True-Life Rock Tales

A Time in Peter Tosh’s Jamaica

Issue 131

In speaking with Eppy, he mentioned that he was promoting a concert in Jamaica with the headliner Peter Tosh. A bunch of disc jockeys from Long Island’s FM station WBAI were going and my then wife and I were invited too. This was a vacation, reasonably inexpensive; it would just cost us round-trip air fare and an all-inclusive hotel package, and of course, free admission to the concert.

 

Peter Tosh (with Robbie Shakespeare in background), 1978. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/TimDuncan.

Peter Tosh (with Robbie Shakespeare in background), 1978. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/TimDuncan.

Michael “Eppy” Epstein was the owner of My Father’s Place in Roslyn, Long Island. It was a well-established rock and roll club that opened in 1971 and has had a long and good history. (After closing in 1987, it reopened at the Roslyn Hotel in 2010.) Hundreds of acts played there, many before they became stars, including Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Talking Heads, Television, Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Good Rats, John Prine, The Police, Aerosmith, Hall and Oates and countless others.

The timing for the Jamaica trip was good for me. I was between tours, so I had the time and so did Jessica, my wife at the time. Jessica was in early pregnancy about three months along and had just started showing. It was winter, so Jamaica and the beach would be a nice break from the bleak New York weather. This seemed like a good diversion and with the impending birth of my son I could not know if such an opportunity would present itself again.

The concert was scheduled for February 24th at the Trelawny Hotel on the beach, and that was where we were staying. This was the first date of the 1978 Bush Doctor tour. The next date he would play would be the One Love Peace Concert, which would take place two months later at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica. After that concert Tosh and the band went on to the Stateside portion of the tour. For most of the US dates they would be opening for the Rolling Stones and playing coliseums.

 

We all bought tickets on the same Air Jamaica flight and met at JFK. Once on board the stewardesses plied us with a rum punch drink that was delicious and quite intoxicating. The flight, which was noisy at first, became very quiet as most everyone fell asleep (make that, passed out) until landing. After picking up our luggage we boarded a bus that the hotel provided. Check-in was quick and we deposited our luggage in our room.

A quick change into bathing suits and we hit the beach. It was early afternoon and a beautiful day. The sun was bright, the beach was exceptional, the water was warm and there were plenty of beach chairs. Around 4:00-ish Jessica and I decided we had had enough sun for the day and went back to our room. After showering and unpacking we readied for dinner. We noticed we were sunburned, but not too badly, and congratulated ourselves for being smart enough to get out of the sun in time.

Ken and Jessica in Jamaica.

Ken and Jessica in Jamaica.

Dinner was served in a large room big enough to hold two to three hundred people, with big round tables that seated eight. The dinner was fish stew, and it was not bad, not great but OK. That was the dinner – no options. The servers were local and had a bit of an attitude. That is when I found out we were in a government-owned hotel. Every employee was a civil servant. Imagine a hotel run by the personnel of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Even when they tried to be nice, they could not quite get there. After dinner, a drink at the bar and then bed.

At breakfast the next morning I really saw the reluctance of the staff. None of the tables had a coffee pot. Instead, they had a couple of servers walking around the room with coffee pots. The idea was, you’d raise your hand or make some kind of signal and one of them would come over and pour you some coffee. Here’s the rub. The servers would walk around the room and almost never “see” or acknowledge a guest motioning for coffee. It was amazing and frustrating, especially since the Jamaican coffee was delicious. If it wasn’t so annoying it would have been funny. You could never make eye contact with them or get their attention. They were always looking in another direction. They had it down to an art form. If they refilled two cups of coffee a minute that would mean they were working too hard. Another trick they’d use was that they’d pour a drop of coffee in your cup and say the pot was empty, and that they had to go back to the kitchen and refill the coffee pot, thusly putting the guest back to square one.

I did not know the extent to which the Jamaicans were angry and that there was political violence in Jamaica, particularly between the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP). An example of this was The Green Bay Massacre that happened just a month earlier on January 5th, 1978, in which five Jamaican Labour Party supporters were ambushed and shot dead. I did know that a few years earlier some American tourists had been murdered on a hotel golf course, but my situational awareness was not up to speed. These were bad times politically, the economic disparity had persisted for years, and things were coming to a head. This was not a civil war but very close to one. These political parties vied for supporters through political patronage, and the development of Jamaican trade unionism. That said, they needed tourist dollars, but on the other hand they resented the hell out of us.

