The Life of Peter Tosh : Steppin’ Razor
The biography of Peter Tosh has been long awaited in more than one sense. In the general sense that Tosh simply deserves a biography as an important reggae icon, being in fact long overdue when compared to the several biographies already appeared over the last decades on (fellow-Wailer) Bob Marley. Not even Peter Tosh’s sudden and shocking death in 1987 seemed to have occasioned a biography on him at the time. It was not until much later that British journalist John Masouri announced that he would write a biography on Tosh, initially scheduled to appear in 2011. There comes the long-awaited in another sense: this date was postponed, and eventually the biography, written by John Masouri, would appear under the title “The Life Of Peter Tosh : Steppin’ Razor”, in 2013.
WRITING THE OUTER AND THE INNER
You guessed it: I will review this biography, placing it in a broader perspective. The work was with its 486 pages quite voluminous. Yet it was a good and pleasant read, from the beginning. Masouri knows how to write engagingly, which can of course be expected from a long-time experienced professional writer and journalist. I find, however, that there are different layers of good writing. In my experience some biography writers have a more personal, opinionated style, while others take a more detached, almost neutral stance. Some seem better in eliciting images, landscapes, and scenes, while others are better in describing psychological processes.
The author of the biography on James Brown, R.J. Smith, seemed in my opinion much better in describing internal psychology (in this case of James Brown) than outer scenes, landscapes or cityscapes etc. David Katz had a better balance in his biography on Lee “Scratch” Perry, called ‘People Funny Boy’. Colin Grant wrote the biography on Marcus Garvey ‘Negro With A Hat : the Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey’ (2008) as well as the 2011 work on all the three Wailers in their interrelation ‘I & I : the Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, and Wailer’. Grant combines several of these writing qualities, I think: both the outer and inner processes were described engagingly by him.
Masouri combines qualities as well, but less balanced in my opinion: he is apt in eliciting physical images, city-and landscapes, atmospheres, views of e.g. Kingston, Jamaica, or wherever Tosh went on tour, such as the US, Europe, and Africa. Yet he also pays attention to internal psychology. He has the latter quality to a degree, but I think Masouri is somewhat better in describing physical scenes, or “situations”, than the deeper layers of Tosh’s psychology. He tries to unearth these deeper layers of Tosh’s personality, including through anecdotes, but stays a bit too superficial in this regard. Colin Grant achieved this better, I think, in his biography on Garvey. Masouri refers to how Tosh’s life experiences shaped his personality, but bases this on what Tosh said himself, of course, and on what others say about Tosh. This is fair enough, but besides people really closer to him, he also includes many people who had a shorter, more superficial or distant (working) relationship with him, saying not much more than how he “came across”. This is often part of anecdotes. This can be interesting still, goes even a bit deeper at times in the book, but never really too deep. Here and there in the book he tries to delve deeper in Tosh’s psyche, though: but with varying degrees of success.
Chronologically the biography departs from – obviously – Tosh’s life story since his youth in rural western Jamaica. Though somewhat broadly sketched, you get an idea of the environment he grew up in. Also broadly sketched his entrance in Kingston’s music scene is related, though it is very engagingly written. The biography then becomes a page-turner (in the good sense). The interaction with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer when forming the Wailers is interesting reading, but seems to provide for Masouri also a way to emphasize Tosh’s character traits, when compared to Bob and Bunny. Uncompromising and rebellious as a proud black man knowing his rights (different in this from the somewhat more compromising and “malleable” Marley, according to several people), Tosh could be displeased and angry on occasion, but also was often described as good-humoured, full of jokes, charming, and attentive (different from Bunny Wailer, of whom some said that “he seemed angry all the time”). Tosh was also said to be funny, and often joking. This personality formation of a rebellious pro-black stance, fighting against Babylon oppression and (related of course) his staunch Rastafari views, combined with an often charming, attentive and humorous disposition, is of course not necessarily contradictory. This despite the simplistic archetype existing among some of the “angry black man”. Even with some white people he went along well, though he was openly critical of some white people he (had to) work with, when he felt wronged by them.
