A hot night with Bunny Wailer (transcript)

Published August 6th, 2016

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Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening. Does that cover everyone? Good. I am Michael Phillips and THIS IS NOT A TEST. So if you’re looking for a test, leave now, save yourself. For the love of god and everything holy. Okay. Remember the band Garbage? It seems they’re back again. I saw them on TV and I wondered how bad they would be, you know, now that they are all old and stuff, but they weren’t bad at all. I mean if you liked them in the first place. I did. There was something cool about them back in the day, though their sound was always super compressed and strange, but I guess that’s their thing, that sound. Even live they seem to run everything through a lot of compression which makes all the instrument and vocal sounds “equal” in volume, or “squished,” if you like non-musical terms for sound. I don’t particularly like to use non-musical terms to describe sound, but sometimes you have to. Sometimes it just fits, and “squished” fits Garbage. Though again, if that’s their thing, then cool.

I was reading an interview with Shirley Manson, the singer in Garbage, and she was talking about people giving her shit on social media and saying things like, “You’re old, give it up, go die!” you know, the typical things people say on social media because they have no imagination. But in the interview she was talking about dying her hair pink after a lifetime as a redhead, and she said, “I’m not going to worry about whether it’s appropriate to have pink hair at the age of 50, I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks. It makes me feel good and that’s what it’s all about,” or words to that effect, you know, I’m paraphrasing as all good journalists do. She also said she wasn’t going to infantilize herself and pretend to be young. She’s 50 years old, and she’s had an interesting life and a lot of experiences, so you can all go suck it. Which I like, both because I’m old and because it’s just a punk rock thing to say.

Carol and I are going to our friend’s 50th birthday party on Monday – it’s a surprise though, don’t tell her – and all of this got me thinking about being old and not necessarily looking old or acting old. Having hair that’s too long or too pink for your age, and maybe not wearing things that would be traditionally “appropriate” for someone so ancient to wear. Because I do that myself, and sometimes I wonder whether I’m just being idiotic, but then other times I’m just Shirley Manson about it and think, well the world can suck it if they don’t like it. But it makes me think about how people used to look. Like in the first half of the 20th century. You ever see pictures of people from back then and think, oh, there’s a bunch of 45 year olds standing around, but then you read the caption and it’s like a high school dance or something?

People used to look really old when they weren’t, which is interesting, because physically we haven’t changed as humans, we haven’t metamorphisized somehow or evolved in 50 or 60 years to look younger. It’s all in the clothes and the hair and the accoutrements that we layer onto ourselves. But sometimes you look at those old pictures and even people’s faces look older at a younger age. There’s just something about life in those days maybe that beat us down into looking old as soon as we got out of puberty. I don’t know. It seems like there was childhood, then a switch flipped somewhere and you suddenly looked just like you were going to look for the next 60 years. If you were lucky enough to live that long.

So now when you see a 50 year old walking around in jeans or with 20 piercings or tattoos or pink hair, you can think it’s a little odd. If you’re old, I guess you can think those things. But really it’s just become normal. People say Madonna should put some damn pants on and maybe, you know, disappear because she doesn’t have a 20 year old body anymore, but Madonna don’t give a shit what you think, so you just have to deal with her. And there’s something good about that, when everything’s said and done. That we don’t just roll over and flop into some old person mode at whatever age. That we just say no to the Velcro orthopedic shoes and K-Mart t-shirts. Though I have to say, some days I think I might like some god damned orthopedic shoes. But have we reached a time when, dare I say it, it’s cool to be old?

No, we haven’t. 20 year olds still think you’re kind of funny, walking around in your Doc Martens with your blue hair with your bank account and your house and your cars and all the stuff old people get to have that young people haven’t figured out yet. What’s changed I suppose is the attitude of older people, so who gives a shit what a bunch of kids think? If you’re 20 years old, bless you. I love you, you’re crazy and fun and limber and you probably smell better than I do. Enjoy it. And when you get into your 50s, which will happen before you’re ready for it, you can thank all of us who are old now for making old “cool” so you don’t have to suffer the same indignities we did. You’re welcome.

