Linton Kwesi Johnson
Live in Paris
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2005, Volume 12, #1
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
I must be showing my age. Every decade has its defining music, its songs that will stand the test of time, but the more that I listen to most of todayís sounds, the more that Iím convinced that the late 1970s was a far better era, one that was full of fresh and exciting ideas. Between 1978 and 1980, there was such an embarrassment of riches that every week seemed to bring forth a new masterpiece that challenged all that had gone before it. For me, most of the best music of this time came from England: The Clash, The Jam, The Buzzcocks. Even the first few albums from the Police and Dire Straits had something magical and special about them. At the time, I was a teenager, and like many, what was on my record player defined and articulated all that I was feeling. Music is powerful, and it has the ability to evoke emotional experiences that otherwise elude expression. So, in reviewing Linton Kwesi Johnsonís latest endeavor Live in Paris, which is available on both CD and DVD, I canít even pretend to be objective. Of all the music of the late í70s British renaissance, no performer affected me more than Linton Kwesi Johnson. The first time I heard him, the manner in which I listened to music was changed forever.
It was 1980, and I was 17 years old, sitting in my friend Ianís basement, and listening to the Stranglers. After several repetitions of the same disc, I was trying, however subtly, to nudge the record off the turntable so I could hear Survival, Bob Marleyís then-current album. Ian and I were at a bit of a musical impasse when our neighbor, Taylor "the Disgruntled," came into the house and showed us the slab of vinyl that he had just bought. It was an imported copy of Forces of Victory, Johnsonís sophomore effort. It was strange, different, and wholly compelling. The rhythm and cadence of his singing was every bit as unique as Bob Dylanís vocal phrasing must have been to his fans in 1966, and the music, with its heavy bass, scattered keyboards, and emphatic horns, put me in another universe.
I wasnít unfamiliar with reggae. I loved Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals, and Jimmy Cliff, but the tales that they told and the music that delivered them were mythic and seemed to happen in some kind of removed Biblical plane of tropical landscapes and saints in the hills. Johnsonís was an urban music, a dispossessed and radical voice demanding change and justice; it appealed to human logic and decency rather than a higher power or distant Zion. There was something about his songs that was more disturbing and radical than anything Iíd ever heard.
Furtively smoking weed in our safe, middle-class neighborhood basements, songs like Sonnyís Lettah (which recently was quoted by David Bowie as being one of the best songs of the 20th century) were messages from another world where everything seemed immediate, real, and dangerous. Before hip-hop was used to sell everything from cars to Coca Cola, Johnson delivered un-sponsored truths from a world where life and death decisions were made, from a place where safety and peace were enjoyed briefly at a blues dance on a Saturday night only to be snatched away suddenly as the police smashed down the door.
England in 1978 was bursting at the seams. Punk music articulated the white, working class disaffection with the Queen and tradition, and Johnson came along with Dread, Beat, aní Blood to describe the immigrant experience in post-colonial London. At the time, his voice and music were a revelation, and his debut was greeted with almost unanimously positive reviews. Johnson nailed the black immigrant world view in a way that was brash, uncompromising, and totally unique, and his fusion of dub poetry and reggae music was a completely new sound. When I spoke to Johnson on the phone last year, he was reluctant to take any credit for influencing todayís performers, although he is obviously pleased with the tributes that many artists have paid to him. "I donít take any credit at all, but quite a few people have said Iíve influenced them," he explained. "Iím happy to hear that Iíve had an effect on other people. Thereís a woman in this country called Dido whoís quite big, and she said she used to listen to me when she was younger. Stuff like that Iím quite flattered to hear. But, the people who really influenced rap are people like James Brown and the Last Poets."
If Johnson prefers to be modest about his influence, his slow but steady string of albums over the past 25 years speak for themselves. Forces of Victory (1980) and Making History (1984) still rank among the best political records ever released ó you can dance to them, too! ó and they manage to avoid the pitfalls of most topical music by discussing particular issues in a way that is both universal and timeless. More recent outings, such as 1991ís Tings aní Times and 1999ís More Time, remain both musically challenging ó when was the last time a violin was used as a lead instrument in dub music? ó and reveal the careful work of an artist who has continued to develop his craft at a pace that suits him.
For me, listening to the new CD and watching the new DVD, both of which are titled Live in Paris, is like the best kind of reunion with an old friend, one where the trepidation and questions about whether your friend will have changed, mellowed, or sold out are all dispelled within a moment of meeting. Backed up by his long-time musical director Dennis Bovell, Johnson is in fine form in this film and recording, which documents his 25th anniversary concert in Paris in 2003. He treats his older songs with respect and carefully places each within its cultural and historical context. He neednít have done that, though. Chillingly, songs like Di Eagle aní Di Bear and Want Fi Goh Rave are every bit as powerful and relevant as they were in the late í70s.
There is an unspoken irony in Johnsonís delivery that suggests that history has taught us nothing, and he counters that with the notion that it is the duty of the thinking person to "stick to his guns" and rail against the darkening night. Indeed, he is a veteran artist who has remained dignified and alert in a world that seems to get dumber every day. If some of the brashness and youthful anger of his early work has subsided, it has been replaced by a more optimistic, if no less insistent humanism. The characters in his songs are still politically engaged, but they are wiser, reflecting the lessons of lives fully lived. When a character in a song wants more time to enjoy life, he is not driven by hollow complaints reflecting a lack of experience. Johnsonís perspective takes into consideration the daily struggle of those who care enough about the world to make it a better place, and he stands up for those who return time and again to take a fresh set of blows from the faceless forces of persecution and dehumanization. Idealism has been tempered by loss, renewal, and faith in the ability to continue to survive in the face of adversity. There is no concession to defeat in his material. There are no losers.
In essence, Linton Kwesi Johnsonís songs are gifts to the human race. Along with artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Miles Davis, he shows us that it is possible to continue to live and perform with dignity in a world and a music business that often seem to have none. His albums are essential, regardless of color, creed, or class. Find one of his discs. Listen carefully. Youíll feel better about your life, your world, and your place within it.
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2005 The Music Box