When I read today of the death of Prince Buster at the age of 78, I thought immediately of my favourite piece of music writing. It’s an essay titled “Johnny Cool and the Isle of Sirens”, written by Johnny Copasetic, a nom de plume disguising the identity of Mark Steedman, a computational linguist who is now the professor of cognitive science at Edinburgh University’s School of Informatics. The piece first appeared in 1972 in the first volume of Rock File, a paperback edited by my friend Charlie Gillett and including a selection of commissioned pieces alongside a pioneering list of every record to enter the British Top 20 between 1955 and 1969.
The essay’s author meditates at length on certain evolutionary strands of black popular music, concentrating on Prince Buster and Curtis Mayfield, and in particular on Buster’s 1967 hit “Johnny Cool” and the Impressions’ “Isle of Sirens”, a relatively obscure track (first released on the 1967 LP The Fabulous Impressions) that is nevertheless up there with Mayfield’s finest work.
He also talks about “Ghost Dance”, which is my favourite Buster track because of its sheer strangeness. “The theme,” he writes, “is that it is an open letter to his friends back in Jamaica, written/sung from abroad… it shows the use he makes of everyday phrases, the effect of the phrase with no context, the effect of sequence without a story.” Indeed, “Ghost Dance” is a kind of epistolary poetry:
“Dear Keith, my friend, good day — hoping you’re keeping the best of health / How is the music down there in Bone Yard? / I hear that Busby have a sound system / And that Nyah Keith is the disc jockey / But them can’t get no Red Stripe beer to sell in the dance at night / Tell Zackie, the high priest, who used to lead the toughest / Give him my regards / Tell him Prince Buster said, ‘Hello.’ / And Keith, if you should see Rashie / You know, Rashie from Back o’ Wall? / Give him my regards / And if you should see the two brothers, Stinky Pommels and Herman / We grew together / Tell them Prince Buster says, ‘So long, / Sorry we had to go, so soon.’ / Since music be the food of love / I’ll forever sing on / And Forresters Hall will soon get back my shape.”
Real people and places are being described here. Busby was indeed a sound system. Nyah Keith, born Albert Brown and murdered by a gunman in West Kingston in 1966, became the subject of a song by Burning Spear included on the 1978 album Marcus’ Children. Zackie was apparently a heavy for Edward Seaga’s Jamaican Labour Party, shot dead in 1966. Back o’ Wall was a Rasta community in West Kingston, demolished in the early ’60s and redeveloped as Tivoli Gardens. Forresters Hall was a popular dance hall on North Street in, I think, Campbell Town. On Rashie, Stinky Pommels and Herman, history is silent.
Thanks largely to Mark Steedman, the characters and scenes evoked by Prince Buster in his “Ghost Dance” have been running through my head for more than 40 years, along with that touching little valediction: “So long. Sorry we had to go, so soon…”