I was fifteen when Peter Tosh was murdered. I was just getting into reggae and aware of him as one of the original Wailers, but when I tuned into Radio London for the traditional Sunday lunchtime lovers rock show, and heard the infectious ska sounds of ‘Hoot Nanny Hoot’ instead, it sounded totally fresh and exciting, with the young lead vocal expressing a playful wisdom . As it was followed by tunes like ‘The Toughest’, ‘Downpresser Man’ and ‘Bush Doctor’, I was hit by a strange mixture of excitement at discovering all these classics for the first time, and the dawning realisation that I was a bit too late, and something was tragically wrong in the reggae world. The normally rich, authoritative voice of radio legend Tony Williams was choking up as he broke the news that Peter Tosh had been fatally shot at his home in Jamaica, age 42.
So I must admit it took me a while to open up this weighty tome, as even though it was over thirty years ago, it still feels like his sudden, brutal death is a shadow hanging over his story. But long time reggae journalist, John Masouri, has done a miraculous job of bringing Peter Tosh back to life, restoring the complex and often conflicting sides to his character through meticulous research into his childhood, detailed documentation of every tour and album, and interviews with long lost relations, friends and enemies. Through the cloud of ganja smoke and verbal obfuscation that surrounded him, a picture begins to emerge of the militant rebel whose intelligence, wit and desire to get his message across led him to international fame. Sometimes his own worst enemy, he would simultaneously attract and repel success, with his words and actions damaging his career and personal relationships. Masouri never lets us forget the effects of the car crash that killed his girlfriend, leaving him grief-stricken and guilt-ridden, and the numerous police beatings he suffered, causing permanent pain and headaches. All this at the time when reggae was king, and Peter Tosh shared the stage with the likes of Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs, in regular line-ups at huge concerts all over the world. A serious time, when apartheid South Africa was a seemingly unshakable reality and the struggle for equal rights and justice was not just a song.
Reading this biography is like an interactive experience, as when you read about the concert in Montreux in 1979, lauded as one of his best, or the time he made a cameo in a Brazilian soap opera, you can witness them for yourself in few clicks. It’s fascinating to read how Peter Tosh was often vilified by the British music press, being accused of selling out or watering down his message and music (they obviously had not listened to him saying “I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations” on ‘I Am That I Am’) while being hailed in the streets as a hero in black communities across America, England, Africa and the Caribbean. ‘The Life of Peter Tosh’ is an important work and a vital piece of reggae history, taking its place alongside the numerous biographies of Bob. It leaves you with a greater understanding of the man, an overdue celebration of his achievements, but nothing can quite shift the sense of regret and frustration and injustice that limited his output, and ultimately his life.
The Life of Peter Tosh by John Masouri