Mystic Man revisted
by Eric Doumerc
By 1979, Peter Tosh had already released three albums (Legalize It, 1975; Equal Rights, 1976; Bush Doctor, 1978) and his reputation as a fiery and pro-marijuana Rasta revolutionary was well established. His fourth album, Mystic Man, was released in 1979, that is 40 years ago, and it is easy today to overlook the significance of that album in the history of reggae music, and of popular music more genrerally.
Tosh's third album, Bush Doctor, had been released on the Rolling Stones label, and Tosh himself had struck up a friendship with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who had both attended the 1978 One Love Peace concert in April 1978 in Kingston. They had both been impressed by Tosh's impassioned speech about equal rights and liberty, and had equally been impressed by his skills as a musician.
Mystic Man benefitted from the contribution of wordl-class musicians like Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare, Mikey Chung, Robbie Lynn and Keith Sterling, but also the guitarist Ed Elizalde and the saxaphonist Lou Marini. It was recorded at Dynamic Sound Studios in Kingston and the horn arrangements were done by Clive Hunt and Mikey Chung. Tosh himself produced the album. The Tamlins provided background vocals along with Gwen Guthrie, Yvonne Lewis and Brenda White.
The title track, "Mystic Man," can be seen as Tosh's declaration of independence or culural manifesto: he defines his lifestyle and philosophy, stating that he is a vegetarian who does not eat "frankfurters," drink "soda pop" or smoke cocaine. He does not play "fools' games" and does not "congregate on Sundays," because he is a Rasta who has rejected Babylon's wiles and mores. In spite of the insistence on tradition and a certain Rastafarian orthodoxy, the singer insists that he is not stuck in the past: he is a man of the past, living in the present and walking in the future. With that album, Tosh showed that he was willing to take risks and to explore new musical forms. The third track on the album, "Can't You See," had been recorded at least twice previoulsy, once for Clement Coxsone Dodd and once for Leslie Kong, but here, it is given the rock and roll treatment, with a wild guitar solo, and a certain grittiness or earthiness in Tosh's vocals. It sets up quite a contrast with "Recruiting Soldiers" and "Jah Say No," the tracks that precede and follow it on the album. "Recruiting Soldiers" features beautiful harmonies by the Tamlins and a strong bassline.
The fourth song on the album, "Fight On," is in fact a reworking of a tune Tosh had recorded for Joe Gibbs in the early 1970’s, entitled "Arise Black Man," and is about the situation in South Africa, where "majority rule " was not a reality at the time. But the song had a broader Pan-Africanist message, with the slogan "Africa has to be free by 1983" being used, thus echoing Hugh Mundell's eponymous song.
But the stand-out track on the album, the one that raised a few eyebrows at the time, is undeniably "Buk-in-Hamm Palace," a reggae/disco tune with strong funk influences and incendiary lyrics. In that song, Tosh posits reggae and marijuana as the two major pillars in his cultural revolution, and as the way to "true liberation." The interesting twist is that marijuana is to be smoked in Buckingham Palace, the very symbol of British culture. The idea of smoking ganja in the Queen's presence had already been used by the deejay U-Roy in his 1976 toast "Chalice in the Palace," and Tosh may well have had that tune in mind when he wrote his song. The disco/funk arrangements, with punchy horns and a great guitar workout, nicely complemented Sly and Robbie's bass and drum partnership, were the work of Clive Hunt and Mikey "Mao" Chung. In an interview granted to the journalist and biographer of Peter Tosh, John Masouri, Sly Dunbar explained how this song came to be composed: "We were experimenting, because I'd just made a record of my own called Sly, Wicked and Slick. There was this song on it called 'Rasta Fiesta', and we were listening to it and said, 'Let's make a beat like this for Peter.' The very next thing we did after that was 'Buk-In-Hamm Palace' because if you listen to it, it has that same groove. Robbie and I took it to him. He was playing it in his room and start jumping around to it; grooving on it, and then he start singing a few lines to it like, 'Light up my spliff, light up my chalice', and I thought, 'Yeah, this is good!'" (Masouri 246-247).
The song entitled "The Day Dollar Die" is a dire prediction which looks forward to the day when the devaluation of the dollar will bring about a serious economic crisis which in turn will lead to the collapse of the capilatist way of life and to the return of barter as the favoured way of exchanging goods. In an interview with Arthur Kitchin quoted by Roger Steffens in his liner notes to the remastered version of the album, Tosh explained what he had tried to do with this song: "Music is no more an entertainment ; it is a weapon without compromise.People would like to dance to my music, but how can you dance when the dollar is stepping down every three months? Thousands of youths have never held as much as $10 at one time and when they do, it will only be worth 10 cents. Running abroad is not the answer, for many foreigners can't find work in their own country. Now we can paint a picture of what the judgment is really like, economic pressure when a dollar can't buy anything. The words 'buy' and 'sell' soon dissolve. Exchange, like from ancient times, will be the order of the day" (Steffens, liner notes).
The last two tracks on the album, "Crystal Ball" and "Rumors of War," are quite apocalyptic in their outlook but are characterised by upbeat rhythms and bouncy basslines, in typical 1970s reggae fashion. In "Crystal Ball," the future seems bleak, with prices rising, gas shortages, teachers striking, and politicians making empty promises. In that song, Tosh engages in characteristic wordplay by referring to Kingston as a "shitty" instead of a city.
In "Rumors of War," the final track, Tosh quotes a passage from the Gospel of Saint Matthew ("You will hear of wars and rumors of war, but see to it that you are not alarmed") to predict the coming of war, and he alludes to the situation in the Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and South Africa at the time. The uptempo rhythm of the backing track belies the song's apocalyptic message, with the coming of Jah meaning salvation at the end ("Jah Jah to the rescue!").
In 2002, a remastered edition of the album was released by EMI, with extended cuts of "Buk-In-Hamm Palcace" (the twelve-inch mix), previously unreleased versions of "Mystic Man," "Fight On," and "Recruiting Soldiers," and liner notes by Roger Steffens.
When it was first released, the album got negative reviews in the Amercian music press, with Lester Bang (wrtiting for Rolling Stone magazine) and Robert Christgau (for Village Voice) taking Tosh to task for "selling out " and for coming up with trite and hackneyed lyrics. Bang even wrote that Tosh was now "whitewashed." Reggae purists at the time turned up their noses at Tosh's effort and contrasted it with what they imagined to be "real reggae" by the likes of Burning Spear and Culture.
Today, 40 years after its release, after we have had 9/11, the rise of international terrorism, the 2008 subprime crisis, global warning, and the persistence of wars all over the world, it is maybe time to rediscover this album and to listen to it keenly. Maybe then Tosh's message will not seem so trite and hackneyed any more.
Masouri, John. Steppin' Razor - The Life of Peter Tosh. London: Omnibus Press, 2013.
Steffens, Roger. Liner notes to the remastered edition of Mystic Man, 2002. Wikipedia article on Mystic Man.
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