“Young people need to come out and reclaim punk rock”

On that note, you met Bob Marley

On the Internet, you read things like “Don Letts, friend of Bob Marley”, and that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But I was an acquaintance. I must say he picked me up and we had very interesting conversations, especially about punk rock. Basically, I went to see his show in 1975 at the Lyceum and was so captivated that I walked out of that show a changed man. I followed him to his hotel in Kensington, rushed in and because I had something he wanted… let’s put it that way, we got to know each other.

Then in 1977, when he was staying here after being shot in Jamaica, he was living on King’s Road in Chelsea, around the corner from a store I ran called Acme Attractions. And because I made an impression on him at the time, he came to Acme to get me so I could, say, help him. [laughs]. Look, I have to be clear on this, Don Letts was not a drug dealer. I just had something that would walk me through the door to someone who was my hero.

I guess the only time you’re talking about specifically is when we had a big argument about punk rock. I was wearing punk clothes and he said I looked like a mean punk rocker. That was before he understood what the scene was about. And I had to hold on and say, ‘Bob, you’re wrong. They’re my homies, they’re like-minded rebels,” and he was like, “get the hell out of here.” I left with my tail between my legs, but three months later, a slightly better informed Bob Marley was moved to write the song, Punky Reggae Party. So in my books, I got the last laugh.

They say you should never meet your heroes. Did it live up to expectations?

With Bob, what you saw was what you got. It wasn’t a stage act, and as a young black British man trying to find his way in this world, Bob was instrumental in shaping me into the man I was today. There’s no two ways about it. And not just for Don Letts, we were kids of the Windrush generation, before Bob Marley and movies like The Harder They Come, we were running around like headless chickens. We were almost like a lost tribe, we weren’t sure where we belonged, we were looking towards America and Jamaica but we weren’t either. It was a long journey for me to say I was a black born in Britain and that actually meant something. It’s a great example of music’s ability to inform, entertain and inspire and to be there for social and personal change. You can’t do better than Bob.

You talked a lot about the clothing store that you ran, Acme Attractions, it was a stomping ground for that scene. And to top it off, you were just down the street from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s boutique, SEX.

Malcolm was a big inspiration to me. I was lucky enough to be friends with them even before all this punk stuff happened. In fact, it was Malcolm who showed me that this countercultural stuff I was so in love with had a lineage, a tradition, and a legacy. He was the one who made me join the counter-cultural dots and realized that if I had a good idea and was brave enough, I could be part of this thing too. You don’t have to sit on the sidelines and be a lifelong fan, hopefully that can only be a tiny part of your journey. Punk was really about breaking the fourth wall… it said if you had a good idea, get involved.

Diana J. Carleton