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Doug Wendt took reggae behind the enemy lines

Doug Wendt is a man of many talents: journalist, filmmaker, music consultant, producer, and — most importantly — DJ. Doug was one of the first reggae DJs in America, spinning Jah music at a time when reggae was a brand new sound to most people.

Doug got his start on the airwaves in 1968 as "The Man Of Constant Sorrow", playing progressive rock on KUDI in Montana with a show called Focus Collage. In true hippie style, Doug later changed the name of his show to the catchy Hieronymous Anonymous' Jumpin' Jack Flash Space-d Program and started dropping in samples and strange jingles into the mix of prog rock and protest music. Informed by nightly news broadcasts of the war in Vietnam as well as cult TV favorite The Prisoner, Doug created a distinct radio style that he still employs to this day.

In 1973, Doug headed west to attend film school in California. It was there that he first heard reggae when he saw The Harder They Come. Soon after, Doug started a reggae program on KTIM called Reggae Explosion. Several years later, he adopted his most famous radio name, the Midnight Dread, and created a radio show of the same name that has become legendary to reggae fans in California and across America. From 1979 to 1985, The Midnight Dread was heard on KTIM and then on a variety of radio stations in San Francisco, where it continued for more than 15 years. Throughout this period, Doug had many major reggae artists as guests on the program, most notably Mikey Dread, whose own radio show was a major influence on Doug's often eccentric radio style.

In 1994, Doug and his family relocated back to his original home of Great Falls, Montana. He became station manager of KGPR, where he hosted a variety of programs, including Reggae Mountain Front, Big Ska Country, World Sound Vision, and Native Son Rising. In 2002, dismayed at the changes being forced upon public radio by the Bush government, he resigned as station manager to pursue other interests.

Besides his work as a DJ, Doug has also written extensively about reggae, with articles in Beat, Rolling Stone, High Times, Billboard, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Alongside his DJ work, Doug has also done amazing work as a "VJ", combining custom-made videos with music to create an audio visual extravaganza.

"Quit playing that Nazi dread stuff!"

Doug was also the first reggaeologist to start singing the praises of Lee Perry's work. After hearing Scratch's unique work as producer, he concluded that Lee Perry was responsible for the heaviest sounds in reggae. He published early articles in Beat and elsewhere that examined Scratch's work and the legacy he was creating in reggae. Over the years, Doug became enthralled with all things starting from Scratch, collecting hundreds of rare 7" and 12" singles and interviewing the Upsetter on several occasions, most recently for High Times.

I first met Doug in 1998 when I travelled down to Montana on vacation and made a stop in Great Falls specifically to reason with the Midnight Dread. As a fairly new radio DJ at the time, I was impressed by Doug's career as well as his huge record collection. Since then we've kept in touch and traded copies of our radio shows; my own program, Soul Shakedown Party, was also inspired by Mikey Dread as well as by Doug's use of samples and other non-sequiturs. In 1999 I interviewed Doug for Soul Shakedown Party, where he discussed his work as a DJ, his encounter with Lee Perry at the remains of the Black Ark, and more.

So how did you get into reggae?

Well, back in '73, I saw the film The Harder They Come. I was going to film school at the time, so I went to see it because I'd heard it was a really good movie. Then I read this tiny article in the San Francisco Chronicle saying that a Jamaican band named The Wailers was going to be playing at the Matrix down on Broadway. So I went down there with my wife Deeling, kind of expecting to see some of the people I'd just seen in that movie (laughs). A horrible folk singer opened, and was booed off the stage.

So they closed the curtain for awhile, and then when they opened it up again, there was Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Joe Higgs, the Barrett brothers, and Wya Lindo. And I didn't recognize any of them! And I thought "what's up with this?" They started playing, and it was an amazing night. And there was quite a crowd that was there - Hell's Angels, members of the hippie community - it was a pretty big crowd, and there was kind of a cognoscenti there, covering a couple of generations in the Bay area. All of the people who were there that night were influenced by it in countless ways...which is still going on today.

So it was a one, two hit for me: The Harder They Come and seeing Bob. So I immediately boxed up all of my rock & roll records, put them in the attic, and started buying reggae records.

When did you first start DJ-ing?

About a year later (1974) I got invited out to KTIM. I had been managing a midnight movie series at the Presidio theatre in San Francisco for awhile, and I played reggae as the "walk-in" music - you know, for the first half hour or so when people are taking their seats. And a salesman for a radio station came to me one night trying to sell me some ads for the movie series. He said "there's this DJ at the station that likes this music you play, you should call him". Which I did, and it led to us having an hour or two on Saturday afternoons playing reggae with a show called Reggae Explosion.

KTIM was an AM / FM station that played album rock. And the funny thing is, we would get all of these hate calls from these rock fans who wanted to hear "Stairway To Heaven" or "Freebird". And some of them really had no clue what was going on - they'd call and say "quit playing that Nazi dread stuff!" (laughs). So those were kind of strange times.

"I immediately boxed up all of my rock & roll records, put them in the attic, and started buying reggae records."

But at the same time, a guy named Tony Moses was playing reggae on a top 40 black station in Oakland, an African-American owned station. One of the other key moments for me was hearing him spin live at a club: he flipped an Augustus Pablo record over, and for the first time I heard dub. And that really cemented my love of reggae, because I was really into the "psychedelic" Motown period, which was very brief - "Cloud Nine" and "Message From A Black Man" and some of that stuff that came out of Motown around '68. And I really longed for that funky, psychedelic sound. And what was the next step? Where was the next level? Well, it was dub. And shortly after that, I discovered Lee Perry's work - yet another reason for me to become enthralled and obsessed.

So at that time, most people had never heard reggae. Other than the hate calls from the Cheech and Chong types, what was the reaction?

