. Most times, documentaries are made when a person is getting close to retiring. That would be consistent with what I am trying to communicate.
DH: Youíve been in lots of films before ó Rockers, Reggae Sunsplash 1979, and others. This time you are in control of the message. How is the purpose in this film and your approach to it different than other film appearances that you have made?
Spear: I have taken control of this project from the beginning. As a matter of fact, I was doing it before I even got other people to do the shooting, and I am the founder of the documentary. I, with Mrs. Rodney, am the one who came up with the whole idea. We will own and take responsibility for everything in this film.
DH: What is different about doing this yourself rather than having someone else direct it for you? Youíre really not a film maker, as such, so the learning curve must be huge. Is this a result of your dissatisfaction with how reggae artists are often represented in the media?
Spear: I donít think most of us as reggae artists have been represented in the way that we should have been. So, what Iím doing today is finding the best way to represent myself, and I know for sure that I will be doing all the good things for myself. I canít say a record company would be doing it for me in the way I would choose for myself.
DH: Whatís the difference between their concerns and your concerns?
Spear: I am the one who knows myself best!
DH: Are you sure?
Spear: [Big laugh] Yeah, I know everything about meÖ.I know what I want, what I need, what is supposed to be done, and how it is to be done. So, I think nobody else could do it better than me. If someone else should even try to do it, I would still have to tell them what to do and how to do it.
DH: Youíve taken control over a lot of your art and the business aspects of being an artist in the last few years. Is this a part of an overall plan?
Spear: Itís very important to be doing what Iím doing. What Iím doing today should have been done long ago. As a man who has been in the business since 1969, I have observed and seen a lot. I could see and name to you the man I see moving in this kind of direction that I am moving in today. I think it was my responsibility to see what needed to be done for me. So, I decided to go ahead and do all of these things. Most of these things are based upon distribution and booking. I learned it from the people who were booking me, and I saw how they did it, how they treated artists and stuff like that. So, I began to treat myself the way I should have been treated many years ago.
DH: Do you feel you have been ripped off a lot?
Spear: Oh! Too many times! But, do you know what? You just canít look back on the past, and as long as you keep on doing what youíre doing, you will gain more than what youíve lost.
DH: Mrs. Rodney was telling me on the phone last month that everything changed when you came back from one long tour with $300Ö.
Spear: Mmm Hmm. Many times we went on the road in the earlier days ó like in the í80s ó and we would be out for three or four months. Iíd get back home with nothing in my pocket. I would even end up owing musicians money. I would have to finish up making my payments on the next tour, and those were rough times. In those days, agents and promoters were working for themselves. They would set you up to do a show for like $1,500 to $2,000, and they would collect 15% or 20% from that. If there was a piece of equipment to be rented, it was on me. Plus, I would have to pay the band and provide food money for the band. Sometimes I would end up having to pay for hotels. So, you can just imagine after they take 15% from $1,500, thereís nothing there for the artist. Thereís nothing left to pay for the band or to take care of other things. The agent is the only one who is taken care of.
DH: But, youíve made some choices that didnít compromise your values or your art. For example, in the early days, a group like Culture would tour with a full band, but towards the end, a synthesizer had replaced many of the musicians.
Spear: Yeah, I could be doing a lot of other things. People who were in the business at the same time felt they were being left out of something, so they made changes. But, I never felt I was being left out of anything. I decided to keep my course, and work on strengthening what I have been doing since 1969. Iím not going to turn my back on myself. Iím going to continue doing what I have to do.
DH: A big band brings in a lot of expenses, as youíve just said. So, given that, why was having a full live sound so important to what you were trying to convey to your audience?
Spear: The big band is pretty easy to control. You go around the table, and you work out your expenses. You have a budget, and you know what youíre going to do before you do it. Having a big band is not strenuous. Itís not stressing. Once you have people who understand what theyíre going to get into and can work with you ó not only for the money, but because they love what theyíre doing and want to be a part of Burning Spear ó it makes things easier for me.
DH: You chose art over money.