Speaking of old people, I wanted to do an episode on the Bunny Wailer show on July 22nd, and call it “A hot night with Bunny Wailer,” you know, since I have an episode called “A hot night with First Aid Kit,” and I suspected the Bunny show would be held in a broiler like First Aid Kit, which it was supposed to be, but I can’t do that episode now because Bunny canceled. I can’t find out the actual exact truth about why it was canceled, but someone in the know said it was “health issues.” Which is never good thing to hear when an artist is 69 years old. Makes you think Bunny might be at the end of his rope, which would be too bad, because he’s an original.

An original Wailer, that is. Before there was BOB MARLEY, there was The Wailers, Bob, Peter Tosh and Bunny. They recorded and performed together for 10 years, starting in 1964 as The Wailing Wailers, and their first single, Simmer Down, was a big hit in Jamaica. They weren’t playing reggae in 1964 because there was no such thing yet, they were wearing shiny suits and short hair and doing Ska and R&B type songs. They sound like young boys on those records because that’s what they were. Then in 1966 things slowed down and we had Rocksteady, which was slower than Ska, but faster than Reggae. Then around 1970 things slowed down a little more and we finally had the Reggae that you know and love. Or know and hate, depending on how you swing. There were cultural changes in Jamaica that kind of had an interesting effect on the speed and lyrical outlook of popular music, but I’ll leave that for you to look up if you’re interested.

In 1970 and 71, in the very early days of Reggae, The Wailers made a lot of records with Lee “Scratch” Perry, which some people consider to be their best work. I don’t know about that. The Wailers and Scratch made an impressive team, and they recorded a lot of classic tunes together, but I’m among those who don’t believe The Wailers jumped the shark when they signed to Island and got the budget they needed to start making real albums. They released two Island albums in 1973, Catch A Fire and Burnin’, both classics in their own right, which you should go buy and listen to right now. Buy the deluxe edition of Catch A Fire and listen to the Jamaican mix of the album. It’s easily as good as their work with Scratch, but it sounds better because they had the luxury of time to record. Well, they still recorded quickly compared to how long albums can take to record now, but it was a leisurely pace for them at the time.

Now Bunny Wailer was with the group throughout all of that, but after the Burnin’ album, both he and Peter Tosh left to do solo work. Bunny didn’t like traveling in Babylon, and Tosh wanted to be the front man, something that’s hard to do when Bob Marley is also a singer in your band. Funny story about Bunny that shows how much he really didn’t like traveling – he was on Roger Steffens’ Reggae Beat radio show here in Los Angeles in 1986, around the time he played a show in Long Beach, and Roger mentioned that he had heard that David Letterman wanted Bunny to appear on his show, but Bunny had declined to do it. When Steffens asked Bunny why he didn’t make the flight from Los Angeles to New York for the show, he said in order to get there in time he would have had to take an overnight flight. Steffens didn’t understand why that was a problem, so Bunny said he only flies during the day, because he wants the pilot to be able to see where he’s going.

So Bunny didn’t perform outside of Jamaica for a long time after the last Wailers tour in 1973. In fact, he didn’t appear outside of Jamaica for 13 years. Then in July of 1986 he did that show in Long Beach, his first U.S. solo show. It was three hours long, and just – I’ve seen a lot of live shows, and what Bunny did was just an incredible performance. Ridiculously great. So great that I went to New York to see another show he did at Madison Square Garden in August. I don’t know how I was able to afford that at the time – I wasn’t what you’d call flush with cash in those days – but somehow I figured it out. I bought tickets over the phone, stayed with an ex in Midtown and just made the scene, maaaan.

I have to say though, I thought whoever booked him into Madison Square Garden might have been out of their mind. There were probably 4,000 or 5,000 people at the Long Beach show, but Madison Square Garden has more than 18,000 seats. I got to the Garden early and no one was there. Like a big, empty arena. I sat down in my seat in the third or fourth row, and just kind of hung out, waiting, talking, you know, the crap you do before a concert. After an hour or so I turned around and the entire place was full. I mean every seat. I couldn’t believe it. But he did essentially the same three hour show he’d done in Long Beach and it was just as great. The thrill of seeing him for the first time was gone, but the show was still incredible.

