The World According to Roger Steffens
Photographer, DJ, reggae archivist and all-around Renaissance man talks to us about life, love and Bob Marley
When we last caught up with Roger Steffens, photographer, DJ, reggae archivist, actor, narrator, poet, broadcaster, editor, lecturer and all-around Renaissance man, he was giving us tips on how to photograph Los Angeles.
Now, for the lates installment of our “The World According To…” series, Roger welcomed us into his home just one week before his 77th birthday to talk about love, war, psychedelics and the moment that Reggae changed the course of his life forever.
What’s one piece of art, be it a song, painting, photography, a book or something else that changed the way you view the world?
Salvador Dahli’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross. It’s terribly realistic and surreal at once. I saw it as a young child at the Metropolitan museum of art, where my mother used to take me all the time.
Where is the most interesting place you’ve visited?
The Island of the Coconut Monk. I went there for the first time in January of 1969 with John Steinbeck IV and Sean Flynn, Errol Flynn’s son. It was basically a mile-long sand bar in the middle of the Mekong River inhabited by thousands of drop outs from the war, led by a 4 and a half-foot hunchback monk who hadn’t lain down in the previous 20 years. Anyone who came to his island without a weapon was welcomed, no questions asked. They had deserters from the North Vietnamese communist forces, the South Vietnamese army, and daoists. They prayed to Christ, Buddha, Mohammad, Lao Tze, Confucius, Sun Yat-sen, Victor Hugo and Winston Churchill. The North bank of the river was controlled by the Americans and the South bank by the communists, and they’d fire rockets and mortars over the island, but never touch the island. It’s the only place in Vietnam that I saw happy people. It was there that I met my first wife.
What’s something that you have kept with you through all these years?
My Twin Earth’s collection. Twin Earths was a realistically drawn Sci-Fi comic strip that started on my 10th birthday in 1952. It had the most sleek and beautiful flying saucers. The plot revolved around the planet Terra, which was on our own orbit, but directly opposite so it was forever hidden by the sun. And the population of this planet was 92 percent female. It was drawn by a man named Alden McWilliams, who lived in Connecticut. I read an article about him and sent a fan letter addressed to Alden McWilliams, Noroton Heights, CT. and somehow it got to him.
And he wrote me back a three-page, hand written letter, and sent me five original drawings. We were friends for the rest of his life. If you go into the hallway over there, you’ll see some of those original drawing framed on the wall. And that’s why I answer every piece of fan mail I’ve ever received. Because you never know the rippling effect. And I can’t imagine, Daniel, what I said in that letter at that age. It must have been very simple but very enthusiastic. But it moved him so much that he did that for me. And he ended up putting my name in the comic strip. In 1954, when I was 12, he called me Sargent Steffens on the duty roster of the space station. 15 years later I became Sargent Steffens in Vietnam.
What would you have dedicated your life to if all that you tried hadn’t worked out?
I do so many different things, it’s like all the things I’ve loved, I’ve gotten really deeply into. I don’t know what other interests I have that I didn’t end up pursuing deeply. I did radio work which I always wanted to do. I became an actor which I had been since I was five. A collector. An archivist. A magazine editor. So many different things that I can trace back to my earliest youth. I made up my first newspaper when I was six years old and sold it for a nickel in the neighborhood.
What is the key to sustained motivation in a lengthy career?
When they’re not stayed lines of work. If you’re an actor, you’re always doing different parts. If you’re a writer, you’re always going after new stories.
Family aside, who’s the first person in life who you considered a mentor?
Brother Michael Bradley: A short, old, grey haired, Irish-born brother. I was 15 and I was in a new Catholic high school in New Jersey that had just opened. I was the first graduation class that watched them build the school as it was going up. When I was a sophomore they were digging a big hole for the gym. I was standing on top of a big pile of dirt, yelling something. Brother Bradley saw me and says, “Hey, come down from there.” I told him it was okay for me to be up there. He said, “No, I want you for my public speaking club.” I said I didn’t know we had one. He said, “We do now, you’re it.” And for the next three years, the greatest blessing of my high school years, he got me out of all my gym classes. He would spend 45 minutes a day teaching me elocution, teaching me how to write a speech. And we entered contests and I lost every one of them. But in my senior year we set our sights on the most lucrative national oratory contest that was run each year by the American Legion. That year I was the state champion.
