Feel Them Spirit: The Wailers at Studio One by Tanya Larkin
On one of the first days it’s possible to throw the sashes wide open to the sunshine, I will inevitably find myself grooving to or even singing “Walk around at night time / with me,” the beginning of “Rude Boy,” the second of twenty songs on The Wailing Wailers at Studio One—because, well, it’s finally become warm enough to walk around at night time with someone.
I bought this hard-to-find CD at the famously well-curated Earwax Records in Williamsburg, Brooklyn about twenty years ago. Earwax CDs cost a relative fortune, so the only other album I ever bought there was Serge Gainsbourg’s Couleur Café, another gem, on which lives and breathes the sexiest song ever, “Ces Petits Riens.”
Had I not been daunted by the task of translation, I might be writing about that album, after which Comic Strip, most people’s introduction to Serge, disappointed with its try-hard slickness and overwrought fidelity to theme. In any case I wanted to write about the collection that has brought me the most happiness, and that is of the earliest recordings of The Wailers. By now, listening to the glassy croonings of Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh’s teenage voices skim over the joyful pulse of the ska beat has become something of a springtime ritual. Whereas the light upbeat riddims might have reflected the buoyant mood of Jamaicans after they won their freedom from the British (independence was won in 1962; The Wailers started recording these songs in 1963) now it simply celebrates freedom, even if it is only my freedom from bad weather.
Freedom, of course, isn’t uncomplicated. Despite the jaunty beat and the seemingly innocuous du wop harmonies, which earned The Wailers the moniker of the Jamaican Beatles, the lyrics are often fraught with class struggle and the frustrations and contradictions of desire. Independence had stirred resentment among the poor as they saw newly liberated resources and riches go to the upper (mostly white) class. The Rude Boy (or Rudie), the avatar of ghetto unrest, figures into many of these songs, either implicitly or explicitly. He’s the consummate resister and rogue, as charged and tortured by sexual desire as with his instinct toward violence and insurrection. “You wan it, wan it, cyan get it” then you “get it get it” and don’t want it any more (“Rude Boy”). As the liner notes note—remember those?—the Wailers came from Trenchtown, the most notorious slum in Kingston, and so they naturally saw themselves as rude boys talking to their fellow rude boys and girls. A dance hit like “Ska Jerk” incites violence and simultaneously sublimates it into dance.
The message, as puzzling as it is compelling: let’s go buy a shotgun, girl, and go to town and dance. Meanwhile “Let Him Go,” a response to the Clarendonians “Rude Boy Gone a Jail,” is a cool, quiet plea for justice. Rudy’s been framed, and the police should let him go, because we should “remember he is smart/ remember he is strong/remember he is young / and he will live long.” Forgive him, because he has a long life ahead of him in which to redeem himself. Forgive him lest you water a bad seed and invite reprisal.
A strong moral, even religious, vein runs through many of the songs. This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Jamaican culture, where the religious tradition is as strong as that of the Rude Boy. In fact, there is no other album I know of where the sacred and the profane lay down together so easily and gracefully. Some songs are well-known spirituals like “Sinner Man” and others use Biblical language to speak of earthly things like love or revolution. My favorite of these is Bunny Wailer’s “Who Feels It Knows It,” which was first released as “You Linger You Linger.”
The lyrics have a different cast depending on when you’re listening. Is he singing about faith in the Lord, falling in love—or both? Even “Bend Down Low,” (Bend down low/ let me tell you what I know), with its air of transmitted wisdom, has a spiritual tenor. “I’m Gonna Put It On” is an original ska spiritual in the rude boy style, a “toast” to the grace bestowed by the Lord: “Feel them spirit / Lord I thank you / Feel alright now…” Then, in their truest falsettos, the Wailers wail, “No more crying / No more crying.” This music is as sacred as Hildegard Von Bingen’s and Bach’s, though certainly not as solemn.
I was twenty-three when I first bought this album. I lived on the South Side of Williamsburg and temped as a legal proofreader at night a few times a week, which left plenty of time for listening to music, reading, and figuring out how to write one line of poetry after another, all of which were modes of pining after unrequited loves. Naturally, the songs that I cottoned to first were the ones that directly addressed my subject, like “Wages of Love” and “What Am I Supposed to Do.” The sorrowful words sung alongside the pumping, danceable beat made love seem an adventure like any other. When I listened to the Wailers adaptation of Dylan’s “Rolling Stone,” I felt the danger and loneliness of being “on my own” and felt simultaneously comforted. Rolling stones at least had momentum, right? I had no idea the album would yield so many more dimensions—no idea it would become a staple of my spiritual life.
You’re so pretty when you cry.
You’re so ugly when you cry.
When you cry, you can never know
what you look like, ha, only I
can know. But it’s a free country
(last time I checked) so go ahead, try
to catch your reflection in action
the tears in mid-stream. Ambush
the mirror. Float in like a zeppelin
on fire. I wish you luck. But unless
you have that monkish talent
to look at your face and not
recognize it as your own, the corollary
and inverse: to recognize that face
in everyone else’s, including mine—
which I know you can’t do—
I think you’ll find it changed.
Not utterly but marginally.
Nothing in the margins to read.
So cry, cry away. When you cry,
I get a hard-on. I invent civilization.
I invent deeper space and the means
to travel through it. Here I go
riding the bowsprit of a daydream,
ready to colonize a country
freer than this one. Off your tears,
I get rich and buy younger women
top sirloin, bracelets, real estate
in the tropics. What I appreciate
between me and the younger women
is the tradition behind the transaction,
hence the clarity. So clear
I see it sparkle through your tears.
Tanya Larkin is the author of two collections of poetry, My Scarlet Ways, winner of the 2011 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, and Hothouse Orphan (Convulsive Editions), a chapbook of poems accompanied by the pen and ink drawings of New York artist Ben Gocker. Her most recent poems have appeared in The Boston Review and Ping Pong. She lives in Somerville, MA, where she fronts the band Waves in Detroit.
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