Anyway, I was listening to a lot of Bunny’s music in the weeks before this canceled show a couple of weeks ago, and it reminded me of just how great Bunny Wailer is. As a songwriter, a performer, a philosopher and speaker. He’s written dozens of classic reggae tunes, but the thing about them, the thing that makes a great song in almost any genre, is they would still be great tunes even if they were played in another genre. A lot of his songs would be great pop songs. They are great pop songs. Go to YouTube and listen to his single Searching For Love. First of all, it’s a great pop tune, R&B tune, reggae tune – however you want to stuff it into a category, it fits. And please, how many hooks can one song have? Just when you think you know where it’s going, he turns a corner and lays another hook on you. Masterful.

That’s Bunny Wailer. Someone who should be revered and as widely known as his fellow Wailers Bob and Peter, but because he’s a low key dude he just kind of exists out there for you to discover, like a diamond laying in the street as all the cars and hoverboards roll past. Stop and pick him up. Buy his records. Well, maybe not all of them. Bunny put out some electronic records that don’t stand up to his classic work, like most Reggae artists that became known in the 70s, so stick to the older releases. Electronic reggae is bad for your bloodstream. I don’t begrudge any musician a change in musical approach. Everyone wants to remain current and vital and relevant. Musicians always want to be on top of shit. But sometimes what you’ve done in the past is so powerful that your modern work can pale in comparison, that’s all I’m saying. Remember when Prince had a rapper at his NPG shows? Enough said.

Though ironically, Bunny had his biggest hit with an electronic song that he did with Marcia Griffiths called Electric Boogie. If that doesn’t ring a bell maybe you haven’t been to a wedding in the past 30 years. If you have been to a wedding, the DJ probably yelled at you to come and do the “Electric Slide,” which is one of those weird line dances that people like to do in big groups. Well, the song they play for the “Electric Slide” is Electric Boogie. Which I guess just goes back to what I said about Bunny writing hits, even if they never become hits, or become hits when they are stupid songs. Like Electric Boogie.

So yeah, anyway, buy the records. However you do that. If you like vinyl, you’re in luck, because it’s all out there on the used market. If you like CDs you’re going to have a more difficult time, but there are rewards there too. If you download – well, I have no idea. But I imagine you can get some things on your download sites. You’ll want to listen to the albums Blackheart Man, Protest, Struggle, Dubd’sco vol.1 and 2, Rock ‘n’ Groove – which was also called Rootsman Skanking – Roots Radics Rockers Reggae, Rule Dance Hall, Liberation – that’s enough to get you started, yeah? Get you going on a treasure hunt. Blackheart Man is a Reggae classic, but then I could say that about a few of those that I rattled off there. If you want to get esoteric, go to the Dub Store in Japan and get the Solomonic Singles, volume 1 and 2. I think their English language site is reggaerecord.com.

We lost Bob Marley, we lost Peter Tosh, and with his recent health issues maybe we’re soon to lose Bunny Wailer. I hope not, but the world keeps spinning and we all keep getting older and pretty soon there won’t be anyone living who was in World War II, or who walked on the moon or made records during the golden age of Reggae. People living and dying isn’t exactly sad or tragic, since it’s what we all do, live and die. But as long as the old timers are still around, I think in the back of our minds we believe they might still pull one out, they might have a classic left in them that they’ve been saving. Didn’t Bowie do that? Knock out a great album right before he went off and did the Electric Slide with All The Young Dudes? I’ve heard it was a good record, but then he had just died when it was released, so maybe that affected people’s judgement.

But I know I held out that hope for Prince, even though he was all gung-ho for Jehovah in his last years. Koo koo for Cocoa Puffs. I always thought, well, maybe, you never know, he might throw something at us that is a great as his older work. And he almost did, with that Third Eye Girl band. Almost. But as long as he was around I knew there was that possibility. That imminent threat of something great suddenly landing on our virtual doorsteps. But that’s not going to happen now, and it isn’t going to happen for Bob Marley or Peter Tosh or David Bowie or John Lennon or anyone else you can name who isn’t here anymore. So we do lose something when these creative people die. We lose the possibility of more greatness, and that’s too bad.