What do you find to be your worst habit?
Laziness. My wife says I’m the laziest person she’s ever met. You know, you look around these seven rooms of the biggest reggae collection on earth, you can’t be lazy and still put something like that together. You can’t write a dozen books and be a lazy person. But you know, I am kind of lazy. It’s a human trait. My great friend Waldo Salt said, “Every great advance is based on laziness. How can we make this easier to do so we don’t have to spend that much time doing it.”
How did Reggae music enter your life?
I bought the first issue of Rolling Stone the day before I went to Vietnam in November of 1967, from Shakespeare and Co. on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, CA. I subscribed immediately and I have a full 52 year run of the magazine. In June of 1973, a huge feature appeared called ‘The Wild Side of Paradise’ by an Australian Gonzo journalist named Michael Thomas. And he wrote, “Reggae music crawls into your bloodstream like some vampire amoeba from the psychic rapids of upper Niger consciousness.” I don’t know what that meant, and I had never heard the word Reggae before in my life.
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I ran out in Berkeley where I was living and I found a used copy of Catch a Fire, Bob Marley’s first international album, for two and a quarter. And from the first notes of ‘Concrete Jungle’ I was mesmerized. The next night in a tiny 40 seat theater on the North side of campus, I saw ‘The Harder They Come’. And when the scene came on when everyone in the movie lit up, so did everyone in the theater. And you couldn’t see the screen through all the smoke in the room. And on the way home I bought the soundtrack and my life changed forever. It just completely went on a different track. And I’ve spent the last 45 years trying to learn everything I could about Marley, Peter, Bunny, all the great artists in Jamaica. Jamaican politics, history. Ethiopian history. Rastafari as a religion, or rather a movement. Haile Selassie himself. All the things that a study in Reggae leads you to. And I’m still involved in that study and add to my archive every single day.
How do you make love stick around?
You have to have respect for your partner. You have to realize how special it is to find the person. Previously, Mary was married to someone name Cecil. I had been married to Cynthia. And when Mary and I met on Memorial Day, 44 years ago, we just kind of looked at each other and went, oh, there you are. We knew. We got married 10 days later. Today’s our anniversary.
What do you fear most about the future?
That we’re either going to die in a world war or that nobody’s going to really care about repairing the environment at this final moment when if we don’t act immediately, it’s all over. I have two kids in their late 30s. Neither of them wants children. They don’t want to bring a child into this world. It would be too awful for them. It’s a shame because I’d love to have grandchildren. Maybe if I were in their position I’d probably feel the same way. And yet, people like us need to bring kids into this world to straighten it out.
Seeing as your Instagram name is @thefamilyacid, what do you think psychedelics can do for society at large?
Those who drop acid open their chi, their portals to completely different alternative options to our standard Judeo-Christian patterns. It dissolves them, but it certainly is not for everyone. If you want to explore your inner self, it’s among the most effective ways. The ’60s changed the world forever; there are ramps in history when you know you’re flying solo.
What was your first real leap into the world of Reggae that gave you access and acceptance?
In the summer of 1976, Mary and I went to Jamaica for the first time. We arrived the week they declared a national state of emergency, mobilized the army, put tanks on all the main intersections. Everybody said don’t go to Kingston, it’s worth your life. But I had 400 bucks saved to go do gown and buy records that I couldn’t find in the states. We had to go to Kingston. We took a mini bus from the North Coast where we spent the night with a Rasta man named Bongo Sylly (short for Sylvester). We were taken to downtown Kingston, where the streets were basically deserted. It was very eerie. I felt like I was back in Saigon during the Tet Offensive. We were dropped off in front of a telephone booth sized shack, Tuff Gong Records: Bob Marley’s record shack. Within a couple of minutes two guys appeared and stood alongside me. Next thing I know, one of them has his hand down my right pants pocket, where I had all the cash. I grabbed him so hard that I thought I was going to break his wrist, so he let go. It turned out to be one of the biggest stars in Reggae music at the time. He almost got every cent I had. Instead he sold me his new record.