After breakfast Jessica and I ran into some of our fellow passengers from the plane. This couple had been sitting next to us. They were badly sunburned and in real pain. The guy had gel all over his exposed areas. I asked him what the gel was, and he said, “Preparation H.” That surprised me and I said, “I do not think I would have thought of that.” He replied, “look, if it shrinks hemorrhoids then it should help with sunburn.” Made sense – the pain from sunburn is from swelling. I said, “but how about taking an aspirin? That way you will not get that gel all over your room furniture and bed.” “That is a thought,” he answered, and then he and his girlfriend went back to their room and we did not see them again till the last day.

 

In the afternoon it started to cloud up, so we decided to take a ride on the hotel’s glass bottom boat. The boats’ route was through a passageway opening in the reef to a shallow bay just down the coast, where there were tons of colorful fish and plenty of underwater activity. It was okay, but as usual, the boat crew was not into it and the boat was grungy and showed signs of wear; the glass bottom was foggy. On the way back we were going through the split in the reef when a big wave came up behind the boat and almost swamped us. The crew was not paying attention and they were just as surprised as we were. The boat was pushed sideways and almost tipped over on its side. I then realized that the boat crew were not sailors but just hotel employees. This revelation really pissed me off, that the hotel would thoughtlessly jeopardize our lives by having incompetents crew the boat. A few minutes later we disembarked at the hotel. I was still pretty annoyed that my pregnant wife and unborn child were put in danger! I never thought we would have our safety threatened in a touristy glass bottom boat ride.

Later that night it started to rain. It continued for the next two days and without the sun there was nothing to do and it was really boring. I could not blame the resort; it was the weather, but still, we were on vacation with nothing to do.

Finally, the day of the concert the rain stopped and it started to clear up. It was not a beach day though, so some of us walked to a nearby forest and took a hike. It was lush and tropical but after a few miles the humidity took its toll and we were dripping with sweat, so we turned back. Being pregnant, my wife did not come on the hike but instead took a book and sat near the beach in the shade and read.

At 5:00 pm everyone on the hotel grounds could hear the sound check, because this was an outdoor concert. Near dusk, the concert started. Initially it was not that crowded, but the audience was native Jamaicans so I thought they might still be getting off work. Pretty quickly the audience area was filling up. The reggae music was a tonic settling on the crowd, and people started dancing. It was a happy concert, with good sound and visibility and the music freed the audience from their cares. For the first time since I had arrived in Jamaica I felt at ease and comfortable, maybe even welcomed.

 

Jessica was joined by a bunch of Jamaican gals around her age they were laughing and talking about pregnancy, makeup and men. The air reeked of ganja and rum was the drink. Being pregnant, Jessica would touch none of that, but I wasn’t as restricted, and she did not mind (she was good-natured about stuff like that). I turned to a group of Jamaican guys and they welcomed me like I was a long-lost cousin and passed me a spliff. I got really buzzed.

It was an all-Jamaican audience and the only outsiders were us, the hotel guests. But the music bonded us like we were one. Peter Tosh was amazing, and he talked to his fellow countrymen as his neighbors. It was a special concert moment, almost like a family gathering, and even though we were inebriated we could feel there was a great vibe in the air.

After the concert Jessica helped me up to our room. I was still really ripped and once in the room it started to spin. I started to get undressed and halfway through I fell face-forward on to the bed. I looked up and Jessica was taking pictures of me and laughing her butt off. I started laughing too but was also begging her to stop.

Ken begged her not to take this picture.

Ken begged her not to take this picture.

The next morning at breakfast it was the same deal as before, trying to get the attention of the coffee servers. But Eppy sat down at the table and was given coffee without even having to ask for it. He did not look good so I asked him, “what’s wrong?” He said, “I got killed last night. They broke my back.” “Really? I thought you had a full house, at least a couple of thousand people. That is a lot of tickets,” I noted. “Yeah, if they paid for them it would be.” “What happened?” I asked. “We sold a few hundred tickets and the rest of the audience were let in through the kitchen.” The kitchen staff had snuck them in. Probably the whole hotel staff knew what was happening and even helped. “Damn man, that is terrible. Any recourse?” Eppy replied, “No, not a thing I can do.” “That sucks. I wonder if Peter Tosh knew of the gate crashers?” Eppy just gave me a long look.

We went up to our rooms, picked up our luggage and loaded up on the shuttle bus back to the airport. The flight home was uneventful, and Jessica and I got back to our one-bedroom duplex apartment on 18th Street in Manhattan by 5 pm. It was not one of our best vacations. The service was terrible, the food and hotel at best just mediocre. But it was not all bad – there were some moments. The concert was very special and the whole affair was like being given the privilege of participating in a warm, private family gathering.

Header image courtesy of Pixabay/jemacb.

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