With Bob Marley and Peter Tosh long gone, only Bunny Wailer (b. April 10, 1947) is left to sing the praises of his favorite herb. In an interview with Roger Steffens from the January, 1994 issue of High Times, Wailer passes the great spliff to the new dancehall generation.
My friend Leroy and I have a problem. We’ve just arrived in Jamaica to begin work on Bunny Waiter’s autobiography. With three weeks of interview sessions ahead of us, we want to make certain that we have adequate supplies of herbal refreshment to carry us through. As Bunny ferries us to “Dreamland,” his estate in the emerald hills of eastern Jamaica, I broach the subject.
“Do you know anywhere Leroy and I can buy some herb for our stay here?”
The Last Judgment stare on Bunny’s dark visage explodes, and his eyes grow huge and incredulous. “Buy herb?!? When you are the guest of Bunny Wailer,” he growls molasses slow, “I AM herb!!”
Moments after Bunny’s aging gold Toyota with the thick black racing stripes and rampant lion hood ornament pulls into the dirt driveway in front of his half-finished concrete house, the 47-year-old original Wailer disappears into the thick bush behind the house. He returns five minutes later bearing a sheaf, a veritable armload of dried, thin, small-budded plants and proceeds to spread them out on the dusty hood of his car. As he chops up the buds with a machete, Bunny announces proudly, “Cambodian. I think you’ll like it.”
“Where did you get Cambodian?’ Leroy asks, taken aback.
“I play Amsterdam last year, and a brother there give me some seeds,” he says, his face illumined now with a huge, toothy smile. “Dem thrive in Jamaica!”
It’s been a long time since major Jamaican stars put their red, gold and green asses on the line for ganja. More than a decade has passed since we’ve seen the likes of Peter Tosh—passionate public spokesperson for the absolute legalization of herb—or Jacob Miller, natty vaudevillain not above stealing a policeman’s cap and blowing spliff smoke in his face in front of thousands of people.
It takes an artist of the caliber of Bunny Wailer, coming from the roots of the roots, Kingston’s Trench Town in the ’50s, drenched in the rhetoric of the “Blackheart Man,” to keep the chalice burning in the ’90s, heartically and heavenward. For this is not folly business de mon a-deal wid. Licking a cup is Holy Communion to Rasta. “Better is a dinner of herb where love is,” says Bunny, leaning against a stubby palm tree, “than a stalled ox in a house full of strife.*
Neville “Bunny” Livingston was 17 years old when he first smoked herb, just about the same time the other Wailers—Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Junior Braithwaite—were trying it too. Right from the start, they were educated that “herb is for the service of mankind.”
Relaxing in the shade of his mountaintop farmland, Bunny pauses to nibble a freshly cooked doctor fish, as he recalls some of the other wonderfully named plants to which he was exposed as a youth. “We used a little Leaf of Life here, a little mint there, use a little Search My Heart here, Strong Back there. All those herbs has their purpose. There are certain powers you get when you know how to put some of them together. Like Roots drink: it’s a mixture of herbs and the roots of herbs, leafs of herbs, seeds of herbs, and you put that all together and you get Roots, a tonic that, umm…” he stops, searching for proper phrase, “will put more life in your style!”
In 1982, Bunny Wailer revealed his deep feelings for the sacred herb on the hit song, “Collie Man”:
Rock and come in mi idren
with the bag of collie riding
Mi tired of the bush
Riding mi idren
with the good good sensi riding
Come now Mr. Collie Man
come give I a spliff
Mek me reason ’bout wha’ a-gwaan
Trod here Mr. Collie Man
come load up mi cup
Make I & I sip it up
Pass the chalice and the chalice gone round
Pass the chalice
and we ’ll never do no wrong
And if the chalice is nowhere around
Bring the cutchie come
And let me lick it till it bu’n
A weh you get your collie Mr. Collie Man
The smell just a nice up the place
Is it a ital collie out of virgin land
The smell is as good as the taste
Now bless the cup and Jah Jah will guide
Pass the chalice on the heartical side
And if the chalice is nowhere around
Bring the cutchie come
And let me lick it till it bu’n.
Months later, after the original interview sessions, I call Bunny at his home in Kingston to get the lowdown on his current attitude towards herb and its continuing illegality. I begin by asking why he thought so few Jamaican artists take a public stance for herb these days. He laughs in his deep, throaty baritone. “Maybe because herb is legalized.” In what sense? “Everybody a-smoke it! Even the President of America puffed some herb!”
When I explain that our talk is intended for publication in HIGH TIMES, the foremost magazine in America in the fight for decriminalization of marijuana, Bunny’s voice turns dreadly serious. “In this dispensation of time, as our studies and our researches have reached technological advancement from health right up to warfare to whatever, we should be looking at the best things for the human race. We’ve been hurting the human race. We’ve been hurting the environment. It’s about time that we take a positive step towards correcting our mistakes and putting the right things where they should be, and seeing if we could save the day.
“Herb is one of those substances that was given to us by the Creator,” Bunny goes on. “It isn’t something that is made by man’s machines or man’s doing—it’s a seed you plant and it grows by the power of heat, air and water. Scientists have tested it and found it has so many healing qualities. This world is in a very sick situation, and we need healing powers. The herb, the one that they give the nickname ganja, is full of healing qualities. It’s due a lot of credit. Right now the only savior for this world is herbs. It’s the only other t’ing that man could use to take him away from all these dangerous trips that he’s having with these other man-made, added-to drugs. The world right now is suffering from a cocaine drunkness. One spliff can blow the cocaine feeling away. People who deal with cocaine tell me that a spliff takes them right back to normal. If herb was to be given that chance, it could be a savior from all these drugs.”
