Throwback Thursdays: Sizzla Covers Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

February 26, 2015

Words by Doctor Dread


On March 3rd, RAS Records founder Gary Himelfarb—better known to reggae fans as Doctor Dread—will release his memoir, entitled The Half That’s Never Been Told. The following day (March 4th) we’ll be joining publisher Akashic Books to present a discussion with Himelfarb including a performance from David Hinds of former RAS act Steel Pulse book, at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

One of the most amusing passages of the book, which details Himelfarb’s relationship with Bunny Wailer, Gregory Isaacs and Eek-A-Mouse, among others, concerns Dread’s efforts to make a reggae tribute album to Bob Dylan. Among other tracks on the compilation, which was released in 2004 as Is It Rolling Bob, is a little-known cover of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Sizzla, one of few cover songs ever recorded by the proudly individualistic Kalonji. Here, Himelfarb recounts the story of that song’s video, a literal remake of Dylan’s own original clip from 1965 transposed from Greenwich Village to Kingston.

I had always wanted to do a reggae CD of Bob Dylan songs. Dylan was a protest singer and reggae was protest music. It seemed like a marriage made in Zion. From my Reggae for Kids projects, I knew I was good at identifying the right singers to cover the songs that fit them best—and I was thrilled by the opportunity to present Dylan to reggae audiences. RAS had recently been bought by Sanctuary Records, a rock-oriented label, so I did not have much trouble convincing them to finance this idea.

I went to Jamaica to record the basic tracks and carefully selected my band. It was Sly Dunbar on drums (who had already played on two of Dylan’s albums from the early ’90s and had backed many rock artists), Glen Brownie on bass, Robbie Lyn on synthesizers, Steve Golding on rhythm guitar, Chinna Smith and Dwight Pinkney on lead guitar, and Sky Juice on percussion. I sang all the rough vocals so the musicians could lay down the tracks, and I gotta admit I did not do such a bad job.

We recorded fourteen tracks in two or three nights, and I then started to contact different artists about which songs I wanted them to perform. One of the major standouts and truly inspired per- formances was turned in by Sizzla, who was in high demand at the time. RAS had released his first album, and he was managed and produced by Fatis. This was Sizzla’s rare cover song. All his other material was original and radical, as he was a strict Bobo dread and a real hardcore militant. He was going to cover “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which could be considered one of the first rap songs ever released in popular music. I figured Sizzla could rip this song apart, and he did.

He changed up the opening lyrics from, “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement thinking about the government,” to, “As for those in the basement, marijuana’s the medicine and those on the pavement burning down the false government.” When Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen heard the rough mix, I could see in his eyes that he was astounded and knew this album was shaping up to be something beyond what he had expected.

I then had artist Dick Bangham make up cue cards with the lyrics on them so we could film a video similar to the one Dylan had made decades earlier in Greenwich Village with Allen Ginsberg in the background and Dylan flipping through the cards as the song played. The more Dylanesque I could make the project, the better I felt it would succeed with both Dylan and reggae fans. In order to shoot the video in the ghetto of Kingston without police involved, I had to first meet with the ghetto dons from Maxfield Avenue. Fatis had made these arrangements, as he grew up there and still commanded a great deal of influence and respect. We burned some spliffs together and talked it through, and permission was granted for us to film the next day.

I hired a Jamaican crew and bought lots of food and drinks for all the people of the neighborhood, and we had the streets cleared so we could capture our shot down a lane that was pure Kingston. Pure Jamaica. From Dylan in New York to Sizzla in Kingston. I had Bunny Wailer (portraying Allen Ginsberg) and guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith in conversation off to the left, just as Dylan had done before. And like Dylan, Sizzla looked nonplussed as he dropped card after card to the ground. The entire video has a surreal quality to it, thanks to the compositional work of the great Dick Bangham, along with the natural talent of the “actors” themselves and the stark setting, replete with a mangy dog walking through the middle of the shoot.