(Laughs) Well, it's kind of funny. Most of the phone calls we got weren't very positive. Then we did a thing where we asked people to send us a postcard with their top five reggae songs on it, and darned if we didn't get a couple of hundred postcards! I don't know if you've experienced it on your show, but you sometimes wonder "is anyone listening?" And you can't really judge from phone calls, because phone calls can be strange and not representative of what's going on out there. I've always told DJs who are concerned that nobody is calling "that means they're listening, and they're really into it". So I guess that's what it was like for us.

People like you and Roger Steffens and Hank Holmes were really the first reggae DJs in America. Did you feel like a pioneer, or was it just a lot of fun?

At the time, nobody felt like a pioneer — in fact, I was really kind of shocked that the commercial black radio stations didn't play reggae. In fact, they didn't start doing that in the Bay area until dancehall was strong — you know, a kind of debased reggae with sexist, drug lyrics — and then they embraced it! So I never understood how people like Roger, Hank, and me became the pioneers when we were really just trying to take the music behind enemy lines and put it on rock radio.

Speaking as someone who has only gotten into reggae fairly recently, I always hear the music 20 years after it's happened. What was it like to hear this stuff when it was brand new?

Well, we thought we'd missed the boat! We thought it was all over in 1973. I discovered African Herbsman and Reggae Revolution — those Lee Perry produced Bob Marley albums — and I just flipped. I thought that stuff was much more deep and powerful than "Burnin' And Looting" and his Island work, just because it sounded so different. And that stuff came out in '69 and '70... My favorite era in Jamaican music was the rocksteady era, which only lasted very briefly... So in '73 we thought "too bad we weren't into this six or seven years ago" and heard the real stuff!

When did you first get into Lee Perry?

Well, I'm not really sure... I remember hearing or two songs on those Trojan compilations, but I really didn't think of Lee Perry as a name to look for on records for a few years. But I do know that by 1979 when I got together with Hank Holmes, Roger Steffens, Lance Linares, and some other key DJs in the California radio scene - we had this huge north versus south reggae clash with four nights in Los Angeles — I remember on the night I hosted, I just announced out of the blue that I figured that the heaviest figure in reggae was Lee Perry. And this was the guy who was years ahead of his time and was the key figure, as far as I was concerned. He tied everything together, all of the eras. He was the guy behind Bob's best work, he was the man who made dub what it was — what it could be.

You visited Scratch at what was left of the Black Ark in 1982. I can only imagine what that afternoon was like.

Well, it was real funny... We were driving around Trenchtown, and on almost every corner you would see some musician that I had seen perform or had interviewed for my show. Like, you'd see Don Carlos, and he'd jump in the car, and then you'd go another block, one of the Wailing Souls would jump in the car... Someone would say "hey, let's go over to Leroy Sibbles' place, it's just over here"! So we sent to Leroy Sibbles' place, and there he was, standing on the front lawn with his mom (laughs)... And then somebody said "hey, we're close to Washington Gardens, let's go see Scratch!" And I said "you're kidding!"

"I discovered those Lee Perry produced Bob Marley albums, and I just flipped..."

So we drove over there, and — as Jah would provide — he was also standing there in his front yard, writing stuff on his front walls. So we parked around the corner, and we came out, and I was carrying my tape recorder over my shoulder and my mic, and my friend Jason who was with me, he's got a bunch of cameras... So it was obvious we were American tourists on the make! (Laughs) Scratch was very friendly, and I got a couple of great photos when I was first talking to him and telling him about my Midnight Dread show, and what I'd been doing in California... And since he was anti-dread at the time, the name of my show seemed to put him off. He didn't want to have anything to do with an interview. He waved my friend off — "no more picture taking!" — so the shots that we got were kind of fuzzy. But as I was showing him stuff, I had to tuck my microphone under my arm, you know, so I could use my hands. He wanted to smoke some herb, but he didn't have any papers. Jason and I were blown away when he went off and got this brown grocery bag, ripped it, and was going to use that instead of rolling papers. And he was trying to roll this spliff — it must have been half an ounce of herb, a really big spliff — and he got really frustrated, so suddenly he just threw it all away and in the same motion grabbed the microphone from under my arm and stuck it right into his mouth and started to talk nonstop. I blurted out just one or two questions, and the rest of the tape just has Scratch rapping... It was absolutely brilliant.

To give you an idea of what the rest of the interview was like, here is an excerpt from the transcript Doug wrote for Beat magazine in 1983:

Doug: Is This the Black Ark?

"Dread fuck up as far I'm concerned."
- Lee Perry

Scratch: Well, this is the Black Ark studio of course, it's more than the Ark, it's the power plant of righteousness, the heart of his Imperial Majestic Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I, the conquering lion, the ever-living God, David who fling all stones. I'll not build up the night of the living dread, I'll build up the life of the living life because I are the yasus Christus, Jesus the greatest. I never pretend, I never join people, I don't deal with things that I don't know about. I want all life to be good, I'm thinking about good life, nothing dread, I don't support nothing dread, because dread fuck up as far as I'm concerned and I'm dealing with life. Cleanliness is godliness, a clean hand and a pure heart speaking. I join no one, I have no friend, I'm a lonely man with my family. I follow no one, I follow the light, 'cause the light are the almighty god. I whisper and worship the Earth where we get all our food from. I love the sun which gives us light to see, right? I love the stone, and I'm always sure, and my stone is super sure, right? My name is King David, I love to fling stone, right? My papa is King Solomon Emperor Haile Selassie I, the black gorilla king, super ape, right? He can change into a lion, a monkey, a leopard, anything. He has the power to do anything, right? He is the Sagittarius, right? He's the every fucking thing.

August 2003