EXCLUSIVE! Interview with Tosh biographer John Masouri
Interview and words by MIDNIGHT RAVER web editor Glen Lockley.
John Masouri’s eagerly anticipated exploration of the life and music of Peter Tosh finally hit the shelves a few weeks ago. Published by Omnibus Press, The Life Of Peter Tosh: Steppin’ Razor is an engaging, insightful and informative 486-page Tosh extravaganza, or rather extravaGANJA, given Peter’s well-known propensity for reconstructing the English language.
Masouri is one of the UK’s most knowledgeable reggae journalists, indeed he is the only one to write about all forms of the music, from ska to dancehall and everything in between. His on-going commitment to contemporary reggae is without equal and he is, unsurprisingly, highly respected among the reggae community.
He began writing for Black Echoes in 1988 on the recommendation of the late, great Mikey Dread, and has spent the past twenty-five years chronicling the reggae scene and interviewing artists both in England and during his frequent trips to Jamaica. His work has also appeared in many other publications, such as Mojo, NME, The Beat, Riddim, The Guardian and The Observer.
He has written liner-notes and promotional material for numerous releases and has contributed to various reggae-themed radio and television documentaries. His acclaimed in-depth examination of the triumphs and tribulations experienced by Wailers band-members – Wailing Blues: The Story Of Bob Marley’s Wailers – was published by Omnibus Press in 2008.
- Glen Lockley
MR: Given Peter’s significant and unique position within reggae, why has it taken so long for a definitive biography to be undertaken?
JM: It’s not just Peter Tosh. We should be asking why there are no major biographies of other reggae artists too. In my own experience, publishers are reluctant to venture beyond books on Bob Marley and historical overviews. The majority still don’t believe in the power of this music to attract an international fanbase, or feel the need to promote the few books that do make it onto the shelves of major retailers. Thankfully, reggae’s massive presence on the Internet is proving them wrong, and so that situation’s liable to change in future.
MR: Do you think Peter’s reputation might have put off potential writers?
JM: Not at all because any larger than life character like Peter makes a powerful subject and if your intentions are honourable, what is there to fear? That said, I wasn’t the first author Omnibus Press approached to write his biography. There was talk of Herbie Miller, which never happened, and then my immediate predecessor apparently had problems separating Peter’s story from that of Marley’s and returned the advance. I’m just grateful to both of them.
MR: When were you initially approached to write the book and what were your immediate feelings?
JM: Chris Charlesworth, who was then commissioning editor for Omnibus Press, asked me if I wanted to write a book about Peter after I’d completed Wailing Blues in the summer of 2008. I was delighted, and agreed to finish it in eighteen months. What optimism!
MR: What were the main challenges you faced when undertaking research for the book?
JM: I got off to the perfect start by visiting Roger Steffens’ archives in Los Angeles and spending nearly two weeks sat at his kitchen table, working my way through boxes of press clippings as he regaled me with rarities from every stage of Peter’s career. Roger’s help and encouragement proved pivotal but the hardest part was getting a”fix” on Peter’s spirit and personality. That’s the key task facing any biographer except I find the whole process of researching into someone’s life and work a real joy, whether writing a book or preparing for an interview.
MR: What were the highpoints and lowpoints of this project? Did you ever feel like walking away from it?
JM: I actually did walk away from it for a year after it became clear that the Peter Tosh Estate (and therefore his family) weren’t interested in being involved. I’d had my heart set on writing an authorised biography, and it took time for me to readjust and finish the book without them. That was the lowest point and then Omnibus’ reluctance to promote it provided another but “aluta continua,” as Rastafarians would say.
High points were thankfully plentiful, and tended to revolve around all the fascinating people I met and spoke to whilst researching the book. Their stories, and also trips to Jamaica and New York, brought Peter alive for me.
MR: Was it particularly difficult documenting Peter’s early life and the period 1983-87?
JM: Researching the last few years of his life was difficult but there’s no challenge in documenting something that’s already been written about and discussed ad infinitum. As for the early part, it’s always tricky delving back into a period when actual evidence – photos for example, or official documents – are scarce. The important thing to remember as a biographer is that you can’t be definitive in every aspect of someone’s life, and that others are going to fill those gaps in due course. I therefore set out to plant useful markers and paint the best picture I could when in-depth information proved elusive.
MR: What were some of the most significant facts you learned about Peter that you did not previously know? Did anything you discovered change your perspective on Tosh as a man or musician?
JM: I learnt a great deal about his baptism into Black Nationalism, his involvement with Johnny Nash and Danny Sims and his roller-coaster antics with the Rolling Stones… I found all of that fascinating, and likewise his brushes with obeah, the trips to Africa, his relationship with Yvonne Whittingham and time spent in Trench Town with Bob and Bunny. Writing this book was a real journey of discovery for me, despite having grown up with his music and seen him perform (including once with Marley on the Catch A Fire tour.)
