Don Letts the Wise ManWritten by Matteo Sedazzari
Yes, yes, yes, we know that Don Letts was the man that introduced punks to reggae in 1976 at the Roxy but that’s just one feather to his bow.
Don Letts is a filmmaker, DIY musician, used to make pop videos, Grammy Winner and has just spent a small fortune on plumbing and an extension. I think this recent renovation to his house gave the man an inner light into the unsung heroes of England…skilled craftsman.
Don was kind enough to invite me to his humble abode in West London to talk and show me his recent building work. I was impressed; if it had been sooner I could have got one of my friends to put in a quote. From what I have read about Don Letts over the years he seems like a man who refuses to let circumstances dictate his life and is willing to grab the bull by the horns. A modern day thinker and by Christ we are running out of people with ideas….…Let’s hear the man talk.
ZANI - What project are you working on at the moment? Do you still have one foot in film &video making and music?
Don Letts - Videos I don’t do anymore, I don’t know how to do them. I got my start with bands you could visually see like The Clash, not girls shaking their hips or cars that explode. Maybe it’s changed cos of the people in the charts, perhaps there is nothing to look at so you need all that stuff. I’ve just co produced a film with Rick Eckwood, we done dancing Queen a few years ago. It’s called One Love and stars one of Bob Marley’s sons. I took that to Cannes, it done well and it’s supposed to come out end of this year. I still DJ, done Glastonbury, Lee Perry’s meltdown and DJ in Italy. Working on a compilation album for Trojan There’s talk about a rough trade documentary but there is a lot of talk in the movie business. Just re edited a Bob Marley DVD for Sanctuary and they found 6 songs that have never been cut before so I had to cut them together.
ZANI - Morrissey was just signed to the Resurrected Attack Label the subsidiary of Sanctuary, that’s a reggae label. Don’t you think that’s a bit odd?
Don Letts - Ha, the thing with Morrissey is when you think he’s going to turn right he turns left. Pun intended. I am a big Smiths Fan I really rate Morrissey. With regards to music all sides are represented, apart from Chinese music it hasn’t got no bass, it’s too plinkly plonkly. No disrespect to the Chinese but when you get contemporary I’ll be there. TRUST ME.
ZANI - In a recent interview in metro you stated that technology has prevented a musical revolution and Apple Mac’s in the 60’s would not have given us the world of Jagger/Richards or Lennon/McCartney. Do you feel it’s more a case of complacency from the public and lack of vision and courage from the film industry and record companies?
Don Letts - No. Let me quantify that I love technology. I’ve got it all. But I know what to do with it. What I was really saying is just because you can afford it, doesn’t mean you’ve got the talent to use it. I don’t want to be putting people down but it seems to me when I bought my first super 8 camera in the 70’s it cost a lot back in them days and that price weeded out the people so it meant you wanted to have a go. But with affordable technology people want to get into this celebrity thing. I never thought I would hear myself say this because I am into people doing things for themselves but today it’s created a lot of mediocrity. Of course it’s good to facilitate ideas, but what it can’t do is create that chemistry that gave us Morrissey and Marr.
There is a community building on the net, I feel that this is the way forward for creative expression and ideas. Here’s the potential to exchange ideas, it seems it should be able to lift the whole human race up a level. But is hasn’t has it. We’ve been given the means and again we catered for the lowest common denominator. That page 3 mentality. It’s brilliant that I can swap information with some one half way across the world. I think I use it for the right reasons; it’s about throwing into the creative pool.
ZANI - I understand that you where in New York on Sept 11 2001, that must be one of the most scary moments in your life.
Don Letts - Of course it was, you couldn’t go anywhere for 3 days. I was out there making a documentary about the history of punk.
ZANI -Do you think that youth has lost that DIY ethnic?
Don Letts -No, I have this theory at the last 1/3 of every decade there’s a creative energy. The 50’s, the 60’s, the 70’s and the 80’s but in the 90’s it didn’t happen. My logic is maybe technology put everyone in their bedrooms and working on their own and took out that organic bit that happens between people like Jagger & Richards. The record companies are in control, we’ve got POP idol so some kind of reaction thing is well over due. Andy Warhol said that famous 15 minutes quote; I say that’s too long. I still have faith that somewhere someone is getting on with the job. It’s like the force in Star wars. Just wait. Once music was anti establishment but now people are getting into music to be part of the establishment.
ZANI - Just for the readers just a little on The Roxy?
