The tarnished genius of Gregory Isaacs
Gregory Isaacs, the Cool Ruler, is the bad boy of reggae music. Busted 49 times by his own count, constantly battling with drugs, object of countless rumours, Isaacs is still highly respected and deeply loved by his countrymen and fans all over the world. Lured by the promise of a no-holds-barred interview, I travelled to Jamaica in December 1992 to get Gregory’s side of the story.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS
The phone call from RAS Records’ chief Doctor Dread came shortly before Thanksgiving. “Gregory Isaacs wants to do a definitive interview. He’s willing to talk about everything! All the bad-boy business, all the rumours, drugs, whatever you want to talk to him about. He promises he’ll give you three full days of his time, no holds barred. Are you interested in flying down to Kingston to do it?” “Sure Doc, But are you certain Gregory will even show up? I mean, his reputation…” “I guarantee it. He’s never given the full story to anyone before, and I think it’s time people learn about the real Gregory. He’s cleaned up his act.”
So on Tuesday, Dec. 8, I boarded an American plane from L.A. to Miami. What happened on arrival in Florida should have tipped me off to what lay in store for me. I had packed light to avoid checking my luggage. As I boarded the plane for Jamaica in Miami, a snippy little blonde grabbed my carryon and said, “You can’t bring this on board! It won’t fit under the seat!” “Nonsense,” I said, “It fit under my seat on the way here from L.A.” “You cannot bring it aboard. Give it to the man at the desk, and it’ll be waiting for you when you arrive in Kingston.” Famous Last Words. Do I need to tell you that they lost my bag? Waiting forlornly as the Kingston airport emptied out at 10 that evening, I was told it would be on the next flight from Miami, the following morning. Famous Last Words.
Luggageless, I checked into the Terra Nova hotel and rendezvoused with Doctor Dread. “We’re going to meet Gregory tomorrow afternoon for the first session. I’ll be there to make sure everything goes smoothly. Don’t be afraid to ask him anything you want.” Wednesday morning came and went: still no bag. The number I had been given to call for information at the airport was busy each of the 38 times I dialed it. Finally, an answer: “The computer says your bag is on the 1 p.m. flight. We’ll bring it to your hotel right away.” Meanwhile, Doc and I drove up into the Red Hills area of Kingston, a suburban sprawl of private homes and shopping centers, shacks and rundown office buildings intermixed with weedy lots and knots of sufferers. Gregory’s latest headquarters for his African Museum operation is on the top left of a two story collection of business offices, fronted with an iron balcony overlooking a cracked cement parking lot and the modern Red Hills Mall across the road.
We entered through the record shop, sonic passion blasting into the afternoon swelter, and found Gregory at his desk in the back room. He wore a black hat, black wide-mesh shirt and grey suit pants, and had his new dental plate in. I was surprised to see that it came complete with gold caps on his top front teeth. A comely young secretary was seated opposite, gaggles of youth ran in and out, and the phone rang frequently. It was not the ideal place to conduct an in-depth discussion, but we plunged in. Doc asked him to describe what it was like to be Gregory Isaacs. “Wel,” he drawled in a deep-voice that often elided words so closely together that it came out like the name of one of those small towns in Wales that has 72 syllables. “I know I’m popular: both musically, and bad publicity. The love from the people feel good, you know, but at times it feel bad too, because at times you have people who hurt the things that them love. The pressure to be Gregory Isaacs sometimes deprive me of my privacy and that’s a thing that I respect in life a lot.” “Where does all that bad publicity come from?” I inquired. “Well it’s caused mainly through drugs, when I get involvement with drugs inna de past.” “Did you seek the drugs or did they find you?” “Through company, through follow fashion. Drugs was one of the most debasing weapon that people use to debase people to the worst stage. To try to bring it to the lowest stages of the works. Becaw, from them time until that, hearing about me and knowing me is two different things. You have people talk and don’t even know me. They always spread rumours on me. But I love the people in Jamaica a lot, all over. Becaw it’s the people dem who put them where I really is at this moment. I love pleasing the people too.”
