Don Letts: The Rebel Dread in Bedford
It was May 16th 2021 when I scrambled through the upcoming socially distanced gigs in my area, namely at my local music venue – Bedford Esquires. I saw a familiar name pop up on the upcoming events section of the website – Don Letts, on tour to promote his new book.
A name I had seen in my years of research on the punk and reggae scene in London during the late 20th century. Don Letts, had been in lots if not all, the documentaries on the culture during this time and I had devoured a lot of them in my late teens and early twenties. It sounds absurd to say that I felt like I knew him, but his presence in the historic retelling of this period had been so consistent that I began to await his face on the screen. So for my local venue to be a prestigious stop on Letts’ book tour for There and Black Again, it was an immediate decision to go.
Prior to the event, we grabbed a drink at a pub around the corner. As we sat there discussing what we knew about Letts, the man himself swaggered past with a female companion, his huge rasta hat wobbling on top of his head, just visible over the pub’s garden gates. The dormant fangirl in me awoke, as I shuffled excitedly as this iconic man walked the streets of my hometown.
I don’t know where he was going or what he was doing, but we didn’t see him again until he graced the stage at Esquires.
Upon arriving at the venue, we quickly realized we were amongst the youngest in attendance. Some curious glances from middle-aged men hovered over us as we made our way to the door.
A TV screen sat on the stage playing the trailer of an upcoming documentary “No Border, No Nations, Just people” featuring Don Letts and other friends and faces from the music industry.
The host for the evening and the man with the challenge of getting a word in edgewise; local music aficionado Jason Foster, welcomed us and introduced Letts to the stage. He walked out confidently before the intro was fully complete, looking dapper as ever. After promptly dismissing the microphone provided bellowing in a steady radio voice, ‘you can hear me, right?’ – the tone was set for the rest of the evening.
Letts’ relationship with fame and the term ‘legend’ became very clear, as he set about explaining his humble beginnings in the industry. After happening upon an early rehearsal by that small-time band…The Who, he explains, ‘I couldn’t understand a word of it, but I knew I wanted more’. He promptly ditched school, seeking more fulfilling and thrilling experiences.
Jason probes into his early life, Letts obliges, explaining his family background, Windrush and the economic state of Britain during the late 60s and 70s. After a while, the creative gets restless and jumps off the stage.
He wanders around the audience, who are carefully socially distancing, separated by rows of seats, ordering drinks at the bar through a mobile app. His big bunch of keys, attached to his belt jangle around erratically as he paces back and forth, adding a sonic accompaniment to his storytelling.
He speaks on his fascination with fashion and the buzz of the King’s Road in Chelsea, recalling Vivienne and Malcolm’s shop, SEX and its predecessor of a different name. He proudly discusses directing the iconic music video for The Clash’ London Calling, as well as his little disagreement with pal, Bob Marley over the punks.
He can’t help but fondly recall the burgeoning sense of excitement and creativity swarming around him at that time.
The evening was unpredictable and informal, and slightly foreboding. It was unclear what the man would do next. After a long period of social and political isolationism, as an audience, we were taken aback by his close proximity and apparent disregard for these irritating 21st-century restrictions.
Remember when I said my friends and I were amongst the youngest in attendance? This was made all too apparent when social justice movements were brought up.
Letts was asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, at which point he seemed somewhat stumped, for the first time that evening. I gleaned that perhaps he didn’t want to be probed about that one, for fear of us all looking to him as the messiah, to give us the answers, or to validate the movement. His nonchalant recollections of struggles with racism made me sad. He was hardened to it. I was expecting this topic to take up a lot more of the conversation, particularly the Black/British experience, but again he surprises me, holding something back.
A rebel dread indeed.
The most memorable moment of the evening for me, the one in which I fully understood the generational divide in the room, was when the topic of gender and identity came up and Letts uttered the lyrical phrase, ‘You’re too woke, you can’t take a joke’. [on gender identity and pronouns] My two friends and I shuffled uncomfortably. Our fragile snowflake hearts melting under the fire of his tongue.
Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t about to cancel him and throw him to the lions for this brash and somewhat hasty remark, yet it did shock us. Here was this prolific figure from one of my favourite periods in contemporary history, seemingly dismissing a wave of social enlightenment.
Having ruminated on this for a few weeks now, I’ve realised it was very pathetic of me to feel offended, I’m hardly carrying years of discrimination around with me.
Don Letts creatively fought his way through the battleground, during a time of major social unrest. I understand now that the punk and reggae ideals were ever-present in Letts that evening. He refuses to conform to any ideology that persecutes freedom of speech or thought.
We can’t just remain blissfully unaware amongst ‘woke folk’, let’s get out there and feel uncomfortable if only for an evening, to avoid fragility.
The venue itself is great, it captures that underground, grassroots vibe, whilst being sanitised within an inch of its life. This venue raised a whopping £50, 429 with 1427 supporters in 37 days in the summer of 2020 in a crowdfunded to save it from closure due to the pandemic. This town doesn’t want to lose its beloved music venue, home to the nation’s sweetheart Tom Grennan and a stop on lot’s of exciting artists tours.
The staff are really friendly and great to have a laugh with, offering awesome, safe service all night.
Don Letts’ BBC Radio 6 Culture Clash show
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