"I'm as old as rock'n'roll," Donovan Letts, who turned 65 in January, says with a laugh. Don Letts documents his remarkable life in an entertaining, candid and insightful new memoir, There and Black Again, which tells the story of how a child of the Windrush generation infiltrated British popular culture.
It's a hoot of a book, costarring Joe Strummer, John Lydon, Bob Marley, Chrissie Hynde, Chris Blackwell, The Slits, Paul McCartney, Andy Warhol, Shane MacGowan, Nelson Mandela, Keith Richards, Patti Smith, Richard Branson, Chuck D, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, but also probing the highs and lows of Letts's personal life and offering pertinent insights into race.
Revisiting his past wasn’t particularly easy. “It was horrible,” he exclaims. “F**king painful. I don’t like to reflect too much, which might be a bit of a cowardly thing. I’m amazingly deep about the superficial and superficial about the deep. I don’t indulge in too much self-analysis. I’ve a radio show on BBC 6. Sometimes it’s a complete pain in the arse to talk about something. I just want to play the tracks.”
All Shane MacGowan had to do was sit on a box and sing a line for me, but in his world any kind of repetition or conformity is quite simply not for him, and I love him for that
In addition to being part of an esteemed roster of musicians and personalities- turned-presenters on BBC Radio 6 Music, Letts has enjoyed a distinguished career as a film-maker. His first feature was The Punk Rock Movie (1978), essentially a compilation of early punk footage. Among a plethora of projects, he's very proud of Dancehall Queen (1997), a Jamaican indie he directed and cowrote. He has also produced a treasure trove of indispensable documentaries on British subcultures, notably The Story of Skinhead (2016), which explores a misunderstood scene’s cross-cultural roots.
And that's not even approaching the half of it. Letts has directed numerous videos, live films and documentaries for artists such as Gil Scott-Heron, Sun Ra, The Jam, George Clinton, Public Image Ltd, Franz Ferdinand and The Undertones, but he is best known for his association with The Clash. There and Black Again reveals how the video for London Calling became a precarious game with treacherous currents on the River Thames, hilarious to read now but stressful at the time.
Letts won a Grammy for what is rightly regarded as the definitive documentary about The Clash, Westway to the World. Ironically, he notes that this accolade kept him out of paid work for six months, as it was assumed his asking price had inflated.
One of the many memorable anecdotes in the book recalls a video shoot for Summer in Siam by The Pogues in 1990, when Letts found his old gig playing reggae records to punks in the legendary Roxy in Covent Garden coming in handy.
“I wrote an alternative script in case Shane [MacGowan] didn’t show up. Also, I designed something that couldn’t have been easier. All Shane had to do was sit on a box and sing a line for me, but in his world any kind of repetition or conformity is quite simply not for him, and I love him for that. He’s the ultimate f**k-you and one of the last punks and few real rock’n’rollers out there.
“Luckily for me, I had previous history with Shane when I was a DJ at the Roxy, where we got to know each other. I’d like to think that there’s some kind of mutual respect there because he showed up. I really like that video.”
Some of the videos Letts worked on in the 1980s include Back on the Chain Gang by The Pretenders, Elvis Costello’s Everyday I Write the Book and Musical Youth’s Pass the Dutchie. The latter, amazingly, was the first video featuring black people to be playlisted by MTV. When an opportunity presented itself, Letts could be subversive.
On the face of it, something like Pass the Dutchie is a simplistic video. But it was challenging the very notion of what England was all about by putting black kids in front of British landmarks like the Houses of Parliament
“On the face of it, something like Pass the Dutchie is a simplistic video. But, to my mind at least, it was challenging the very notion of what England was all about by putting black kids in front of British landmarks like the Houses of Parliament. To me, it was a postcard from the new face of Britain. The last video I made was Trouble of the World, with Sinéad O’Connor, which I was tremendously pleased with. The prospect of working with her was one of the few things that could coax me out of my video hiatus.”
