Contradictory Victory: Bigging Up Joe Higgs’ Reggae Classic “Life Of Contradiction”
by Peter Relic
Posted Apr 3, 2008 on the Arthur blog at Yahoo
The first thing that grabs you is the title: Life Of Contradiction. In the roots reggae world where Rastafarianism ruled, righteousness and preachy absolutism—and even Rasta’s red-gold-green primary color scheme—all seem to insist that there is one true way to do things, one true way that things should be. Thematic subtlety, and the admission of the validity of alternate viewpoints, are pretty thin on the ground (though to be fair, such single-mindedness is one of reggae’s greatest sources of strength).
Simply put, contradiction doesn’t spring to mind when listing the music’s top topics. As a result, Joe Higgs’ 1975 album Life Of Contradiction, newly and impeccably reissued by the ever-attentive Pressure Sounds label, is an LP whose nuanced vision makes it stand out within the pantheon of reggae classics.
Higgs was a music biz veteran by the time he recorded Life Of Contradiction for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records label in 1972 (its release was delayed a further three years until rights reverted to Higgs, who issued himself it in Jamaica and the U.K). As a youth in the early 1960s, Higgs and Roy Wilson formed the r&b duo Higgs & Wilson, voicing numerous hits for Edward Seaga’s WIRL label, including the shining gospel number “The Robe.” The duo went on to record Higgs’ superlative compositions for the likes of Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, including “There’s A Reward,” a track Higgs would re-record a decade later for Life Of Contradiction. But in the time-lapse between those two renditions, Higgs made a crucial contribution to Jamaican music, one that sealed his status as a primary architect of the island’s best-loved act.
“The Wailers weren’t singers until I taught them,” Higgs is quoted as saying in Reggae: The Rough Guide, referring to his time mentoring the then-green group in the kitchen of his Trench Town home.
“It took me years to teach Bob Marley what sound consciousness was about, it took me years to teach the Wailers.” The claim could be considered self-aggrandizing were it not for the fact that Higgs alone was qualified to take the place of Bunny Livingston when Bunny preferred chilling in Jamaica to joining the Wailers on a 1972 U.S. tour. And, of course, the splendid evidence of this album.
As a vocalist, Higgs possesses neither Marley’s hearth-warmed confidence nor the steely assertiveness of Tosh. His voice is knowing without being weary, possessing a resolute timbre that draws from a wellspring of hard-won wisdom, lacking even a drop of bitterness.
“Every day my heart is sore/ seems that I’m so poor/ but I shall not give up so easy/ ’cause there’s a reward for me,” he sings on “There’s A Reward.” In Marley’s mouth such lyrics might sound like an upstart statement of destiny manifest; in Higgs’ burnished baritone the words indicate a willingness to carry on with full equanimity.
Here’s hoping the supporting cast of musicians assembled for this recording date got paid in more than roast fish and ackee. Organist Earl Lindo’s happy-go-lucky shamming makes the thesis of “Hard Times Don’t Bother Me” fully credible, while the upstroke flicks of guitarist Mikey Chung transform “Wake Up An Live” into a most soothing smelling-salt substitute. The rhythms are loping or spry yet always lock-tight. Without discernible overdubs or synthetic sounds, this is roots reggae at its finest. On “Freedom”, a versioning of the preceding bonus track “Let Us Do Something” (while available on vinyl, the CD reissue adds two cuts from singles released on Higgs’ own Elevation label), Karl Masters expands the valedictory vibe via an understated, extended trombone solo, furthering the idea that the greatest blues trombone players ever actually worked in reggae (Don Drummond, Vin Gordon, and Rico Rodriguez stand up!).
In a genre where women are often prized but even more frequently objectified, Higgs come across as pretty darn enlightened. “She Was The One” finds him reminiscing with great tenderness about a girl whose fate remains unclear (although “the very day she left they changed the locks”) while “My Baby Still Loves Me” (a thematic corollary of sorts to Nat King Cole’s “My Baby Just Cares For Me”) is sweet soul music as fine as anything in the Stax/Volt catalog; a pity Otis Redding didn’t live to cover it.
Then there’s the title track. A simply-sketched letter to a woman Higgs has lost (“everything we planned just vanished from light”) but cannot forget, it’s one of the most gracious, dignified songs ever sung from the perspective of a lover done wrong. “Even though you’ve been untrue/ darling I still love you, dear/ still for all that you may do /deep inside my heart I care…” Higgs extracts no toll and places no conditions upon his sentiment. Instead, the musicians reach into their dark blue pocket and turn it inside out, the melody swelling into positivity as Higgs soars over the chorus (“Life is so full of contradictions!”), fully cognizant that the heart is made to be broken and mended in turn. You can’t have one without the other, buster, and the good news is that real love endures.
So life is defined by diametric oppositions, but through the “sound consciousness” approach to singing that Higgs dutifully passed down to Bob Marley, such apparent incongruities achieve great unity. It’s all artfully, enjoyably embodied on Life Of Contradiction, and whether your reggae collection is confined to the Wailers’ core catalog or you’ve heard Legend enough to last ten lifetimes, Joe Higgs is your new best man.
Peter Relic is a poet, journalist, trombonist and contributing editor to Arthur Magazine.