Jah Wobble – Riding the Sonic Boom to Heaven
Interview by Iain McNay
Iain: Hello and welcome again to conscious.tv. My name is Iain McNay, and my guest in the studio today is John Wardle, alias Jah Wobble. I'm going to call you John.
John/Jah: Yes, fine.
Iain: And it's interesting with John because I own a record label, which I have for many, many years, and we signed John (Jah) a few years ago and we were working with him, but I didn't realise until I met him quite recently and I read his fascinating autobiography, Memoirs of a Geezer, that he has a whole spiritual side. And it comes out now and again in the autobiography. When we got talking I thought this would be a really good interview for Conscious TV — not an obvious one — but a really interesting one. And if you want to explore his music, two recent releases are Psychic Life that he made with Julie Campbell, and then one he made with Keith Levene, Yin & Yang. Am I holding it the right way up? [turning the CD] Yin & Yang, anyway it doesn't matter, yin and yang, opposites.
So let's start with... When you were young, you were fascinated by short wave radio oscillations and you used to listen to them at night and — I'm just quoting from the book here — 'it was like listening to the universe.'
John/Jah: Yeah, when I was a kid, people had those big old radios, transistor radios, sometimes as part of a kind of cabinet. Remember, you had Hilversum on there, Radio Hilversum. The Dutch broadcasts were from there. And as you went through you could see all the cities around the world where you could tune to on the long wave. You'd have the 'Light Programme' on there and stuff. And I'd push it literally to the limits. I'd push it right to the very end, you know; I was into sort of things... and I started to get fascinated with the actual static sounds because I thought, where does this weird 'wooossshh' kind of phasing sound... of course that's as radio waves hit the stratosphere, hit the earth's surface, bounce back up to the stratosphere and down again. That's why the music's got a fantastic phase quality, kind of phases the sound. And I liked that sound and I found I could sleep with it; I found it very comforting. Some people would simply say it's a case of 'back to the womb,' you know, listening to your mother's blood, it makes a similar-ish sound. But for me it was all-pervasive. And it turned out it is the sound of the universe. It's the sound of stars and all these various short wave emissions. I don't think they're even sure now where some of those emissions come from, so you are listening to the universe, in a way. It's the background resonance of the universe.
Iain: You also say it's like listening to infinity...
John/Jah: Into infinity because it goes on forever...
Iain: And in a way... I guess you were quite young and you didn't know you'd end up being a musician, but in a way that was maybe a start of you tuning in to these sounds.
John/Jah: Yeah, it connected with me and I lay there and you'd hear it phase and evolve over the course of time, you know. And it was always more active at night, so by the time the morning come it may have died completely away. And its whole pulse would slowly move as well, which is fascinating, so sometimes if you woke up early in the morning you'd have to re-tune it. It moved. Its pulse would have moved down the waveband.
Iain: Was this term 'listening to infinity' or 'listening to the universe' something you realised then when you were very young, or something you realised looking back on it later?
John/Jah: I think I kind of thought of it as infinity by the time I was in my mid to late teens, because I just felt the sound suggested infinity. There was a depth to it. And you'd obviously be hearing sometimes little bits of weather beacons, you'd be hearing earth-generated short waves, you know, little bits of Morse and stuff you'd hear, and probably stuff... earth-bound stuff that was emitting radio waves, but undoubtedly this stuff from the stars, from the universe. And it's a feeling of great depth to it, and literally I realised — that's an intuitive feeling — but you're hearing stuff that's in essence countless years old, you know. I'm not an expert on it, but in a way you're probably hearing short wave emissions from stars that imploded thousands of light-years ago, and that's traveled huge, huge distances in our relative understanding across the cosmos.
Iain: I was watching this programme on TV last night with Brian Cox — of course he used to be a musician but now he's professor Brian Cox — talking about cosmology. And at one point they were talking about something in the universe that came from half a million light years away. We just can't imagine, can we? And that was to do with something visual, but again these sounds do come from the beginning of the universe, don't they?
John/Jah: Exactly, exactly, exactly. And some of the latest research seems to indicate that the universe expanded much quicker — there are doubts about exactly how the Big Bang worked — in literally nanoseconds. Within nanoseconds of the initial 'ignition' (for want of a better term), it was expanding hundreds, thousands, millions of miles, in nanoseconds in pulses. It's incredible.
Iain: So you also had this spiritual side and you discovered the Upanishads when you were quite young and you liked ancient teachings.
John/Jah: Yeah, I was very drawn to what I realise now is called Vedantic — I wouldn't have called it that at the time — the Vedantic kind of path, Indian spirituality. Not exactly Hindu, more defined than that in a way, the Vedantic path, and I was drawn to that. Even then it kind of made sense simply because, more with the Eastern ways, there was a method I could understand. There was a basic methodical approach of kinds that one could define. And also this thing of just always, every day is the path — every day you're walking a path, that was the first time of that notion of having a spiritual path. And at that time as I understand it, you know, everything was self. I've now gone completely the other way, that there is no self [both laugh]. But at that time... as so within so without. Now I don't believe in a self. Actually it's even more beautiful; it's just one thing, with many multitudes of different variations which makes this world hell. But when you're kind of understanding that there's this multitude of things and it's empty, in terms of it not having any exact thing in it, or substance in it that's not impermanent; it's actually beautiful. So now all of a sudden you can just let it flow, because as long as you don't try and grab on to the sunset that you're looking at and make it my sunset, and it's so beautiful, and you're letting things flow, then it's fantastic. But at that time I was kind of... everything is self, that makes sense, it has to be, it's all self. A kind of pantheistic notion as well, that you could become like God. Not omnipotent as such, make thunderbolts, but you could become like God, you could become full of love, you could become full of compassion somehow. That went very much against my Catholic upbringing, in which pantheism would be seen as some kind of possibly demonic path, possibly.