This is in line with the “combined biography”: ‘I & I : the Natural Mystics: Marley, Tosh, & Wailer’ (2011), by Colin Grant. Interestingly, Grant sees the three Wailers as somehow representative of three main types of Black attitudes in a white-dominated world (or: “Babylon”): Marley represents “adaptation” to it, Bunny Wailer “retreat” from it, and Tosh “rebellion” against it. Of these three original Wailers, this biography thus focuses more extensively on one of these, the said to be most “rebelling” and uncompromising one Peter Tosh, among other things through many anecdotes and life episodes. These stories in a sense confirm his rebelliousness, but of course not one-dimensionally. Aspects of adaptation or retreat are also to be found.
A large portion of the book describes how Tosh joined the label of the Rolling Stones, also as a way to reach the international market. This part is also entertaining, though here and there a bit too much about the Rolling Stones (it’s not their biography), and some other white rock acts. Perhaps predictable, the in essence patronizing idea of settled white rock artists helping Tosh to cross over, “giving him a break”, so to speak, would spark Tosh’s irritation, though seemingly he bottled this up until later. While perhaps helpful, the patronizing aspect of this became in a funny way clear in an anecdote Masouri relates. A club in New York, apparently owned by a local reggae lover, invited many Jamaican reggae artists, while also the Rolling Stones and other rock acts with a love for reggae would visit regularly. When the Jamaican reggae band Culture, with Joseph Hill, was performing, two members of the Rolling Stones (not Mick Jagger though, who wasn’t there) went on stage – out of respect – to join them in the roots reggae vibe. Culture did not know who they – even if famous the world over – were and therefore – shocked – stopped playing and singing, only later to find out who these white men were… I found this anecdote both funny and illustrative..
Later the conflicts between Rolling Stones members and Tosh increased, due in part to pride – or a sense of justice – of Tosh, continuously finding himself to be small-changed financially in dealing with big record companies, even if he specifically joined the (artist-led) Rolling Stones label to avoid this.
LATER CAREER : GATHERING MOSS
The biography continues then in the period after Tosh left the Rolling Stones label (and worked for big labels like EMI), and went further on his own with a changing Jamaican band accompanying him: first Sly and Robbie, and later the Soul Syndicate, including drummer Santa Davis. The interaction with the band provides further interesting reading. Masouri pays much attention to the tours he went on with this band, trying to reach large international audiences in the US, Europe, and Africa. The trips to Africa (Swaziland, Nigeria, and other places) had a special spiritual meaning for him, as can be expected for Tosh as a black Rastafari-adherent, who furthermore also as a hobby read much about Africa and its history, as related in the book.
Interactions with other music groups and artists continued, even with white artists, some with more commercial success than others.
The reception and quality of these concerts, and also of Tosh’s albums and songs, constitute another large part of the biography. Masouri, somewhat odd, gives his opinion on the concerts and the albums, though luckily in a moderate sense. Even if in some instances I agreed with Masouri (we both liked Tosh’s song ‘Feel No Way’ from the ‘Mama Africa’ album apparently), I opine that biographers should be careful to give artistic opinions, due to the confusing pitfalls associated with subjectivity, hindering the required distance of a biographer. But, as said, he does this moderately. In describing Tosh’s concerts, Masouri shows how he is apt at describing vividly and evocatively the atmosphere and ambience during these concerts, on stage, as well as in and around the different concert venues.
Masouri further relates how Tosh reached success among some groups, though not always among whom he wanted: like Marley, Tosh lamented the fact that among his US fans were relatively few Black Americans, but much more a growing group white liberal (often marijuana-loving) kids. All in all, he had less commercial success than Bob Marley, as many of course know. Although some presented him as the next Bob Marley.
