August, 1983: Peter Tosh was the most popular reggae singer in the world (Bob Marley was dead). His credentials were myriad and impeccable. He was a founding member of the Wailers with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer in 1964, in the Trenchtown slum of Kingston, Jamaica. He taught Bob Marley to play guitar. He left the Wailers in 1975 to pursue a successful solo career which was peaking with the Mama Africa Tour of 82-84, which played every continent of the world except Antarctica.
I met with Tosh the day after a magnificent performance at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles with his crack band Word, Sound and Power, featuring American guitarist Donald Kinsey (of the Chicago blues-funk band, The Kinsey Report), and a rock-solid rhythm section of Santa Davis (drums) and Fully Fullwood (bass).
As I approached Tosh's Hollywood hotel room, incense billowed out from under the door. As the photographer and I entered the room, several members of Tosh's entourage lolled about, Jamaican-style. Tosh was renowned for giving writers - especially white writers - a hard time.
Tosh stretched to his full 6' 3" height and shook his Medusa tangle of dreads, then composed himself into an alarmingly compact coil on the couch. I was seated across from Tosh, sensing that all of this was aimed at maximum intimidation. Tosh wore a preternaturally white t-shirt and sweats. He corralled his dreads under a Jamaican-style cap, put on his shades, lit five more sticks of incense and signaled his willingness to be addressed.
Why did you choose to record a reggae version of "Johnny B. Goode"?
"For commercial acceptance. My guitar player proposed it, we all arranged it. 'Commercial' is something for sale. I want my music to sell, mon. I want my music to reach the 500 millions."
What is your place in music?
"At the highest. I live my music, seen? I am a man of profound righteousness. I am in the highest position of life, so my music is also of highest position. Yah mon!"
Are you religious?
"Religion is misturned philosophy. I am that I am. I do not tell lie. How many you know not tell lie, mon?"
Who is responsible for your music?
"Jah flows through me. We are responsible. I live music. It rises spontaneously from me. Compositions appear, mon. In the beginning there was the word. The word was Jah. The word is in I, Jah is in I. I make what is good, better, and what is better, best. I follow this in every aspect of life."
Who can play reggae?
"Only the architect, mon. All else paint picture from picture. You must have the feeling. Only Jamaican created reggae. If any other could have, they would have. This dispensation of time, Jah favor Jamaica. Reggae must be lived, not played. It is a lifebeat everytime, mon."
Is your reggae influenced by rock 'n' roll?
"Who influenced who, mon? Reggae influenced rock 'n' roll. Reggae is the king's music, played by kings, inspired by the King of Kings. Reggae has always been, seen?"
Why did you leave the Wailers?
"I never left myself, mon. It was belittling my integrity. I taught Bob Marley. How can you compare the teacher with the taught? I and I and the devil are at war. The devil make Marley leader of the band. I had no desire follow the path of destruction."
Are you saying that Bob Marley is a devil?
"Bob Marley is dead, mon."
[During the conversation, Tosh carefully cleaned, pruned and rolled a spliff the size of a banana. He lit it, blew a volcanic stream of smoke at the ceiling and smiled.]
Why do you tour and record?
"To spread the word, to liberate my people and to make money, mon. I need plenty money to walk my Father's Kingdom, mon. The blood cloth dollar will burn, but Africa's gold and diamonds are forever. Jah mon."
How is the tour going?
"Very good and most righteous indeed, mon. It always good every time. It is the only way to reach the people. The record company fuck up every time, mon. They don't put my record in the record shop. They diplomatic assassinating me."
You mentioned your record company [EMI].
"They sign to demote. I get no proper promotion. They all seek I. They know the potential of this music. They seek to exploit it."
How do you like having a hit single? ["Johnny B. Goode"]
"What hit single? A black man sell 50,000 copies, he have hit. The white man sell 4 million, he have hit. The ministers of the shitstem seek to kill me spiritually, verbally and physically."
"That I might be crucified like Christ and all true Christians. The shitstem is white and black, Christian and Jew. It's a conspiracy, yah mon. It will be in my book, Red X. They know who they are."
How old are you?
"How old is the sun? Sun not temporary, not chronological. There is the terra-celestial and the celestial. I am celestial, mon. I am here, there and everywhere. I live among men so I must adjust myself. When I go to other planet, I must adjust myself there, too, mon.
[I felt my consciousness drifting to another planet as well. A contact high in such an environment could only have been avoided by cessation of respiration. The incense and ganja had long since thickened the room into a Martian swirl. The smoke seemed to develop a life of its own, obscuring all of the physical Tosh save for his sunglasses. Tosh progressively resembled a rasta Cheshire cat.]
Do you prefer some of your songs over others?
"Are some flowers more beautiful than others? The garden is beautiful. Do I prefer brother over brother? Comparisons are part of this political world. Where there is one, there is no conflict. Where there is two or more, there is conflict. Two is the devil. Conflict begin with the devil. We count 0 to 1, then back to 0. It is a circle."
Does it bother you that the majority of your American audience is white?
"Every time, mon! It is 99.9%! It is again a conspiracy to demote I. Don't feel no way. My counteraction will be lightning and earthquake."
What is your goal?
"To promote equal rights and justice for every man."
What will happen when this goal is reached?
"The flowers will bloom and the pollution will go away. There will be fresh air and no pestilence. Man has created these things for experimental purposes to promote death and advance technology. But soon the earth will tilt on its axis and begin to dance to the reggae beat to the accompaniment of earthquake. And who can resist the dance of the earthquake, mon?"
Do you offer any advice?
"Buy more reggae records, mon. Stop smoking cigarettes and start smoking ganja. If you live the reggae beat, you will not perish from it."
Tosh survived the reggae beat, but not the drugs and politics-driven violence of Jamaica. He was murdered in a hail of bullets at his home in Kingston in 1987. The murder is still under investigation.
Career media professional Eric Olsen is