I was listening to some early Wailers the other day — material they recorded back in the sixties, long before the group signed with Island Records and Bob Marley became the Third World’s first superstar — when it dawned on me that this year marks one of the saddest anniversaries in the history of Caribbean music.
It’ll be 20 years come September, I realised, since the tragic death of Winston Hubert McIntosh, known to reggae fans throughout the world as Peter Tosh and revered as one of the original members of The Wailers.
And the memories came flooding back.
Mostly, they were of one of the most charismatic and militant artists ever to emerge from the Caribbean, tearing up stages in Canada, the US and Jamaica during the late seventies and early eighties.
I had the good fortune to be closely involved with Peter’s career for several years at the height of his popularity, when he was recording on the Rolling Stones’s Sticky Fingers label (the only artist other than the Stones themselves to do so), playing to sold-out venues in North America and Europe and selling albums by the truckload. As a journalist, I interviewed and wrote about him often. As a budding and not always successful entrepreneur, I promoted several concerts headlined by Peter in Montreal, my home town during that era. As a friend, I went on the road with Peter and his Word, Sound and Power band in Canada and the States. Along the way, there were a lot of laughs. And one or two scary moments.
The first time I saw Peter live, I realised before I’d heard him sing a note that this was a performer with attitude.
The venue was Toronto’s Convocation Hall, the venerable home of graduation ceremonies at the city’s university, and also, in those days, an occasional concert venue. The hall was packed long before the scheduled show time, and, this being a reggae concert, it was soon full of smoke. Not, in case you’re wondering, tobacco smoke.
Not long before Peter was due on stage, a disembodied voice announced over the PA system that the fire department had ordered that all cigarettes be extinguished, and that if they weren’t, the show would be cancelled. Amid much grumbling, the crowd reluctantly complied.
With the fire department satisfied, Peter’s musicians came on stage and launched into an instrumental medley, snatches of some of his most popular numbers. A few minutes later, Tosh strode purposefully on stage, a commanding figure at six foot four, dressed in flowing African robes. Without saying a word, he halted in the centre of the stage, faced the crowd, and stood motionless for a few seconds with his hands crossed in front of his body.
Then, ever so slowly, he put one hand into a pocket in his robes, and produced a cigar-like object that clearly contained something other than conventional tobacco. Equally deliberately, he took a lighter out of another pocket, applied it to the cigar-like object, put it to his mouth and sucked on it for what seemed like an eternity. He stood for a few seconds savouring whatever it might have been he’d ingested, threw back his head and blew a huge, billowing cloud of bluish-grey smoke in the air, deliberately in the direction of a smoke detector in the ceiling over the stage.
At which the crowd, howling with delight, relit the “cigarettes” they’d recently been forced to extinguish, and – with fire officials wisely deciding against any further involvement – the show started.
Peter’s passionate advocacy of the use of marijuana — considered a sacrament by the Rastafarian religion — wasn’t confined to his tour dates. In April of 1978, at the legendary One Love Concert for Peace in Kingston’s National Stadium, Peter was one of a legion of reggae stars who volunteered to perform, free, in the hope of ending politically motivated violence in Jamaica. Sitting in the second row of the audience were prime minister Michael Manley, most of his cabinet, and opposition leader Edward Seaga, flanked by senior members of his shadow cabinet.
Peter couldn’t resist telling them exactly what he thought of the way they were running Jamaica, and of the island’s laws prohibiting the use of his beloved “herb”.
He unleashed not one, not two, but three slashing verbal broadsides at the clearly unamused politicians, and lit up a marijuana cigarette on stage in full view of them and hundreds of police and soldiers.
His speeches were so incendiary that many members of the foreign press there to cover the concert — myself included — seriously feared that they’d find themselves in the middle of a riot with bullets flying as thousands of Jamaicans in the crowd roared their support.
Offstage, despite his reputation for a hair-trigger temper and occasionally savage tongue, Peter always struck me as gracious and easy-going, with a ready smile that could light up a room and a warm rapport with his band.
On stage, when he wasn’t making political points, he was seldom less than magnificent, conveying a range of emotions from confrontational and rebellious to poignant and reflective.
Peter’s most memorable recorded work came after he left the Wailers in 1973 to pursue a solo career. But the years he spent as one-third of the core line-up of reggae’s greatest group were what shaped him for solo stardom.
Tosh met Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer when the three teenagers were living in Trench Town, the now-legendary Jamaican ghetto, in the early sixties. He was already an accomplished guitarist, and his distinctive baritone voice complemented Bob’s raspy lead tenor and Bunny’s angelic harmony falsetto perfectly. Under the stern tutelage of one of Jamaica’s master musicians, the late Joe Higgs, the Wailers were soon recording hit after hit after hit for the pioneering producer Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd.
A few years later, disillusioned by the puny financial rewards coming their way as Jamaica’s most prolific chart-toppers, the group joined forces with another of the island’s greatest producers, the eccentric genius Lee “Scratch” Perry, and recorded a slew of material which many Wailers aficionados still regard as their finest work.
In the early seventies, the Wailers were signed by Chris Blackwell for his Island label — their international breakthrough. But Blackwell’s determination to make Bob Marley the unquestioned leader of the group infuriated Tosh, and, after recording two Wailers albums for Island (Catch a Fire and Burnin’, in which he was limited to a total of three lead vocal spots), he decided to go his own way.
After a slew of highly successful singles on his own Intel-Diplo label, Tosh was snapped up by a major international record company, Columbia, and the first album of his solo career, Legalise It, established him as an international star second only to his old band-mate Bob Marley in global popularity.
The fact that the title track became the unofficial anthem of millions of marijuana users around the world didn’t hurt Peter’s career, and his follow-up album, Equal Rights, was even more successful.
A couple of years later, he recorded the biggest single of his career, (You Gotta) Walk and Don’t Look Back, a duet with Mick Jagger, and toured virtually non-stop, playing to adoring crowds and ecstatic reviews in North American and Europe.
In 1984, Tosh started a lengthy break from the music business, and didn’t record again until 1987. The album he made then, No Nuclear War, was to be his last.
On Saturday, September 11 of that year, Tosh was entertaining some friends at his Kingston home when it was invaded by three gunmen, who demanded money. Peter, who knew one of the gunmen, tried to defuse the situation, but they suddenly started firing. Tosh was shot in the head, and by the time he was taken to hospital he was dead. Two of his friends, Wilton “Doc” Brown and popular DJ Jeff “Free I” Dixon, were also slain.
Peter was 42.
I didn’t learn of his death until two days later, when I walked into the offices of the Montreal Gazette, where I was entertainment editor at the time, wearing a “Mama Africa” T-shirt Peter had given me the last time he’d been in town (for a huge show at Olympic Stadium, where he shared the bill with the Police, Talking Heads and Stevie Ray Vaughan).
“How appropriate,” a colleague told me.
“What do you mean, appropriate?” I asked.
“What’s so appropriate about the shirt? I wear reggae T-shirts all the time!”
“You mean you haven’t heard? Peter was shot to death over the weekend.”
I was stunned. And almost 20 years later, every time I hear a Peter Tosh song, the memories still come flooding back.