But it’s funny how many greats come and go unnoticed. Or under-noticed. For whatever reason, a lot of great music and art just escapes our view. Or it escapes the view of large numbers of people. So much creation going on out there in the world. It can’t all bubble to the top of the crap heap that is our cultural consciousness. It’s not possible. We couldn’t take it if it all bubbled up. So we carve out our little spots, find what we find, enjoy what we enjoy, then it’s gone. Or we’re gone. And the leaves keep turning brown and falling down and more new stuff is created and on and on it all goes.

They say there are a trillion pictures taken every year now. That’s almost three billion pictures every day. Photography existed for 169 years before the first digital cameras were sold to commoners like you and me, and in those 169 years – the entire history of photography from 1826 to 1995 – well, I don’t know how many pictures were taken, no one does, but I’m sure it was a lot. But it wasn’t a trillion. It probably wasn’t more than 20 or 30 billion, which we knock out now in less than two weeks. Let’s go crazy and say there were 100 billion photos taken before digital cameras. We still beat that in a little more than a month. All of which is to say, how hard is it to get a good photo seen now, as opposed to only 20 years ago? It would seem almost impossible, just considering the sheer numbers of photographs out there now.

It’s kind of like that with every creative thing – art, music, there’s so much of all of it now that it seems to be a pretty safe bet that we’re missing out on a lot of really incredible artists, just because they don’t know how to get themselves onto the top of the tidal wave of stuff that’s constantly washing over us and trying to pull us out to sea to drown. It was hard before the tidal wave came, so I don’t know what the youngsters do now. They become famous on Instagram first I suppose. Or YouTube. Then they get to make a record or do whatever they do and get a lot of people to notice. It’s the same thing with writing. I was talking to Hosho McCreesh about the age old question of how the hell to get people to read your books, and I said to him that the guy who published my first book told me, “Now go out and threaten the President’s life or something,” when the book was published.

He was kidding – I think – but he was basically saying the same thing I just said. That you almost have to become known for something other than what you really want to do before you can do what you really want to do. Not like getting known for something other than what you really want to do is easy anyway. So it’s all a crap shoot, isn’t it. But yeah, we carve out a little spot anyway. Whether that spot is mass market pop entertainment or weird, fringy artists or something else, we all find enough to be amused by and more or less tune everything else out. That’s why your parents still listen to those Bob Dylan and King Crimson albums, and why I’m here trying to convince you to listen to Bunny Wailer, I suppose. Not that I expect you to be suddenly overcome with the desire to play 30 year old Reggae records all day, but there are worse ways to waste your time.

Oh, and why would it have been “a hot night with Bunny Wailer?” because the venue where he was supposed to play is an old movie theater downtown, and word on the street is the place doesn’t have air conditioning. Or they don’t bother to turn it on, or something. But it was 105 degrees downtown on that Friday anyway, so even the world’s greatest air conditioning would have a hard time keeping a room full of people cool under those conditions. Not to mention that we would have been upstairs watching from the balcony or loge or whatever you want to call it, since they took out the old theater seats on the main floor. In order to jam more people in, I guess. But the place usually hosts rock shows anyway, and who wants to sit down during a rock show? Well, I do now, but I didn’t when I was a kid.

You know, for being such a huge city and the so called entertainment capitol of the world, we sure don’t have very many good venues for music. Now I know if you’re not from around these parts you probably find that hard to believe, or you’re thinking, “Dude, you have the Hollywood Bowl and shit!” Yeah, the Hollywood bowl. I think I mentioned back in March that we had tickets to the Brian Wilson “Pet Sounds” show at the Hollywood Bowl. Well, we went to that a couple weeks before the aborted Bunny Wailer show, around the middle of July. When I talked about it before, I might have mentioned that I hate going to the Hollywood Bowl. Parking’s a drag, the benches are a drag, the traffic is a drag, the people are a drag – well none of that has changed, plus it was, you know, the middle of July, so it was really hot, and I don’t know about you, but sitting in the hot sun is not something I ever do voluntarily.

