I was lucky enough to strike up a relationship with Bob Marley. It was at the famous gig at Lyceum in London, the most exciting gig I’ve ever seen in my life. It was like a religious experience. After the show I get in my car – and I’m a precocious brat, I’ve got a bit of lip on me – I get in my car and follow the coach to the hotel in Chelsea. When all the road crew are loading off, I sneak in behind them and sit in the corner of Bob Marley’s room while Bob sits in the middle, holding court and smoking weed, basically burning herb ’til the sun was rising. After he’d out-reasoned and out-smoked everybody, he turns and sees me in the corner with my little bag of weed.
Bob had been reading the tabloid press that had given a negative view, that punk was all about nihilism and safety pins.
Listen, I don’t want you to think I was selling drugs. That’s kind of old school and I hope you guys are taking a different route. But this is how it was back in the day. Anyway, I’m smoking my bag of weed and he summons me to the table and proceeds to reason with me, and finish my bag of weed, of course. After that, we kind of had a relationship in that he was staying here for six months and – oh God, here I am again – I was selling him weed. I don’t do it anymore.
The last time I spoke to Bob, we had an argument. While he was in London the whole punk thing exploded, so I’m ‘round at Bob’s in my bondage trousers. Bob’s like, [affects Jamaica accent] “Don Letts, wha’ you a deal with? You look like one of dem nasty punk rockers.” In English that’s, “Don Letts, what are you dealing with? You look like a nasty punk rocker.” [laughs] He had been reading the tabloid press that had given a negative view, that punk was all about nihilism and safety pins. It was never about that, it was about freedom, empowerment and individuality. And he was taking the piss out of my trousers.
I was like, “Dude, you don’t know what’s going on, these are my friends.” And I left telling…well, I didn’t tell him to fuck himself, I wasn’t that brave. But I walked out of there defending the punks. Three months later, after Bob was somewhat more informed, he was moved to pen that tune, “Punky Reggae Party.” I always figure I had the last laugh with that.
That completed the cultural package; not only did it have a soundtrack, it had an attitude, it had a look, it had lyrics.
Needless to say, I was totally taken by Bob. I’m not one for heroes, but I ain’t gonna lie to you: You’ve got to understand what Bob Marley meant to my generation. I’m what they call first-generation British-born black and that kind of rolls off the tongue now. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, this was a really confusing concept. There was no socially accepted blueprint for this experiment.
We had the music, so we knew what we were supposed to sound like, but there was no visual accompaniment, we never knew the cultural details, we never knew what visually it looked like. Then two things happened: Bob came on the scene and The Harder They Come, the movie, which was a major inspiration for me. That completed the cultural package; not only did it have a soundtrack, it had an attitude, it had a look, it had lyrics. That was very empowering for my generation ’cause we were like a lost tribe. Once I heard Bob I was tooled up and ready to go. I didn’t know where, but I was ready.