Iain: But you came from a pretty tough background, didn't you? And it was quite violent at times, the East End where you came from.
John/Jah: Yeah, and I'd say that just about everybody... that's my karma to have been there, and just about everybody who grew up in the area would have to know that. So it wasn't like I was going to get a free pass from that; that's how it was for most people, you know, and worse for a lot of people, a hell of a lot of people. So it was tough, it was uncompromising Catholicism. Pre-Vatican II happened, I think, in the early sixties but like all big changes it probably took more than a decade to even begin to kick in. Some people would argue it hasn't even kicked in fully, possibly. But that was the lightening-up of the rigidity of the Catholic dogma.
Iain: So on your spiritual side, did you feel when you were younger that would develop, or was it just something that was running that interested you?
John/Jah: No, it was something that just interested me. I would often find myself thinking about reality: How does this work? Simple as that. How does this work?
Iain: So it was like the enquiring mind.
John/Jah: Yeah, even more than Why are we here? — that was part of it, but really there was this nagging question: How does this work? How does this all come together? How does this all not fall apart? Because I used to just think, how does everything come together? Why doesn't it just fall apart randomly one day? And then you start thinking of God and what's the notion of God? The nearest thing that was an inspiration for me as an altar server... as an altar boy I'd sit there; I can't remember the part of the Mass where you'd ring the bells and the priest would lift the host up — it was so long ago now — but there was a point where the Holy Spirit would be present, and I would kind of feel a shiver up my back. And there was something about the Holy Spirit which maybe... you could have another... prakti or something, some other word for that, you know, some divine spirit. But that was this feeling, this all-pervasive light, thing, that permeates everything was there. And I don't believe in that now. I actually think the actual magic of it is that what you see is that magic. It is this, and it is 'all of one taste' as some Buddhists would say. It's all one taste in that it's all from mind and even mind doesn't exist, you know, which is just non-existence. But it's all an emanation in a way. But all that said, even now I struggle intellectually to keep up. These are such huge, huge concepts and I hate the word 'concept' because you have to smash the concept to go beyond it, you know? [Iain laughs].
Iain: Let's follow your story for a bit and we can come on and look at the wider picture, because it's such an interesting story. So you had what you called a Stanley-Livingstone moment when you met somebody called John Lydon when you were at Kingsway. And John Lydon of course became the singer in the Sex Pistols and then later Public Image. I just want to read something because I want you to just go back a little bit. This is a quote taken from John Lydon's autobiography [holds up the book] about John/Jah, and this is how he describes you at the time. I'm not tricking you because I told you I was going to read this out, OK? 'Wobble looked so weird, a little warped [Jah laughs]. He was trying to affect a tough-boy image but it didn't quite work. He looked more like someone's Dad out of World War II days, with the hankie on his head and the braces. He had a big Tottenham scarf and a big grin on his face [both laugh]. Hilarious, but a chap full of malcontent.' Is that something you recognise from those days?
John/Jah: Yeah. I can't remember the hankie on my head, but I might have done, I think probably as a joke. You remember, like, the four-cornered hankie; working-class blokes used to wear it at the beach, and I think I did have braces for a while, but, yeah, I can recognise myself there...
Iain: And the malcontent?
John/Jah: He can talk! He was absolutely more of a malcontent than me! He had a spitefulness to his malcontentness, you know. But, yeah, I was looking to make... to shake things up, make trouble, rebel against it all or something, you know? Then it was all so stiff. And John felt the same, and John was three years older than me. The story with John was he'd had meningitis...
Iain: He was very ill, wasn't he, when he was young?
John/Jah: ...so he'd missed a lot of schooling and must have been sort of very ill, you know. It must have been a worrying time for everyone around him, because you know how serious that can be, obviously.
Iain: You can die from that.
John/Jah: You can lose limbs, all kinds of things, you know. And he was older so he could have influence on the younger kind of people around him, but when I met him there was no one else... I remember [thinking] I'm not going to make any friends here. And I've always made friends with the oddball, and John was like the chief oddball of the world at that time. He was a classic... John Hughes the filmmaker in America... If John Hughes was going to make a film about Kingsway, John Hughes — you know, Breakfast Club guy — would have picked John [Lydon] and, I'd like to think, myself, but John he would have definitely... was a real... had long hennaed hair, used the word 'dismal.' The word dismal he'd discovered and loved the word dismal, so everything was dismal. The weather was dismal, life was dismal... it's a bit French or something...
Iain: And there was four of you hanging around, all John, four Johns. So there was John Ritchie who became John Beverley who became Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols, and he gave you the name, didn't he, 'Jah Wobble.'
John/Jah: That's right, yeah, years later. We were drunk, trying to get into a locked door somewhere, must have been a squat. We did have the key, but getting the key in became as complicated as those Apollo missions docking the actual pod with the rocket or something, you know, or the reverse, actually become like landing on the moon or something. It was like that getting this key into the door. And we stopped; I think I said 'Let's just stop and take a breather from trying to get this key in the door.' And he said 'I'm going to call you Jah Wobble, because your name's John Wardle, it's Reggae Jah Wobble.' And I said 'I'm going to keep that.' So this must have been as everyone was adopting some kind of a.k.a. stage name, so I adopted it. I said, 'I want to use that, Sid, because no one'll forget that and it's better than...' I think I said, 'it's better than Sid Vicious' [Iain laughs].