Spear: True. I think music should have its full essence based upon the sound and the quality. Therefore, when people are listening to the music, theyíre not just listening to a drum, a bass, and a rhythm guitar. Theyíre listening to instruments and vocals, arrangements, sound, essence.
DH: Itís a little different and unpredictable every night.
Spear: Of course! When one sits down or stands up and listens to a Burning Spear concert, he or she walks away feeling alive. Itís like that energy really approaches their mind and their body.
DH: Letís change tack a little bit now. I want to ask you a few questions about your early days ó specifically your work with Jack Ruby and the original backup singers Delroy Hines and Rupert Willington. To start, I wanted to ask you about your first backing group. Was it called The Truth Defender Band?
Spear: I didnít have a band, so I had to pick up guys here and there until I did the albums with Jack Ruby: Marcus Garvey and Man in the Hills. He came up with the Black Disciples, which was Jack Rubyís touring band. At the same time, I was working on my production ó Burning Music Production. After this, Jack Rubyís things went away, and I decided to create a name for the musicians that I would be picking for myself. I said the name Burning Band, and now Iím moving away from the Burning Band and creating a thing called Burning Spear with the Young Lions. Iím setting a foundation, paving a way for these younger guys, so if Iím not touring, they at least have the capability to back-up any artist.
DH: I heard some of the tapes from the Poland shows, and they sound really fresh and....
Spear: Yeah. Of course, Iím happy with them.
DH: I wanted to talk a bit more about Jack Ruby. Was it after Studio One that you hooked up with him?
Spear: Yes, it was after Studio One. Yíknow, Studio One, I did like two albums and a couple of singles with Clement "Coxsone" Dodd. That time, it was me and Rupert Willington, and we did five or six singles together. At that point, I walked away. I got back to Rupert and Delroy Hines doing background vocals. Many other people were there doing background vocals, but when it came to touring it was me, Rupert, and Delroy.
DH: What effect did Jack Ruby have on the music?
Spear: Well Jack Ruby was pretty musical. He was a guy that was running a sound system business. That is how I got to know him. As a matter of a fact, I didnít know about Jack Ruby. Someone told him about me. I knew the name, but I had never met him in person. We spoke a little, and he put his plan to me. I decided to follow with his plan. So, we ended up going into the studio and doing those two albums. But, what I think happened to Jack Ruby is even though Jack was so musical, he didnít have anyone in his corner to really monitor things and structure things and help him to do the things that needed to be done. So, Jack didnít really last as long as he should have in the music business.
DH: Whatever happened to him? I saw him ó like everyone did ó in Rockers. Is he still around?
Spear: No, he passed away. Jack passed away a long time ago, but I heard his son is the one who is really taking care of the stuff he left behind. But, I donít know whatís going down.
DH: How did you meet Hines and Wellington?
Spear: Well, what really happened is that I would usually be on the beach where the Marcus Garvey Youth Club is today. Thatís where I met Rupert Willington. We started to move around together, hanging out on the beach. When I was ready to do the first song, he was the background vocalist. Delroy Hines came along during the albums Marcus Garvey and Man in the Hills.
DH: Have you kept in contact with them over the years?
Spear: Yeah. If you see the teaser for the film, you will notice that we did a little thing there together.
DH: You said ĎOne take is enough.í
Spear: Yeah! We didnít forget our parts after 30 years [big laugh]!
DH: What are they doing now? Are they still doing music in their own way?
Spear: The last time I saw them, I told them if they got anything planned musically, what they need to do is keep practicing. When they think the time is right for them to go into the studio, I will really follow-up behind them and take care of some of their expenses. So, everything is in their corner to make the move. I will be there to really back them up, if theyíre going to do that. Rupert was running a little independent business, and Delroy is working at a supermarket. So, theyíre pretty active. The best is not happening, but the worst is not happening. Theyíre doing something.
DH: You talked about taking care of the Young Lions so they can do something for themselves, and you just talked about helping Hines and Wellington. Do you feel some responsibility for your legacy and the people youíve worked with?
