Johnny Nash

Some records you only have to hear once.

Johnny Nash was the face of reggae. Sure, there was a whole scene down in Jamaica, Paul Simon had used the island groove for “Mother and Child Reunion,” but most people still did not know whether you pronounced it “reggie” or “reg-gay,” if they’d heard the term at all. The big buzz didn’t happen until the following year, in anticipation of the first Wailers album on Island and the ultimate distribution of “The Harder They Come.”

Although he’s now truly a legend, Bob Marley didn’t have purchase in the American market until his fifth American album, when the act was now known as Bob Marley and the Wailers. Recorded at the Lyceum in London in the summer of ’75, the album wasn’t released until the following December, and then the legend of “Live!” built over the course of a year, to the point where the following studio album, “Exodus,” was a certified hit. Not that the studio albums before had not possessed some great numbers, “Burnin'” had “Get Up, Stand Up,” never mind “I Shot the Sheriff,” but Clapton had the hit, with his execrable overplayed version on “461 Ocean Boulevard.” And “Natty Dread” had “No Woman, No Cry” but it took years for that to become a standard. “Rastaman Vibration” had the sound but not the hits and it looked like Marley and the hyped to high heaven reggae sound was going to remain an island curio, it was never going to break through.

You only had to drop the needle on “Live!” to get it. All the way from Jamaica the boys immediately locked into the groove of “Trenchtown Rock” and one thing was for sure, when you were listening you were feeling no pain.

And from thereafter the world was hit with Bob Marley’s music. In some respects it was like the Grateful Dead, you had to see the band live to get it. But unlike the Dead, anybody who listened to “Live!” could get it, you could not help but move your body in time. Furthermore, unlike the Dead, Marley permeated the ears of the entire world and reggae was now a well-known genre.

To help promote reggae, to break his acts, Chris Blackwell funded a movie entitled “The Harder They Come.” It was raw and violent, yet meaningful. It was a Boston legend, playing forever at the Orson Welles Cinema, but the film took years to permeate the culture. Yesterday you went from market to market and if you were good enough you got a chance, everybody could see what you were doing. Today, you have the power to reach the whole world instantly yet be great and go unnoticed. The times they have ‘a-changed.

“The Harder They Come” soundtrack broke earlier and bigger than the film. It introduced the world to Toots and the Maytals, as well as the Melodians, but the star of the album and the film were one Jimmy Cliff, who not only sang the title cut, but “Many Rivers to Cross” and the album’s sleeping giant, “Sitting Here in Limbo.”

But this was the peak of Cliff’s career. Even though he’s a stellar performer, he never had a big hit. He faded from the public consciousness. He was ostracized from the scene because he was not a Rastafarian, but a Muslim, he was not a member of the island club.

And Johnny Nash most certainly wasn’t.

Now if you read the obits, if you read the press back in ’72, not only the rock but the mainstream, you were aware that Johnny Nash had not come from nowhere, but his heyday was in the fifties, before the Beatles, before boomers tuned in and music changed the world.

In 1972 I was going to college in Vermont, back before Amazon, back before VHS, never mind DVD. There was no FedEx and no streaming. As for music? You could listen to the college station. But I never did, because I was used to New York radio, I didn’t want to hear the records the wankers spun, too often passé or the same Derek & the Dominos, Allman Brothers and Dead songs I’d burned out on long before. So I was left with the magazines, “Rolling Stone,” “Fusion” and “Crawdaddy.” That’s what I truly studied in college, and reading them word for word I was kept up with what was going on in the real world. And that’s how I’d buy my records, based on reviews. Because I could not hear the tracks, no way. And since I bought so many records I needed to buy them at a discount, I found the prices at the Vermont Book Store, full pop, an insult. Occasionally I employed the Record Club of America, but they always lagged on new product, and I had a connection to Sam Goody and could buy at wholesale but the minimum was fifty bucks, which was a little too rich for my blood.

And in the early seventies, most cars did not have FM tuners. Kids still hadn’t thrown over 8-track tapes for cassettes, that really started about ’76. And the FM tuners in cars were really bad. My dad’s ’69 Thunderbird and our ’70 Country Squire had FM, I’d insisted on it in the latter, but reception was weak, you could not easily listen to New York stations in Connecticut, the signal kept cutting in and out.

So, you listened to AM.

And the first time I heard “I Can See Clearly Now” was in a friend’s automobile in Vermont. I did not have a car. And it was like an elixir poured down from the heavens by God. This was an instant smash. It didn’t sound like anything else on the radio. Imagine hearing “I Can See Clearly Now” on Top Forty today, it would be just as revolutionary, even though there’d be no chance, Top Forty is only hip-hop and pop.

But I gave up buying singles back in the sixties. They were a bad value. I took my music seriously. I needed the album, I needed to go deep, assuming the LP was just not the hit and some filler.

