Memories by the numbers
Numbers are notoriously hard to come by in Jamaican popular music - not that the avoidance of public accounting is specific to music related to the land of wood and water, but when the unstructured nature of the business is combined with a general culture of mistrust of colleagues and the taxman, it adds up to a lot of nothing said publicly about how many zeros are on the cheque (before the decimal point, that is).
Gary 'Dr Dread' Himmelfarb's autobiography The Half That's Never Been Told (Akashic Books) is far from silent on that score, and much of the book's value lies in the figures he has no hesitation in supplying (in US currency, at that). While he focuses much more on the fascinating characters he encounters in his reggae journey, centred around running the independent label RAS Records, Dr Dread's mentioning of money matters gives a fascinating peek into just how much cash can be made from reggae (the genre on which he focused).
Among the figures are a US$10,000 advance to Freddie McGregor for an album in 1983; an advance of US$75,000 to Joseph 'Culture' Hill for an album to follow the successful One Stone release; and over $1 million earned by Sean Paul's Get Busy.
He is not reticent about his money matters either. Dr Dread says when he struck a deal to sell RAS to Rounder Records, he got US$320,000 and a salary increase from US$35,000 to US$100,00 a year.
Then there was another label sale to Sanctuary, which led to a cool US$1million in his bank account.
Although the figures are, naturally, important, they are not listed back to back. The Half That's Never Been Told, which is about music (for there is much about Dr Dreads's life in the book that is not specific to the music business), is told in sections of varying lengths, focusing on specific artistes.
Dealt with many acts
The first is Peter Broggs, and among those with whom he details interaction are Charlie Chaplin, Inner Circle, Augustus Pablo/Hugh Mundell, Eek-A-Mouse, Black Uhuru, Coxson Dodd, The Marleys, Don Carlos, Michigan and Smiley, Brigadier Jerry, and Israel Vibration. While the stories are generally positive, by Dr Dread's accounts, there are the near-misses and outright tragedies.
Tiger went missing on a US tour, after the first stop at SOB's in New York, when they were due to go to Chicago the following day. Dr Dread never saw him again, hearing about the early 1990s motorcycle accident that effectively put paid to Tiger's career on radio. There was the small money he gave to some youth when he went looking for Tenor Saw in Payne Land (which he calls Pain Land). There was a failed recording session in Washington two weeks before Tenor Saw was found dead in Houston, Texas.
There are some juicy details, which make for good reading. Which dead singing star does he say pulled a gun on him? Who does he say took money for an album and submitted one that had already been made for another producer? Which late producer made a desperate call to him from a US lock-up? Which deejay he says called him repeatedly for bail help and ended up stuck in Brazil for a year and ran up a huge hotel bill? Which deejay allowed Dr Dread to shoot his .38 in celebration after a successful live recording session?
It is all in the half that Dr Dread has chosen to tell. Of course, there could be many other truths from various sides. However, Dr Dread's story carries the ring of truth (even if he consistently portrays himself as being into music for its own good sake and proclaims his faith in a higher power to the point of it wearing thin), not least of all because he is forthright with his life story, which includes a few low points.
The Half That's Never Been Told is the tale of a man who has lived hard and lived happy, whether walking more than half-way across Jamaica or trodding through South America; living in eastern Jamaica or 'cross the waters' in his homeland; and even when sick nearly unto death. Interwoven in it is Jamaican music, which led to a connection with Bob Dylan, which he is (justifiably) very proud of, and a detailed description of the making of a tribute album.
Bunny Wailer also gets significant book space, not totally complimentary, but Wailer does write the foreword to The Half That's Never Been Told, so they must be still cool.
At the end of it all, Himmelfarb ends up in the fish business. Does it have the same whiff of something sometimes being slightly off, as often happens in the music business, signifying that there is something rotten here? Maybe. But one suspects that no matter the circumstance, Dr Dread is having a whale of a time.