There And Black Again by Don Letts with Mal Peachey

Don Letts - There And Black Again - Book cover

A few months ago I attended an evening with legendary filmmaker, DJ and musician Don Letts telling stories from his life and career ranging from sneaking into Bob Marley’s hotel room for an ‘audience’ to his more recent work as a presenter and DJ on BBC 6Music, all in the aid of promoting both the upcoming film about his life, Rebel Dread, and autobiography, There And Black Again, which I read at the soonest opportunity.

Generally speaking the book takes on a fairly standard format tracing Letts’ life largely chronologically from his childhood in South London in the 1950s and 60s and on through his work from early days running a clothes store on the Kings Road and on through working The Clash in various ways and so forth.

Don Letts
Don Letts

A great touch that really captures something of Letts attitude and his way of doing things is that each chapter starts with a section appearing to directly describe a real life event (through Letts’ memory of it) in the manner of a film script. This does a great job of setting the scene and giving us a view that, for me at least, really chimes as a great way to get the gist of what the upcoming chapter is going to be about in a unique way that keeps the book fresh throughout.

As the title indicates, as well as telling Letts’ life story, he does a great job of relating it back to the experience of being, in his words, ‘British born black’, which is fascinating as someone almost entirely unfamiliar with this experience, so on the most simple level it’s great to learn about it from such vibrant first hand accounts.

Don Letts, Johnny Rotten and Bob Marley
Letts, Johnny Rotten and Bob Marley

This is something that marks the book as, while the later sections about his professional work are, of course, as a fan of film and music, fascinating as stories about Johnny Rotten in Jamaica, touring with The Slits, and forming a band with Mick Jones of course are, what I really loved here was hearing about things as unique as Letts’s father’s ‘Superstonic Sound System’ and the culture around sound systems in the Jamaican community of London and how this ties into modern dance and club culture.

This thread of relating things back to his culture and experience really brings the book to life, aided strongly by the fact that, for a lot of it, I could hear Letts saying it in my head (if there is an audio book of this read by Letts it must be terrific) so the stories become hugely immediate and it’s refreshing that he doesn’t shy away from his own faults as they come up.

Don Letts and Mick Jones
Don Letts and Mick Jones

As is fairly usual for these kind of books the final chapters see his life settle down somewhat so most of the last two decades feels rather rushed but, at least in this case, it feels like that’s because he’s reached a more settled place and it’s great that, in the end, his whole family are together again and left me feeling genuinely happy for him that this was the case, and that his once estranged son Jett was following in his musical footsteps.

There And Black Again then is something of a must read for a couple of reasons. First is that for anyone with an interest in British musical culture over the last 50 years or so will likely find a lot of interest but, more importantly in a lot of ways, it’s revealing of life for a black man of Jamaican descent born in Britain in the mid-20th century is revelatory without being lecturing helping, for me at least, to really understand something of the experience that has been so in the news in recent times.

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