Looking back, I was appalled by the bad press he received and especially here in England. Many rock journalists just didn’t get what he was doing at all, and some felt at liberty to attack him with impunity. To me, that’s symptomatic of how reggae’s been treated over the years or at least before the Internet came along and swept away a lot of the old prejudices. This younger generation of music lovers will hopefully view him in a different light, and with more understanding of what he was trying to achieve.
I grew to like him enormously once I’d started writing, and had always admired his courage and determination in trying to change the world with his music. He was an idealist who believed in what he was doing and how rare is that? But he also had a great sense of humour and often made me laugh when combing through interviews or hearing people talk about him. I hadn’t expected to enjoy him quite so much, which makes the nature of his decline and subsequent murder even more sad.
MR: Is there anything you had to omit either because it could not be substantiated or because it was too controversial?
JM: No, nothing like that. Peter wasn’t afraid of controversy and I simply followed his example. I had to deal with a lot more controversy when writing my book on the Wailers – this one was plain sailing by comparison!
MR: Were there any parts of the book that had to be edited out due to limitations on space?
JM: I couldn’t compile the in-depth index I wanted, or a discography and proper sources – plus the publishers forgot to include the acknowledgements, which I’ve published on the Steppin’ Razor Facebook page. Hopefully they’ll be an opportunity to rectify such things if they publish a paperback edition.
MR: Did you approach Marlene about being interviewed? If so, what was her attitude towards talking to you and the book in general?
JM: I couldn’t get a response from Marlene, who has good reason to feel guarded when it comes to her relationship with Peter. I’d hoped to find people who could emphasise the positives of their involvement but alas, most spoke very badly of her.
MR: Other than Marlene, did you manage to speak with everybody you wanted to. If not, who proved to be unobtainable, and why?
JM: Reaching out to people for interviews can be difficult at times although after so many years in the reggae business, I’ve hopefully established a level of trust by now – it certainly feels like it. Some people said they didn’t want to be interviewed because they were writing their own books, or expressed willingness to talk but then never found the time. Others assume you’re motivated by personal gain and don’t realise how little money’s involved but my biggest disappointment was in failing to secure interviews with the Stones, and Lord knows I tried! If you notice, Peter isn’t mentioned in either Keith Richards’ book or any of the Stones’ official publications, which tells its own story…
MR: Did you edit out any of the details of what happened during the night of the murder? Santa has previously spoken in detail about what Peter was actually saying and how he was behaving but none of that was mentioned in the book.
JM: I researched everything I could about the murder including comments made by Santa, and wrote the story accordingly. That’s one of my favourite chapters and I’m still shocked by some of the events that unfolded that day.
MR: Who do you feel gave you the most insightful observations of Peter?
JM: It wouldn’t be fair to single out individuals from the hundred and fifty or so people I interviewed for the book, but it was interesting to hear what women said about him. Most of them spoke of him being a gentleman – courteous even – and I hadn’t expected that. I’m thinking specifically of Janet Davidson, Pauline Morrison and Nadine Sutherland, whose reminiscences were especially poignant.
MR: Why do you think there are such diverse opinions of Peter’s character among those interviewed for the book. Is it simply that some people didn’t know how to take him?
JM: The obvious answer is that we’re all individuals and see things differently. Those like Peter with well formed and often challenging views certainly arouse strong opinions in people! Some felt threatened by him, whilst he clearly delighted others. That’s testament to his character I think, because imagine how boring it would be if everyone thought the same.
MR: It was interesting to read that Peter was such a prolific session musician. Do any of the labels have a definitive list of which tracks he appears on.
JM: Peter’s session work was partly borne out of necessity, since he was struggling to support himself at the time. He was an accomplished musician and I can understand how that may surprise some people, since it hasn’t been widely reported. I haven’t seen any lists like you describe. Mainly, I relied on what Peter’s fellow musicians and producers like Bunny Lee and Clive Chin told me, as they’re the experts where that’s concerned.
MR: There is a massive amount of unreleased Marley material sitting in the vaults. You mentioned tracks like Too Much Rats and Wicker Man – are you aware of the existence of much more unreleased Tosh material? What are the chances of these tracks ever being released?
JM: Well, I’m not a collector and so that’s not my focus. I was lucky enough to be given cassettes and CDRs containing a wealth of unreleased material by the likes of Roger Steffens and Mike Van Der Linde, but have no idea if they’ll ever get the official stamp of approval. First we have to make the case that Peter – and the tracks themselves – are important enough to merit money and time being spent on them. In the meantime most of them are probably on YouTube already so why worry?
MR: You did a fine job of incorporating the social and political influences that were relevant to the story, putting everything into context. Is it fair to assume that this was a deliberate attempt to make the book accessible to a more mainstream readership – kind of like Peter attempted to do with his music?
