It might be said that Doctor Dread drank the Kool-Aid — except that the D.C. native’s transformation into an honorary Jamaican had nothing to do with a beverage. As Dread writes in this memoir, his conversion involved three months on the island, a whole mess of ganja and one psychotropic mushroom “put there by the Almighty Jah . . . for me to consume.”
“The Half That’s Never Been Told” is the story of a man who inhaled, and swallowed, a lot. Born Gary Himelfarb, Dread is Jewish by heritage, but a convert to the Rastafari movement, which considers marijuana a sacrament and the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie the messiah. Yet Dread is also a businessman, the founder of RAS Records. So his declarations of faith are mingled with discussions of royalties, advances and concert grosses.
Dread (who rarely uses his given name) had a fairly typical Washington childhood, if a somewhat bohemian adolescence. He entered this world at George Washington University Hospital in 1954 and became a pot enthusiast while in high school in Bethesda. He skipped college in favor of a course of serious hanging out, notably in Colombia, Upstate New York and, eventually, Jamaica — the mid-’70s equivalent of an international wineries tour. In between, Dread took a photography course at the Corcoran and worked in a Dupont Circle bookstore.
Dread’s mushroom-inspired epiphany happened in 1977, on his first foray to Jamaica. Two years later, he founded RAS to distribute some of the lilting but rough-edged Caribbean music he’d been playing on his WHFS radio show, “Night of the Living Dread.” RAS grew from a distributor into a label, and Dread became a producer and songwriter as well as an executive. Most of RAS’s performers, who included Bunny Wailer, Black Uhuru and Gregory Isaacs, recorded in Jamaica. But Dread worked frequently in a local studio, Lion and Fox, and some of his acts laid down tracks there.
The 1980s were a lively decade for Washington labels. New ones were founded to release the music of the city’s burgeoning punk and go-go scenes. Unlike labels such as Dischord and D.E.T.T., RAS didn’t focus on local music, although Dread was certainly aware of D.C. bands that mixed punk and reggae. He mentions one of them, Soulside, as well he might: Soulside’s bassist, Johnny Temple, founded Akashic Books, the publisher of this book.
Curiously, Dread skips another local punk-reggae group, Scream. The band released an album, “No More Censorship” (1988), on RAS. And Scream’s drummer at the time was a Northern Virginia teen who grew up to be D.C. punk’s most famous alumnus: Foo Fighter Dave Grohl.
Grohl’s omission is characteristic of the book. It’s a grab bag of recollections, divided into 14 thematic, non-chronological chapters that Dread compares to songs. He notes that he wrote the memoir without a ghost writer, but it has an as-told-to feel. The style is conversational, and cliches abound, although sometimes they’re amusingly mangled. (Dread describes uptight hoteliers as having “their panties in a snit.”) The text would have benefited from some kind of remix.
Aside from its scattershot quality, the book asks a little too much of the general reader. Dread uses a lot of Rastafari jargon, much of which goes untranslated. He assumes knowledge of not just Bob Marley but many less prominent figures in reggae history. One of these is Chris Blackwell, whose Island Records introduced Marley to the United States and Europe. Dread says that some reggae artists accuse Blackwell of being “the devil,” and Dread himself calls Blackwell a “soulless apparition,” without explaining his enmity. Is it resentment of a competitor, the acceptance of his Rastafari pals’ superstitious outlook — Bunny Wailer claimed Blackwell could turn into a bat — or something else he’s unprepared to explain?
The author is candid on many subjects, from gonorrhea to heart surgery to the downside of drugs other than marijuana. (He defends pot zealously, although he says he no longer smokes it.) Yet sometimes Dread halts an anecdote short of the payoff. More than once, he argues that the book’s title means that he has to tell only half of a potentially libelous story. Maybe so, but there’s a reason why books like this are not customarily marketed as “tell-half autobiographies.”
The stories Dread does finish, though, have plenty of entertainment value. The man was fearless, whether tramping through a jungle full of quicksand and leftist guerrillas or attempting to guide the careers of men — and reggae is definitely a man’s world — who liked to get stoned and brandish guns. He affectionately recalls Wailer as a demanding spendthrift who refused to play Italy because that country had invaded Ethiopia in 1935.
Although Dread ended up not being able to work with some of these characters, he loves, appreciates and defends them. He credits his survival in the music biz to understanding “the sentiments, eccentricities, and the creative side of the artists.” Except that he is no longer in the music biz. Digital file-sharing slashed RAS’s profits, and the emergence of dancehall reggae sapped Dread’s enthusiasm. The Doctor still affirms his belief in Jah, and this is on balance an upbeat book. But the vibe that brought him to reggae is diminished. Let’s say, by half.
Mark Jenkins is a music reviewer and the co-author of “Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital.” Saturday, March 7, at 1 p.m., Doctor Dread will appear at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-362-2408.
By Doctor Dread
Akashic. 256 pp. Paperback, $16.95