The Harder They Come

Jimmy Cliff has been making records since the time when you needed a can opener to open a beer.Long before anyone stateside ever heard of Bob Marley, reggae was introduced to our pink, virgin ears in the late '60s by Cliff, Desmond Dekker and Johnny Nash. But Dekker's brilliant and subversive “The Israelites” vanished from the airwaves when radio programmers realized that one of the lyric's charmingly accented words was “fuck.” And Nash—actually a Texas pop singer who'd relocated to Jamaica—made some inroads with “Hold Me Tight” and, in the early '70s, “I Can See Clearly Now,” before authorities discovered him boring audiences to death and had him deported or something.

That left Cliff, whose 1969 “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” sounded like the sort of chirrupy song a desperate tourism department would commission to lure people to an island brimming with malice and machetes. But the accompanying album also housed the tough “Vietnam” (which Bob Dylan once called the best protest song he'd heard) and “Many Rivers to Cross,” which ranks with Sam Cooke's “A Change Is Gonna Come” as an anthem of hope and perseverance.

Cliff has been making records since he was 14—he had several island-only hits in the early '60s, actually helped young Bob Marley get his first recording deal, and finally moved to England, where he sang soul hits for white people for several years before returning to Jamaica. But moving into the pull-tab era, Cliff presaged much of the greatness that reggae was to become with his role and songs in the revolutionary film The Harder They Come. It showed a different world than most American audiences were accustomed to, with dirt floors and rust competing with colorful paints, where Cliff's ripped-off rude boy rose to a violence unmentioned in his “Wonderful World,” punctuating the line “Don' . . . fuck . . . wid . . . me!” with rhythmic knife-slashes to an opponent's face.

But damn if that wasn't also him clocking time in the bloated Harold Ramis film Club Paradise, a post-Animal House movie that makes you want to invent a time machine to go back and kill every person in the 1980s. Where can one go from there but to Stephen Seagal's Marked for Death? And who would say no to a golden payday singing on the Lion King soundtrack, as Cliff did?

He's 56 now and has recorded more than 20 albums, a few of them awful. Sometimes his concerts are duds. But like Al Green, even Cliff's bad nights are better than many artists' best, and like Green, as often as not, he simply floors you. Transcendence is a grand thing, and some nights, Cliff goes there and rents a room, with his breathtaking voice and emotional drive not letting up for the whole show.

And a lot of Cliff's best work are songs you've never heard. Consider his 1978 Give Thankx album. Back when albums had sides, this one's Side Two was such a lucid expression of emotional and spiritual need that it didn't even need a Side One. Cliff writes and sings his ass off, and the music has some of Jamaican jazz/reggae legend Ernest Ranglin's best support work on it. But there it sits, unheard by you, like some wondrous celestial event exploding long galaxies away, lost to anyone who might be moved by it. What a big, lonely universe it is. So go see Jimmy Cliff.


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