Monday, September 25, 2006

Why Jamaicans Can’t Rock

Our rock and roll is bigger than your rock and roll. I know this because in the mid 90’s Jamaica’s Rock scene made the cover of billboard (the music industry Bible, if you don’t know) all without an album or single to its credit. That was the mid 90’s after all, and just about anything could be covered in flannel and labeled alternative, even if it sprung from the Caribbean sea and floated by on a trustafarian carpet of entitlement and a cloud of spliff. It would be too easy to say that such an article seems silly nowadays, but what journalist Elena Oumano didn’t get was that the article was ludicrous even back then. There in no such thing as a Jamaican rock scene and no amount of Cure covers, late night concerts on Tuesday nights or dilettantes in Urban Outfitters T-shirts can make one. As an unabashedly bigoted rockist, it pains me to say that my countrymen and women can’t rock but the truth is we can’t. Here’s why.

1. Too self conscious
Jamaicans who try to rock can’t seem to get over the idea that they are Jamaicans trying to rock. Like men who raise their children or dogs who walk on hind legs, it not that they do it well but that they do it at all that makes the jamrockers ecstatic. Jamaican rockers can get rapturous when talking about their mission and several can give you the whole they think I’m a freak for rocking story. But rock and roll is sex and drugs, rebellion and excess, sound and power, none of which these guys possess. They are neat to a fault, despise distortion, too proud of their lyrics to actually write any and are too caught up in being a rock star that they never actually rock. In the sixties rock and roll split into two camps, those who refigured rock as a bohemian underground (the Velvet Underground) and those who translated it as adolescent rebellion (everybody else). But both rocked for and against something. Jamaican rock stands for nothing and as a result it falls for anything, chief of which is reason number two.

2. Too many dilettantes.
It’s not their fault. Rock has always been even, at its showiest, based on the sexy myth of the underdog climbing to the top. Gram Parsons aside, I’m not sure a person of privilege has ever managed to fake like a real rock star so I’m pretty sure a Jamaican can never hope to. Jamaica rock is the rock of boys and girls who could afford their instruments and all the worse for it. There is no hunger, which you should know is the single essential element for great rock and roll. For some warped reason several Jamrockers think precision is what matters; how better a player you can be, as if punk rock never happened. When heard of my worship of Wolfmother, a rocker friend of mine was disgusted. All they know is Blues in C! He yelled. This is of course true. This is also of course irrelevant for the wolfies have more rock and roll in their stolen riffs then anything a Jamaica can make up. The comment also shows a fatal misunderstanding of the one of the very basic rock and roll fundamentals, something even Madonna understood: You’re supposed to steal, beeyatch.

3. Too self congratulatory.
Jamaica rock is the Scene That Celebrates Itself. Make no mistake— the Jamrocker’s biggest fan is the other Jamrocker in the front row. This creates a weird kind incest where the music is what emerges retarded. Because these guys are in such awe of each other, play together and are not overtly critical, nobody sees that the emperor is naked. It’s a strangely closed off scene, defined by its limitations where one feels that if they ever got over the self perceived Jamaican anti-rock bias and had to actually rock a real crowd they’d shrivel. So they play mostly to each other. Some call this a scene. I’d call it a cult but that would imply a certain devoutness. One reason Jamaicans can’t rock is that nobody believes that they were made to do this and can do nothing else. Can you imagine Mick Jagger trying out medicine because the rock thing didn’t work out? Didn’t think so.

4. Too Jamaican
No self-respecting British rocker would try to make “British rock” for he would find the idea ludicrous (This is why nobody listened to Menswear, guys). Rock and roll has no national address. Nobody told this to the Jamrockers who keep feeling pressured to stamp their own identity on their music. Nothing wrong with that on paper except that they usually do this the only way they know how: Reggaefying rock or rockifying reggae. Black rockers in the USA also shot themselves in the foot when they all felt they had to be funky. So a band does a hard rock version of the Jamaican national anthem, but what is the point? Nothing is wrong with stealing an idea from Jimi Hendrix, but there is no thrill in the theft, not outrage in the violation, no understanding that Hendrix was building the anthem up but also ripping the thing to bits, forcing beauty to copulate with ugliness to make something both pretty and monstrous. Years ago the band Rockabessa remade the Stones’ horny boy anthem, Satisfaction as a light, lilting reggae number straight out of the Jimmy Buffet songbook. Sure it sounded Jamaican but it was one the silliest and stupidest misunderstandings of a rock song since Born in the USA.

This smacks of people trying too hard to connect to an identity, one’s roots so to speak. Silly rabbits you have no roots. We keep making the mistake of thinking that authenticity comes from where we’re from and not where we’re at. And when that address is a place of privilege it forces the worst aspects of trustafarianism; a faux authenticity that screams for consciousness, or ghetto glory or twelve tribes Rasta fervour or dancehall bridges in the middle of hard rock songs, stuff that shouts hey, I’m Jamaican too! The fact is the reggae-rock masterpiece has already been made. It’s called Exodus, kids, look it up.

5. Too much crap music.
If there is one thing that links everybody from Mick Jagger to Prince to Jack White to Tapes and Tapes it is an absolutely unimpeachable taste in music. Prince is a perfect example. When he used to wax rhapsodic about Led Zeppelin and Joni Mitchell we ended up with Dirty Mind and Sign O’ the Times. When he stopped listening to everybody but those bimbos he was trying to sleep with we ended up with The Batman soundtrack. It’s astounding how bad the taste of some of these rockers can be. Instead of Nirvana they gush over Bush copying Nirvana. Stone Temple pilots was an epiphany for many and I even hear a rumor about a rocker friend of mind taking his whole band to see Hoobastank, but I refuse to believe that one. I once asked a folkie, which was her favorite Joni Mitchell record, and she responded with who? Maybe they believe as many ludicrously untalented writers do that by listening to others they would be “influenced” by them. Of course. These guys are such perfectly formed geniuses already that who am I to disagree.

6. Too little to show for it

The proof of any music scene, movement whatever must boil down to actual records. Many of the guys mentioned in the Billboard article are still in the scene, still playing music, still forgetting Jimi Hendrix’s walking bass in Hey Joe and still trying to lace nu-metal with Jamaican Patois. But where are the records? Where are the documents of their era? Most will give you an excuse like a Funkadelic line. They are standing on the verge of getting it on. So why don’t they? My belief is that they can’t and probably already know it. Maybe, just maybe, they are not rock and rollers at all, but fans whose love of the music coincided with the ability to buy instruments. This is by no means a bad thing, but stop charging people 300 dollars to have people watch what your money bought.