Iain: And then obviously John Lydon went off to be singer in the Sex Pistols, Sid Vicious joined as bass player when Glen Matlock left. And then you'd taken an interest also in the bass guitar at that time, hadn't you?
John/Jah: Yeah. Which takes us back to radio today. It's something infinite, it's all-pervasive, it's the Holy Spirit, Om, you know.
Iain: And low frequencies... fascinated you...
John/Jah: Low frequencies. I was never particularly interested in high, slappy, funky bass, although I don't dislike... I don't ever discount that. But I like heavy, low, simple, functional, visceral bass that you can feel there [pats his belly].
Iain: So when you were playing bass in the early days, you say you felt it there...
John/Jah: Yeah, it resonates; you should really feel it right at the core, in your core of your being, you know. You talk... people, more in football, talk about core strength, the core of your being, you know, the solar, the solar plexus, so it's the very core, the sun, the centre of your sun with all these different nerves. There's a lot going on down there and there's healing energy down in there.
Iain: You see it as healing energy?
John/Jah: Oh, yeah. It feels so calming, why shouldn't it be? And you kind of know as you're playing. If I was playing in here now, as an older guy, I wouldn't have a great big amp. You fill the room, you know, in an adequate way that is respectful to the room; does that make sense? You don't overpower the room with your bass, you just fill the room with your bass, like lighting incense. So it should be like lighting some incense, you know, and it's just so at-that-moment with the bass. Musicians should be like that, should be as sensitive as an Ikebana practitioner of flower arranging with the Japanese, you know, it's just in the moment. How does the symmetry of the flowers [points at flowers on table] — which are nicely done, by the way; they've been done with thought, I can see, and some attention — match the room, the ambience of the room? Harmony, you know, sensitivity, which is empathy, which is compassion. It means that you're kind of getting in tandem a little bit with other people and situations, you know? Not some teenagers, so don't get me wrong; I wasn't full of this stuff as a teenager [Iain laughs]. Intuitively I was, and sometimes a connection would come with the intellect, but more often not. With teenagers and dysfunctional young people it gets kind of cut, so they act impulsively and destructively.
Iain: But there's a wonderful quote I want to read out from your book: 'When you truly accept the bass as an emanation of God as the ground of existence, you make a friend of impermanence, a state of flux. Therefore the fear of losing what you have diminishes. You truly ride the rhythm and you reside in the resonance of Om. You can ride the sonic boom to heaven.' That's an incredible thing to say...
John/Jah: I did say that. I don't remember how long ago I said that. I would change it now, probably wouldn't use the word 'God' as such. I feel sorry for the word God because it's claimed by so many people. And for me there's this process; in the end, God is a process. I know that would offend a lot of people who believe in a fixed deity. I can believe in the deity of the mind, you know, by the way, and I can believe in a very powerful... but I can't believe in God in that fixed sense. But everything else, yeah, as it emanates it's of the aaliyah, the ground of existence. It's an emanation of that for sure; I think everything is. But the bass especially seems very close to that in how it functions, and it's back to this thing of impermanence which is such a huge thing because I behave in a way, most of the day, like I believe in permanence; we all do. If somebody was to threaten to take my life I should relax because everything's impermanent anyway. So I remember hearing a story my friend told me of a spiritual master in India. A guy came in the ashram with a gun to kill him, and everyone else contracted, like the universe contracting, but the guru expanded [saying] 'It's not my time yet, give me the gun and sit down.' And the guy sat down. [And the guru told the others] 'leave him alone, he's cool.' So I act the opposite to what I'm saying now. Instinctively, my thing is to contract and to be fearful and to think it's a permanent thing, but it's not. When I'm relaxed and it's back to this thing of not attaching, I'm cool. When I'm playing bass I kind of feel like that. You feel the bass, it's... because the bass... Sound you can't grab hold of, but the bass is... When you look at subharmonic theory, the bass is a very, very strange phenomenon in how it behaves and how it resonates. It's very stable yet somehow very unstable, you know.
Iain: So in 1977 you usually walked... You had a little walk, in a clockwise fashion, around the library, and that day you decided to walk the other way around.
John/Jah: I've got definitely an OCD-ish thing [Iain laughs]. I would go up to Whitechapel and I'd walk exactly the same way on exactly the same places and then when I'd come back I would go clockwise, so both ways I would go clockwise round the little library. But I went anti-clockwise from some weird thing [impulse] to go anti-clockwise. And when I got back home I got the call from John Lydon to join Public Image.
Iain: You were only seventeen and John Lydon was now — although he was your mate still — he was a big star, and he was forming a new band. He knew you played the bass guitar but you'd never been in a band as such, and he rings you up and says 'do you want to join my new band Public Image?' The band had Keith Levene on bass who'd been in the early days in The Clash...
John/Jah: On guitar, yeah.
Iain: On guitar, sorry, yeah, so there was a bit of a name there as well, so that must have been... that must have knocked you out, didn't it?
John/Jah: D'you know, Danny Baker asked me that the other day and he said 'how did you feel?' And I just thought, great, OK, let's get on with it, I fancy the job, I can do something. I'd kind of been playing the bass and felt my approach was sound, I felt, you know. I felt very solid in what I was doing in regard to the bass, you know, which was just making these bass lines, modal lines, to do geometrical shapes on the thing. It wasn't the normal way people would approach playing bass. So I felt quite... great, OK, now I can do something. So I never for one moment doubted that I wasn't the guy for the job, and I wasn't that supremely confident in other areas. There's only one other thing I ever picked up that I felt I was as proficient on, which was clay pigeon shooting. I don't know why and a guy got annoyed with me at the clay pigeon shoot. He said, 'why did you say you've never done it before; you obviously have.' And I was like, 'no I haven't.' And he got more angry with me, but I really, really hadn't.
