THE REBEL DREAD
"I can't be dealing with this tendency people have to mythologise, or to place an artist on a pedestal. I reject the idea of perceiving a creative endeavour as being something unattainable. And with some degree of effort most of us can achieve something worthwhile too. All my life I've railed and kicked against dogma and rhetoric: I've stuck my neck out. I'm the rebel dread."
Greg Whitfield interviews Don Letts
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
DL: You know where I was exactly one year ago on this day, Sept 11th? I was stuck in my hotel room in downtown New York, unable to move anywhere. It was pure hell, let me tell you. Mayor Giulliani was telling everyone to just hold on, and wait for everything to get back to normal, and so for the next few days we really didn't feel comfortable about moving very far. There I was, stuck in downtown New York with Jayne County. We were working on an idea for a documentary on the roots of garage punk in the mid 70's New York and Detroit scene… CBGB's and all that scene. It feels so strange now, one year later to be enjoying myself on such a peaceful, still day. The contrast hits home.
DL: You know what, I recently had the privilege of warming up for the legendary Jah Shaka!
DL: You know in the late 70's the only white people you would see down at a Jah Shaka dance in Dalston, Hackney or Stoke Newington, would be Johnny Rotten, those guys from Public Image, Joe Strummer, and other guys from The Pistols or The Clash, and these were my friends, people I'd taken with me. Now it's great to see so many different kinds of people, different nationalities in the dance.
DL: When Scorsese asked me for a private viewing, I was just so taken aback, and barely found myself able to mumble more than a few words to the man!... Scorsese was, and is, my favourite director, a great influence on me. I really respected him, and just couldn't have thought of anything to say to the guy!
DL: John Lydon, Keith Levene and Wobble were always unpredictable, and volatile…That was a mental experience…they insisted on everything being so dark, you could only get this intense vibe of the performance, and Jah Wobble would just sit down and play these seismic basslines! Pure madness! Yes, I'm proud of that work
DL: Bob wasn't into Punk style and fashion at first, like the designs Malcolm and Vivienne were putting out, but I just told him, yeah Bob, this is what people are doing now you know? He also tried to hit on my girlfriend of the time (Jeannette Lee, ex-manager of Acme Attractions, ex-member of Public Image, and now king pin and prime mover at Rough Trade) every time I turned my back!"
DL: Notting Hill , this whole area, you know, its like my office. I walk around here, and always meet someone I know with a new project, work out some good deal for a place to hold a sound system dance or some other business.
DL: My parents' generation had come over on the Windrush, and they had made their lives acceptable through so much struggle, toeing the line, knuckling under, but for us, that just wasn't going to work. It was too obvious we were getting the short end of the stick: you had to see it as it really was, and I identified pretty quickly, that the way we blacks were being treated within the school system was fundamentally wrong. I couldn't accept what I was being told: As a black man, they would say to me "Go join the GPO, or work on the London Underground ". Obviously, I wanted more…
3AM: So, how did you progress from being an earnest Black Panther sympathiser and funk fanatic, to rubbing shoulders with anarchists and Situationists, (The Sex Pistols, Vivienne Westwood, Mclaren and all the others)?
DL: I was a Brixton boy, born and bred. As a young Black man at that time, I loved funk, I had an Afro, Italian L'Uomo Vogue fashions… What you have to realise is, that the blueprint for Black people in Britain pre-Rasta, was funk and soul… Ok, the music was good, and the political stances of a small number of the artists were commendable, but I have to tell you, so many aspects of that scene as grafted onto an emerging black culture in England were real BULLSHIT! It was bullshit because it involved emulation of another culture, emulation of another host nation, whilst we as young black men should have been revelling in our differences, our qualities which were distinctly ours! So that's what Rasta and punk did for us, it freed us up! We didn't have to fall for the same "cultural emulation" roles which our parents had succumbed to, which appeared to us as a form of cultural repression and castration.
3AM: So, besides the weighted school system, how did he perceive the source of the confusion, and how did he deal with it?
DL: I got totally into the Black Panthers, Huey Newton with his work "Revolutionary Suicide", and then there was George Jackson, with that book of real power, "Soledad Brother", and "Blood in my Eye". Those were powerful books for a guy like me, because we were truly seeking. I can't emphasise that strongly enough
3AM: And you didn't find what you were looking for in the Panther ideology?
