Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Danny Reisch at Good Danny's, Austin, Texas
Just as I sat down to write this essay about Jimmy Cliff, some serious and formidable thunderheads formed off to the west, sped at us in a hurry and dropped everything they were holding inside right down on top of us. For five or six minutes, the roofs were beaten roundly and the concrete in the parking lot was pelted before the blackened skies made way for the blue ones again and the whole thing was over. It was a brief display of sneaky power, once again nature showing us who was in control here - insulting us with a shower that would have better served us three weeks ago, but now fell on thousands of acres of dead corn and deader soybean fields. Some people - whose livelihood revolves around that land and what's grown in its rows - along with the rest of use who are impacted by the amount that is grown wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry with such a situation. It's a little of both. By now, the storm has moved on and there will be no more rain for the time being. The sun is back and it's making up for lost time. The rain still on the ground is causing the pavement to smoke.
Rains leaving and seeing clearly - through the storms and much, much worse - is what the legendary man and musician has always been most about. Even with all of the injustices and atrocities that Cliff has been singing about for decades and decades, there has never been a doubt that he's done more laughing than crying. It could just be because it's only sensible to behave in such a way. You can either choose to make things better or you can let all of the bad vibes and horrors bury you.
The sunshine after the storm has always been purpose for Cliff. It's why, even when he's singing about the fat cats getting fatter, people taking the children's bread and giving it to the dogs and then the rats coming in and taking over, his tone is one that insists that a united people can change all of it. He has always firmly believed that in the power of good over evil, of people finally coming to their senses and refusing to be pushed around by the fucks and the bullies. He prays for bounties, for smiles and for rainbows.
Mr. Cliff, on this afternoon in Austin, was late because Bruce Springsteen had called him up the night before and asked to sing with him. They were rehearsing for a show that would happen later that night. He arrived at the studio, quiet and tired. He sat down, picked up a guitar and suddenly, there was the voice - so thrilling, so understated and so crystalline. We didn't move. We couldn't move. We barely breathed until he was finished and walked out the same way he'd come in - silent and saintly.