Iain: So you'd broken the habit, by walking a different way...
John/Jah: And I still feel that when you break... that was symbolic of breaking a negative mind stream, a complacent mind stream.
Iain: OK. But you also talk about how the repetition of the bass, the way you played the bass, is a big ally. So in one way this repetition is an ally and in another way it's somehow holding you back.
John/Jah: Yeah, repetition can be a repeated cycle, a habitual behaviour. Most of our habitual behaviour is terrible; it's a prison we create for ourselves, you know. So most habitual behaviour is a form of repetition; it's not good, you know. It's just the same nonsense that we waste our lives away. But some repetition is kind of conscious repetition in a way — playing the bass or making a mantra, maybe making a certain spiritual practice that's to do with this kind of repetition — is very good.
Iain: Yeah. And then the first time in the recording studio you're making the first PiL single, 'Public Image' — the first single was called 'Public Image' — and the beginning of that song is the bass. Can you do the bass now?
John/Jah: [Sings the notes, pretending to play guitar] So it's like four notes.
Iain: It's very simple, yet it's very... I played it the other day in the car actually... it's very powerful the way that song builds very quickly.
John/Jah: Yeah, very... real basic building block. It's just a building block and it's got a kind of... although it's kind of modal, it's just a block of sound; it's a block of sound. Actually, with the intervals in it, it gives a good foundation for pop actually, you know, with that E to B interval. And Levene, to give him his credit, it's a very intelligent guitar part, and intelligent vocals actually; not just the singing, the actual arrangement of the vocals, is quite smart and it's very... it's not trying too hard at all, but it's pretty slick at the same time. There isn't a corny middle eight in it, there isn't some corny bridge or something. There's no fat on it. It's pure excitement from start to finish and yet it builds and has a composition.
Iain: And that was coming from here [points to his belly] as far as you're concerned.
John/Jah: I think that was the first or second bass line that I ever did.
Iain: Really? You see, there's a great dilemma here because, as I mentioned to you before, I'm very friendly with a guy called John Leckie who was the engineer at that session in the studio, and I had lunch with him the other day and I said I was going to do something with Jah Wobble, and he said, 'I had the most terrible experience with him; he was terrible in the studio, so disrespectful and rude and he even threatened me at one point.' I'm running that because you had on the one hand your old, quite essentially violent in some ways, East London conditioning, and yet there was something else emerging which was the basis of something very spiritual and something very deep, an expression of a deeper level of you. It's like these two opposites were running at the time.
John/Jah: Yeah, we had quite a rough edge to us, you know, there's no denying that, and I think when we come into... I know it's a bad thing... I mean it's not good to have that attitude at all, obviously. If I saw it in young people I'd probably have a word with them now [Iain laughs], you know, really hypocritical. I'd try and smooth it so... 'come here, son, you don't need to behave like that.'
Iain: Were you aware the two sides were running you at the time?
John/Jah: I think you have to be aware. I'm sure when stuff goes too far and there's this feeling of something observing... I used to kind of think that's like a guardian angel which, in a sense, you could maybe say is your better higher consciousness or better self, but there's something very neutral just watching. And I think it's the fact one becomes aware at times; it's an internal eye, some internal monitor that's just watching, and that maybe is unconscious where you just think, you just took that too far. And I've always been somebody who went... somebody more than once said, 'you always go too far.' So I would have gone too far.
Iain: Yeah, and then there is the observer, as you call it, that's watching.
John/Jah: Actually it's this background kind of thing. You look back and you just think so often, it was always there, always there 24-7, that pure, luminous kind of awareness that's not just neutral, it's actually... it's focused as well, you know?
Iain: Yes. And I think you were using that, because you talk in the book about how, although there weren't so many Public Image live gigs, the ones that were, sometimes they were... the audience were quite violent. Or perhaps 'violent' is the wrong word, but let's say 'feisty,' and they would throw things...
John/Jah: Yeah, feisty, and there was a strong... by the time Public Image started in 1978... punk was only really at a kind of a peak. These things are so short-lived. It was only really, as I recall, it really began, the first embers, the first little flame, '75-ish, sort of autumn '75-ish I'd say. Maybe a little bit before that, but I'd say autumn really; it was really sparking. And then it went into '76 and then it blazed, you know, with that very hot summer, funnily enough, so that's a good kind of metaphor. And then within nine months, as it went into '77, it became ugly. It became a kind of a refuge for 'mavericks' sort of people, boys and girls. It was the great insider movement for outsiders, and suddenly you had all these kind of boot-boy, violent kind of blokes, so it became a scary place for girls and stuff, and gays, you know. The maverick people were kind of on the back court, and these kind of violent, fuggy, dull blokes getting it all wrong, you know, big boots, big daft Mohicans, looking for a punch-up. And as PiL started, that was the background. And here was PiL, this quite avant-garde left field thing, and that was a very conservative inward look... and PiL wasn't that well received by people...
Iain: Yeah, I think the interesting thing was — and you talk about it in the book — that when things were thrown at you, you were somehow... you did have this spiritual side already growing, and you were able to just stand there and not react. And you call it, like, it was like a train; you stuck with the form.
