Thirteen years ago, Burning Spear appeared on the cover of High Times magazine, kicking back and, in the words of that venerable publication's editorial staff, "smoking a giant spliff." A follow-up article (with, by the by, a headline featuring a nice, if predictably cannabis-flavored, pun on Spear's first name) offered "some words of wisdom" from the legendary reggae artist about marijuana smoking.
Like many legends, Burning Spear boasts a dossier marked by a mass of contradictions -- not the least of which is that he actually, as evidenced by both articles, has something intelligent to say about "smoking a giant spliff."
Cannabis smoking aside, though, Burning Spear is first and foremost one of reggae's real things -- a music icon of the keep-the-house-groovin'-and-the-horns-blastin'-till-dawn variety, who began recording in 1969 at Studio One, the label that launched (and, sometimes, halted) the careers of hundreds of reggae artists, including Bob Marley.
His Rasta name, given to him by a Jamaican elder, alludes to Jomo Kenyatta, the African freedom fighter who helped liberate Kenya from British rule and became the country's first president.
To many people, Burning Spear is a hero and a sage -- a prophet faithful to Rastafarian philosophies, the teachings of Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey (who preached self-determination for all African descendants), and the roots of reggae music. His sentences wrap themselves easily around big concepts -- universal brotherhood, peace, unity -- using repetition to build up an evangelist's rhetorical steam. His gray beard and grizzled, waist-length dreadlocks only add to his authority.
Burning Spear is also that rare soul who can refer to himself in the third person ("Coxsone didn't think Spear could sing good at first") without sounding absurd.
And then there's the more prosaic flip side. His birth name is Winston Rodney. He now makes his home in Queens, N.Y., with his wife of more than 20 years, Sonia, who also serves as his business manager. A punctilious keeper of appointments, he's a canny marketer possessed of a shrewd business sense -- probably the reason he still has a viable career when many of his contemporaries have long since slipped into obscurity.
But Rodney's story seems to have been touched with fable from the start. Born and raised in St. Ann's Parish in Jamaica, Rodney one day bumped into another St. Ann's resident -- Bob Marley -- while roaming the hills that crown the town.
"Bob was walking with a donkey and some buckets full of plants, just heading back to his farm, and I told him I was interested in getting involved in the music business," Rodney recounted last year in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "He could tell I was serious, so he says to me, 'OK, just drop by Studio One.'"
Thus began a career that has spanned close to three decades and produced some 29 albums. Among these have been his seminal 1975 release, Marcus Garvey; the equally acclaimed Man in the Hills, which quickly followed (both on Island Records); 1985's Resistance; and 1995's highly acclaimed Rasta Business (the latter two on Heartbeat/Rounder Records) -- all considered to have changed the face of reggae music.
Appointment with His Majesty (Heartbeat/Rounder, 1997), the artist's most recent release, is as good an introduction to his music as any. The album's cool, good-time vibe belies what can only be called the serious messages of many of the songs (which can usually be gleaned from the titles: "The Future (Clean It Up)," "Come In Peace," "Don't Sell Out"). The newly revamped Burning Band is magnificent -- all swaying, languid rhythm, pepped up by a splash of horns. And the gravity and warm, oaken beauty of Rodney's voice -- not to mention his truly killer laugh -- should be a mandate for anyone wanting to sing songs that take on such conversation-killing topics as the evils of commercial development and the desirability of spiritual awareness.
Interviewed by phone, Rodney shied away from naming any tracks on Appointment as his favorites, with the typical parent's "I love them all" beg-off. The CD's name, he notes, comes as a logical follow-up to Rasta Business: "We're making an appointment to discuss ... the business, the Rasta business," he says, his accent lilting with the rhythms of Jamaica.
One track, "Play Jerry," can be seen as an example of Rodney's marketing savvy. A tribute to Jerry Garcia that recreates the experience of going to a Dead concert ("The food man, always be there/ The water man, always be there/ The merchandise man, always be there"), it "oozes crossover potential," as the record label puts it. It's also this writer's least-favorite song on the CD, which is why I asked Rodney if the song represented a different direction for him (a perhaps too-circuitous way of asking why the track appeared, with no visible sense of irony, alongside songs like "Don't Sell Out). His answer, in short, was no.
Instead, the artist notes, "Play Jerry" came as a logical conclusion to a relationship that began back in 1991 when he performed the Dead's "Estimated Prophet" (a song, Rodney has been quoted as saying, that he wishes he had written) on 1991's Deadicated, an album of Dead covers. On Garcia's death, Rodney felt it was "appropriate as a musician" to record a tribute.
If anything has helped this artist to prosper over the decades, it's his shrewd knowledge of the well-timed alliance. Asked his feelings about reggae's current popularity with white youth, he answered with characteristic grace.
"A lot of young people getting involved [in the music] because they think it's an 'in' thing. ... A lot of young people getting involved because they think it's the only way. ... When people listen to music, and they can hear good music -- music with good understanding ... they will always try to get into that kind of music, to create a kind of strength with it. It's not a problem with me ... because we [reggae musicians] can identify that we were doing something right. ... If it wasn't good, there wouldn't be a crossover. You have to cross over to something with some energy."
He pauses a moment, before concluding, "Although the original was there banging on the door for years, and nobody would open the door for the original -- or even look through the peephole -- for the crossover, they will open the door."
But listen once to the chanted, incendiary rhythms of Burning Spear, and you'll likely always keep the door flung open wide for the original.