The critical British press on him is another interesting theme, and justly Masouri is critical about the arrogance in some British press pieces vilifying Tosh as inadequate or even fake. Masouri’s citing of these press reviews makes evident the both self-assured as denigrating tone this British press critique could have regarding Tosh. Apparently these critics saw themselves as arbiters of good taste. This is already elitist and condescending, but in this case they claim to be judges on music from another culture than their own (which they only claim to understand), while comparing with other reggae icons (of course Bob Marley)…
I guess bad reviews are part of being a famous artist, but too often such critiques are a mix of self-interest, too much believe in one’s own prejudices, in turn stemming from a sense of superiority of these critics, not seldom with a racist origin. A type of neo-colonialist attitude that dresses itself as “hip”.
Two main problems that keep confronting – and hindering – the reggae industry come to the fore in this biography on Tosh: the first one is, as just discussed, non-Jamaicans and whites determining what reggae should be like and/or should reach the mainstream. The second one is the continuous, inappropriate comparison with Bob Marley. Both these aspects have racist overtones. At the very least both are depreciative.
It is almost painful to read how Tosh tried to circumvent these hindrances of reggae’s molested image while trying to keep his dignity. He even seems to compromise at times to these Western ideas to develop and broaden his career. It is a revealing aspect of this biography.
ANECDOTES AND MORE
This biography consists of quite a few anecdotes, and can be even called “anecdotic” to a degree (like many biographies). The anecdotes are combined with historical facts/backgrounds, interviews, concert and album descriptions (as I mentioned), opinions/evaluations, and – not unimportant – life events described broader and longer than often shorter and less serious anecdotes. These life events getting more detailed attention, includes the time when Tosh was in Jamaica beaten and abused by the police at the station, probably in retaliation for a critical speech against authorities he held at a concert in Jamaica not long before. Tosh was in fact beaten severely by several policemen, and maintained damage (recurring headaches for instance) from them long after. Similarly traumatic – and grim – is also the story of the armed robbery and murders in his own house, leading to Tosh’s death (and the surrounding events) in 1987.
On a lighter, more funny note are then the several anecdotes which say something about Tosh’s personality and sense of humour. Unavoidably, several “marijuana-smoking” anecdotes can be found in this biography, but also other ones. They also show how Tosh could be attentive and considerate – especially some women he worked with said they experienced this –, but also at times a bit impolite or rigid in his beliefs. When he worked with British-based reggae artist Dennis Bovell, for instance, who first wore dreadlocks, he at a later time refused to meet and talk to him after Bovell cut these dreadlocks. Tosh later said to Bovell that he never should have cut his locks. A different, but also interesting anecdote relate to the California band the Grateful Dead, led by Jerry Garcia, who wanted to meet Tosh, who, however, had objections against the band name and said, when he had the band on the phone, that they instead should be grateful to be alive.
PERSONAL LIFE AND DEATH
His personal life gets more attention in the latter part of the book. His friends and musicians he worked with criticized the too strong hold his new partner Marlene had on him, becoming his manager without – according to some – proper skills, and further estranging his long-time friends from him, and having a general bad influence on him. Some even suppose she used “obeah” (Vodou-like) magic to control him and continue her evil ways. A woman standing between her man and his earlier friends is a story I’ve heard before – even in my own life and circle – , and whether all these accusations against Marlene were actually true is hard to ascertain. Some who criticized her were spiteful, probably, or maybe she actually dominated him too much. It is difficult to know for sure.
Then the drama increases in intensity as the biography comes close to how Tosh died. He was shot to death in his own house in Barbican, uptown Kingston, when he and his partner Marlene were in there with a few friends, including other musicians. An old acquaintance from Trench Town – in fact living as a criminal and/or parasite (asking for instance musicians he knew for money) –, named Dennis Lobban, entered Tosh’s house with a few friends and demanded money at gunpoint. While asking where the money was, they hit the people present, threatened them, and shot their guns several times. The main perpetrator – Dennis Lobban – had criminal priors. The gunshot at Peter Tosh proved fatal, as for others, such as dee-jay Free I, who also died. Others, such as drummer Santa Davis and Marlene were also shot but survived the ordeal. This took place on the 11th of September of 1987 (another “9/11” indeed). The day Peter Tosh died. He was only 42.