John/Jah: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's it. Just stay with it. Sometimes you have to be strong.
Iain: [No matter] what's thrown at you, you stuck with the form, you stuck with still playing.
John/Jah: Yeah, yeah, just still play. So even I had a pig's head thrown at me. It was a frozen pig head, from the circle balcony in Paris. So I'm playing and suddenly something hit me. And it really did, you know... and I'm playing and I thought, what is that? And I looked down and it was a pig's head looking up at me balefully. Whoever did it was a good shot, you know, caught me right in the head, and I looked down at it but I just carried on playing.
Iain: And there was another time which I thought was interesting — I forget where it was — where you... where PiL were playing and apart from the drummer... It was a new drummer; what's the name of the new drummer? I used to know him a little bit and I've forgotten his name.
John/Jah: Martin Atkins.
Iain: Martin Atkins. Martin Atkins and you just kept playing because Levene and Lydon walked off and just left you there. And again you stuck with the form and you kept on playing.
John/Jah: That's right, at the Palladium. Yeah, we just stuck with it. They walked off a gig, you know, I was furious, furious with them. And I think it was afterwards people said, 'hey, that was great.' People loved it, they thought it was part of the act or something. But, yeah, you just stick with it and that's all I know, you just stick. It's like a football team, you know, with a football team you might go a goal down, two down. What do you do? Do you start panicking and kicking it long? You keep playing football, you just keep playing and you keep having faith, you just keep doing what you're doing. It will turn. It will turn. It'll always turn if you stick to it.
Iain: You know, another thing I really liked that you said about those early days in PiL was... the 'Beginner's Mind,' and you got that from Suzuki, the Japanese master, about how the Beginner's Mind has so many possibilities, especially when playing a musical instrument. And the expert has few possibilities because the expert knows so much; and in a way you had Beginner's Mind.
John/Jah: Yeah, yeah, and I still try and have that every time, so every time I pick the bass up it's like for the first time; so it's like a discovery, you know, because it's actually as if you're an oracle of some kind, like, what am I going to pick up? So it's about your state of mind that you bring to it. If you have an open, clear mind, always something new will come.
Iain: But underneath it, PiL was flawed, wasn't it, because you wanted to work a lot more live. There was a lot of tension between you and Keith Levene.
John/Jah: Only because of, you know, what he was getting up to...
Iain: He was a bit of a junkie at the time.
John/Jah: Yeah, there was all the drug thing going on with him. There were a lot of drugs in and around the band. I took drugs as well, you know. We took different drugs. As I joked at the time, we were all on different drugs at different times [Iain laughs], so it was really doubly compounded. But that was what annoyed me, you know, because obviously that's not conducive to working well, you know, if you're taking... you're on smack and stuff regularly you're not gonna be... it's not gonna be conducive to working in an efficient disciplined way...
Iain: You always avoided heroin, didn't you?
John/Jah: I took it once and the funny thing is, everyone else around me was being sick; I didn't. The dealer I knew. Of course I think he gave us all the first bit free, as they do. He's sitting there, 'oh, you've done it before, ain't ya?' And I just sat, like, thinking with this guy — quite a heavy guy — thinking: I wish he'd shut up and stop talking, because I'm sitting in this very noisy night club but everything's cool. And that's when I thought: Oh my God, this is the cotton wool. Because I was thinking, it's not really working, I'm not feeling a high. But actually I was happy not to talk, and this dealer — he was a tough guy — [saying] 'you've done it before' and I was just thinking, I wish he'd shut up because I don't want any talking, you know? And I remember thinking: This is it, this is the cotton wool, you'll get addicted. And we did used to look down our nose at regular heroin users. And in the end my best mate... there was so much of it about at the time, my best mate, you know, he'd become addicted as well. And I'd warned him that he would do, but he did. There was so much heroin; in '78 the Shah was deposed in Iran, lots of money came out, and kind of somehow people turned it into heroin, you know. A lot of heroin came cheap; the price of heroin drastically reduced at that time. If you remember Get Carter, Michael Caine's character Jack Carter went to get heroin and it was a huge big deal. It would've been easier to get hold of plutonium. He had to go to 'the man on the bridge' to get the heroin. It was as if he was getting something that would get you locked up for a zillion years. And of course by the time the late seventies came about it was awash, and I knew a few people that were lovely people who, you know, went down that path.
Iain: Anyway, you left PiL and you formed... you wanted your own people round you, didn't you?
John/Jah: Yeah, so I left PiL because — you're quite right — I wanted to work, I was a bit manic, and I wanted to do gigs. The business side of it wasn't good so no worries, you know... and my beef was not just with Keith, but with John because when you're the governor, you're the governor of this really, so you should have this in order. We were all young, it's no hanging offence, so I wouldn't go back and change a thing, because when I was like, I'm gonna leave because I've had enough of this, which was quite a brave move actually; I don't think many people would have left. But I had the guts to kind of go and leave and get my own thing together. I wanted to work and I just wanted to do stuff. And at the same time I thought, well maybe that's it actually. Maybe I'm going to leave and there won't be any more work; I've had my time in it, as well, so it was a mixture of feelings. But lo and behold, I ended up working with Jaki and Holger from Can, so it all rolled.
Iain: And you then had Invaders of the Heart.
John/Jah: Invaders of the Heart. It was Human Condition first of all, which was a kind of avant-garde power trio and then Invaders of the Heart which was my beginnings of me wanting to... [Like] some novice chef thinking, let's mix these spices with this Scandinavian fish thing or something. Let's just try. What's it like when you mix some of this music; what happens? That was the very basic kind of start of attempts at jazz in there and some dubby kind of stuff, and mixing music from around the world a little bit. It's all very, very naïve, but actually some very good players...
