Stepping Razor: Red X
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"All my life I've been a lonely man / Teaching the people who don't understand"

-- from "Stop That Train" by Peter Tosh

Some called him Bob Marley's shadow. Others said that he was Malcolm X with a band. Peter Tosh was one of reggae's most astonishing figures, a rebel with not only a cause but enough blazing anger to set the world on fire twice over. More importantly, he was intelligent, outspoken, and never hesitatant to put his money where his mouth was; Tosh's nickname of "Stepping Razor" was well earned. While Bob Marley's image was softened and commoditized for his subsequent rock star status, Tosh remained a true outlaw, on record and in real life. "I'm living in a world of ignorance," Tosh told an interviewer, "where everything that is righteous is condemned. When I come on stage, it's not to entertain and just smile, because my songs are not smiling songs. My songs are a revolution. And when you do these things, you become a threat to society," To some, sentiments like these might sound to like the bravado of a rock star looking for something controversial to say in order to enhance his career. However, the various scars that Tosh wore as a result of police beatings verified his position as a "threat to society." Tosh refused to stop making music, even if it meant that he was afraid for his life more often than not. "Music is part of the healing of the nation. People need music. They're getting music, but they ain't getting music that heals their minds and souls." Clearly, Tosh was a man with a mission.

And yet, despite such a fierce disposition, Tosh also possessed a devastating sense of humor. He would merrily twist words around to better reflect his true feelings: thus, managers were called "damagers," Prime Ministers were referred to as "Crime Ministers," and the United States of America were re-christened the United States of Asadica (since there is nothing merry about A-merry-ca). Perhaps his best known wordplay was used to describe the social system in Jamaica that kept poor people marginalized to the lowest places in Jamaica: the shitstem. Tosh spent his life railing against the shitstem, trying to elevate his people out of the ghettos and search for their own ways to escape, overcome, and destroy the shitstem. Reggae historian Roger Steffens perhaps summed up Tosh best in his sleeve notes for Honorary Citizen: "The reason Peter wore dark glasses most of the time was so people couldn't see the twinkle in his eye; it could have destroyed the image that the sternness of his voice sought to convey. Tosh possessed the revivifying political awareness of a Marcus Garvey combined with the insolent, nose-thumbing posture of a Lenny Bruce."

On September 11, 1987, three gunmen entered Peter Tosh's house, apparently to rob the place. By the end of the night, Tosh lay dead in a pool of blood. Two of Tosh's friends, Winston Brown and Jeff "Free I" Dixon were also killed. Tosh's wife and their other guests narrowly escaped with their lives. Two of the gunmen have never been identified. The third remains in a Jamaican prison, tight lipped about his motivation for the robbery; after all, nothing was stolen. While conspiracy theorists claim that Tosh's murder was politically motivated, we can agree that there are simply some unanswered questions about his death and the people involved in it.

From 1983 to 1987, Tosh recorded what he called the "Red X" tapes. They were monologues and musings which were to form the basis of an autobiography. It seemed that whenever Tosh saw his name on any official document, it was marked with a red "x". The tapes were discovered in 1990, and the audio from them form the basis of Hercules in the Haunted World, Nicholas Campbell's spooky documentary - now available on DVD from Cinema Vault Releasing (distribution by Music Video Distributors) -- about the life and death of Peter Tosh.

Towards the beginning of the film, musician Ola Tungi provides a rather compelling preface to Stepping Razor when he says "There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the side of the truth. And the truth just stands still. So everyone wants to pull the truth to their side." While it's disappointing that the film doesn't seem to pull the truth to any one side, it does at least provide a kind of self-reflexive context to the proceedings.

After a stylish ten minute exposition which addresses Tosh's musical and social legacy, Stepping Razor starts to tell the story of Tosh's life. He was born poor and without a proper education, forsaken by his mother and raised by an aunt in another small town in Jamaica. Even in his early years, an inner creativity would ensure that Tosh would go from humble beginnings to bigger and better things. "All we had was nothing. Sheep without shepherds, students without teachers. Because of some divine spirit we were born with, we learned to fight nothing with nothing…and get something." The monotone sound of Tosh's voice, taken from the Red X tapes, narrates chilling re-creations of some of his childhood memories, including an encounter with barbed wire that makes you wince. The film then delves into concepts of racism and Christianity and Tosh's attempts to make sense of them. He sought to find reality in the notion of God that he was being taught -- a theme that would later form the basis of some of Tosh's best songs. As a teenager, he was horrified when he was forced to move to the notorious Trenchtown neghborhood of Kingston -- a ramshackle housing project for low income families built around a long sewage trench. It was his first exposure to racism and oppression, the "shitstem" which would later enrage him so much. "I saw poor people with the dignity of a millionaire," he opined.

It was in this tough environment that Tosh first met two other young roughnecks named Robert Marley and Neville "Bunny" Livingston. They all saw that music was the only way out of a dead-end existence on the streets of Trenchtown. They formed a trio and called themselves the Wailers. The rest is reggae history, which -- thankfully -- is not chronicled in Stepping Razor. I say "thankfully" because that story is really beyond the scope of the film, and director Campbell respectively doesn't stray into that territory. Interestingly, Stepping Razor doesn't start at "point A" and arrive at "point B" when it comes to telling Tosh's life story. Rather, it uses key themes in Tosh's life and music and explores them, just as Tosh did on the Red X tapes. While the film is not that unusual for a documentary, it is anything but dry, and its lively narrative style certainly reflects the subject matter.

Documentaries always have the unique problem of how to reconcile existing footage into the new narrative without slowing the pace of the film; for the most part, Stepping Razor succeeds in this respect. The film does stumble at times when it mixes scenes of ghetto life with snippets of Tosh's music playing on the soundtrack; in some instances, the visuals nicely complement his words, while other times they seem repetitive and clichéd. Another drawback -- paradoxically, for reggae fans -- is the overuse of footage of Tosh performing live. At times, it's dynamite, with Tosh on stage, slicing the air with a machete and giving his all under the glare of blood red flood lights. Other times, the footage isn't so interesting, and one gets the feeling that it's almost padding the film out. An obvious example shows Tosh and his band performing "Don't Look Back" on Saturday Night Live. Midway through the song, Tosh is joined by none other than Mick Jagger. After the initial novelty of Jagger's appearance wears off, the segment continues on for far too long, like a guest overstaying their welcome. Stepping Razor is at its best when Campbell stylishly re-creates stories culled from the Red X tapes, with hand-held cameras and startling, low angle close-ups of actors. With this technique, Stepping Razor's tour de force is near the end of the film when Campbell feverishly re-creates Tosh's murder, interspersed with stark black & white newspaper photographs of the actual crime scene.

The DVD release of Stepping Razor features 5.1 digital sound and a clean transfer. There isn't much in the way of extras (a trailer and biographies), which is perhaps to be expected for a documentary. Overall, Stepping Razor is one of the most striking documentaries out there. The film not only tells Tosh's story, but it also gives us a sense of the confusion, violence, and paranoia surrounding his life. "The truth has been branded and made illegal," Tosh says. "It is dangerous to have the truth in your possession. You can be found guilty and sentenced to death. But it is only the truth that can make a man free." While it may not be dangerous to have Stepping Razor in your possession, it will certainly leave an impression. This movie is essential viewing for any reggae fan.
 


Hercules in the Haunted World is now available on DVD from CinemaVault Releasing (distribution by Music Video Distributors). Special features: biographies and an original trailer. Suggested retail price: $19.95. For more information, check out the Music Video Distributors Web site.