Don Letts - Ha. The amount of times I’ve been asked this question. Its 75/76 punk rock is beginning to happen. They’ve got no place to play. Andrew Czezowski who was the accountant for the shop I ran in the Kings Road called Acme Attractions, he now runs Rough Trade. I used to play a lot of reggae in the shop, which would attract a lot of people. I begun to meet people like Patti Smith and Andrew finds the Punk Roxy and says come down and play. At the time there was no English punk records to play and the punks dug the reggae because it was about something, anti establishment and they liked the weed. I would play the odd MC5, The Stooges and a link was formed. Rotten and Strummer were already into reggae but it was our differences that made us closer with the punks. We held our corner and had something to throw down. Punk encouraged me to be part of it, not a fan.
ZANI - Do you enjoy going to gigs?
Don Letts - When I went to gigs when I was young I wanted to know what my part was in the equation.
ZANI - You said People are losing their pride in working.
Don Letts - No I didn’t say that, it is a misquote. Our value systems are mixed up. I am in and out of work; I’ve had some building work done. A plumber comes round here and is never out of work and earns a lot of money. Not the greatest example but it seems to me that skilled labour is not valued. I mean, why that plumber can’t be an artist in his plumbing. The amount he gets paid he better be an artist.
ZANI - On Sunday 3rd August BBC screened Streets of Heaven and that Chicago is tearing down it’s housing projects but don’t you think it will take more then bricks and mortar to prevent poverty …perhaps step out of the moral frame and promote more birth control and abortion with all black and white working class areas
Don Letts - Wow man, I have to think about that. It seems to me that you have highlighted two big problems. Young people getting pregnant and getting in trouble with drugs. You can’t legislate against things like that. Hmm…parents rely too much on Schools to provide some kind of moral fabric. Schools teach fact, figures and numbers and parents are supposed to instil some form of humanity and morals. More needs to come from parents, kids having kids isn’t a good idea. I rather they didn’t get pregnant than promote abortion. I have an 11-year-old daughter so your topic is close to my heart.
ZANI - The black music and white youth culture has always been there. Teddy boys and Rock “N” Roll, Mods and R “n” B, casual and electro, ravers and Chicago house, why do you think that this?
Don Letts - Whenever white people want a rebellious spirit they’ve got the black music, it’s anti establishment. When people first got into jazz and blues it was dark, dangerous and forbidden. Black culture seems to captive the culture of young white people. I don’t know what reason that is but we don’t need to know why. It’s a beautiful thing to turn each on by what we are and what we produce. It’s through popular culture that you & I are speaking now. It’s not about what you learnt at school. It wasn’t the church or the government that taught you. Popular culture is a great thing.
ZANI - Don’t you think London has become a media whore city, where screenings and book launches are more important than the product and the artist?
Don Letts -I love London, with all its shit and all its contradictions. Been round the planet a couple of times but I still love London. It’s expensive but there is something about this city, for instance there is cultural interaction that happens in London that doesn’t happen anywhere in the world. So many people from different places intermingling. From that comes all this creativity and that is why London is great. I am confident that new ideas will still start coming up … The Force man. …I am serious.
ZANI - You visited Jamaica a lot, what other countries do you love?
Don Letts -I am a whore, anybody that likes me I love them. Japan is nice and Paris is nice in the spring and in the summer. Anywhere that isn’t cold. I love immersing myself in Alien cultures.
I could quite happily spend my whole life travelling, interacting and learning. There is so much to be discovered. We spend our time trying to invent but probably most things need to be discovered. My work takes me to foreign places, and I prefer to be working when I am away. I don’t need a suntan as you can tell.
ZANI - I bet Big Audio Dynamite was a gas, I remember seeing you playing the keyboard with colour stickers as a guide, very punk.
Don Letts - It was fantastic, I was in a cool band travelling all round the world and I was getting Mick’s left over’s. Mick Jones is a charmer and we got a lot of respect from the right kind of people. We were not financially successful; it was all cred and no bread. For the cultural mix we were the best examples to show where London was heading. We weren’t Duran Duran, it wasn’t all cocaine and it still sounds fresh. So go out and buy BAD, so I can get some royalties.
ZANI - I understand Martin Scorsese requested a private screening for the Punk Rock movie, I bet that moved your earth and have you received praise from Frederico Fellini?
Don Letts -I guess it was praise from Frederico Fellini he called me a visual terrorist and it sounds much better in Italian and made the Italian press. I wasn’t star struck I was respectful. Hey. I got a Grammy this year and you haven’t mentioned that.
