For those that may have missed it, Jah B is alive and kicking.
Though “The Last Wailer” is buried in the back of the January 2011 issue of GQ, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s story about reggae great Bunny Wailer (born Neville O’Reilly Livingston) is easily the best thing in the magazine. It reads like a musical travelogue—recollections of classic songs and vivid personalities weaved throughout an incredible narrative. You just can’t put it down. (However, the piece is not available online, so you’ll have to drop $4.99 at the newsstand.)
The story is as much about Sullivan’s search for the reclusive last living member of The Wailers, the original group Bob Marley led to international stardom, as it is about Jamaica (Kingston, in particular) and Bunny himself. The piece touches on the country’s infamous figures and unique culture, including the Shower Posse, Christopher Coke, Rude Bwoys, and the history of garrisonism, which all help explain how the island’s socio-politics informs its music. Rastafarianism, Joe Higgs, and obviously Marley all have significant passages in the story as well.
But when Sullivan’s adventure-story takes a turn south, he perhaps realizes that he may have conspired to take advantage of the very person he’d respected, and pursued, for so long. It’s a tricky position the author finds himself in by story’s end. You’ll have to pick up the issue to read what happened.
There is one thing that I can tell you though. Sullivan describes “Let Him Go,” a song Bunny wrote in 1966 about the rough Rude Bwoy youth of the era in such reverent, if gushing, terms. One part of the tune really grabs him:
Somewhere in the interior of Jamaica a goat herder with a staff has leaned back and loosed this sound into a valley, intending it for no ears but Jah’s. Sooo!—the vowel fading quickly without an echo, pure life force.”
Descriptions like that make the ending seem all the more disappointing. But Bunny’s not known as the “Blackheart Man” for nothing. He has to protect himself from predators, so fall-outs happen.
At 2:13 Bunny explains something incredible about his musical comrades, and perhaps hints at why he remains the group’s sole survivor.
You had to be tough, anywhere you got soft then you are thrown overboard. Because you are not um/damn capable anymore. But the Wailers focused on being tough, so when the weather changes, all we do is apply some more toughness. Serious ting. There was a time when you know the brothers had seemed to have gotten soft. That’s why they may not be here physically…a little softness came in. But then again that sometimes will happen you know. Samson was a tough one, but he had a soft spot.”