Jimmy Cliff goes out shooting with ‘Rebirth’
Ryan Summerlin August 23, 2012
“I’ve got one more song I must sing …
I’ve got one more bullet in my gun,
and I can’t run.
I’ve got one more shot left to go, straight from the soul,
and I’m in control”
– Jimmy Cliff from the song
“One More” on the album “Rebirth”
Like the character he portrayed in a 1972 movie and soundtrack that introduced the world to reggae music, Jimmy Cliff is going out with both of his guns blazing.
From the first song’s introductory drum beat, the album “Rebirth” is in the style of Cliff’s post-rocksteady, early roots-and-culture reggae. Cliff’s tenor is equally upbeat, youthful and passionate.
“I think my voice is sounding better than it sounded then because I’ve learned to control my notes better,” Cliff said by telephone from Austria, where he performed earlier this month. “It’s just a matter of practicing in the areas I know I had weaknesses and cut off some of my bad habits like smoking and those kinds of things.”
The world’s best-known living reggae artist contemplated his mortality, legacy and, moreover, reggae music, treating “Rebirth” as if it would be his final album; the last, if you will, of the many rivers he has crossed. And if Cliff indeed elects to stop recording at the age of 64, he is going out on top. “Rebirth” is a definitive reggae album of the new millennium. The theme of the artist’s career remains consistent throughout, a reiteration of how music from Jamaica inspired the world.
“Rebirth” is in the similar vein, he said of his first successful albums, 1969’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” and 1971’s “Another Cycle.” Cliff’s sound took a different direction after the release of the movie and album “The Harder They Come,” which 40 years ago made him reggae’s first superstar.
“A lot of fans were saying, ‘Why didn’t I stay in the same mode?’ ” Cliff said. “I think I am on the closed chapter on my career and so in order to ‘Rebirth,’ one has to come back to point zero.
“So that’s what I have done on this album. It’s a rebirth of my career taking me to another level and also reminding people of the value of that music to this generation and it’s also rebirth of the planet earth because we’re going through a lot of changes politically, economically, spiritually in all of those ways. So it’s all of those considerations is why I call it ‘Rebirth.’ “
“Rebirth” was produced by Tim Armstrong, who comes from the punk rock genre and is best known for the band Rancid. Cliff is a longtime admirer of punk rock’s bent for social and political messages, which he said began in reggae.
“Wherever there is tyranny or political injustice, reggae music is there as the voice of the people standing up for the right of the true life,” Cliff said, suggesting a solution in his song “World Upside Down.”
“The political system, the social system, the economic system – all of these things are breaking down and a new era is about to emerge because for the past 2,000 years these systems have outlived their time and the humanity needs a new system in place now,” he said. “All the old ways are breaking down are fading away for the new way to begin. … They say the world is spinning around but I say the world is upside-down, and I say why?”
Bob Dylan said Cliff’s tune “Vietnam” was the greatest protest song ever written. Cliff and Bob Marley are the only reggae artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Cliff learned about Armstrong from the Clash’s Joe Strummer, when the two recorded “Over the Border” on Cliff’s previous album, 2004’s “Black Magic.” A victim of heart disease, Strummer’s recording session with Cliff was his last.
“He talked about punk music on both sides of the Atlantic and he introduced me to Rancid, which is Tim Armstrong music,” Cliff said. “(Armstrong) is a connoisseur of reggae music and he knew all of the instruments that we played. He kind of reminded me of the value of the music that we did then. The value that they still have today and in the future. He woke me up to a lot of things that I had overlooked.”
Cliff performed six of the 12 songs on the “Harder They Come” soundtrack. The other six where popular singles released in Jamaica between 1967 and 1972, introducing to an international audience Toots Hibbard and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and the Melodians.
In the movie, Cliff plays the role of Ivan Martin, an aspiring young singer from the country who struggles to survive in the big city of Kingston. After circumstances lead him to crime, Ivan becomes a fugitive at the same time his song, “The Harder They Come,” becomes a hit single.
Written by bassist Paul Simonon, the Clash paid homage to “The Harder They Come” and Cliff’s character, Ivan, in a song about oppression in South London, “Guns of Brixton.”
“When they kick out your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun? When the law comes in, how you gonna go? Shot down on the pavement or waiting on death row?
Cliff and Armstrong reciprocated by covering “Guns of Brixton” on “Rebirth.” That song followed “Bang,” which describes the philosophy of Cliff, aka Ivan.
“That’s a lesson for life.” Cliff said. “Don’t be a whimper. It’s better to go out fulfilling your dreams. … I am living my bang.”