LONG OVERSHADOWED by the mighty Bob Marley and even shunned by the Jamaican establishment for his outspoken political views, Peter Tosh, at last, has his story told in a new biography.
Steppin’ Razor: The Life of Peter Tosh charts the life of the Jamaican guitarist and singer, who shot to fame alongside Marley and Bunny Wailer in the celebrated reggae group The Wailers.
Shining a light on the revolutionary musician who reportedly taught Marley to play the guitar, and who vehemently called for the legalisation of marijuana in his hit song Legalize It, the book by respected reggae journalist John Masouri, seeks to posthumously honour Tosh, who was murdered in his Jamaican home in 1987.
And according to Masouri, though Tosh was shunned and even beaten for his outspoken views on various social and political issues, he was a man ahead of his time.
“It’s interesting how some of the things that Peter articulated in his songs, such as the legalisation of marijuana – in songs like Legalize It and Bush Doctor – and the collapse of financial institutions – The Day The Dollar Died – have now come to fruition,” says the British writer, who enjoyed success with his first book, 2008’sWailing Blues: The Story Of Bob Marley’s Wailers. “The man had vision.”
In addition to receiving literary recognition in Steppin’ Razor – which takes its title from Tosh’s song of the same name – the musician’s solo album Legalize It is also set to be the subject of a planned feature film from Oscar-winning British director Kevin Macdonald.
Another posthumous honour came for Tosh in 2012, when he was awarded the Order of Merit by the Jamaican government – a feat that would have been unimaginable back in the seventies, when he was considered a thorn in the sides of the Jamaican establishment.
In 1978, during Marley’s famous One Love Peace Concert in Kingston, Tosh lambasted attending politicians, Prime Minister Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, leader of the opposition party Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), for their failure to legalise marijuana.
He also used the opportunity to bring to the politicians’ attention the bloody gun battles that were taking place in the country’s most impoverished districts, warning: “Hungry people are angry people.”
His public insubordination wouldn’t go ignored. Five months later, he was apprehended by police and beaten severely while in police custody.
Regarded by many as an intimidating figure (perhaps not least because he was 6ft 4in tall), Tosh, like many other black activists, was the type of man the establishment wished to silence. Undoubtedly the most militant member of The Wailers (he famously slammed the group’s one-time label boss Chris Blackwell, referring to him in an interview as “Chris White-worst”), what made Tosh quite so revolutionary?
“He was born black, poor and fatherless in a colonial society, governed by a ruling elite who had no interest in furthering the cause of people like himself,” Masouri reasons.
“The majority of people in similar situations spend their time complaining or assuming the role of victims, which isn’t meant as a criticism. Not Peter however – he was a fighter who believed in his chosen cause, and expressed himself without fear, despite near fatal beatings at the hands of the Jamaican police.”
Though Tosh’s outspoken nature and refusal to conform cost him international stardom (the decision taken by himself and Bunny Wailer to quit The Wailers, refusing to go on tour in 1974, meant the pair missed out on the global superstardom Marley achieved), Masouri says Tosh was not the type of person to put fame over his principles.
“[Conforming] would have meant compromising his integrity and Peter wasn’t the kind of person to undertake that willingly. He really did practise what he preached on many levels and whilst mainstream recognition brings undoubted rewards, I think we should honour artists like him regardless.
“’Time will tell’, as Bob Marley did say, and the merits of someone like Peter Tosh cannot be kept hidden indefinitely.”
Steppin’ Razor is the culmination of a tireless effort from Masouri, who interviewed over 100 of Tosh’s former friends, associates and fellow musicians for the book.
And despite his extensive reggae knowledge (several reggae artists have said after being interviewed by Masouri that he was able to remind them of facts they hadn’t even remembered about themselves), the author says he learned many new things about Tosh in writing the biography.
“I was always a Peter Tosh fan, from the early seventies. But after more than three years’ worth of research, I had a wealth of new material to draw from that even die-hard Peter Tosh fans should find of interest – particularly regarding his early years with [Jamaican producer] Coxsone Dodd and [US singer-songwriter] Johnny Nash, and his adventures with [British acts] Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones.”
Did Masouri ever meet Tosh?
“I did meet him briefly, backstage at a show in London, and found him an imposing character. He towered over me in his wraparound shades, surrounded by his dread entourage and was very imposing.
“Lots of people I interviewed for the book testify to how warm and humorous he was, but I never got the chance to experience that side of him unfortunately!”
Still, Masouri is keen for Tosh to get his dues. A man who made playing the guitar look effortless (if he’d been any more cool and laid back in the video for The Wailers 1973 hit Stir It Up, he would have been sleeping), Tosh, according to Masouri is worthy of rock star status.
“I wanted to write the book as an adventure story, and make it eminently readable to people who aren’t necessarily reggae fans or immersed in that culture. The idea was to present Peter’s life story in such a way that it could be afforded parity with that of any rock star.
“That’s because in nearly 30 years of writing about reggae music, I’ve consistently come up against this inherent bias that reggae is somehow inferior to other genres, and I wanted to try and change that somehow.”
He adds: “Peter was a visionary and he had a purpose, and it’s my fervent hope that his memory can now inspire a new generation of singer-songwriters to follow in his footsteps.”
Steppin’ Razor: The Life of Peter Tosh is available now from Amazon
For the original report go to http://www.voice-online.co.uk/article/peter-tosh-reggae-revolutionary