I passed across a copy of a recent issue of the Cleveland-based ‘Reggae Directory’, whose intrepid editor, Rich Lowe, recently compiled a list of nearly 400 releases in Gregory’s career. “Why do you do so much work, sometimes releasing a dozen different albums in a year and 40-50 singles?” “Nuff tunes I sing out there is to assist poor people and their problems, becaw thousands of people come to me daily, hourly. We hate fe know seh people a struggle out there, caw I know what it is to want and what it is to have. People who want to live somewhere, and don’t live nowhere. So most things I do is to assist people who need assistance.” “Are people grateful to you for the help you give them?” “Some appreciate it and some take the kindness as weakness and say, ‘There’s a fucking fool!'” “Who do you turn to when you need help?” “Just God and myself me a turn to. True.” “Does God speak to you through personal inspiration?” “Yeah mon, becaw me’s a man who believe in God, a God-fearing man dis man, seen. That’s why I say I never even leave my Bible an inch.” Reaching into his back pocket he withdraws a tiny, tissue-paper Bible. “I leave my bigger one up at my place.” I asked what his childhood had been like. “I was born in 1951 in Fletcher’s land, then moved to Denham Town. Fletcher’s land was rough and nice. Winston Jarrett was there. The Melodians were there. Tony Brevett used to come up by mu house at 28 Law Street. Slim Smith too. Ken Boothe too. I remember first time a group called The Kingstonians came from country, people carry them to Downbeat (Coxsone Dodd). Carl Dawkins, Slim, The Uniques, we were close, close. They used to rehearse right there on Luke Lane. Slim was a cool youth, humble. My singer, that man. Love to give some little joke and them thing there. I find most singers from that time stay that way. Dennis Brown too. I’m older than Dennis. Know him a long time, till I start produce a tune for myself. Write ‘My Only Lover’ pon the African Museum label. Me and Errol Dunkley produce ‘Movie Star’ wha’ him sing over, was a hit. Produce a tune for Dennis Brown called ‘In Their Own Way’. Nice tune, but I feel the introduction was too taut.” “How about your education?” “All Saints School. I love reading from long time and composition. I paint and draw too, love artists work. I specialize in scenery. Water paint, oil paint.”
SOMEONE T’IEF YOUR BAGGIES
At this point we were interrupted by several different people, all demanding Gregory’s immediate attention. It had taken us nearly four hours to get this little bit of information, so we arranged for Gregory to come to the hotel the following day where we could be one-on-one without interruption. Famous Last Words. Returning to the Terra Nova for dinner, I was frustrated to learn that the lost bag had still not shown up. I called the American Airlines’ number another 25 times before it connected, and was told that the bag was scheduled to arrive the next afternoon. I was stuck in 90-degree weather with o toiletries, no fresh clothes, and none of the gifts I had brought for people. At noon the next day I called Gregory to see if he was coming. “I am waiting for my car,” he explained. “Soon come.” At 1 o’clock he told me the car had just come, and I should expect him momentarily. At 2, his secretary answered and said Gregory had left.
At 3, she said she couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t reached yet. At 4 and 5 I got the same response. At 9 p.m., there was still no sign of the elusive Cool Ruler, and I had wasted an entire day in Kingston, time I could have put to good use on several different ventures. I was not amused. The day’s sole bright spot was the arrival of my bag on Thursday night. Everything was in it except my toothpaste and my underpants. As Gregory laughingly observed the following afternoon when I told him the story, “Someone t’ief your baggies! ” Must be some desperate characters in customs.
I’M GONNA GIVE YOU EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING
At 11 p.m. Dr. Dread, who had gone to Port Antonio, called to see how the day’s session had gone. He got an earful. There was only one day remaining before I had to leave on Saturday, and so far two of the three days of “full operation” had yielded less than half an hour of raw material. “Okay,” said Doc, “I’ll talk to Gregory and arrange for you to go to the shop and spend the entire day alone with him tomorrow.” Famous Last Words.