ZANI - I know you got a The Grammy for The Westway to The World, a film about the Clash. Do you think it was on merit or the death of Joe Strummer?
Don Letts - Who knows? You have to ask yourself that question. Personally I think it was a great film, not because I did it but you have to be stupid not to make a good documentary on the Clash. It’s done in a very simplistic style and I did that intently so it didn’t look like a disposable MTV rockumentary. I wanted it to be a Rock and Roll blue print, to show people other ways of getting somewhere. If people don’t have the examples to inspire to what are we going to do? All they see is Gareth Gates and Will Young.
ZANI - Why didn’t terrestrial TV pay any homage to Joe Strummer?
Don Letts - Joe doesn’t need their respect. … Fuck them. The respect he got is in the air. Joe operated outside of the norm and the law. And the respect he got is outside of this.. You have to remember what he achieved; it’s achievable by anybody. It’s not in the name of some privilege few. Keep it real. Having a go is half the fun. What I used to say to people during the punk days is make your problem your asset.
ZANI - What filmmakers and actors light your fire now?
Don Letts - City of Gods, Donny Darko. This is a hard question but I have to say few and far between contemporary things. Dirty Pretty Things was OK, Irreversible …Man what a horrible film, I quite like the odd dick flick but that was something else. That was a trip. If that’s what the director wanted to do, I guess then it definitely had the effect. Jean de Floret I love films that like, not main box office films. The things I watch are either foreign films or HBO things like OZ, Sopranos and Six Feet Under. They should show Oz to all young people at schools, it would scare the shit out of any potential offender.
ZANI - As a young black growing up in 60’s/70’s was the GPO and the London underground the only offers of employment?
Don Letts - Yes basically. There were doctors and nurses but that is why you guys invited us here for low paid jobs. If people looked at the British Empire part in the state of the world affairs, then people looked into that a little bit more then they would understand the Asylum seekers and have a little more bit more sympathy. The English need to know more about THEIR HISTORY. Maybe they would be a little more tolerant, in second thoughts they wouldn’t. They need a scapegoat. The legacy of colonisation. But trust me the inheritance of the British Empire has got a lot to answer for.
The whole thing with the IMF loaning money to third world countries. England never intended to lend the money & help the poor countries out. They knew they couldn’t pay the money back so they charge them ridiculous interest. These countries could never get back on their feet and England is holding them by the balls. It’s a lucrative way of making money over a long period.
ZANI - When Alex Haley wrote Roots and we had the television programme do you think that bought the plight of slavery to the forefront?
Don Letts - I haven’t seen it since, yeah it was a good thing at the time. Spielberg did it with Schindler’s List and Mississippi Burning. There’s this thing about guilt where you say you hold your hands up and say that was bad and people just feel bad about it for a week. We’ve had our roots experiences.
The Irish have, the Jews have had their shit. Slavery is a prime example of how bad men can be bad to man. In a way all countries have had their own weird holocausts, not the same as the Jews. Going back to Hitler, to a lot of black people England was our Hitler. What Hitler was to the Jews, the British Empire was to black people. The only difference is that you have got no photographic images of it.
ZANI -Still in touch with John Lydon (Rotten) and Lee Perry
Don Letts -No one is in touch with Lee Perry he’s out of touch. He’s the Salvador Dali of sound. I speak when John comes over, still friends. I think John would be better off here LA is for Jack Nicholson. Over here, if you’re a wanker they will say to your face, over there no one says a word
ZANI -What’s your perfect day?
Don Letts - I have my moment at gardening but I am not a gardener. I like seeing London from a street level, watching all the positions of all the different cultures especially against old England. Driving around with my sound track. The right track comes on your stereo and everything seems to click and for that moment it’s beautiful. It may be a girl walking across the road or a bit of street drama over there.
ZANI -Don, any final words?Don Letts -Everyone leaving school that wants to be some one in the media because it is supposed to be glamorous………..
At this point Don reached forward and grabbed the dictaphone from my hands to say this……
LET ME TELL YOU NOW FOLKS. I AM NOT A RICH MAN, I KNOW A LOT OF OUT OF WORK ACTORS, I KNOW EVEN MORE OUT OF WORK MUSICIANS. BUT I DON’T KNOW ANY OUT OF WORK PLUMBERS. THEY ARE LIVING LARGE, MAKING LOTS OF MONEY AND WORK WHEN THEY WANT TO.
© Matteo Sedazzari / ZANI