A tragic, dramatic end of the life of a sincere, talented musical artist who only wanted to “free Jah people”, strived to righteousness, but got caught up by the wickedness around him.. This is no sanctifying of Tosh on my part, but a balance of his life’s reality, based partly on this biography. He was not perfect – like no one is – and was for instance sometimes irresponsible, hot-tempered, stubborn, impolite, or temporarily vindictive, but that was it. So the Biblical phrase “the wages of sin is death” – that ironically many reggae artist repeat in lyrics (including in other words Tosh as well) – does simply not apply.
Overall, I found this biography insightful and enjoyable. It would be better in my opinion if it stopped after relating this death in 1987, or perhaps his funeral. This because the last episode on his legacy, was for me not necessary and even disturbing. Readers can summarize his significance for reggae and his unique talent for themselves after having read the rest of the book. That renders it somewhat superfluous, even if some interesting comments can also be read in this last chapter.
What’s much worse is that Tosh is devalued in this last part by a comparison with – again – Marley, seeking to explain why Marley was more popular, crossed over more to broader audiences. This related according to a Paul Khouri to the fact that while Tosh was more revolutionary, Marley had (he thought) better lyrics, and lacked prejudice in approaching his art. Khouri called him also a better “storyteller” than Tosh.
I am not sure what “prejudice” Tosh had supposedly more than Marley. Because Marley was half-white he trusted white people more? Maybe, but this biography relates how Tosh had worked with white people and often amicably (though not always). Because Tosh had a more rebellious, militant pro-black stance? Against injustice you can never be too militant, I would say. He was pro-black and pro-humanity, not anti-white to be anti-white. To add insult to injury, the same commentator, Paul Khouri, said Tosh’s lyrics lesser mass appeal related to Tosh’s lacking sensitivity in this regard. Khouri believes therefore that Tosh’s lesser mass appeal than Marley’s “had more to do with Tosh’s music than any lack of corporate push”. I do beg to differ…
I think Khouri is also mistaken in his evaluation because some of Tosh’s lyrics in fact do tell more or less a “story” (‘Stand Firm’, ‘Pick Myself Up’, ‘Peace Treaty’, ‘Maga Dog’ a.o.), but maybe it is true that Tosh tells less stories in his lyrics than Marley, having instead “structured messages” in them. Such lyrics can be interesting as well, only in a different way. Tosh could, I find, evoke images with his lyrics (‘Downpressor Man’ being an example), which is a type of story-telling, you might say. Also daily life was quite prominent in Tosh’s lyrics, while relatively less Biblical references (compared to other Rasta artists, like Marley), which might well relate to his stronger anti-Christian feelings. Despite his slightly “thunderous” voice (though much less than a vocalist like Prince Fari), Tosh also could convey sensitivity in his lyrics and songs. So, I do not agree with this critique of Khouri and some others.
Masouri wrote a good biography, but showed in my opinion bad judgement when he reserved this critique to the end, giving the idea that it is a final evaluation (maybe unintended, but still…). Added to the inherent nonsense of comparing what need not be compared: Marley and Tosh were both interesting artists – musically and lyrically – in their own rights. Not the one “better” than the other. Only the mentioned “corporate push” made some believe that.
A missed opportunity, I opine, in this last chapter – note: named ‘Legacy’ – is furthermore that Masouri did not really pay much attention to how Peter Tosh’s music influenced later Jamaican artists. Bushman (who made a tribute album with Tosh covers) is mentioned in this biography, but also other Tosh-influenced artists/singers could have been mentioned, including outside of Jamaica, notably Lucky Dube. Also that Tosh’s late-1970s songs ‘Downpressor Man’ and ‘Equal Rights’ – both lyrically showing his militant side – were relatively oft-covered later by other reggae artists is an interesting fact that could have been mentioned.
So, apart from these and other flaws – the main one being that it could have (if possible) delved deeper in Tosh’s psyche – I can recommend this well-written, informative, entertaining, and overall insightful biography, even to those who know already some things about Peter Tosh and his life.