There are many people in the world of music of whom it’s been said there impact changed the landscape, from Sam Phillips at Sun Records in the 1950s to Stock Aitken & Waterman’s polished pop of the 1980s to Rick Rubin’s work with heavy metal bands and so on, but one who’s always stood out for me in this way is London born and based filmmaker, DJ, musician and more, Don Letts.
When the chance came to hear him talk about his new book, There And Black Again, in the intimate surroundings of St James’s Cafe in Guernsey, I really couldn’t miss it.
The event itself was divided into two sections with the first taking the form of a loose interview between Letts and local musician and journalist Colin Leach, and the second a more open Q&A, all following the trailer to a rather exciting looking new documentary focusing in Letts’ life in music.
What we got, however, felt like something far more engaging than that might appear on paper.
Past book talks I’ve attended in the past have often felt very much like an author running through a well trodden script on their subject, offering enough insight to make you want to read more but it’s always felt a little like an over extended advert.
While I’ve no doubt such was the intent of Letts’ publishers what we actually got felt like far more than that as, part way through his very first answer, the man known as the the ‘Rebel Dread’, stood up from his on stage arm chair and headed out into the audience where he proceeded to engage directly with us for a little over an hour of story telling and knowledge sharing on his life and his work with music in its many forms.
This really brought the event to life as he answered Colin’s questions in his own unique manner that flowed from him in a way that felt like freestyle rapping flows from an MC with a true, honest story teller feel, and, regardless of how many times he may have told these stories over the years it all felt fresh, spontaneous and captivating.
It would have been very easy for his stories of spending time with Bob Marley, Johnny Rotten, Shaun Ryder, Paul McCartney and more to have felt like name dropping but, with Letts, there’s a feeling that he’s telling us this not to show off but because the tales are interesting and shed a light not just on his work but on the wider music scenes he was involved with from reggae to punk to indie and beyond (though pinning any of Letts’ musical involvement down by genre seems a waste of time his interests are clearly so varied).
Along with this he deftly and expertly pierced many of the myths that have built up around his reputation, taking credit for what was deserved but not for the many other things that often come his way, like introducing British punks to reggae or being instrumental in helping Richard Branson sign reggae acts to Virgin, which was refreshing to hear.
As the evening moved into the Q&A section the same vibe remained with Letts owning the room with charisma rather than any kind of forced personality and he took all the questions in good grace, even those that didn’t appear to really be of much interest or relevance.
At the end of the night I brought a copy of There And Black Again (so mission accomplished for the publishers there) and I can’t wait to read it, but having heard some of the stories from Letts himself nothing will compare to that as he continues to tread his own idiosyncratic path combining the DIY ethos of punk (that saw him first pick up a film camera) and his own Rebel Dread spirit championing the music he loves which spans genre and defies expectation in the way he has made a career out of.