Spear: I wouldnít say a major responsibility, but things can be done so easily if you want to do them. Once you section out everything ó and everyone knows the part theyíre going to be active in and the role theyíre going to be playing ó it shouldnít be complicated.
DH: Letís talk about some of the problems touring in the early days. For example, I bought my first Burning Spear concert ticket in 1979, but it wasnít until 1982 ó your third attempt ó that you made it over the border from Washington into Vancouver.
Spear: Early on at the border, it was kind of shaky. There were a lot of things going on based on how people might be running the border and the doubt they might have about reggae musicians and musicians in general. After a while, things started to get pretty easy, and I can remember a time when I was pulling up to the border like Toronto. The officer came onto the bus, and he asked us whether we were a gospel band. When we asked him why he said that, he said heíd never seen a bus smelling so fresh and looking so clean [laughs]! Every time they came on the bus with the intention of smelling if people were smoking. They never found anything.
Iíve always made sure that nobody smokes on my bus. Period! They always have the wrong impression about reggae artists, and sometimes once you are a musician, there is that thought about them. They think all kinds of different ways about musicians.
DH: While weíre on this topic, have you noticed any difference since 9/11 when youíre crossing the border? As a Canadian, I feel itís ridiculous how difficult it is now for us to cross into the States.
Spear: It has not interfered with my traveling. The only little hassle I have had occurred the other day when we went to Poland. They were supposed to give the guys who required a visa a kind of 30-day pass, and when we came back into Poland we found out it was for a single entry. Nobody told us that beforehand. So, they refused to let in a couple of the Lions, and we had to sleep at the airport. Me and Mrs. Rodney and about three or four more of us slept at the airport. Four of the Young Lions were on the other side. We walked up, and they were kind of ó I donít know ó stupid, or maybe it was just too much tension in Poland.
DH: That may not have as much to do with you as much as itís the way they treat everybody.
Spear: Thatís what Iím saying. A couple of us who were carrying American passports, it wasnít a problem. Iím one of them who has an American passport, so it wasnít a problem. I think the problem in Poland is that Poland was run by the Germans, it was run by the Russians, and by other people. So, that kind of conflict ó that militant suspense ó is still there. Know what Iím saying? Everybodyís guard is up, and some small things that people could just look at and correct, turn into a BIG thing. A lot of cleaning up needs to be done in Poland, especially in that section with people going back and forth. I donít see tourists going into Poland either.
DH: Was that your first trip into the old Eastern bloc?
Spear: Yeah! Around that side, you know, itís kind of shaky. Even when we go downtown to the airport, I canít believe that was downtown. Itís terrible, and you can see the people are living on the edge. Nobody seems free and seems to be sure. Nobody says anything. If anything, itís, "NO. NO. NO." Itís too militant, and it creates a lot of suspense. Youíre very uncomfortable. Itís alright. Itís a good experience when you can go other places, and see how people live.
DH: How was the crowd?
Spear: It was a good crowd. The show took place in the countryside, and the country people have a different mentality from downtown. Those are the people who really needed to see Spear. People go four hours, five hours from their home to see the show. It reminded me when I went to Kenya. People would be traveling six hours. People would walk four hours ó not driving ó because they could not afford to pay to drive to the free concert. So, you would see people coming from all directions in Kenya. It was something else!
DH: I think you inspire that. When you played at Tofino on Vancouver Island in 2004, friends tell me that the native people all came together in boats from the outlying islands to see your show at the community hall.
Spear: The work has to be done, and I know a lot of people are going to feel a certain way after I retire. Everyone has to retire. I know I have the energy and the strength to go to the studio and still create music. In September, I am going back into the studio to finish up some voicing for a new CD that will be released in 2008. So, I have a lot of time to do it.
DH: I can hear the band tuning up out there. Iíll let you get to your work.
Spear: We can continue later from where we left off. Just call up and say "Spear! You remember where we left off" Weíll take it from there.
DH: I could talk to you all day, and Iíve got about 30 years worth of questions here.
Spear: Any time! [laughs] You just remember where we left off. Bless!
DH: Bless you, too.
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