by Vivien Goldman
Jimmy Cliff with Pat McKay
Miss Lily’s Variety
Monday, November 28
Better than: Anywhere else in the world.
“I can’t believe it! My first night in New York and I’m getting to see Jimmy Cliff! In a tiny place like this!” The gobsmacked girl reggae journalist over from London had struck the motherlode—an acoustic performance by the great reggae originator and Caribbean cultural messenger, Jimmy Cliff.
The location—Miss Lily’s Variety—was as intimate as an old-school Jamaican illegal nightclub, a shebeen, would have been back in the 1970s, when Jimmy Cliff was hitting his second hitmaking stride. In 2011, though, restaurateur Serge Becker has turned the corner where Houston Street meets Sullivan Street into an outpost of Jamaica by opening the scene-y Miss Lily’s Favourite Cakes. (The restaurant is the sort that’s become so hip, people assume the food must be rubbish, but both the oxtail and raw juice cocktail impresario Melvin Major Jr.’s ginger-y beet and orange juice were superbly old-timey, as was the night’s musical selection from DJ Rob Kenner.)
Last night’s event doubled as a preview of Miss Lily’s Variety, a boutique and gallery space. The crammed crowd of under a hundred old- and-new school fans included arty Villagers galore—thespian Matthew Modine, lensman Ricky Powell and singer Wendy James—as well as dynastic groovers like Chris Blackwell Jr. and the late director of The Harder They Come Perry Henzell’s grand-daughter, Drew, old-guard artistic avatars like Julian Schnabel, and Salman Rushdie.
On this night of many firsts, Miss Lily was launching both a juice bar and the online radio station Radio Lily. The broadcast was sweetly, smoothly and skilfully wo/manned by Pat McKay, ready for action in sleek coiled braids, a Rasta t-shirt and trainers; glad-handing the happy crew, Swiss-born Serge, whose family is partly Jamaican, explained, “We heard Jimmy was in town, we were planning [the Radio Lily broadcast] with Sirius anyway, so we decided to just go ahead and do it.”
To bless that admirably punky and spontaneous spirit, who better than Jimmy Cliff, a man who not only introduced much of the world to reggae with his classic songs like “Many Rivers To Cross” on the game-changing Harder They Come soundtrack in 1972, but set the rude boy template for all time with his in/vulnerable swagger as the outlaw Rhygin in The Harder They Come, which defined the Caribbean bad-boy outsider.
And now the original Rude Boy was back in town to claim his porkpie crown.
For Jimmy Cliff, on some level, every night is like a first night, a new adventure with a new room of people. In this case, the adventure took place in the smallest room he’d graced in a while. He’d just come from singing with ?uestove and the Roots on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon; a couple of nights earlier, he had been jamming with Paul Simon in front of thousands. Cliff and Simon dueted on “The Harder The Come” and “Vietnam.” Simon loved that 1960s protest song so much, he nipped off to Kingston, grabbed Cliff’s musicans, went into the same Dynamic Sounds studio Cliff had used and cut “Mother and Child Reunion”—also performed by the era-spanning troubadours that evening.
Last night was also a launch party of sorts for Jimmy’s new EP Sacred Fire (Collective Sounds/Sunpower), a taste of an imminent album. This time out, he’s once again working with a punk—producer Tim Armstrong of Rancid, whose stamp is controversially on this record. Its urgent version of the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” is an extraordinary meta-experience; the song was written by bassie Paul Simonon, whose whole worldview and aesthetic was molded by Cliff and The Harder They Come, referencing both the movie and Cliff’s role in the lyrics. With Armstrong, Cliff has chosen to sound wilder, more like the kid he was in those first ska days when he sang about being The Lion and reigned in the jungle wearing a sharp tailored suit with skinny lapels. Now, on “Sacred Fire,” Cliff sings with sincerity: “Sacred things that I have kept secret over the years.”
The masses will just have to wait till next spring for Cliff to share his mystic systems in full. But last night’s glimpse hinted that this particular punk-tified Jimmy Cliff is rawer than before, as if the RAGIN’ Rhygin beast of warrior energy within, which he unleashed while filming Harder, has decided to flash its claws once more.
