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When in doubt, eat flambé

Times have changed: in the pre-internet days, when you couldn’t hear the words of a song, you kinda made up your own. After a while, the made-up words became what you heard, every time that song played (think of the child who heard and pictured the character “Round John Virgin” every time she heard the hymn Silent Night). Believe it or not, I used to think the 1976 Nazareth hit Love Hurts, originally penned by the Everley Brothers, was an ad for the Hertz car rental company. 

Recently, after listening to the Bob Marley song Caution for the umpteenth time with still no clue what he was on about, I finally decided to take advantage of modern technology and Google the lyrics. I’d never been able to make head or tail of the chorus; perhaps this was because of the harmonies floating over Bob’s lead vocals?

But flipsake, even Googling didn’t help much, because the words are written in Jamaican patois, a local creole derived from English, Spanish and several other languages that evolved during the days of slavery. Reggae artists have traditionally used this patois to express their identity in songs that were about, among other things, the poverty and political turmoil that seem to have always characterised their Caribbean islands. 

Thanks to Bob, who pretty much put Jamaica on the map of global consciousness, this patois has become so trendy that even Barack Obama is reputed to have used the expression “wah gwaan” (what’s up) when he visited the island. But sadly, the song still made little sense to me, as not all of the patois is interpreted by the sites that list the lyrics. Generally, most sites agree that the lyrics are a warning: don’t rush headlong through life in case you fall, and that this message is most likely connected with the spiritual struggle — the struggle to improve yourself despite life’s challenges.

But there is some dissent. One comment reads: “Written after [Mortimer] Planno (pictured) was stopped by the police for driving Bob’s car without a full license; Bob was held in prison overnight for aiding and abetting his friend.” Planno was a truly interesting cat, a Rasta elder who put the fledgling religion onto paper and helped to bring Haile Selassie to Jamaica, but I digress. 

According to another site, the song Caution wasn’t written by Bob at all — it was actually written by Bunny Wailer. Bunny was talking about the search and abuse he underwent at the hands of the police, before he was locked up for a lengthy period on account of a single spliff, one rainy night in Kingston.

When it wet it slippery (when it wet it slippery, yeeha)

When it damp it crampy (when it damp it crampy)

If it’s likely you were tumbling down

Don’t want you on the ground, brother.

Driving around stoned listening to cheap tape decks back in the 90s, that second line, “when it damp it crampy” became, for the Presleys, something of a standing joke. Our exegesis was, “When in doubt, eat flambé”. This is a ludicrous line if there ever was one, but I still hear it, whenever Caution plays. It’s like those earworm ads from the 70s, which will follow me to the grave (“It’s not inside, it’s on top.”)

Luckily, Bob’s music is like the Stones’: his music never ages, so I can listen to it almost ad infinitum — plus, I always get to giggle whenever I remember that fabulous, nonsensical interpretation we made up, all those years ago.