Iain: Naïve and also brave because, again, you're taking risks all the time, and I think you made eighteen albums since you left PiL, and they're so different a lot of them. It's more than [eighteen] actually, isn't it?
John/Jah: I think I must have made, since leaving PiL... could well be fifty, sixty albums, maybe more, and I've played on lots of other people's. I've made a ton of stuff. It just flows out, and I think that's great. To me, why should a musician just be down to doing one album, very self-consciously, every year or two? Be like an artist: if you go round an artist's studio, they've got three paintings on the go over there, there's umpteen paintings all round the place, and they're developing as an artist and they're forming, and you can see the different themes in the different paintings that they've got. And that's me, you know, I've developed my different themes over the years, and that was kind of the beginning of it.
Iain: And then you completely burnt yourself out at that time, and you got more into drink and drugs and you were kind of... you weren't really going anywhere, were you?
John/Jah: No. I'd left PiL. A lot of people think, you left PiL and you really self-destructed. No. I couldn't blame PiL for my drink or drug situation, because it kind of really brewed up over the next few years after leaving PiL. When I left PiL I stopped doing powders. I had done cocaine and speed, you know, especially speed. The first cocaine I took, I remember people in Chelsea would say, 'hey, this is really subtle' and I used to think, it just doesn't work. And I was quite right; it was cut with too much stuff. I then started... I went to tour America in '83 after leaving PiL and came across — and in Europe — what people used to call 'diplomatic pouch cocaine' or 'rock,' you know, really powerful. And I was drinking and it just accelerated through the eighties, as simple as that, where you're drinking a lot, you start to have a few blackouts and you start taking the powders — too much of them — which sends you doolally, just to control the drinking and vice versa. So, yeah, I got into a mess over the course of that few years; '83 really was when I kinda crossed some line at that point. And it's when you're having angry blackouts; that's the thing where you start thinking: Oh I'm in trouble here.
Iain: And you got to the point where you were going to cut your throat and kill yourself.
John/Jah: I wasn't going to cut my throat. I sat after really getting to a point where I really didn't, you know... I thought: Maybe you're a bad machine, you're a bad person, it'd be better if you were out of the game for the world, which is kind of... People with huge pride are obviously not seeing themselves clearly; they're being mad. Conversely, if that's pride, the inverse dip [motioning with his hands] is just as crazy: I am the worst person in the world, when you're not. I'm terrible, it'd be better if I was out of it — absolute rubbish. But I sat there with an editing razor, one-sided, in my little studio flat — it was literally a studio, an old council place, but I had my little studio there — and my little editing razor that I used for the quarter inch [tapes]. And I sat there thinking: Just cut your wrists; get in that bath, open them up and get in there. And I couldn't do it. And I thought: You can't even do that, you can't even do that, can you? You can't even do the decent thing, you know. And a lot of people get like that with the drink and the drugs distorting their thinking, thinking far worse of themselves. And of course that's the conversant down to the times when they're high, when they're top of the world, Ma. And it's all a stupid drama. The sad thing is some people do go through with it and they do it, or they drink or drug themselves to death.
Iain: You were that age because I think you were around 27, 28 then?
John/Jah: I was 27.
Iain: And that's the age Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, so many people have gone at that age.
John/Jah: It's a funny age. It's a really weird age, it's funny that. Twenty-seven was the most desperately unhappy year for me. It was really unhappy. You're so down and, you know, so frustrated with everything, and absolutely not comfortable in your own skin.
Iain: Anyway, you suddenly had a glimpse, a glimpse of another way, and you sold your bass...
John/Jah: I sold my bass, gave the money to my girlfriend at the time who had a baby at the time as well. I gave her... put the money through the letterbox, and I phoned AA. Now I don't say I phoned AA lightly, because it's an anonymous organisation for very good reasons. But when I came to tell my life story I'm afraid I owe AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) such a debt, I cannot not mention it. If I say to you, 'well I phoned this place and it was to do with people that had a problem with drink,' you'd be thinking, well what? So I may as well say it. So I phoned AA and a bloke came round and I wasn't that far off them taking me to St. Clement's mental hospital. Because they said to me a year or two later, 'you know we were really worried about you; you really were... we thought you couldn't be... we thought you might do something silly; you were that bad.' And it was pretty heavy. And I used to wake up sometimes and look at the clock. It was four o'clock; it was dark in the winter; I didn't know if it was four in the morning, four in the night, you know; it was getting pretty serious. So I got clean and sober and that was it. I had to. I was obsessed with alcohol, you know. One drink was too many; a thousand wasn't enough, and the funny thing is, that time, this problem, this worst problem I'd ever had in my life, is the best thing that ever happened. And I'm now grateful for every drink I ever had, because I can sit here, and I'm on that path.
Iain: And you've been 29 years without a drink...
John/Jah: Twenty-nine years this year, yeah.
Iain: And without drugs as well, presumably?
John/Jah: Yeah, absolutely completely clean and sober, yeah.
Iain: So you had the support from AA, but what were the other critical factors in having the discipline to get off substances?
John/Jah: I really couldn't, you know... I tried so often, that I would say it was AA. I did the twelve steps of AA as best I could, I got to toe the line. It was a pretty different organisation then maybe than what it is now, because everything has to change and evolve. So traditions will stay the same but people... there will be changes with people. And at that time the demographic was very different, you know — lots of tough Irish and Scots. [In Scots accent] 'Take the cotton wool out of your ears and put it in your mouth, son' [Iain laughs]. You know, they weren't mucking around and... [In Scots accent] 'You just come along and you listen, you'll be alright, you just keep coming here, son.' Tough, tough Paddies and Jocks.