DL: No. Look, it all seems so easy now, the very word just rolls off your tongue, "Black British", but for awhile back there, it wasn't so simple you know? Fundamentally the Black British and the Black American experience was different, right from source. Black Americans were dragged, screaming and kicking, from the shores of Africa to an utterly hostile America, whilst my parents, they bought a ticket on the "The Windrush" bound for London! So, right off , you have it there, a major fundamental difference. So even though I attended the Black Panther meetings, proudly wearing my Angela Davis badge, read "Soul on Ice", there was still so much more that we needed to do. It's true that we became aware, became conscious in many respects and that was partly due to those Panther ideologies, but the total relevance of that movement just didn't translate into the Black British experience.
3AM: So how did you reconcile yourself to growing up in a very European culture? Did you experience any strong conflicts?
DL: Well, I've already outlined some of the conflicts we experienced as Black British youth. One thing is for sure, I wasn't going to join the GPO, you understand? Also, there were new cultural exchanges going on among the black and white youth in London! I was hearing really freaky music like Captain Beefheart and Beatles tunes, and you know what, I loved that stuff, it wasn't like "Oh that's white man's shit!" I was being turned on by an alien culture, and essentially, this ongoing cultural exchange is what has inspired and informed me ever since. So out of this bad situation, good things were growing and it was a melting pot of influences going on! At the same time, all the hippest white guys were into checking out the latest funk clubs!
DL: Something really happened for me, and a lot of other people I came into contact with around this time. I have to say I learnt a lot from Vivienne and Malcolm, I learnt a lot regarding subversive elements in European culture, I learnt about the Situationists, like Guy Debord ("Society of The Spectacle") and Raoul Vaneigem ("Revolution of Everyday Life"), which Malcolm and Vivienne were so into, but you have to realise they were truly fascinated by subversion in all its forms as it manifest itself in all cultures, and of course that involved understanding subversive undercurrents in Jamaican culture too: And that element was Rasta! So they learnt a lot about those powerful and compelling elements of Jamaican society from me, drum and bass culture, sound system culture, dreadlocks rebellion. One of their earliest T shirt designs when they were in their "Sex" incarnation, "You are gonna wake up one morning and KNOW which side of the bed you've been lying on" lists a column of good and bad phenomena in their new cultural vision… read it closely, you'll see Jamaican Rude Boys, Zoot suits and dreadlocks, along side all those other things such as Raw Power and Durrutti, so this gives you some idea of the intermingling of cultural ideas going on, and we all benefited in our insights…
DL: What you have to understand now, in 2002, is just how powerful the effect and influence of Jamaican BASS CULTURE, which is our offering to the world, actually has been on British Culture. It's an attitude, and it's been there since we arrived, and it isn't going away".
3AM: How did you become more aware of roots and Rastafari?
DL: My mind was ready, I was ready for the message that roots and culture conveyed so powerfully. By this time, growing up as a black British youth, I was looking for something I could truly identify as my own, something which didn't act as some kind of mental or cultural straitjacket. We'd go and check out the Rasta sound systems, and the message to us, which we heard through sound systems like Jah Shaka, Moa Ambessa, Coxsonne was so compelling that my political and spiritual consciousness was increasing. We'd hear these messages in the music through sound system, and we'd want to go and check them out deeply, seriously. This is what roots and culture does, it's literally, musical reportage, African talking drum culture transported within the inner cities, Griot culture. Sound system has this way of IMPARTING INFORMATION, informing, spiritually, politically, culturally. It raises awareness in all these ways, and as young black British guys, we were especially sensitive to these messages, these modes of communication. I have to say, the young white kids, the punks were very open to it too. We had our strong messages in the music, "Burn down Babylon" "Dub down Ian Smith rock", "Babylon fall", "Wicked man drop", and the punks had their own strong message too, so there was a common ground in these respects. Listen to those early Pistols tunes: Both were interested in some kind of destruction and regeneration, a reinterpretation of the "reality" that had been presented to us.
3AM: So how did all of this fuse with your emerging lifestyle in Acme Attractions, meeting and hanging out with The Sex Pistols, Malcolm and Vivienne?
DL: Well, by 1975, I had my own "soundtrack to my life", and that was roots and culture. Soon enough, a lot of disenchanted, restless guys were attracted to the shop, and these guys became a posse, a school of thought in their own way. John Lydon, Steve Jones, Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon all of them would congregate there. So they were these "upstarts", and we had some wild times. I would hold my corner, kicking out some heavy drum and bass dub tunes all day, burning spliffs. I was king of my space, and these white guys wanted to claim some space of their own, because of course, all the white guys were totally fed up with all those terrible rock bands that were around at the time, playing dreadful, arrogant stadium rock. They wanted to deal a death blow to all those bands, and they went on to do that: for a while at least, they savaged those bands, totally deposed them . So for a lot of reasons, me and these upstarts, we all had a mutual respect for each other."