Up close, seeing Cliff at work was a masterclass in class, a live demo of what makes a career endure and override any setbacks.
Right before he went on, I asked Jimmy, “Are you going to perform some of your new songs?” “I hope so,” he replied, eyeing the enthusiastic crowd with mock-nerves. The joke was a good one; people adore Jimmy’s classics so profoundly that they keep wanting the old ones, so he’s got to make sure to squeeze in new material!
Clearly, Jimmy knew he had the people from the very first soundcheck note, when he threw back his head and scatted with his distinctive ringing voice. Pleasantly, he said, (and please note when you hear the radio show in full, these quotes are a precis!) “Right now, I think I’ll do the song that got me international acclaim”—and went right into “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” on his acoustic Gibson. The poignant words had been written by Cat Stevens in the 1960s but last night Cliff swiftly claimed them, and they still mean so much—too much. (Take a look at the world and the state it’s in… We’re all fussing and fighting….)
Adeptly steered by Pat McKay for an enchanted two hours, the set demonstrated Jimmy as a consummate and spontaneous raconteur, leading the crowd like a Rasta Pied Piper along the intertwined byways of his life and our culture. Who else could hilariously act out all the roles of his first conversations with Bob Marley (“his lyrics were written on lots of scraps of paper bags”), whom he talent-spotted as a youth and took to Leslie Kong’s studio to record his first song, the ska track “Judge Not?”
Amazingly, Cliff played the old ska songs by both Bob Marley and his fellow welder and ska maven Desmond Dekker: both the latter’s “Honor Your Mother and Father ” and Marley’s “Judge Not”, were delivered with that extra kick and bounce only a born ska master can give. Cliff also creates his own percussion, tapping his Op Art foot on the yellow vinyl stool.
Then, yet more amazingly, Cliff played an early 1960s song that no one present had ever heard. Called “Gold-Digger” (take that, Kanye!) He co-authored the track with Marley and Dekker, his fellow welder and ska maven, who made them tone down the raunchy lyrics.
“Inspiration comes in the hills. The people are very natural,” said Jimmy of his chldhood. Lyrucally, he described frolicking in the rivers as a child, which Miss Pat astutely connected with his classic “Many Rivers To Cross.” Indeed, when Cliff performed that song, it was as if he was leading us all, young and less so, down the rivers of our childhoods, whether they happened to take place in motorways or mansions. Many in the audence seemed close to tears.
Showman that he is, Cliff knew how to work his audience. When Pat asked about his schooling, he confided, “I loved knowledge but did not like authority,” then he scanned the gathered bohemians and added, “I think this crowd can relate to that!” and got a big laugh.
Graciously referring to his absence from the pop world’s center stage, which has coincided with his ever-growing elder statesman status, he observed, “People say I have done well. It’s true I have touched the world, but I don’t always play in stadiums as I do in Brazil and Africa. There is still more for me to achieve as an artist, to take it to a next level. And now this special right time has come.”
And so Cliff closed the compelling evening with two anthems for tomorrow from Sacred Fire, “Rebel, Rebel” and “Blessed Love.” The audience sang along with the choruses as if they’d been standards for decades—and once again, he had caught our ears and hearts, blessing us with new frontline anthems to inspire us and our children, tomorrow and in decades from now.
Critical bias: A Polaroid I had taken of me at 5 a.m. at a Kingston sound system street dance, against a bucolic painted backdrop, in which I spontaneously dropped into Rhygin’s two-gun stance.
Overheard: “Of course I love The Harder They Come! I saw it as soon as it came out!”—Salman Rushdie.
Overheard II: “I grew up rough. Maybe nobody here has seen policemen firing and people die… but show the baddest man some love and he can become very calm.”—Jimmy Cliff.
Random notebook dump: Jimmy Cliff has to be an arbiter of Rude Boy Styleeeee, which last night meant a sizzling op-art black and white bomber jacket with co-ordinating op-art trainers, as well as a light wool, waffle-weave bright red mod jersey with a collar, Fred Perry style.
Wonderful World Beautiful People
You Can Get It If You Really Want It
Honor Your Mother And Father
Many Rivers To Cross