Iain: So you were all kindred spirits.
John/Jah: Yeah, yeah, and they knew me. One old girl, one old Glaswegian girl, she'd been a bag lady and everything, and she knew me. [In Scots accent] 'I know you son, I know you; you stay up all night, don't you, son? You've turned night to day.' [I thought,] Wow, how'd she know that? She just had me down to a T, but full of compassion, and it was a very powerful medicine because you think you've found your clan. This is your clan, these people know me. And this is a kid, a kid, because that's what I was really, still a kid really, a big kid who's thinking, I'm going to kill myself [motions as if slashing wrist], you know. And suddenly these people were saying, 'you're alright, you're OK.' It's a very, very, very powerful message for somebody who's dug themselves into this deep hole with huge lashings of lack of self-esteem. And then to suddenly have this message, 'son, you're OK; we want you to come back,' because at that point of course people are body-swerving you. People in the East End were very nice to me. Girls would come and say, 'what have you done, you used to look so... look at you.' I'd be in a dirty state of me, you know. And here's these people saying 'you're alright, son, you're alright.' They were nice, they were good people. And that demographic... I'm not saying AA doesn't still work for people, it was just the East End was a very different place. It was absolutely full of down-and-outs at that time. It's all these young people now, you know, God bless 'em, it's become... it's the hip side of London now. At that time it was full of drinkers. It was full of alcoholics. So I grew up looking at... you'd see these poor guys up Whitechapel Road who were drunk and they'd urinated themselves and so as you walked along the road they had all these real downhill hostels, you had these trails of urine coming out of doorways from these blokes who'd wee'd themselves. And the funny thing is in the book — this is the funny karma of it — when I was about two, I freaked out, and it was one of my first memories, along with my Dad's brother who was a priest splashing holy water everywhere because we had a house that had been a spiritualist house and my Mum, quite rightly I think, thought there was things going on in the house. Which I know a lot of people [would not believe]. But for me, I do believe in these other worlds as well, I have to say. It doesn't just end with humanity, you know, there are other existences and other kinds of entities I believe. And anyway, she got him round. It's a bit like you've got some problem with some local gangsters; you bring in the Vatican because the Vatican's like the real mob, the heavy mob. With a bit of Latin they'll chase them out; that was the reasoning. But anyway, the other thing I remember is freaking out and getting very, very feverish, very ill, and seeing snakes and stuff coming out of walls when I was about two. And they got Dr. Abrams, the old Jewish doctor at the end of Smithy Street, to come over and he said, 'if I didn't know better I'd say this boy had the DTs.' Funny all those years later I ended up with DTs a couple of times, you know, in Amsterdam seeing stuff coming through the window and all that, and so... I mean it's the booze. Anyway, so I went there [to AA]. Basically AA gives you this simple path. It's a good basic programme; it's done the job for me, a day at a time.
Iain: You backed it up because you had long walks in London and you started to get physical again.
John/Jah: Yeah, that took a little, because at first all I'd done was go to my AA meetings; I would go to my AA meetings and, as I say, it's an ongoing thing. As far as I'm concerned you are never cured, you know, you can never pick a... I would never trust myself to safely drink again, you know, day at a time. So that's it, that's the deal. It doesn't mean you go through life afraid that you might... I've never had that fear; it was relieved of me, that fear, you know. But then all I did was go and work on the Underground, I worked at Neasden Depot.
Iain: There's a very funny story you have in the book, that one day on the Underground, on the platform, you went to the PA system and you said, 'I USED TO BE SOMEBODY! I USED TO BE SOMEBODY!' [Laughing]
John/Jah: It was at Tower Hill; it was on the Eastbound District — is the correct terminology — it was crowded; it only takes a five minute delay for all the platform to fill up, and in those days the intercom was on the wall. And I went to the wall, 'I USED TO BE SOMEBODY. I REPEAT: I USED TO BE SOMEBODY.' And they were 'rrrrr...' you know, kind of murmuring [Iain laughs], they're all kind of swaying, what was that?, you know. Yeah, I did that, yeah. So what I did was go to AA chain smoking; I would smoke sixty fags a day sometimes. But then in time I started... I'd always been into walking anyway with the drugs actually, which is a different thing, but I then got more and more into walking and more and more and more I've got into walking over the years and become an absolute walker. And by the time I was three or four years sober I'd be walking up the Lea Valley and round the boat backwaters near where the Olympic stadium is, over toward Stratford, a very strange part of the world.
Iain: And you also did some karate too, didn't you? You were very...
John/Jah: Yeah, I did Goju-Ryu quite seriously, seriously. I still do Sanchin Kata, I still talk to my old Sensei; on occasion see him. So that was a lot of meditation and a real discipline, you know, I mean...
Iain: It was good for you, that discipline, wasn't it?
John/Jah: Very good. I mean it's not a thousand miles away from Yoga actually. It might ostensibly appear to be punching and kicking; actually it's a lot of that stuff. It's... to me, it's related to mudras, the whole thing of, you know, breathing [takes a deep breath], breathing from the diaphragm, breathing with movements, you know, and all these movements actually being like mudras that mean stuff as well. And I still do some of those slower Katas. I probably can't get my knee, my leg, higher than that table now, but, you know, so I'm not exactly Bruce Lee, you know.
