Hoppin' Up and Down

Catching up with Eric Gaffney and vintage Sebadoh.

Do you feel strong enough to tour?

I haven't left home since January. I'm a human pincushion. Every day I am off the chemo, the more I get the drugs out of my body, the better I feel. I'm just now getting the strength to form the chords. But if for some reason I only have a little time left, I don't want to spend it in a bed. Roy KastenDi Great Insohreckshan

Unlike come-lately scribes like Jewel and Billy Corgan, Jamaican-born, U.K.-based "dub poet" Linton Kwesi Johnson had released books of his work years before he recorded a single verse. Still, most know LKJ for his albums of spoken-word portraits of English immigrant culture and race relations set to languid, reverb-drenched roots reggae. And even as you sit back with Mi Revalueshanary Fren, a recently published, decades-spanning collection, you can almost hear the bass lines thrumming beneath the print. Though he's a university-trained sociologist, Johnson writes almost exclusively in Creole patois, the melodic vernacular of the Caribbean working class. More than most writers — excepting jazz-influenced poets like Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka — Johnson uses text as musical notation; in their rounded abbreviations and nearly inscrutable slang, his lines beg to be savored aloud. "Shock-black bubble-doun-beat bouncing/rock-wise tumble-doun sound music," he writes in "Reggae Sounds," his literal lyricism bounding off the page and onto the tongue.

But Mi Revalueshanary Fren is far from a sun-dappled reverie of easy skanking and mellow moods. Johnson's raw, vivid, street-level reporting of gang violence, police brutality, and racial conflict hews much closer to activist anthems like "Get Up, Stand Up" and "Burning and Looting" than a kinky reggae party. There are several layers of interpretation to dig into here, from the academic to the linguistic to the cultural, from the insightful introduction by American poet Russell Banks to the decryption of Johnson's Creole and, ultimately, to the understanding of its meaning. But what most powerfully engages is the consistent urgency of Johnson's words, cramped into ganja-fumed basement parties and meeting halls, echoing through sound systems and street fights, emerging sober and scarred but hopeful. These grainy, darkly lit snapshots are taken in the true colors of the moment, making LKJ one of the preeminent documentarians of the African diaspora. Jonathan Zwickel

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