Real dilemmas; real solutions – from our real-life superheroes. This month, Don Letts, filmmaker, DJ and former member of Big Audio Dynamite, credits his education to the school of punk rock and wishes he’d said something a bit smarter to Lauren Hutton
What makes you feel wild?
Oh god don’t even get me started… The lack of consideration that people have for their environment. Dogshit on the pavement. Has anyone actually been charged that £1,000 fine?
People’s lack of understanding for their part in how everything is so shit now. We have all these pantomime bad guys, Theresa May, Donald Trump. Sometimes they say you get the culture you deserve, but sometimes you get the politicians you deserve. We have to look at how complicit we are in all this madness.
People who talk too loud on their goddamn phone, or who look at their phones when they walk down the street! Baseball bat for them, honestly!
Tight socks. You know when you wash them, and then they’re all tight after you wash them twice? I found a brand – Champion – they don’t do that.
What are you doing to make the planet greener?
Well, we do the whole recycling thing, we divide up everything, although I have to beat my kids every week to get them to put things in the right bins. I do all the obvious things, but you know what people? It’s not enough. I don’t like the way the impetus is put on the people – it’s the corporations. We don’t make the plastic straws. We don’t make the plastic bottles. So fine, by all means ask me to offset my carbon footprint, but there are a lot of dispossessed people in the world who can’t afford the luxury to do this and that. A lot of what goes on in the world is tokenism, and we need radical steps. Five pence for a plastic bag? Make it a pound! This incremental shit ain’t gonna cut it.
Where does your soul most happily reside: city, countryside, or both?
I’m a city guy, born and raised in London, Royal Borough of Kensington actually, although I grew up in Brixton. I thrive on the constant noise, I love the sound of police sirens – preferably in the distance. I like the constant input of information that comes with living in a city. I can handle the countryside for about a weekend – and even then they’d better bloody have Sky TV. I was on a beach for four days last year and that was the first time in 12 years. I ain’t complaining. I haven’t had the time. And I obviously don’t need a suntan.
Who is the hero or heroine you’d be tongue-tied to find yourself sitting next to at a dinner party?
I’ve been around the block enough times and very few people have stumped me. Sharing a pizza with Jack Nicholson at Spago’s in LA in the early 1980s was one of those occasions. I made some lame comment about the olives on the pizza. You have to understand, he’s not just that guy on the screen, he’s the same guy in real life, from the cheeky dude in Five Easy Pieces to the guy in Easy Rider. I mean, I’ve grown with this dude! And in LA again, I was approached by a lady in some chi-chi bar who looked really nice. She said, “You look interesting, tell me all about yourself.” It was Lauren Hutton after the premier of some Monty Python movie, the one where they had some pseudo-Rasta guy in it. And I pointed across the room to one of the team and said, “Ask him, he knows about me!” How lame was that? I should have looked deeply into her eyes and… I was crazy!
What would be your message to your younger self?
Keep on doing what you’re doing, Don, you’re going to be fine.
Which world conflict would you like to see resolved first?
The conflict between mankind and itself. It’s that constant conflict that keeps us wallowing in the mud instead of flying with the angels.
What do you look for in a deputy/second in command?
Me. I want someone who can do what I can do. I’ve never had that. Obviously when you’re making films you need assistants – it is a collaborative effort and a beautiful blueprint for how human beings can work together. As long as you realise what your part is in the process then everything is cool.
And what’s the key requirement for a lifetime partner of the, let’s say, romantic kind?
I’ve been with my wife for 30 years and it’s been a bumpy road, but I think what I’ve found in her is an attitude, an openness and a spirit. It’s not something I was looking for because I didn’t know it existed. And it wasn’t the first thing I saw, because when I met Grace I was in Big Audio Dynamite and it was the visual thing that took over, I ain’t gonna lie. She was a peroxide blonde New Yorker with legs for days; I was 30, she was 18. I was in another relationship back in London with someone who was expecting my child, and there was a very messy overlap which I’m not proud of, in fact I’m thoroughly ashamed of. I tried to do the right thing by not deserting my woman and child, but in so doing, I did the wrong thing by having a double life for about ten years. Things have settled down now and everyone is communicating. It took time, but yeah, I was a dick. But ultimately, if you have children, you’re duty bound to be responsible and take care of them. I was just trying to be responsible.
What’s your favourite lazy-at-home dish to cook?
I’m an eat-out kinda guy. As in I eat out of cans and packets. I don’t like paying lots of money for food in restaurants, although I do enjoy a good meal. I don’t cook. I get a takeaway.
Career advice for Don-wannabes?
I’d say, what I learned in punk rock was pretty good. Turn problems into assets. For example, I’m not a musician, so when I was in Big Audio Dynamite I came up with the sample and dialogue thing. Because I couldn’t play an instrument, I felt I needed to contribute another way. Punk rock taught me that a good idea attempted is better than a bad idea perfected. I saw a Western as a kid where the old gunslinger says to the young gunslinger: “Draw fast, shoot straight and don’t hit the bystanders,” and for some reason that’s always struck a chord with me.
What was the high point of your career? Was there a low point? What’s your next project?