Iain: So we have about five minutes left. Time is flying, so let's just, you know, go into now about your practice now, what you find helps to stabilise you and keep you motivated and everything. You're still making lots of music, obviously.
John/Jah: Well the path's just continued and continued, and that time was a special time when I'd go for the walks, you know, early nineties, very happy, and through the mid-nineties, you know; it was a great time. There was a sense of great lightness and space there at times. I still had to run a band, you know, face up to daily responsibilities and all that stuff, but there was a great sense of lightness and stuff. It was a spiritual quantum leap, you know. And then, you know, I met my second wife back then, so we've been together a long time, we've got a couple of boys, and life moved forward, you know. And you get taken up with the practicalities of everyday life. My essence basically, to put it in a nutshell, you know, the spiritual path is something you can't move away from; when you do, you become uncomfortable. So now it just honed and honed and honed down to the point where, you know, I came out a few years ago, I came out as a Buddhist.
Iain: Right, right.
John/Jah: And a couple of friends of mine, my dear friend John [said], 'at last you've come out.' So he said, 'you've come out as a Buddhist; we all knew, darling, that you're a Buddhist.' So that was it and I walk a Buddhist path. I took a... years ago, even at that time in the early nineties, I thought I liked Buddhism, but this Void... I misunderstood the Void. It is an unfortunate... the Void, which is emptiness, this lack of intrinsic identity, which actually was scary. [I thought,] I'm not going there! A religion without God? I'm not sure about that. But actually in the end it was the one. There was far more about it I could agree with and follow, than not. And I slowly... d'you know in the end if you look at the records through the nineties going into the noughties, they're all Buddhist stuff. And then finally I 'took refuge,' as they call it, and that was it, you know. I came out as a Buddhist. I finally... I felt embarrassed because Western Buddhism makes me very uncomfortable on occasion, you know; it's a kind of pot pourri of New Age do-what-you-like, All is One. And All is not One in that sense; it's a multitude of things. It might have one taste, one essence, as they say, but it's not, you know. So that's basically it, in a nutshell.
Iain: So what kind of Buddhist practice do you do now?
John/Jah: The other thing... I said I would never be a Buddhist, that was for sure. I said a lot of things back then. I said I'd never live in a 1930s suburb, and I do, 1930s suburb in the north. I'd never be a Buddhist, and the one Buddhism I would never do is Tibetan Buddhism — ever. I would never do that. [Now I do] Tibetan Buddhism! [Iain laughs]. Because it was the... I made the right connection. It's all about the people. It's like when I did martial arts I just wanted to do martial arts. I didn't want to do Goju-Ryu but I met the right teacher. It's all about the teacher. So I'm proof that you meet the right connection to find out what you need to learn. And I'm a Buddhist, but I'm probably one of the worst Buddhists in the world. Why? I'm an angry Buddhist! [Iain laughs]. I'm an angry Buddhist, you know. So this is actually something...
Iain: But are you still that angry?
John/Jah: I've never said publicly I'm a Buddhist; I don't, but this is a spiritual programme so I'll say that. In interviews I never say to people, 'I'm a Buddhist,' I don't come out with this stuff. Friends know it, family know it.
Iain: But are you still really an angry Buddhist?
John/Jah: At times, yeah, I'm an angry... yeah, at times I'm angry. I'm a Buddhist who's angry [Iain laughs] and thinks, Oh God, you know, I'm angry. And then you know what? Really that's good because that's something to work with, you know. But, yeah, if there was a league ranking of Buddhists I would be... I wouldn't even be in the Isthmian league or the Conference, you know, I'd be playing with the... I'd be on Hackney Marshes, but enjoying it. I enjoy it. And the great thing is, I'm just a Buddhist. I ain't Buddha. I'm nowhere near that; I'm just a Buddhist and I listen to people who know better than me, I do a basic practice, I meditate as best I can. Sometimes I'm a long way from it, you know, but the great thing is, you're never far away from non-duality because it's the reality anyway. And there is no duality, because duality must be [illusion]. If there's a non-dual state there can't be any dual-ness really, right? So it's never far away. The absolute thing, that... is never far away, you know.
Iain: And that's a wonderful place to finish.
John/Jah: Thank you.
Iain: It's a great message to everybody out there. You should say it to the camera there, we are never far away.
John/Jah: [Facing the camera] We're never far away. We're never, ever, far away. It's always just there if we want it. We can be the most... beside ourself with anger... I can be beside myself with anger and when I have that realisation, I'm actually back in that... in the divine state. There you go.
Iain: That's official.
John/Jah: That's official, yeah, yeah [Iain laughs].
Iain: So I'm going to show your books again, Memoirs of a Geezer; this isn't primarily a spiritual book, but I really, really enjoyed it. It's so... it's very well-written as well. It's about John's life and it includes what we've talked about, his ups and downs, and a lot about the music side as well, so if you're also interested in music you'll love this book. He's also done a book and a CD of his poetry, Odds & Sods & Epilogues. And then the two albums I showed earlier which are quite recent: Yin & Yang and Psychic Life. So thanks again to you John for coming in...
John/Jah: Thanks, Iain, thank you.
Iain: I wish we could have gone for two hours.
Iain: The time goes so fast.
John/Jah: I'd go on and on.
Iain: And thank you everyone out there for watching conscious.tv and I hope we see you again soon. Goodbye.
To watch the original video
interview click here. This programme has been transcribed on a voluntary basis. If you would like to offer to transcribe a video on the same basis, then please
All text copyright © Conscious TV Ltd.