The king of dub poetry has turned his thoughts to love. Is he mellowing with age? Michael Glover listens up

POETRY: Linton Kwesi Johnson, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
John La Rose, veteran Caribbean poet and publisher was laughing fit to bust a gut as he made his way into the Queen Elizabeth Hall with a few old friends on Wednesday. "You know," he said as we all jostled our way forward in a partyish mood, "I've never seen Linton around a woman. He used to say: 'First of all, I have to go home and wash my clothes.' " Everyone guffawed a bit harder. "...and now I hear he's writing love poems..."

That fragment of insider information was the first shock of the night: to hear that Linton Kwesi Johnson, Associate Fellow of Warwick University, Honorary Fellow of Wolverhampton Polytechnic, and author of "Mi Revalueshanary Fren", "Di Great Insohreckshan" and much else, might, at the age of 44, no longer be using words primarily as incendiary devices.

The second shock happened on the stage itself. A dapper gentleman suddenly appeared in a crisp beige suit, sans hat, carrying a rolled-up poster. He looked sleek and suave enough to be any thinking man's idea of a croupier's croupier. And he both did - and did not - resemble Linton Kwesi Johnson...

"I'm sorry," he said, "but Linton Kwesi Johnson couldn't be here tonight. I'm substitutin' for him." Then he unrolled the poster that was wallpapering the foyer. "Just look at this," he said, snapping at it contemptuously with his finger nail. It was a giant image of Linton in profile, with that little jutting goatee beard, and the famous trilby hat cocked back at a chirpy angle to any ignorant white policeman's ideas of truth and justice. "Just read what it says here: 'The heart and soul of Jamaican music.' How ridiculous can you get!"

And that's precisely what we didn't get. Instead Linton Kwesi Johnson - yes, t'was he - gave us an evening of sleek, well rehearsed examples of product from LKJ, his own record label: 20 minutes of Linton Kwesi Johnson reading his poems unaccompanied; half an hour from his regular accompanists, the eight-piece Dennis Bovell Dub Band; and a final 45 minutes of Linton (in that trilby now) and the band.

The dullist bit came first: to hear LKJ perform unaccompanied draws too much attention to the limitations of a writer who has no qualms whatsoever about rhyming "cabbage" with "knowledge". On the other hand, to hear him perform with a band as tight and as well rehearsed as Dennis Bovell's is an entirely different experience: now the rhetorical force of all this powerful sloganeering gains from the persuasive energies of the music and the words in combination with each other.

Linton understates his role in all this with that unsmiling, dead-pan delivery of his as he shuffles backwards from the microphone, pumping his arms like the pistons of some old-fashioned steam train. Now he has transformed himself into a really engaging performer; but none of this has much to do with well crafted poetry - or whether or not he is speaking the truth.

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