Letts formed Big Audio Dynamite with Mick Jones from The Clash in 1984. "I'm so proud of Big Audio Dynamite and I'm so grateful that I got a chance to write some songs with Mick Jones," he says. "BAD was punk rock in full effect. I can't play anything, but with Mick's help I cowrote half the songs. It wasn't just about a pair of dark glasses and some fancy Moogs."
Letts notes that the big, widescreen sound of BAD would later inspire artists such as Gorillaz, LCD Soundsystem and Kanye West. Big Audio Dynamite went out on the road with U2, and in the book he recalls a moment noticing Mick Jones fixating on a huge U2 concert, perhaps pondering that The Clash could have been as big had they not split up.
“I can’t get inside Mick’s head,” Letts says. “I look at it differently. I think it’s good that they [The Clash] didn’t go on forever. As I say in the book, if you’re lucky in life you get a window of opportunity. You use it to the best of your ability. Then you bugger off and make room for somebody else. Quite often people end up destroying their own legacy. There are a few exceptions to this, but not many.
“I really think there is a seven- to eight-year lifespan when a group is really happening. It was that way for The Beatles and The Clash. I’m just glad I got to play the game. Some people don’t even get off the starting line. And I’m still alive. What a result.”
Letts divulges how he was constantly stopped by the police, especially after he traded in part of his collection of Beatles memorabilia, then the second largest in the UK, for a nice car. If Letts was driving across London for an appointment, he’d always factor in at least an extra half an hour for an inevitable police inquisition.
I don't wake up every morning going, 'Ah, I'm black!' Black people don't wake up angry wanting to fight. We want to party like everybody else
"Racism had manifested long before that moment, but stepping out of my lane compounded that a million times over," he says. "All of a sudden here was this dread in places and having things and doing things where we weren't supposed to be. Actually, there was no 'we' back then. It was just me. There weren't any culturally aware cops back then. It was like the bloody wild west and, trust me, Don Letts wasn't a cowboy."
As the book’s title makes clear, Letts finds the issue of race exasperating.
"It is an undeniable part of my cultural journey just because of the way society is. It is the constant backdrop to my life from the time my parents arrived from Jamaica. Don Letts is off doing videos of bands and he's got a Grammy and all this s***, but when you come down to the reality of my existence is that I'm there and I'm black again. I'm not judged on my creativity and a barrier still exists. I don't wake up every morning going, 'Ah, I'm black!' Black people don't wake up angry wanting to fight. We want to party like everybody else."
Despite growing up in south London, Letts has been keenly aware of the natural world since an early age. “I’ve been watching the crocuses burst through the ground lately and I buzz on s*** like that,” he enthuses. “I’ve always been like that. Even as a kid, I’d stare at the earth, the plants, the sky and the leaves. The good thing about this lockdown is that there is a lot of time to think, and the bad side of this lockdown is that there’s a lot of time to think.
“I turned 65 on the fifth anniversary of Bowie’s death. I sailed through all those other markers; 30, 40, 50, 60, even 64, but I was always working all the time. To turn 65 on in the middle of Covid was a headf***. We’re all going through our own headf***s. Anytime I hear this we’re-all-in-it-together shit, I want to punch somebody in the face. There are a lot of different types of boats, varying from dinghies to luxury yachts to being up shit’s creek without a paddle.”
Letts would like to take his foot off the pedal in the second half of his 60s. “I just want to take a break, enjoy life and engage with the planet,” he says. “I’ve spent my whole life doing this. People might I think I’ve had a glamorous life, but I live in London, where it’s bloody expensive. This place will financially kill you, man. A lot of it was about keeping my head above water, but still doing things that I enjoy, which is a luxury.
"I've gone on holiday to Jamaica once in the last 10 years. I'm not really a holiday guy, but I'd like to take a break from being Don Letts, but I'm sure I'll still do something creative wherever I go. It's just how I engage with the world. I interact with the planet and people. There are a lot of dicks out there, but you've just got to make sure that your bullshit detector is finely tuned. Contrary to popular opinion, it's a beautiful world. It really is."
There and Black Again by Don Letts, with Mal Peachey, is published by Omnibus Press