I reached Gregory at 2:30 the next afternoon. He motioned for me to turn on the tape recorder. “I’m gonna give you everything, everything!” he said emphatically. “I know you only have a little more time, so I’ll stay with you till you have everything you want. That’s a promise.” I snapped on the tape recorder, and asked him what he remembered about The Concords, his first musical group. “They included,” recalled Gregory, sitting up straight and alert in his chair, “a guy named Bramwell, a whole heap a years I spend with him. We were (recording) together about a year. I sang lead on ‘Don’t Let Me Suffer Lord’ for Rupie Edwards’ Success label. I sang about three songs for them as lead.”
Later I spoke with one of Gregory’s oldest friends, Ras Shudley, a huskily well-built dread in a black T-shirt with Positive Beat written in psychedelic letters across his chest. He recalled the earliest days of Gregory’s business ventures. “The first shop that Gregory Isaacs ever start was the African Museum at Queen Street, in a theatre right in front of Tivoli Garden. It was a space by a narrow exit from the theatre, and he had a little office there too. He always had a desk and a record shop. He’s a pathfinder, you know. He had a car before most of the youths there. He had a bike before most of the youths. He had a record shop before Bob Marley had one, you know.
Gregory’s office is a constant bustle of the most amazing cross-section of people. As we sat there discussing his life, Gregory would leap to his feet, run out to the front to solve some problems and return. In the interim several of his children and at least three of his various baby-mothers passed through – not unexpectedly. But the most interesting person I met was a distinguished-looking, deep-tanned gentleman in pressed white shirt and expensive tie who said his name was Louis. “I’m a French-Jamaican,” he said in a resonant voice. “I’ve just returned from Covent Garden in London where I starred in an opera.” I wondered how such a one as he had found his way to Gregory Isaacs’ back room. “Oh, I criticize Gregory’s performances, and Gregory criticizes mine!” he rumbled.
As Gregory adjusted his lanky frame in his swivel chair, we talked about how often Jamaican artists are asked to help the communities in which they live. ‘Well, I like to assist people secretively. I don’t like them to be embarrassed.” “Are there any public things in which you’re involved?” He smiled broadly and began speaking more rapidly as he admitted that one of the activities in his life that brings him the greatest joy is “when I put on my Treat on Jan. 7 every year for the kids for Maxfield Park Home. I have donated a wheelchair to them. I send a vehicle for them. My kids and all kids from all of the community pack up the place. And give them books and pencils and treat, ice cream. I love those things. I got those kids, motherless kids, orphans to mingle with my kids and other people’s kids all over the ghetto. I’ve been doing that for five years now. It’s called the African Museum Treat. My doctor, a senior medical officer, comes. Justice of the Peace. We keep it in the Plaza on Maxfield Avenue. I’m also planning to set up the Gregory Isaacs Old Age Center, where old people could come there and get a decent meal for even a 50 cent or a dollar, or even get some free meal. I don’t have the venue as yet, but I’d like it to be in Kingston. I expressed surprise that I had never read about any of these things before, and asked what sides of Gregory writers don’t usually probe. “The good side. I’d like people to know that what most people hear and think and say about me is not really so, from they hear the part of my story. Because for all my years I’ve been doing good, that’s why I last so long.”