“People are always going to be searching to find something to take, to get them away from the frustrations of the world and what’s happening around them. The escape, most of the time, is what they seek with drugs. Well, herb is not a drug, but what it does is moderate one’s meditation and lets you look at the beautiful side of life instead of being frustrated. If you are going to be frustrated with the material things around you and you take a puff off a spliff, you start noticing how even the ants move, how even the birds move.”
“Herb is the healing of the nation. In Revelations, it shows you that the leaves are for healing of the nation. It’s found in the midst of the vineyard, in the midst of Zion. It’s called the Tree of Life. And Rastafarians analyze this Tree of Life as herb, as the ganja, because it has so many qualities. It’s the king of plants. It has all the qualities that every other plant has, and it has qualities that no other plant has.”
One of Bob Marley’s most powerful performances ever was at Harvard Stadium on July 21, 1979, at a benefit for African freedom fighters organized by the Amandla Committee in Boston. Six years before, Bunny Wailer had departed the Wailers for a life in the country and a solo career (check out Dance Massive, Bunny’s last release on Shanachie). During an extended version of “Wake Up and Live,” Marley declaimed a fiery pro-ganja oration in which he observed that “we all smoke herb so we can think the same way. But they don’t want us to think the same way because if we think the same way we would be in unity, and they don’t want to see us in unity.” Is that also how Bunny sights it?
“Absolutely,” he says. “They don’t want that. That’s why herb has become such an enemy. It unifies people. It unifies your mind. That’s what herb does. If a man is angry and he draws a spliff, his anger goes away. When other things motivate his anger, herb takes it away. They test it even in animals and they say it makes them less violent. Come on, man! Courts, lawyers, judges, the police, soldiers all make up a system. But what’s the use of a judge if people are not killing each other?”
Is there a difference between the way herb was used when Bunny was a youngster in the ’50s and ’60s, and the way it is used today? “The difference about herb now is that it doesn’t have that kind of spiritual attention and respect anymore,” says the aging herbsman. “People now mix it with cocaine and they call it a ‘seasoned spliff.’ That’s dangerous, mon.”
I suggest it’s a bit like pissing in your drinking water. “That’s what’s happening with herb these days,” Bunny chuckles sadly. “It’s not like the old traditional way where you have the chalice and you bless the chalice, and you make sure you pass it on the right side, and the principles that go with it—you take your hat off when you hit the chalice and you make sure you give a little prayer, you bless the cup. All that tradition has faded away. Even in the Rastafarian attitude, people tend not to be as reverent as in those early times.”
Why is that? “Because of the fast-moving attitude of people dealing with herbs more on a money level or for getting a kick out of. Herb is being tampered with. People are experimenting on herb when it’s something you just put in the earth and you leave the power of life to grow it. People are now putting chemicals on it to let it have more potency. It’s been abused in every sense. Herb should be left alone like other plants are left alone to grow and fulfill their use and purpose.”
Does herb still have a place in both Rasta and Jamaican culture? “Herb is Rasta’s sacrament,” Bunny insists. “The t’ing about herbs is that herbs is illegal when people sell herb to make a profit. When one sits down to draw some herbs in his own little spiritual environment, that’s custom. I don’t think that should be counted as a crime. If you smuggle it and it’s illegal to smuggle something, it’s illegal. It should be if you’re trafficking herb into other people’s places or if you’re trading in herbs so as to make a profit, and you’re not paying no taxes on it, then that makes it illegal. Like bootlegging or something.”
Then exportation should be illegal? “In that sense, yes—herb shouldn’t be trafficked into any people’s places, unless it’s licensed too, like how you would put flour on a ship. Flour is flour, and it goes through people’s ports as flour. But it’s not good to put herb into flour bags and bring it in.”
Bunny wants herb decriminalized, doesn’t he? “Yes,” he says firmly. “It’s pure hypocrisy because the guys who are putting the law on confiscating people’s stuff and penalizing people are the same guys who are smoking it and shipping it. Everybody. The goddamn superintendent of police. The Minister of Security….”
During our book interviews, Bunny drove Leroy and I very early one morning to Trench Town to show us where the Waiters had formed as a group. Now just a shadow of its former vibrant self, “Trench” is an abysmal ruin in whose crumbling structures live some of Jamaica’s most downpressed sufferers. Sighting Bunny’s car, they emerged from shadows and cracks in walls to surround the vehicle and beg for money. A steady stream of Jamaican hundred-dollar bills slipped through Bunny’s fingers. Despite the fact that Bunny was acutely uncomfortable with his high visibility, we motored up and down the streets in a kind of royal procession.
As we made our final turn out of the area, an older man staggered toward the car. Already drunk, he demanded a spliff. “No, mon,” Bunny said with stern sympathy in his voice, “I can’t give you any, mon. It’ll just mess you up.”
Just then the man reached in and snatched Bunny’s straw hat from off his dreadlocked head and lurched back into the gutter, laughing maniacally. Bunny pulled away, and as he looked in the rearview mirror he announced the name of the derelict, revealing that “he was one of Jamaica’s most important footballers, played on the national team, but the pressure just beat him down.
“Some people,” Bunny said, shaking his head sadly, “even Jah herb can’t help.”
Roger Steffens is the co-author of the Bunny Wailer autobiography, Old Fire Sticks, and of Bob Marley: Spirit Dancer, from W.W. Norton. Featured photo of Bunny Wailer by Brian Jahn.