JM: Yes, that’s it exactly and thank you for noticing. After fifty years of listening to reggae music, I’m still dismayed by how little it’s appreciated in comparison to other genres of music. It’s just not granted the same level of importance as rock, punk and jazz etc, despite its rich cultural heritage. We need our major reggae stars to be highlighted more, and to make people aware that they’re deserving of more attention. That’s why I approached Peter’s story as if I was writing a rock biography, only one set in Jamaica and against a backdrop that even non-reggae fans may find fascinating – to open up the field and prove that not all reggae literature preaches to the converted.
MR: What were the main differences between the way you approached this project and Wailing Blues – your book about The Wailers?
JM: The fact that Family Man and the other surviving Wailers are still alive and Peter is no longer with us proved to be a major difference! In all seriousness, I was spoilt whilst working on the Wailers’ book. I spent many hours with Family Man especially, talking, listening to music and even touring with him. We knew there would be little reward other than getting the story out, and letting people know what had happened. With hindsight I would have approached it differently, and made the book more accessible. I got caught between concentrating on the music, and revealing the extent of what injustices they’d had to endure. I still feel that Wailing Blues is actually two books trapped between single covers, and that I should have separated them somehow.
As any biographer will tell you, you have to believe in what you’re writing about otherwise your words won’t resonate with people – they’ll carry no conviction. I still feel genuinely aggrieved at how the Wailers have been treated and stand by everything that’s written in Wailing Blues, because I’ve seen enough with my own eyes to know those guys were speaking the truth.
Similar passions drove me to write Steppin’ Razor. I see Peter Tosh as a major voice of the seventies – not only musically, but because of what he stood for. He wanted to see an end to injustice and inequality, and a reliance upon corrupt institutions, whether financial or otherwise. He stressed the values of education and of knowing ourselves; of self reliance and freeing our minds from prejudice and hate. He also promoted healthy living, the legalisation of marijuana and concern for the environment. These are all values I share, and it made writing about him a joy. He was also a great reggae artist of course…
MR: As this book will be forever be celebrated as THE definitive Peter Tosh biography, was it ever part of the plan to include a Tosh discography, similar to that at the end of Timothy White’s Catch A Fire?
JM: That would have been nice, had space allowed. All of his songs are mentioned in the text though. PS: Thanks for the compliment!
MR: We know that the acknowledgements were unfortunately omitted, but why did the publishers feel that a more thorough index is not necessary – this one is rather slim.
JM: Again, such decisions were determined by space restrictions, and the word count was already deemed too high.
MR: Do you feel that Peter’s Estate is now in safe hands? How do you rate the job that they are doing in preserving and honouring his legacy.
JM: I can’t really comment on what the Estate are doing but was thrilled when the Jamaican government awarded Peter the Order Of Distinction. Whether he would have accepted it or not is a different matter of course…
MR: There are times in the book when the inevitable comparisons are made between Peter’s and Bob’s musical outputs, abilities etc. Was it difficult achieving a balance between when to use them and when not to?
JM: The question I’ve been most asked since starting work on the book is ‘Why isn’t Peter Tosh remembered to the same extent as Bob Marley?’ Hopefully readers of this book will discover some of the reasons why, or at least feel confident about drawing their own conclusions. He and Bob’s lives were so intertwined for the first ten years of the Wailers but even after the group split, Peter was constantly having to field questions about Marley and fend off comparisons. Every reggae singer of that era was defined by Marley’s success to a certain degree, and Peter more so than any other. References to this were therefore bound to crop up in Steppin’ Razor, and I couldn’t have told Peter’s story without mentioning it, or describing the effects it had on him. Fortunately there was a lot more to the Bush Doctor than that, and he remains gloriously unique in so many ways.
MR: How do you personally feel about how Peter’s legacy has been treated compared to Bob’s?
JM: Peter Tosh should be remembered to a far greater extent than he is and everyone knows it. We don’t see him featured on any films or documentaries about seventies’ music, or lists of Best Ever Albums and such like. Even reggae fans seem divided as to his merits. Some claim that he became too commercial after signing with the Rolling Stones and yet Marley could write songs like “Three Little Birds” and still be revered as a cultural icon, which is interesting.
The Marley Estate has turned Bob’s life and work into a multi-million dollar industry, and that’s to be applauded. The downside is that it’s all about money, which is a shame. Since Peter’s legacy still languishes in the doldrums, let’s hope that it will be founded on different principles.
MR: Do you have any more projects on the horizon?
JM: Yes, there are several irons in the fire, including talks with Sly and Robbie. I’ve also recently been in Jamaica, working on filmed documentaries about Bobby Digital and Gussie Clarke.
MR: We thank you for sharing your time with us and congratulate you on producing such an informative exploration of the life of HIM’s intelligent diplomat – Peter Tosh.
JM: Thank you Midnight Raver family, and please keep up the good work. Reggae fans are fond of saying that “half the story’s never been told” and so we need more people like you to redress the balance, and let others know just how special this music really is.
John Masouri’s impressive biography of Peter Tosh titled The Life Of Peter Tosh: Steppin’ Razor can be purchased at online book stores, or anywhere books are sold.