And “I Can See Clearly Now” was so gigantic that it permeated airwaves to the point where papers and magazines stopped writing about it. Why? It was in plain sight, just twist the radio dial and you’d hear it, but I couldn’t, because I lived in Vermont, but every time I got in someone’s car I’d yearn for it to come over the airwaves.

My sister Jill graduated from BU in ’73 and was starting graduate school at USC in the fall of ’74, I drove to California with her. We camped. But the problem is most of these camping areas were for RVs, our tent pegs couldn’t penetrate the compacted dirt, and whenever we could we’d camp in state or national parks. And this night in West Virginia we had one picked out.

West Virginia is hilly. Which is a surprise, because the roads leading in are not. And the goal is to get to the campground before nightfall, because there’s little lighting in the woods, in the campgrounds themselves. But this evening we were running late. We’d entered the park in pitch black and I was driving the LeMans on the twisty two-lane when…THERE WAS A GIANT HOLE!

You remember your close calls. Obviously there’d been a rain event, which had washed out half the roadway, OUR HALF OF THE ROADWAY!

And this was an American car, not a nimble, fast-braking German automobile. And we’re going about 45 and I had to jerk the steering wheel to get the car over to the other side of the road on a curve, I’d say lord knows what would have happened if someone was coming in the other direction, but to tell you the truth that would have been preferable to falling into this ten foot hole that was a good fifteen feet long and like I said, went all the way to the stripe in the middle of the road, assuming there’d been one.

And it’s like the circus. You keep on driving. Maybe a bit slower. Meanwhile, you’re on autopilot, the Grim Reaper was just about to get you and his scythe missed you by just this much.

And then “I Can See Clearly Now” came over the radio. I remember. Vividly.

When I got back to Connecticut I bought the album and took it with me back for my senior year at Middlebury.

The album opened with “Stir It Up,” which wasn’t released in America until the Wailers’ ’73 Island debut, “Catch a Fire” with its hinged cover, once they eliminated that I didn’t bother to buy it.

Nash’s album also had a version of “Guava Jelly,” which had been released by the Wailers in ’71 on Tuff Gong, but it had no impact in the U.S. whatsoever, like “Stir It Up” it wasn’t commercially released here, at least not to my knowledge.

So, unlike Paul Simon, Johnny Nash was fully embracing reggae, it permeated his LP.

But then, over time the Wailers gained purchase outside Jamaica and then really broke through in the late seventies and Johnny Nash was seen as a pariah, an interloper, he’d become an outcast, like Jimmy Cliff, but much worse.

The truth was Nash was heavily involved in reggae as a business. It was he who broke the sound big in America. But since he wasn’t Jamaican, since he was not a Rasta, he failed the authenticity test. Johnny Nash paved the way for reggae in America but then he was plowed under. “Stir It Up” made it all the way to #12 after “I Can See Clearly Now” but then Nash never ever had another hit, he was essentially blackballed.


It’s one thing to rape a culture, be Pat Boone detuning, making R&B safe for white audiences, but that was not the case with Nash, who was black himself, albeit from Texas.

“I Can See Clearly Now” is not the boasting winner of today, rather the singer is coming from under as opposed to on top, he’s managed to get his head straight to play another day, his optimism is back.

And the truth is pessimistic songs are more legendary than optimistic ones. But “I Can See Clearly Now” is so much the other, so innocent, so heartfelt, so personal that no one failed to resonate with it. It was not smarmy, this was not the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar,” this was not bubble gum, this was the real thing!

So yesterday Johnny Nash died. He lamented “I Can See Clearly Now” did not win the Grammy, but as good as “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was, “I Can See Clearly Now” is vastly superior. But the Grammy organization always catches up late, it’s a club, if you’re an outsider they don’t acknowledge you, and what’s a Grammy worth anyway? So many legendary artists never won one, then again the Starland Vocal Band has a Grammy for “Afternoon Delight.”

I wish everybody could see clearly today. I wish the dark clouds were gone. I wish we could be optimistic, but that’s not the vibe permeating the culture. But if you just drop the needle, click Spotify to hear “I Can See Clearly Now,” your mood will be instantly transformed, you’ll see the opportunities, the glass will be half-full. Only music has this power, but it’s hard to achieve. We can talk all day about capturing lightning in a bottle, inspiration, but most people never even see the idea, never mind catch it and lay it down for all to hear.

Johnny Nash retreated from the scene, licking his wounds, like Rodney Dangerfield he got no respect, he could live off the publishing royalties from his one big hit but everybody saw him as a one hit wonder.

Do I want to argue that? Do I want to cite what came before?

I’m not even gonna bother. Sometimes a single track can cement your place in the firmament for all time, just look at Don McLean (sure, he also had “Vincent,” but Johnny had “Stir It Up” and more).

At this point in time, I’d wager “I Can See Clearly Now” is the biggest, most well-known reggae track of all time. Johnny Nash achieved what very few have, he wrote and recorded a smash that defies age, that continues to play, that is for all time.

Thanks Johnny, you’ve given the world many bright, bright, sunshiny days.

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