BABYLON BY BIKE (which any Jamaican will instantly recognize as a blatant rip-off of Bob Marley’s “Babylon by Bus” live album) is a collection of photographs and memories from Jamaica in the 1970s and 1980s; a prolonged bumpy patch on Jamaica’s road to so-called civilization. The vehicle of the narrative is a motorcycle, several in fact, ridden all over Jamaica by me and my two brothers Tom and Gerry. Never mind the crime and mayhem, Jamaica was still a hell of a lot of fun back then. There may have been chronic shortages of basic necessities like rice, corned beef and Rizlas, but there was plenty of fun, drama and laughter to make up for it.
This is not just about boys and bikes; our collective experiences reflected Jamaica’s struggle to carve out its own identity in the face of violent political divisions that split the society along fault lines of politics and patronage. Kingston was the epicentre of street cred, with a heady mixture of radicalism, reggae and Rastafari. Rock and roll royalty from Mick Jagger to Elton John made their mandatory pilgrimages to Jamaica, to catch the vibe, smoke the ganja, record an album.
Immersed in all this excitement, who cared about minor matters like crime, political violence and economic devastation? We partied like there was no tomorrow, because tomorrow was likely to be even worse than today. We never had much money, but money was never a prerequisite to enjoying yourself. In fact having lots of money was considered anti-social in the socialist seventies.
You can’t talk about Jamaica without talking about the music. Reggae was the most revolutionary music on the planet, and Jamaica played host to some legendary events: the Wonder-Marley concert, Peace Concert, Smile Jamaica plus any amount of Reggae Sunsplashes. Then there were weekend escapes to Negril, the hippy capital of Jamaica’s tourist trade, at bohemian hangouts like Higher Heights and Ricks Café. Then electricity came, and with it the mega-hotels.
The book also charts a course through my own journey, from a brash twenty-something to a supposedly mature man on the brink of middle age – another rocky road. At the start of the narrative my family consisted solely of brothers Tom and Gerry, until I got a rather large family of my own.
In the mid-1980s I found myself in the middle of a major political scandal that nearly brought down the Jamaican government: the Spring Plains project. I was sent to answer a question: Where’s the money gone? The answer turned out to be more volatile than I could ever imagine. For three years I worked at the heart of the project until it collapsed under a mountain of debts; on the same day that a devastating personal tragedy rocked me to my core.
With Jamaica you will have the best of times; you will also have the worst. Jamaica is always chaotic, frequently frightening and occasionally barbaric; but these are its charms. It can also be painful, no more so than the night when my friend and brother Maurice Wilson got shot dead at his front gate. The pain was unbearable, the anger worse; becoming the straw that broke the back of my love affair with Jamaica. It was time to leave.
My family left Jamaica for the last time on September 8th 1988, four days before Hurricane Gilbert devastated the island. All our worldly possessions were stored in a warehouse, awaiting shipment to us in Barbados. Although the warehouse survived the hurricane, it didn’t survive the hordes of opportunity seeker” that followed in its wake, carrying off clothes, toys, assorted junk plus precious keepsakes from my wife’s family.
So you could say we left Jamaica with a clean slate.
Jamaica of the 1970s may have been a violent place, but at least there was a sense that things would get better. Reggae reflected this positive vibration, just listen to any lyrics from the seventies. Fast forward 30 years and what has reggae become? Gun-loving, woman-hating, battyboy-killing. From peace to war; love to hate, ganja to cocaine. That’s what happened to Jamaica.