After that a young man the mini bus driver called over took us to the main square where the two biggest records stores were. Jo Gibbs, and VP Records. The young man asked me if I wanted to meet Jimmy Cliff. I finished paying for my records and we get into a taxi. He just says to the driver, Jimmy’s house. The minute the car door closed I thought it was a setup and they were going to take everything we’ve got. Instead, he drove us straight to Jimmy Cliff’s house. And we spent an afternoon with Joe Higgs, Ernest Ranglin, Chinna Smith, and all these early Reggae deities. At once it was one of the worst and best experiences of my life, minutes apart. That really taught me an awful lot about Jamaica, the good and the bad stacked on top of each other.
How did you meet Bob Marley?
In 1978, we were living in Big Sur. I was hired by two screenwriters to novelize a couple of screenplays. And we heard that Bob was coming to Santa Cruz. We drove up and bought tickets for both shows. We got there really early. There was someone passing around a poster for a show three nights later at the Greek Theater. We got one of those posters and the doors opened. Santa Cruz Civic is like a big High School gym with bleachers on three sides and the stage is only about 4 feet tall. We walked in and the soundboard was right in the middle of the dance floor. There was a tall skinny fellow with short dreadlocks and I figured he might have something to do with the band. I walked up and said, “Pardon me sir, but are you guys going to play ‘Waiting in Vain’ tonight?” He asked why and I told him it was my favorite Bob Marley song, especially that incredible lead guitar line that Junior Marvin plays. He asked if I wanted to meet Bob, just like that. The three of us went down a long corridor. I tell him my name is Roger and introduce Mary. He said he was Junior Marvin. So I said the right thing to the right guy at the right time. Junior Marvin took us into the back room and it was like a convention of zombies. Nobody was saying anything to anybody. There were four huge cafeteria tables pushed together. Everybody seated around the table was at arms-length from the next person, and each of them had their own anthill of herb and rolling papers. Junior Marvin saw the poster I was holding and suggested I ask Bob to sign it. He introduced me to Bob who was so stoned. His eyes so red he could barely open them. I asked him if he could do ‘Waiting in Vain’ and he just looked up at me with one eye and said maybe. That’s his greatest love song and he never played it live.
The following year I had just started a Reggae show with Hank Holmes. We were on the air for six weeks and in November of ’79, Island Records called us up and asked if we would mind going on the road for two weeks with Bob Marley. And that’s when I really got to know him. Had some good conversations with him. Set up evenings to show him two films he’d never seen before: The first was about the assassination attempt on his life, and the second about his return to Jamaica and the One Love peace concert.
I was able to sit in the room watching Bob watch Bob. That’s where I got my nickname, Ro-Jah. So I’m Ras Rojah, thanks to Bob.
The last time you saw Marley, what was that like?
He invited me to The Roxy for soundcheck on November 27, 1979. For three hours he played every instrument in the band by himself. He did the soundcheck alone, basically. The first hour he kept singing something over and over again I’d never heard before, about redemption. It was his last show in L.A.
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What do you think humanity could learn from the Rasta movement?
It’s a cliché, and the Beatles sang it, the ancients sang it, the Bible sang of it. Love is the answer. All you need is love. Love, as Cummings wrote, is the every, only god. Love is what keeps the atoms together. The greatest act of non-love in the world is the atomic bomb. The very atoms themselves fall out of love with each other and split apart, and that shakes the earth. And treating each other as you want to be treated. I mean, these lessons never seem to be learned so we have to keep repeating them. And when you can repeat them in a musical way with a beautiful melody that makes your body move, it drives home the lesson more strongly than ever.
Is the great American experiment working anymore?
No not at all. It’s not the people choosing, it’s the machine. And the machine is controlled by the Oligarchs. And they don’t have your interest or my interest at heart. They don’t give a damn. It’s all about a bottom line. We’re in desperate trouble. We’ve had a coup de ta and if the Democrats don’t stop their infighting, they’re going to blow it again. The Left is its own worst enemy. They’ve got to come up with a viable candidate and get rid of this bastard before he destroys the whole world. And I don’t say that lightly. It’s really the most dangerous time since World War II with all the same factors.
Just looking around this one room I can practically see the entirety of Reggae music history. What does it all mean to you?