The high point? I could say getting a Grammy for a film I made called The Clash: Westway to the World [Don Letts was the videographer for The Clash]. I recently got an honorary doctorate for a contribution to culture, so I am Dr Don now. But the biggest buzz for me was making my first feature film, Dancehall Queen which has gone on to be the most famous film in Jamaica after The Harder They Come. As a first-generation, British-born black and a child of the Windrush generation, it was a really big buzz to see how that film went down in Jamaica, the land of my parents.
The low point? You know, I’ve had a pretty charmed life, I can’t lie. And I’m still standing. I’m slightly apprehensive because no one gets to ride off into the sunset.
My next project? I’ve just finished another in my series of podcasts for a company called Turtle Bay; I’m still doing my radio show on BBC Radio 6, and have been for ten years; I’m about to be part of an exhibition in Paris to do with the impact of black culture in London and Paris; I’m the subject of a film, in production now, about my cultural journey – John Lydon and Mick Jones are also in it. I’m still DJing out and about, I’m in Japan playing at the Stüssy party in Osaka; and so on and so forth. I get to make a living doing something I enjoy and I’m not so much up my arse that I don’t realise that by any estimation I am winning. Most people are doing shit jobs for no money. I am grounded and grateful.
What are you most famous for? What would you like to be most famous for?
I guess my association with the whole punk rock thing is a pretty big deal. They keep telling me I am the man who introduced reggae to the punk rockers, but that’s not entirely true – people like John Lydon and Paul Simonon were heavily into reggae long before they met me. But DJing at the first punk rock club in London, the Roxy, the people I turned on to reggae were all the people who had no interaction with black people. And in the late 1970s that was an awful lot of white people! They’d come in from the suburbs and hear reggae for the first time at the Roxy. What would I like to be most famous for? The fact that anyone knows I existed is result enough.
What do you wish you had said to someone who has departed this earth?
I wish I’d asked my dad for his formula for home-made speakers. It was a big deal in Jamaica to make your own speakers for your stereo and he used to make them for other people. I still have the speakers he made some 60 years ago. For my mum I wish I’d asked for the recipe for her banana fritters and her carrot juice. I know you’re thinking carrot juice is just carrot juice and why do you need a recipe, but Jamaicans take lots of healthy things and fuck them up. I can guarantee there will be something unhealthy in it, like sweetened condensed milk.
The last time you prayed, what was the occasion, to whom did you pray, and were your prayers answered?
No, never, none, never, ever. I didn’t have any use for him when times were good, I don’t have any use for that stuff when times are bad. I’m happy with the consequences of my actions. The notion of God is a weird one, because it can absolve people from their responsibility for shit. You can always turn to God or blame God. But we need to get rid of the current idea of what God is so we can face up to our part in the process. I look at a tree and see God, I give thanks for things, and I am in tune with the planet where I get any notion of spirituality.
Where do you get your therapy from?
Box sets. It’s how I relax. I’m a Game of Thrones kind of guy. Narcos. Breaking Bad. House of Cards. Although Stranger Things was a let-down.
Your book at bedtime?
I was an avid reader as a child, did all the classics, Tolkien, Dickens. The last books I read were Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles. Now instead of a book at bedtime, I sleep with the radio on – don’t laugh but at night it’s Classic FM because I don’t like people rabbiting too much.
Told you I was ill, by Spike Milligan. Or I’d be happy with “What a c***”.
What did you learn from the toughest time in your life?
Splitting up with the ex wasn’t that good. What did I learn from that? Leaving my kids, without a doubt, that was the toughest thing I ever had to do. But then again, I never left them. They live half a mile down the road and I actively see them two to three times a week. On the one hand, we are a typical 21st-century family. But on the other hand, while the words are easy to verbalise now, there is no short-cutting that experience, and I’d give anything to spare my kids pain, as any parent would.
In Rastafari we learn that you 'overstand' something. It’s easy to 'understand' something but if you can’t process that information and put those facts into action, it’s just words. Our evolution is painfully slow; we are destined to keep making the same mistakes that generations made before. Once, in 1991, I was lost in a desert in Namibia after running out of gas in my jeep. I thought I was going to die. I got rescued by some German safari people. And I remember saying to myself in the desert that I would change my ways, and never take anything for granted again, but a week after I was back… I was straight back to my old ways. We seem destined to keep running round in circles.
And from the happiest?
Well, I think by now we’ve gathered that Don hasn’t learned that much. I am like Popeye with no regrets. I’m 63 now, and to answer this I’d have to establish what was the happiest time of my life and that’s always right here, right now. I’m open to all the world has to offer.
You’re blowing out the candles on a cake. What do you wish for?
I wish for things for other people. I don’t believe in wishes and candles. Girlfriend are you serious?! If I believed in it, I’d be wishing for myself! I don’t have birthday parties, apart from one – when I turned 60 three years ago my wife invited a bunch of people over. It was slightly tempered by the fact that it was when David Bowie died. Jan 10th. I didn’t know him, but he came to see Big Audio Dynamite play and that was a big buzz.
What’s the song for a happy life, and the song to get the party started?
My song for life would be The Flaming Lips “Do You Realize??”. A beautiful piece of music I wish I’d written myself. And the party I’d like to get started? Well, since life is a bit serious right now, it would be a political party and the song would have to be Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up”. Most people identify with One Life, but he had a rebel aspect to his life, which we forget about. And my political party would be called… Let’s Party!