Anyway, the Hollywood Bowl ain’t all that, don’t be fooled. It’s inconveniently located – you can’t get anywhere in Hollywood anymore – and music outside, out in the open air – it’s just a terrible way to listen to music. I was going to say maybe it’s okay for classical music, but it isn’t, I’ve heard an orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl too, and it was worse than hearing modern music out in the air. One of the things people love about the Hollywood Bowl is you can bring in your own food and wine, so people lug picnic baskets up that hill and then they sit there in their box seats eating cheese and crackers and drinking wine. Some of them might go crazy and bring a baguette instead of cheese, but otherwise it’s the same thing on every little laid out picnic cloth: cheese, bread or crackers, wine. Maybe some grapes.

It’s like they all got together the day before the show and said, “Okay, what are we bringing? You know you can bring food and wine into the Bowl!” “Well, I was thinking cheese and crackers and wine.” “Yeah, me too.” “Oh, that sounds perfect!” But the really weird thing is most seats at the Bowl are not box seats, they are benches. Horrible wooden benches with nothing between you and your sweaty, cheese-bloated, wine drunk neighbor. For a dollar they will let you use a foam seat cushion, which, if you’re older than 25 you’re probably going to want to use, but then you hand over your dollars and they hand you these things with no carrying handles and you’re thinking, “Whose ass was on this for three hours last night in the 100 degree heat?” Well, you probably wouldn’t think that, but I do.

But yeah, you can’t really have a picnic on those benches, unless you’re there two hours early, before someone plops down next to you. So what people do is stake out spots inside the bowl gates, but outside of the seating area. So there are people eating cheese and crackers and grapes and wine at the concession tables, on the benches around there, in any little patch of grass available, and, when we were just there last month, on the sidewalk on the street that runs up to the bowl from Highland. Just sitting there on the sidewalk, next to the busses dropping people off and thousands of people’s feet walking past, 18 inches away from their cheese. They just sat there eating, these few women and I couldn’t get over it. If you want to replicate their experience, just go have a picnic on the sidewalk in the busiest part of your town. Set up right near a bus stop.

Anyway, music stinks outdoors. The sound of it anyway, and music is sound, so you do the math. I always hated mixing outdoor shows, because you can’t get good sound without any reflective surfaces. And wind blows the sound around – well, it doesn’t actually technically blow the sound waves – but wind affects the way the sound hits your ears and causes all sorts of weird, unwanted effects. Overall it’s just bad news. You can’t get music to sound good outdoors. And Los Angeles has a lot of outdoor venues aside from the famous and horrible Hollywood Bowl. Like the Greek Theater – we wind up seeing a lot of shows there, but it’s the same as the Bowl, only with slightly better parking. Slightly better, not a lot.

The Ford theater is across the canyon from the Hollywood Bowl, there are a million parks and other lower key spots, and once I even mixed a Boom Shaka show in the Olympic Velodrome. That’s a giant bicycle racing track. Built for the 1984 Olympic games. Why? I don’t know. man. That was the location, so we just went and did our job. But you’d think that the entertainment capitol of the world would be lousy with great venues, but it’s not. Los Angeles is just as crappy as your town as far as live music goes. Only, you know, like 20 or 30 of your towns all smashed together.

I watched Hillary Clinton’s nomination acceptance speech the other night, and I don’t know why it didn’t seem like a big deal to me. It should have, being as old as I am, but I find it so hard to care about anything that happens in politics, even historical things. And how ridiculous would it be to elect a female president in a country that doesn’t even guarantee equal rights for women? Ah well, fly it up the flagpole. Salute until your forearm cramps. Deal me in! Or, Build that wall! Wait, didn’t the king of all Republicans say “tear down this wall” just a few decades ago? I guess a Berlin wall is bad, but a 2,000 mile wall across the bottom of the U.S. is cool.

And can I just say for the record that no one should fear the Great Wall of Trump? Even if he could get elected, which is impossible, he couldn’t build a wall like that. They can’t even pave the roads in Los Angeles, but we’re going to build a 2,000 mile long impenetrable wall? Sure. Let me see that. If they started that today, 50 years from now it would just be 75 miles of concrete footings with rusty rebar sticking out of half of it. You’ve got to be kidding, a 2,000 mile long wall. What kind of person hears that idea and thinks, “Sounds reasonable to me!” I guess the same kind of people who look at Trump and think, “I could vote for that, why not?” Well, only 100 more days of this political bullshit to sit through. Then what? What’s on your agenda? Come back and tell me next time. Ciao, babies!