Friday, July 9, 2010

Catch A Fire

by Jesse Kornbluth

Think back to 1973. The great rock revolution of the ‘60s was over. Music had become what it is now: a business. A depressing time for me --- I kept looking for flowers sprouting through the concrete and, month after month, came up with only weeds for my troubles.

And then, at Max’s Kansas City, I found what I had been seeking. Some friends of friends were playing; an unknown group called The Wailers was on the bill. These young Jamaicans came out, freaky as Sly Stone, clearly tranced-out behind some serious ganja, and began to play amazingly complicated music that had me twisting in one direction while the beat had me going in another.
Excited and limp, I went backstage (back then, back there, no big deal). Met the Wailers (Bob Marley was not then The Star). And, the next day, bought “Catch A Fire,” their American debut. (To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. To buy the MP3 download from Amazon, click here. To buy the iTunes download, click here.)

"400 Years" (listen here).
"Midnight Ravers" (listen here).
There are two versions of the album cover. One is a rendition of a Zippo lighter (it opens — and, very quickly, breaks). The other features Marley smoking a huge spliff. That one came later. I got the original.

And was it ever original. There were sweet seduction songs. There were songs that evoked Jamaica ’s colonial past. Angry political songs: “No chains around my feet/But I’m not free/I know I am bound here in captivity…” And the spooky Rasta dreamscape, “Midnight Ravers,” with its devastating opening condemnation (“You can’t tell the women from the men/ ’cause they’re dressed in the same pollution”) and its Book of Revelations vision: “I see ten thousand chariots/And they coming without horses/The riders — they cover their face/So you couldn’t make them out in smoky place.”

Rarely has music been better matched to lyrics. “Midnight Ravers” is the best example. A repeated corskscrew organ riff. Guitars that sting, then soar. And a bass guitar/drum pattern that paints a musical picture of camel-like horses riding, riding, riding, in the dead of night.

One night, in a Philadelphia club, I had dinner with The Wailers in their dressing room and watched them smoke so much ganja they should have passed out. Instead, they went on stage and — like angels, or aliens, or just humans blessed with telepathy — played a note-perfect set that converted everyone in the room to blithering fandom.
The sanctification of Bob Marley began the following year. There was only one more true Wailers album (“Burnin’”) before the band changed. And then came all the songs you know — great songs, but great in isolation, like great singles. “Catch A Fire,” on the other hand, is a great album: there’s a logic to the flow of the songs, a satisfaction that’s bigger than the sum of the individual tunes.

One afternoon, I went down to the Chelsea Hotel to suggest a movie to Marley. Before I could tell him my ideas, he put his spliff down long enough to draw a square on a piece of paper. “This one is us,” he said. He drew another square. “This one is the bank.” He drew a connecting line, looked up at me and grinned — and our movie died right there.

Yeah, you’ve got the greatest hits. But do you have the greatest album? Not until you have this.

BONUS: Rare home movies, uncensored interviews, historic rehearsals, musical lessons, behind-the-scenes footage, and more...Catch A Fire
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