“Who are the people who prey on you?” “You mean the one who chew my neck like a Wrigley’s? Some of them behind my back do different things, and in my presence, ‘Oh Gregory, re re re,’ and go on so. You call them some nice bad-minded people. ” “Why Do they do this?” “Pure jealousy. Envious. Because I find that some of the people, you know Roger, if you take out your heart and give them, they would even take it and put it in a glass of ice water and let it beat. They’d probably put it up on the house top in the sun and let it dry up.” The laugh that ended this statement is more like a grunt. “Are you happy?” “Yeah, I make myself happy. Anytime people around me is happy, I’m happy.” So you depend on other people for so much of your life, your meaning, your self-image?” “No, I represent John Public. I represent the people. Making the people happy is what make me happy. But people assume more time I’m not happy, through most time I keep myself to myself, and concentrate a lot, read a lot, meditate. Read up my bible. You have a writer named Sidney Sheldon, I love him. All kind of books, fact and fiction, history. But I was self-taught. So at this time I read a lot to uplift my mind. I love reasoning with people too. One word a man can tell from his mouth, and that give me inspiration.”
WHAT KEEPS YOU GOING
Then I asked the primary question that had been on my mind during these days with Gregory: “What keeps you going? Religion, food, willpower?” “All of them. God keep me alive and I take the best care of myself. Food. My lifestyle too, and my livity amongst people, caw I live good amongst people, caw I assist people who God can’t assist.” “So why do so many people spread such bad things about you?” “What really happen, right, people in general in the world always love to say bad things about people who them don’t know and don’t understand, right? And the average people in the world as far as I study, always love to say ‘it’s true’. Right? Anything bad you say about people , they say ‘it’s true.’ Never say ‘a lie’. ‘Him mosh up.’ People don’t have collateral or strength like me, or intelligence like me. They say all kind of things differently. As I show you before that drugs is one of the most debasing weapon. That was mistake I make.” “Could you stop?” “Well, right now,” Gregory said, his voice rising with great vehemence as he slapped the desk, “I’m on a commercial break away. An indefinite commercial break away from drugs.” “So you’re not doing anything now?” “No, no. I burn a little herb sometime.” “And you’re getting some meat back on your bones now,” I observed. “No, well, generally I was born slim. Some people talk about them don’t eat, and them don’t eat like me. Cuz you see how I eat – plenty! And good too. Like now I eat lobster.
I even travel with my hot plate and my pot and my blender from the health store. I make all kind of different juice. And I cook, because sometimes people do so much things in front of my face. That don’t trouble me, because them say as long as people no touch me, because me a bad man still and them come to test me fe me rights. Sometimes I would just humble meself still. Sometimes people play games. It may not even be safe fe eat from certain people, or send certain people go buy my food, because they run serious jokes and put things in there, so I have to be careful.”
“When we spoke in 1982 you said that you’d been busted 27 times.” “Well, it’s 49 now, and I done with it now.” “Out of them how many do you consider legitimate busts, where you were really guilty?” “Tow time I was guilty, but lot of the time, it just hassle to be frank.” “Were they looking for pay offs?” “All of them thing there. Hear what happened now. A policeman called me and tell me that my name was ‘Babylon Boops.’ You see, from me get branded certain way, it’s the easiest way fe dem really to get framed. If you get branded as a gunman, if you’re charged for gun one time, and you’re guilty, it is easy for them to charge you again and again for it, and you’re innocent, and nobody don’t believe who sees you.” “What’s the longest time you ever spent in prison?” “Four times I go to prison as a tenant, but low sentence. One time I was sentenced to three years, but I didn’t do the sentence because there was a fine instead. Other times, a couple of months. Like I was remand in custody from the gun court long time, I remember I was charged for tow gun one time.” “Did you actually have them, or were they plants too?” “Well, to be frank, I did not have the guns there with me, but I know about them. A man give me them fe keep. One of the guns was my own them, to be frank, and I plead guilty, because, as you have seen on the records, I’m no snake in the grass, no hypocrite. Anything I do, I’m big enough to own up to it, cuz it can be hurtful too.” “What’s it like in prison? What’s it do to a man whose spirit is as free as yours?” “Is like a college actually. You learn how to live with all kind of different nations – convicts. Because there’s all different kind of people in prison. You learn how fe move your food from here so – you live number 42 cell, and a man live a number 2, and you can make something reach him dere so, ‘pon a thread or piece of cord. You know a lot of astrology, studying enough mankind, cuz I learn a lot. Because at the time I’m in isolation, time to look into my life, and you can just study, and you have to know how to survive to live.”