3AM: Which of the characters really stood out for you at that time and why?
DL: Some of those guys were smarter than the others: John Lydon for one. He just had a kind of vibe that attracted people to him, which I believe stemmed from the fact that he was aware of all he could be , not what he had been told he could be. Joe Strummer was smart too. These guys were the intelligentsia if you like, undoubtedly the brains behind what was emerging.
3AM: What are your memories of Sid Vicious ?
DL: Of course Sid Vicious stood out too at that time, though to us, he was just John Beverley (One of the "gang of John's", made up of North and East London boys, Jah Wobble "real name John Wardle", Sid Vicious real name "John Beverley", and John Lydon). I have conflicting memories of him, which I'll go into a little later, but being direct with you, he wasn't the monster that the press made him out to be. In fact, I remember him as shy and quiet, gullible even. I remember time after time, he used to complain to us that he had been beaten up when he went out clubbing. He believed his own press which is just so sad, whilst in reality, I'd go so far as to say he was a wimp. He took a definite shine to Jeannette Lee, but then again, everyone did. We saw him as harmless, and we took the piss out of him a lot. I remember one particular example of Sid's gullibility; I'd somehow got hold of this jacket which had belonged to The Who, this really bright, garish gold lame jacket. I wore it for awhile, then passed it around, John Lydon had it for a while, Steve Jones too, and The Slits. Later on I said "Hey Sid, this was Elvis Presley's jacket, you wanna buy it?" which of course he did! His gullibility was sad.
3AM: Any other memories?
DL: Well there was one incident which has left a lasting impression, but infer from it what you will: I remember I went out to New York. I had to get Sid's signature for his appearances in "The Punk Rock Movie". He sat on a sofa, playing with Nancy. He had this huge six-inch blade knife, and he just kept on prodding her with it. A week later she was dead.
DL: You have to understand, punk rock was not a spectator sport! In the beginning, punk was not a fan thing, by any means, it encouraged you to get up, get involved, and do your bit. That much was fundamental, almost a prerequisite demand made on you. It followed an ethic of a good idea attempted is infinitely better than a dull idea perfected, so all my friends and contemporaries were out there, picking up guitars, and I'm like "Whoa, the stage is full, but I wanna get on this ride man", you see? Of course I didn't have any formal training, at that time I didn't want any formal training, I was following the punk rock vibe, of just get up, get out there, and do it! That was our culture, so it was then I reinvented myself as Don Letts, the film-maker.
3AM: Was the transition easy, from DJ with a single turntable and spliff, to film making?
DL: It's as simple as this, I'd always had a visual mind, a mental make up that is moved by sounds and visions , so as soon as the then fashion editor of Vogue Caroline Baker passed on a basic Super8 camera to me, there was no turning back. Respect to Caroline!"
3AM: So how did you balance the primal urge toward impulsive creativity, nascent in early punk, with developing the obvious skills inherent in the film makers craft?
DL: To me there is a definite duality, a kind of contradiction in my thoughts here… Let me quote Orson Welles to preface my views, he said to aspiring film makers, look if you want to make a truly original film, don't watch any more films! Can you appreciate where he's coming from? For me, I just kicked off, rolling film in the heat and sweat of The Roxy, but as I did more and more, shot more and more film, I came to understand the importance of being rooted in the discipline of learning a craft. Then there is the artistic process: What justifies you in picking up a camera in the first place? Are you aware, deeply aware, of what constitutes good picture composition and framing of your subject? So yes, I am aware of a deep duality present within me, because I know there is also great deal to be gained from a kind of blind "fuck you" energy of just going out there and doing it, without any preconceived notions or value structures. I work with that dichotomy all the time.
3AM: How much footage do you still have of The Pistols, Lydon, Wobble, Levene et al and how much had he contributed to the "Filth and the Fury"?
DL: Yeah, a whole lot of those Pistols clips in that movie are from my archives, and I have rolls and rolls of footage from that time at home, Islington Screen on the Green stuff is a particular favourite, lots of images to go through one day."
DL: No, John already had that spaciousness, that blueprint in his mind long before we went to Jamaica. As long as I knew John, he had always listened to sparse avant-garde music, stuff like Can , and he really knew his reggae, I have to emphasise that, him and Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Jah Wobble, they understood dub, deeply, they had a lot of music I didn't have you know. Lydon, Wobble and the others, they were turning me on to tunes I never had, it wasn't always the other way round. [Of this, Keith Levene has commented too: "I was always into hard roots music: I remember fighting and scrapping with other kids when I was just a young kid myself, cos someone had knicked some of my reggae tunes..."Tighten Up" I think it was… so at that time I knew my reggae, and wasn't relying on anyone else for an introduction. Later on it was people like Keith Hudson who I listened to. I loved his music"] We went to a lot of sound system sessions here in London too, people like Jah Shaka, Coxsonne, Moa Ambessa, so really, his experiences in Jamaica were an extension of what had already been in his mind for years, back in North London. Isn't that just so obvious when you listen to those early PiL tunes, the stuff he was making with Wobble and Keith just after he left the Pistols.
