One October Saturday night a couple of years ago, I did the early set, 6-10 p.m., at Atomic Cowboy. As regular denizens know, even among nightspots in the Manchester Grove, Atomic is set apart, a 3 a.m. nightclub-restaurant (better than average food, too) with music ranging from hip hop and house DJs to indie rock and jam bands. Servers can be expected to wear a mélange of leather, denim, piercings and tattoos, a point I mention only because of the contradistinction soon to appear. I was in their outdoor space on a raised stage in front of the patio and covered bar. A bonfire to my left would begin as soon as the sun went down.
The night was warm with a light breeze. First hour I came out with old time Treasure Isle, original riddims sliding into newer versions, same thing with Studio One, stirred and shaken with top-shelf dub. People arrived in trickles. Next hour I flicked the discs experimentally, Ernie Ranglin merging into Thievery Corporation, a Bob Marley “Stir it Up” running into a Nigerian tune with the same structure, and ran a sequence of new takes on old riddims, including Bob Marley’s "Coming in From the Cold" and Desmond Dekker's "(007) Shanty Town."
The real energy was at a picnic table, eight middle-aged folks of Indian descent hunched into each other, six on the benches and two on chairs on each end. A couple of the women wore saris, but the rest were in western attire. Several times I looked their way; the people didn’t seem perceptibly affected by the music. They ordered a full dinner and several rounds of drinks. Off to the side, purely for decoration, the bonfire was lit.
In the last hour I put on a dub and went to the bar so I could start tapping the $20 credit that came as part of the deal. One of the men from the picnic table was standing there, and I nodded at him He began talking.
The man was sixty-ish, wearing the retiree’s regulation plaid shirt and a crisp haircut, and bore the aura of an immigrant freshly dispensed from the church van for an elderhostel lecture. He and his kin had heard my jams for a solid hour and a half, and I would have enjoyed being reggae ambassador for a minute but I had set the music loud. I could hear almost nothing beyond chin-kuhchun, chin-kuhchin of guitar, backbeat and the wicked Prince Jammy-produced crash of the cymbals.
I began thinking the man was a pharmacist, likely somebody unaccustomed to nightclubs. Maybe he and the missus originated in New Delhi early that morning and had been in transit all day. I began trying to imagine his story. They had just gotten off the plane, and the diasporan relatives had taken the weary couple to directly to midtown St. Louis for their first night in America. To Atomic Cowboy for dinner and music. This must all seem very strange.
"Could you play Bob Marley?"
Well I heard that loud and clear. He pronounced the first name the way I've heard a lot of Jamaicans do, with a long o. I was relieved. "I've got your Bob Marley right in my bag, BE GLAD TO."
This was already building up to be a pretty good example of 21st century multiculturalism. Three decades after his death, in the gray urban bosom of middle America, Bob Marley was the lingua franca in the meeting of two men, neither of whom were of African Caribbean descent, neither with roots in Jamaica, neither, perhaps, having much of anything in common with his counterpart except an affinity for Jah music.
Indeed, however meagerly one man's life may resemble another's, however little we may know of the existential pressures or perceptions or actual lived circumstances of the other, there is always Bob Marley to bring us together.
I wondered how he discovered Bob. Perhaps years ago he had heard a hippie singing "Three Little Birds" or "No Woman No Cry" on a beach or in a public square when he was on holiday with his wife. Maybe his son went to university, took a shine to the roots music of Jamaica’s 1970s and played some of it when he came home, the family submitting to the borderless charms of reggae.
If the music hadn’t been so bloody loud, I’d have asked the man about his favorite Bob songs. Maybe the guy was really in the know and dug the Lee Perry productions (is there anything finer than the original “Trench Town Rock”?) not just the honorable if overplayed Island greatest hits.
Furrowing his brow he talked a little more, while I nodded and calculated exactly how long I had before The Aggrovators would begin to fade. Time to ferry my drink back through what was now starting to be an actual crowd that needed bowling over with heavy riddim. Just as I was beginning to say, THANKS FOR COMING! the man repeated his request and I was better able to hear.
"So you will play 'Volare'."
I was smiling at him and starting my lope toward the stage just as I realized what he’d asked for. Back at my station I shook my head as I thought of him wondering which version he was going to get, Dean Martin or Bobby Rydell. Fellow wouldn’t get his request, and I felt bad about that and just a tad wicked too as I lay needle to Sugar Minott singing ease up to the immigration man.
Later I cruised the Internet to see if there are any reggae versions of this dramatic Italian ballad (there aren’t) because although I’m not likely to have many patrons from the Indian sub-continent in the house when next I spin, it seems that reggae could make a home for the “Volare” vision:
I think that a dream like that will never return
I painted my hands and my face blue,
then was suddenly swept up by the wind
and started to fly in the infinite sky.
Bob has his own tune with that theme, and I hope the man finds it, a song about the singer being so high he “even touch[es] the sky, above the falling rain.” The quest for infinite space. I wonder now what the man was trying to tell me. “In the abundance of water,” Bob sings of the wide nourishing space around us, “the fool is thirsty.” The lyric has long been one of my reggae koans, always bringing me to a place of meditation, this proverb about mindfulness.
I suddenly remember my first time at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival in California and a woman coming down the hill through a sea of people dancing to Bob Marley music as a DJ played in the afternoon. The woman was wearing a tee with Bob’s smiling face plastered large on the front; braless, arms outstretched and palms upward, she was dancing in such a way that the jiggle of her breasts made Bob look as though he were laughing. Bob trod over the divide and became palpably present to me in that instant, his voice blaring from a stage many years after his passing, a woman so sensually in tune with the music that her dance seemed like a form of prayer and an act of love, Bob there like a hologram going aha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha with the woman's easy jounce. A crossing of infinite space, light like a feather / heavy as lead, then gone. Give thanks. Selah.
Tune in to Positive Vibrations on 88.1 KDHX on Saturday, February 4 from 9-11 p.m. Central as I do my annual Wailers Family Tree show as a tribute to Bob Marley, born on Februay 6, 1945. A slew of Bob classics from the sixties to 1980, choice cover versions, vinyl-only Bob dubs, Bob riddim revival tunes, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Marley second generation.