“Tell me some songs you wrote in jail.” “‘Days Of Penitentiary’, ‘Out Deh’, ‘Condemned’ [sings]
Can’t good to condemn me
And then you lock I in a damp cell
But the more you make me suffer
Are the more we get tougher
I didn’t go there to live
I went to serve the time that you give
Over there I locate
Behind the iron gate…
“Bolt door cell, mon, where you can’t see no light in the dark cell. Gate man won’t let you see the light and all them things so you can’t work. You learn how to cook your rice and peas with cardboard. You get two Milo can, take one to make the pot and one to make the stove, and Sunday morning time you have your food in your cell, your peas and your rice, you get up and light the cardboard and keep on shookin’, shookin’ fe hours, until the rice cook and the peas. It take longer to cook, but it nice.” “What’s your biggest regret in life?” “When I start deal with drugs, and the people start deal with certain things out there. Although I learn a lot of it out there. All over the earth, what is to be must have to be. A just how God plan it. If plane would crash and kill you, boat can’t sink with you.”
The master of wrenching emotion and plaintive groans, Gregory Isaacs has probably written more songs with ‘lonely’ in the title than anyone alive. “Let’s talk about loneliness,,” I suggest, “because as much as love, it seems the dominant emotion in your life. You have gotten so much good material out of loneliness it seems to me that being lonely to you is not necessarily an unpleasant emotion. Yet a lot of people hate being lonely.” “Alone?” “No. Loneliness is when you’re alone and you don’t want to be alone. You need somebody in your life and you don’t have somebody.” “Well you see me, nuff of my time I lived in loneliness. Lonely yet so happy, becaw is only individual can make themself happy. If you’re lonely, is only you who can make yourself happy, right? Because you can be around people and still not happy. You have to make yourself happy, condition the mind.”
As I am about to turn to the subject of Gregory’s oft-reported practical joking, he leaps to his feet and calls over his shoulder as he exits the room, “I soon be with you, right?” An hour or more later Gregory ambled back into the room, took off his shoes and sat with his feet on the swivel chair, picking away at his toes with a knife, flicking pieces of skin across the room as he spoke. Rather incredulously I asked, “What are you doing?” “My foot fulla corn, like how Easter bun fulla raisins.” “Ah,” I said, “You’re deraisinating your feet, huh?” Gregory cocked his narrow head sharply, staring at me with seeming perplexity. Then he began to giggle, eventually almost collapsing with laughter. “Bwoy, Roger, you’re the greatest.!” He said, then shouted out to the front of the shop, “I’m deraisinating!!” and laughed even harder.
ME SOON RETURN
The subject then turned to poetry, and Gregory began to recite a story that he had written for his children, his speech suddenly becoming slower and his diction, for once, crystal clear. As soon as he had finished, before I had a chance to resume the formal part of the interview, Gregory darted out of the room with a snappy ‘Soon come back,’ leaving me open-mouthed and a bit bewildered. I switched off the tape, and went outside. There on the corner of the balcony stood Gregory playing an arcade game. I glanced over the shoulders of the two men who stood beside him, then turned the corner and found myself standing at the head of a pitch-black corridor whose end was blocked, running off to my left. It had an acrid, metallic smell, as if wire had been burning. “Rest, now, mon,” said Gregory wacking away at the joy stick, “Me soon return. You a-go get everything today!!”
