One thing I’ve always admired about Milwaukee musician Eric Blowtorch – with whom I’ve collaborated many times across the decades – is his willingness, nay eagerness, to make connections.
While I always noticed the phone numbers printed on Jamaican record labels, Eric went further and dialed the numbers and spoke to the artists and producers. It’s this way that he’s done some great collaborations with the likes of the late great Prince Jazzbo and Black Uhuru’s Duckie Simpson.
But his latest, a cover of The Clash’s "Straight to Hell" recorded with living legends of Jamaican music Horace Andy and Big Youth, is barely short of astonishing, if short of it at all.
"‘Straight to Hell’ remains as relevant now as three decades ago," Blowtorch says. "The estimated 60 million people fleeing Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Mexico all prove that. And when the loudest, most incessantly repeated voices are those demanding more walls and barriers all over the world, of turning away the people in greatest need, and sending them straight back to hell, then we need this song and this performance more than ever."
Andy had recorded a version of "Straight to Hell" in the past, but told Blowtorch that he was unhappy with it; that it needed a better rhythm track. So, Eric being Eric, he said, "I’ll do it."
And Andy assented.
Then, Blowtorch connected with Big Youth (aka the emoji-addicted Manley Buchanan) on Facebook and suggested he take part. Again, assent.
The result is a track that has led the reggae elite to rave. Linton Kwesi Johnson told Eric, "Horace Andy's rendition of the song is heartfelt and timely and Big Youth has added his unique style. You can quote me."
And On-U’s Adrian Sherwood called it "a real gem." Adrian. Sherwood.
"When (Andy’s) ‘Living in the Flood’ was released," Blowtorch says. "Joe (Strummer) mentioned to me that he’d suggested Horace record a version of ‘Straight to Hell.’ Aside from maybe Louis Armstrong’s recording of ‘Star Dust,’ there is is no dearer piece of recorded music to me. I never thought I would want to hear anyone sing ‘Straight to Hell’ besides Joe. As soon as Joe mentioned it, I immediately wanted to hear Horace Andy sing it."
Recently, Eric told me that he’s headed to London in March for a release party at Gaz's Rockin' Blues for the record, which is available as a vinyl 12" 45 beginning March 16 and as a download beginning April 14 from Fe True Records). Ten percent of the proceeds will be donated to Doctors Without Borders.
"It's been aired on the BBC," he told me in a message.
The rhythm track that Blowtorch recorded at Shane Olivo’s Milwaukee studio includes Michael Bell on bass, Cecilio Negron Jr. on drums, Robin Pluer on organ, plus a horn section. It would’ve sounded right at home on one of Andy’s mid-’70s Sunshot 45s. Andy recorded his vocal in Kingston.
The Big Youth DJ cut, "Pair of Dice," is Jah Youth at the top of his game, killing, cramping and paralyzing like the Count of Monte Cristo’s remote control (sorry, geek talk).
"When Big Youth and I were strategizing about his voicing of the song," Blowtorch recalls, "I kept coming back to Joe’s beautiful couplet, ‘Clear as winter ice/This is your paradise.’ I was thinking of Big Youth’s wild song titles like ‘Six Dead and Nineteen Gone a Jail’ and ‘Big Youth Fights Against Capitalist,’ and it just came to me: pair of dice, the idea that capitalism is an elaborate form of gambling. He liked that idea and sent back a brilliant singjay performance. It’s melodic, but it’s still the voice of the sufferer."
The song, which talks about borders and refugees is suddenly – and tragically – ultra-timely, ends with Big Youth’s admonishment: "live right, do good."
"It’s just a shame that people are crying and dying like that," Big Youth says, "to see refugees in other countries running from the trouble of war."
The theme continues in "Asylum Seekers," a studio creation of Olivo’s that melds the best of the two cuts.
"Shane came up with the idea of Horace versus Big Youth, and he reassembled the lyrics as he might have sung them," Blowtorch says. "He just attacked the song musically. The opening sound is a piano chord that’s digitally stretched."
The EP also contains Blowtorch’s own "Christmas in Ladbroke Grove," which reflects on the emotions he felt when he heard that Strummer had died in December 2002.
"I was in London when the world found out that Joe was gone. The Inflammables and I were playing at Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues just before Christmas, and I was staying in a B&B in Ladbroke Grove. The night I learned of Joe’s passing, walking from the tube station through the Grove, I was looking for some graffiti and trying to hear a tune or even a voice of acknowledgment, but I saw and heard literally nobody and nothing. The tune came to me, just an instrumental at first, then some lyrics when I finally had a few years of clarity. Joe was my generation’s Louis Armstrong, our ambassador of love with a gift for a sweet melody and a subversive lyric."
This is the kind of collaboration that is possible when you’re not afraid to dial the phone numbers printed on the labels of scratchy old Jamaican 45s.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.