DL: You know, sometimes me and John just had to pinch ourselves to remind ourselves that we weren't dreaming all this! It was great for us to be meeting and working with these guys, guys whose music we really admired and loved!
3AM: What did the Rastas make of Johnny Rotten? I had heard numerous stories and reports of John Rotten, dressed entirely in black from head to toe, clad in heavy black motorbike boots, black hat and heavy black woollen overcoat, walking through fruit markets in the heat of a full Jamaican summer! So was this fanciful rumour?
DL: Yeah, it's not rumour, that's true! You know why he did that? John didn't want to go back to London with a tan! Respect to you John!
3AM: So what did the Rasta's make of John then?
DL: The Rastas loved John! To them he was "THE punk rock Don from London" they were aware of all the trouble he had stirred up in London, and yeah, they were into what he stood for and his stance, and they dug it… We smoked a chalice together with U Roy for breakfast, and then went out to one of his dances, miles out in the countryside, quite a long journey by car. I remember the dreads stringing up this sound, and kicking off with some earthquake dubs. Now let me tell you this sound system was LOUD, and me and John both of us, literally passed out! I remember hours later some dreads shaking us awake, it was like, "Wake up man, dance done, dance finish now man!" Yeah, it was pretty wild for me and John out in Jamaica. We loved it. John just had a vibe you know, people were drawn to him. It was the same in London; it was the same in Kingston. John is Irish, and there is a definite affinity between Jamaicans and Irish! We've all heard the saying "no Irish , no blacks, no dogs", which used to appear in pub and lodging windows and well, there must have been a reason for that, that ethnic grouping together, that ethnic rejection ! Jamaicans and Irish people have always got on together in England, though I can't say for sure why. A similar attitude to life perhaps? Who knows why they should tune in to each others psyches so well…Is it that both are oppressed peoples, or that both have a natural rebelliousness of spirit? Someone should do a study of it!
3AM: Do you think that you had become close to John Lydon in those embryonic days of early punk, and then later whilst in Jamaica?
DL: Yes, I did, and I considered John to be a close friend, partly because we were both into hard drum and bass, dubwise, and partly because we were making our way together in this scene which was just unfolding, and was so, so vital.
3AM: How about the other Pistols, are you still in touch with them?
DL: Yeah, Glen and Paul live near me so, we see each other quite a bit, and talk, yeah we get on. Steve is out in the States so we don't see each other much, but we do get on. John I see when he comes back to London. Do we get on? Yeah. We were in to similar things, musically, like heavy roots music, and this was one of the reason we got on so well in the past, and I'd like to think we still do. John is an intense guy!
3AM: So you didn't feel at all fazed by meeting all these rebel spirit reggae musicians in Kingston who you had respected from afar for so long?
DL: No, not at all, perhaps it's partly down to my roots, my grounding in punk rock spirit, but no, I don't have any time for deification of any artist or musician. I can't be dealing with this tendency people have to mythologise, or to place an artist on a pedestal. I reject the idea of perceiving a creative endeavour as being something unattainable. And with some degree of effort most of us can achieve something worthwhile too. All my life I've railed and kicked against dogma and rhetoric: I've stuck my neck out. I'm the rebel dread.
3AM: So what influences and touches you these days, and what other things have been moulding influences on your mind?
DL: I consider that I am influenced by EVERYTHING! Musically, a heavy bass line moves me. Bass culture. My spirit has a natural inclination to sound and vision, and performance art still interests me. Film wise, of course Scorcese, "Mean Streets", Powell and Pressburger , "Orpheus", Cocteau's "LaTestament d' Orphee", I could go on and on, so many things have inspired me.
3AM: Which projects hold your attention these days?
DL: We've been working on some new dub remix releases for Blood and Fire sound system / record label, and we've recently been invited to go and play in Japan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Whitfield has spent most of the last twelve years living in London and the Far East, specifically Korea, where his wife is a Korean classical musician. He is currently engaged in researching and writing a book on the avant-garde/sound system and bass culture, which has been emerging out of London over the last twenty-five years up until the present time. He loves Dadaism, conscious music and literature, and, of course, very loud bass.