By now it was sunset, and a deep orange sky made a picture-postcard backdrop to the palm trees beyond. Three young boys, clear-eyed and friendly, were dancing barefoot in front of the African Museum shop to the sounds of Gregory’s ‘Soon Forward’ album. A skinny youth approached, who look about 13 at the most, and announced that today was his birthday. “How old are you?” I asked. “Nineteen,” he said proudly. He walked into the back room and I followed him, sensing he was one of the many unfortunates who turned regularly to Gregory for help. He asked for some money for fopd, which I gave him, wishing him a happy birthday, and he ran down the stairs and into the street. During the interim, I examined the contents of the shop: faux alligator-strap, pseudo-gold watches for US$35. Disposable vinyl gloves. Goody perm-rod curlers, yarn, mousse, moisturizers, neutrolizing solutions, Lux soap, sachets, patch cords, emery boards, and blank cassettes. An odd collection of albums including Jesus-rock records, Skeeter Davis, Shabba Ranks, Shirley Ceasar, Charlie Pride, Fleshy Ranks, Goodfellas, AK47, Reggae Bangarang, Ruff-Mean-Deadly. Trailer Load A Lyrics, and about two dozen different selections of Gregory’s. Hair barrettes, red-gold-and-green button earrings, slippers, a few beach-cartoon T-shirts, some beat-up old battery packages, pencils, huge plastic Afro-combs in pink, blue and brown, shoe polish, and match-stick models of pirate ships with sails made out of African Museum record labels.
Gregory had told me about these earlier that day. “Roger,” he said, “go out and check the boats I make when me a prisoner. I make you a very good price on them, you can carry some back with you.” Thinking how special it would be to have a piece of Gregory’s own handcraft, I observed the young man behind the counter. “So Gregory made these boats, huh?” He looked at me as if I was mad. “No, mon,” he said, snickering. “Is the prisoners from G.P. make them, not Gregory.”
Hours went by. I couldn’t leave, because I didn’t know when, if ever, Gregory would return. I hadn’t eaten since early in the morning, and Gregory’s story of people spiking his food had put me off eating in that neighbourhood. Besides, it was very dark outside now, and the only people around were a trio of bleary-eyed men blood-claating and raas-claating at the top of their lungs at the arcade game. Around the corner from them, all I could see in the dark corridor were two or three points of red-orange light, coming from something being smoked which I didn’t want to know about. Below the building, a disco sound system was blasting full watts in the service of pornographic slackness chanted by people whose idea f melody was do and re. Competing was the store’s system, counter-attacking with the constant mellower moods of Mr. Isaacs, a perfect metaphor, I thought, for the current situation in yard music.
Three hours from the time he had split, Gregory walked into the back room and, with preamble, picked up a badly tuned acoustic guitar and began to sing:
“Oh Roger Steffan-ie
You’ve been a good friend for me
I sure enjoy your company
Know you’re making an autobiography
You’re a good friend to me
I really like your company
Go on making your autobiography
Coming straight from California
Straight down to Jamaica.”
This was admittedly flattering, but it was not what I came there for. Abruptly he put down his instrument and turned as if to say, let’s go, what are you waiting for. “Everywhere I go,” I resumed, “people tell me you make them laugh. So what makes Gregory Isaacs laugh?” “When my financial reservoirs doesn’t have a drought. Money is power ‘pon earth. Most people love money. But I don’t love money. I love to have it. But life is one of the greatest things.” I pointed to his mini-refrigerator, atop which a clutch of dusty trophies sat. One was topped with a rearing racehorse and inscribed ‘Longshot Trophy Section I, 1982.’ “I won with a horse called Just Great, a very willing filly. I won some beautiful races with her. That’s the king’s sport, right? And I’m the child of a king. Any sport I deal with I like to deal with the top of the line.” “What would happen if you went down to Caymanas Park, would you be left alone?” “Boy, believe you me, through me is a man so popular down there, right, because for years me is a man who pass through stable life, live in stable already. Like how Jesus in a manger. I got through that too. I live by Caymanas Park for years.” Then he leaped to his feet and ran out the door.
