Bob Marley? Bah. Desmond Dekker was cranking out hits when Bob Marley was still wearing boy-shorts. Suffice it to say that Dekker established himself as the reigning king of Jamaican music well before Marley’s dreads attained their legendary, nappy sheen.
Of course Dekker, unlike Marley, didn’t die young and so he, like his music, has suffered the long decay of the unlionized legend. And it’s the decay that I fear. A man with this many hits shouldn’t be playing the Knitting Factory. Am I to believe that a few hundred tickets will suffice? Sure, the show sold out, but not quickly; I assumed everyone on the east coast would road trip to New York to see this, the last of Dekker’s five US shows. But they didn’t. Why?
A progeny of the great Derrick Morgan, Dekker broke into the UK charts countless times in the late ’60s and early ’70s (and even managed a top ten hit in the US with his classic cut “Israelites”). A reggae superstar by any standard, his major achievement was in championing, and perfecting, that little-known reggae precursor, ska. His tunes set the standard for ska’s first wave and have remained mainstays in reggae halls and in three generations of punk and ska clubs. So why isn’t anyone here?
As Dekker emerges, I’m afraid I see the answer. Maybe they knew something I didn’t; mainly that Dekker has lost his touch. Time has melted Dekker’s pretty mug. He scampers quickly onto the stage, pumping bony knees into the air. His face is worn and jowly; his body emaciated, frail. Even on stage, facing the excited cries of the crowd, he seems an unremarkable figure; like an old homeless man, battered and broken.
Of course, it’s not until Dekker opens his wilting lips that I know for sure: he’s not. “Dis was my first number one,” he cries as the band breaks into “Honour Your Father and Mother”. Over mid-tempo guitar upstrokes and the sound of soft brass, Dekker delivers his immaculate upper range with every bit of the energy and precision as he did when he laid the track in 1963. Little or no rasp hinders him as he pushes his voice into the feminine realm of soulful, high-pitched song. Thank god.
For a performer of such age and legacy, there are two types of gigs: ones trading on the legend and ones still trading on the music. Seeing Dylan live in 2005 is an experience, but musically pale in comparison to seeing him in, say, 1968. Ray Charles, on the other hand, stayed strong until the day of his death — I saw both Charles and Chuck Berry separately in 2001 and each remained stunning. Like those legends, Dekker has maintained his legendary musical prowess.
Classics like “007 (Shanty Town)” and “Licking Stick” are out in full force. The former sees two versions, one slow and soulful and another bouncy and rhythmic; both classic performances executed masterfully in one go. The crowd adopts Dekker’s accent, hopping together as they speak each word in time. There’s no quiet awe in this crowd, rather a ruckus of youthful energy fueled by Dekker’s delirious, excited, though often indecipherable, stage banter.
The singer throws his small frame in chaotic distress, shaking the limbs in conspicuously odd directions. His movements are clownish. Like his “sexy” ’70s regalia, flowing, unbuttoned black and gold shirt and leather pants, it’s odd but entertaining. But, of course, he delivers “It Mek” and “King of Ska” like a markedly younger, and more sensibly dressed, man. But let’s back it up a bit.
Perhaps I’ve exaggerated Dekker’s musical stamina. He has aged, and he does get tired. Dekker can still hit all the notes, but he doesn’t always. He’s playing it conservative, farming many lines out to the more than willing audience. His voice isn’t burnt; he’s just saving it for the most transcendent moments.
It’s understandable, and much better than the alternative, which would leave little luster for the end of the set. Speaking of which, Dekker speeds through a medley of American soul and rock classics, hitting every awe-inspiring note. He drops in bits of his own tunes, most prominently “Pickney Gal” alongside a rather startling Louis Armstrong imitation.
Croaking and crooning, he works his way through the best of ’60s Motown, soul, jazz, and rock. He’s the king of ska, sure, but equally adept at soul and reggae. So, again, where are the people? I’m busy with that thought and so it’s not until later that I consider those that did show up: a strange mix of punks, skinheads, rudeboys, and their more aged, now straight-laced, forefathers. Oh, and everyone’s pasty.
The rasta and reggae presence is inexplicably missing. Batting it around in my head it dawns on me that Dekker was never really that huge in the US; the UK was really his home and he was a pop star in Jamaica. Perhaps the elitists are spurning his tuneful melodies for the more progressive orchestrations of his contemporaries. Foolishness. I’ve seen the rest, and Desmond remains, well, um, the best.
And he closes as such. Drawing out the opening notes of “Israelites” Dekker throws a depthy soul-startling moan into the microphone: “aaaaaaAHHHHHHHHHHH” then stops and walks from the stage. Ever the showman, this bastard’s going to make us work for it. Thunderous cheers fill the room as a slow chant rises, “Des-mond, Des-mond, Des-mond.” Dekker eventually relents, shimmying back on to the stage to pick up where he left off. Caressing the opening notes, Dekker’s eyes begin to bulge as the shoe-stringy bass kicks in, replacing his croon with boot-shaking reggae bop.
The hopping reaches a frenzy and I feel the floorboards begin to warp and bend under my feet — they’re actually giving way under us. There’s no solution but to go with it. Finger in the air, smile on my lips, I too mouth the words in between leaps. The band brings the song to a melodic end and Dekker does a round of hand touches before leaving the stage — as a respectable music critic it pains me to admit that I reached for and successfully attained his grasp. And then he’s gone, a short set indeed, but perhaps all Dekker could honestly deliver.
He spared us the filler and the strained notes, instead giving us a concise collection of classics. So, who cares if the hordes didn’t make it out? Now I’ve got an unmatchably intimate experience to hold over their heads. Well, sort of; most people I tell about the show respond with the same blank, apathetic expression, “I thought he was dead.” Yes, the body may be waning, but even the unlionized legend lives on.