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In 1987, Washington City Paper ran a cover story by Jon Cohen. The headline: “Rastaman Corporation: In Babylon on the Potomac, Gary Himelfarb built a million-dollar reggae record company.” As it explains how Himelfarb came to run his own label, RAS Records, the article references a four-page autobiography that Himelfarb wrote about how he first discovered reggae in the early 1970s and fell in passionate love with that Jamaican groove. Twenty-eight years later, under his nom de reggae, Doctor Dread, Himelfarb has expanded upon that synopsis with a full-length memoir, The Half That’s Never Been Told: The Real-Life Reggae Adventures of Doctor Dread.
Doctor Dread was born in D.C. in 1954, moved to the suburbs in the first grade, and got into pot and psychedelics after being cut from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School junior varsity football team—but none of that is mentioned until page 140. Rather than take a conventional chronological tack, Dread has cobbled together a patchwork collection of stories about the many reggae artists he’s worked with, peppered with his own life lessons and tales about the music industry, his time as a local reggae radio DJ, and world travels. The book’s table of contents mainly consists of the names of musicians who were associated with his label.
The Half That’s Never Been Told opens with Dread in a Kingston, Jamaica studio at 2 a.m., producing a Reggae for Kids album when singer Gregory Isaacs comes in pointing a pistol at him, demanding money to help feed his crack habit. Readers won’t learn when this event (or many others recounted in the book) took place; Dread admits in later pages that some of his recollections were muddied by the marijuana and mushrooms he was consuming at the time. But the book’s opening conveys Dread’s laid-back demeanor, his ability to work with eccentrics, his sense of the difference between crack addicts and recreational pot users, and how Dread, a white American suburbanite who was raised Jewish, found Rastafarianism and earned the trust of so many of reggae’s finest artists. “I just accepted [Isaacs] as Gregory,” Dread writes. “In fact, that is how I get along with most people. I just try to accept them for who they are: I take the good with the bad. Only Jah is perfect, so the rest of us can simply try to do our best.”
Dread’s repeated invocations of Jah throughout the book never come across as pushy and fundamentalist—he keeps it personal and expresses a broad range of interests, including the Baltimore Orioles, cooking, and learning about world cultures. The same goes for his drug references: Marijuana is sacred to Rastafarians, and the book is replete with Dread’s tales of it, from getting high with his teenage girlfriend in Ecuador and Colombia to smoking the high-quality American sensimilla at a festival in Humboldt County, Calif. But elsewhere, Dread’s repetition wears thin: he describes his reggae production technique (he likes to record the rhythm tracks in advance of the vocals) in an identical manner in three separate chapters. To his credit, Dread offers nearly enough anecdotes about Bunny Wailer, Freddie McGregor, Israel Vibration, and a friendly Bob Dylan to make up for the rehashing.
Even so, the book is a tale of business, family, ethics, health, and survival that transcends reggae fanatic minutiae. Dread, who never went to college, spells out the difficulties of running a record label—working with temperamental musicians, spending big money on touring, winning his artists’ confidence through bonuses and jerk snapper cookouts—and expresses his admiration for fellow indies, Atlantic and Dischord. Dread sold 80 percent of RAS to Rounder Records in 1987 and saw his salary triple before changes in the music industry led him to buy back his company in 1997 and then later sell it again after a distributor went bankrupt and he lost thousands of dollars.
Dread describes how the music industry changed and how, after open-heart surgery, he took wearying jobs hawking fish to restaurants to pay his bills. While his shock at how employees “working for the man” get treated sounds a bit naïve, his lively stories make the half he’s told an entertaining read, and readers will readily forgive its flaws.