Perhaps 10 minutes later (thank Jah!) he came back, resumed his seat and said disarmingly, “Me love interview with you, God know. You’re a good man, y’know, seen. You come like me. Sometimes people call me Job: him have the most fate. Like Job. Nuff name them a call me! Them a call me a Adolf Hitler, one man against the world. Saddam!! Some call me Ska. Bob Marley called me Tooth. “Did you know Bob a long time?” “Yeah, know him differently, seen.” “Did you ever see Bob perform live with Bunny and Peter?” “How you mean, mon? But my closest Wailers is Bunny Wailers. Used to go to Bunny Wailers’ yard regular under the apple tree. Caw me never go a people yard still, y’know, but Bunny me closest Wailer.” I mention that Bunny’s father died recently at the age of 80. “Toddy, yeah. Me used to sell weed fe him. Nuff hustling me used to go through to survive. Sell a ounce for 25 shillings. “Then, boom, out the door he flashed again, leaving me in mid-sentence. I followed him out, but he had disappeared. From the darkened corridor in the back, I heard muffled voices, and decided to let it be. Below, the streets were almost deserted. In the parking lot was a man with ragged locks, a dirty towel flung over his right shoulder, who had been wandering in and ut all day long. He was dressed, unaccountably, in a grey suit, with white shirt and tie, but his feet were utterly bare. He was carrying on an animated conversation. With a tree.
I stepped back inside, and Ras Shudley appeared a few minutes later. I decided to grill him some more on Gregory’s early years. The tall dread sits back, sucking a massive toke on his cone-head spliff and says thoughtfully, “I can tell you Gregory is frightened, because he’s lonely, even in a whole heap of crowd he’s lonely. He’s so talented, most of the time he outstrip his peers. He never cease working, that’s why he writes so many songs. I wondered how many people depend on Gregory for support. “The amount of grandchildren and godchildren Gregory have is a shame. The man have 75 mother, and adopt all of these people in his own way.” Ras Shudley reiterated that many of the people who spread rumours about Gregory haven’t seen him for two years or more. Our conversation concluded, I walked into the front of the shop as the birthday boy I had met earlier staggered through the door. “So what have you been doing,” I asked. “Me have five Heinekens,” he slurred, “and five spliff” And with that he fell to his knees and crawled behind the counter, collapsing in a heap to the floor, limbs akimbo. Shortly after, a middle-aged woman in a frilly blue silk party dress, looking like a refugee from a 1958 Grosse Pointe cocktail party, entered the shop for no apparent reason and hung around for an hour before she too slipped back into the night. I was beginning to feel I was in Fellini’s green room. And still no Gregory.
An hour onward, Gregory showed up again. I had carried the sleeves of about half my collection of 200-plus Gregory records, hoping that over the three days I could get him to sign them. Now I had but hours left, and I proffered a fraction of them to him for his signature. He emitted a steady series of soft, emetic grunts as I laid each before him, but warmed to the task as he saw titles from 20 years ago. As each name came up, he sang the title or hook to it, a virtual greatest hits medley, a cappella, one-on-one. Finished, he stood to escape once again. “Gregory,” I implored, “You’re not gonna leave, are you? I’m never gonna see you again!” “no, mon,” he barked, “I swear, mon. Not too long. Not too long. Soon!” “By soon, what do you mean?” “Momentary!” Famous Last Words. This absence ran an hour. Melodians’ vocalist Tony Brevett had been hanging around all day, and when Gregory dashed back into the shop around 11:30, he pulled Tony into the back room with him, locking the door behind them. “Sit tight, Roger, ” Gregory called to me, “Dennis Brown soon come.”