There are a lot of people who have bigger record collections than I do, but I collect the entire culture and all the ephemera. And that’s what is so rich. If you go to Bali, or to the Australian outback, or you go to some remote Caribbean Island and you walk into a house with a poster of Bob Marley, I just know I’m going to have a dozen things in common with all of these people. The culture of it is important to me. There’s six drawers there of fan letters. There are statues, paintings, 30,000 flyers, 1500 tee shirts. The buttons are incredibly important to me. I’ve probably got 4000 buttons. That’s the folk art of the movement. They’re all handmade acts of love. They all deserve to be preserved. 40 percent of the records I have are autographed and a lot of those people are gone now. You could have 100 million dollars and you couldn’t reproduce this collection.
Where do you want to see this Reggae archive go?
I want to see this go to Jamaica next year to become a museum. I’ve been trying to get it there for 30 years. The bottom lines are such that a lot of people can’t agree to them, including the government. It’s got to be kept intact forever. And it’s got to be made available to the public while respecting all the artist rights. It has to go to Jamaica. Jamaicans need to know this part of their history.
When did you get serious with a camera?
Vietnam was the turning point. I bought a Canon FT a week after I arrived in Saigon on November 8, 1967, because I knew I was in the midst of history. Taught myself how to use it. Three months later the Tet Offensive broke out, so I documented that.
How did you manage to make photography so central to your time in Vietnam?
There was a refugee program going on. At least 52 families living in sewer pipes in front of my barracks. I wrote a letter about the situation to the editor of the Racine Journal Times in Wisconsin, where I had spoken a few times and was well known. They published my letter and an editorial urging support for the refugees. Three weeks later, two five-ton trucks pulled into my compound with my mail for the day. I was the colonel’s typist at the time. I went into his office and told him there was something he had to see. The mail clerk had opened up one of these huge 9 foot-tall CONEX boxes and my mail was spilling out of it. All these little boxes addressed to me. I told the colonel that I had to send all these supplies back as I was so busy typing his letters that I couldn’t keep my promise of distributing it all to the refugees. He promoted me, gave me my own Quonset hut, told me I could go anywhere in country, work on any project I thought worthwhile, as long as I took pictures, and he could take credit for my civic action. I was his entire civil affairs division. So I spent a total of almost 26 months in Vietnam. I had free film and developing for two years. I took it to the photo hut and they developed it all for me. So I shot over ten thousand frames in Vietnam alone. And I received a total of over 100 tons of food and clothing. Worked from the DMZ to the Mekong Delta. Never fired a shot, thank god. Came back in 1970 and lectured against the war all over the country.
Does war ever make for peace?
According to Tim Page, the great gonzo chronicler of war, wounded four times in ‘Nam, still whirling around the planet preaching peace, he says war creates peace about 50 percent of the time. He points to the experiences of Cambodia, mired in horrendous atrocity, emerging from the Khmer Rouge’s depravities and opening roads. This led to the creation of markets and to a society that emancipated its women. Today the country thrives.
What was the impetus for releasing all of your photography?
My kids. My son, Devon Marley, spent a year in that corner over there, digitizing 40,000 slides. Then our daughter, Kate, asked if she could start an Instagram. I said yea, sure, what the hell. So she started it. My kids ended up knowing my work better than I do.
L.A. or NYC?
L.A. — for the weather, no bugs, really coolly ambitious but laid-back folk, best sunsets, best beaches, and a genuine love for reggae roots music, rather than the rough-edged dancehall.
Favorite curse word?
What’s your go-to creative ritual?
Lighting up a spliff and seeing where it takes me when I sit down in front of the keyboard. It’s the question though that stymies me to this day – do you write stoned and edit straight; write straight and edit stoned; write and edit straight; or write and edit stoned?
Words on your tombstone?
We’re Wasting Valuable Duping Time. This goes back to the 70s and 80s when Reggae collectors couldn’t have survived without cassette tapes. The pressings of the records in Jamaica were so tiny that if you found a great record you wanted to duplicate copies for all your friends, your fellow dj’s, writers you knew, so they could hear it too. And you didn’t want to waste a second. When you went to a record collector’s house, the first thing you’d do is hook your recorder up and start taping. Then after you’d say hey how are ya, how’s your family, and all that.