I could hear music being made back there, something that sounded like ‘Runaway Girl.’ I was stewing in my own bile at midnight when Dennis arrived. Banging on the door, whose hand-lettered sign read ‘Knock and Wait’, Dennis was pulled inside by Gregory, who relocked the door. I made small talk with Dennis’ assistants for the next few minutes, finally pressing my head to the door trying to hear what was going on back there. I felt like a kid in the fourth grade who’s been made to stay inside while all his friends are out on recess playing in the yard. Suddenly the door opened, and Gregory stuck his head around its wooden panel an emitted a sharp laugh. “Roger! Is five songs me just a-write!!” Then with a cackle, he slammed the door shut again. A quarter of an hour later, Dennis emerged, and explained, “We’re making an album which will have about a half-dozen duets that we’re writing together. We’ve partially completed it.” I asked Dennis where Gregory gets his strength. “From The Almighty, omnipotent spirit. He cannot be substituted.” “Did he have influence on you?” “Very much so. I’ve learned a great deal from Gregory. He’s a sample person, in terms of he being like that one in a million, cannot be substituted. Very humorous. And he can be very intricate at times. He’s just incredible, but sweet.” “But he’s got a bad reputation out there among some people. Why?” “You see, when you’re right you always get a fight. He has done so much good, that people tend to see the more bad side of things than the good part. It’s not really doing bad things as such, cuz men and people… put it this way, when the fox couldn’t get the grape, he said it was sour. You find that a lot of people can’t really face Gregory. cuz he has that shield that surrounds him. If you’re evil you cannot confront him, cannot look him in the eye.”
There was a rustle outside, and another Melodian, Brent Dowe, entered. I asked Gregory’s long-time friend from where Gregory derives his strength in the face of so much admitted self-abuse. “Well, I can tell you, he’s a man who has love. Because of his love, it give him strength. The more people hate you, is the more you get strength, if you believe in yourself. And when you start to have that strength, people start to love you again. And all who used to hate you, them come to love you. So it happen to Gregory, he have love strength. One of the kindest artist I ever see.” “What about all the rumours about him, are they lies?” “Yeah, yeah. Is because people have a symptom to be part of people. Now, like Gregory try to be himself. And the whole thing is, people try to be part of Gregory, that’s all. And he don’t want that. He want to be himself. So people don’t like that when you try to be yourself. That’s all. He’s one of the nicest guys I ever met in all my life. If he’s vexed, you can talk to him nice and he come right down.”
The door to the back room opened, and Gregory beckoned to Brent and Tony. I follow. “Yeah, mon,” said Gregory, energy unflagging although it was be then 2:30 a.m., “Five songs me write. Now you see how I create. ” And with the timeless voices of the Melodians improvising background, Gregory lifted his beat-up acoustic guitar and began to serenade me with his nascent creations:
“Runaway girl, running around the world
She was a runaway girl
In her lipstick and fancy curls
How could you forget
I was once your laughing stock
But you must accept
Naw go take no disrespect…”
Without pausing, he segued into:
“Plenty daughters sexy and neat
Selling them body on the street
Man no know who fe choose
And cause some man to get confuse
But me nah lef mi woman fe nuttin’
Even if she give me bun…
Some bust gun and some sell coke
Craven must make puppy dog get choke.”
Fifteen minutes into these repeated refrains, Gregory gave me one of his soon-come smiles and slid out into the velvet night, leaving me alone again. Finally at 3:30 a.m., empty belly churning, I asked Dowe to get me a cab and headed back to the hotel to pack. I still had a hundred questions, still unanswered by the Cool Ruler, Anancy himself, the slippery spider who leaves no trail, who refuses to be pinned to one spot and always wears a smile of mischief.
HE’S THE VOICE OF OUR PEOPLE
Perhaps the most appropriate thing I heard anyone say in Jamaica about Gregory came the last afternoon, as his neighboring office-holders were locking up for the weekend, from a well-dressed businessman who had emerged from the headquarters of a security company two doors down. With the sun setting over the distant hills I asked him, “So you listen to Gregory Isaacs music all day, huh?” “Yeah,” he answered. “How do you feel about that?” He looked at me as if I were from another planet and said, “Great! Me love Gregory Isaacs! It’s wonderful!” So I asked the man what it is that the Jamaican people like about Gregory so much, why are they so willing to forgive his transgressions. “He’s one of us,” the businessman said, “one of the people. He knows what our lives are like, and he’s the one who writes about it, and lets the rest of the world know. He’s the voice of our people.”