Dave Hendley R.I.P.


(Words delivered at Dave Hendley‘s memorial event at Central Saint Martins on the occasion of the launch of his exhibition Rebel Music 1977-1998)

‘May the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart be acceptable in thy sight…

That’s a quote from Rivers of Babylon, a song by the Melodians released on the Beveleys record label in 1970 – although some of you may be more familiar with the 1978 Boney M version. And it’s even possible you may know the original version, written 2500 years earlier, and recorded in the Book of Psalms. In my case, I always hear that particular phrase with Beverley’s All Stars playing in the background…

I got reggae before I got religion. But maybe that isn’t quite true; because in the 1970’s if you got reggae, you also got religion – although at the time it was called conscious lyrics. So it wasn’t until I started reading the Bible for myself that I recognised that a lot of these lyrics come from scripture.

So for example, Rivers of Babylon, which I first heard on the soundtrack of The Harder They Come (perhaps the only other reggae compilation that can rival Dave Hendley’s Rebel Music) is based on these words from Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

How indeed… So in reflecting on what I might say to you tonight, I thought I might base my words on another one of these songs – perhaps recorded by someone who Dave had photographed. But in the end I decided upon an artist who died long before Dave ever travelled to Jamaica:


Slim Smith: Born To Love.

Born to love, but bled to death in 1972, aged only 25.

When someone dies young, we often say they died in tragic circumstances, but in truth, at what age is death not tragic?

It might also be said, ‘Slim Smith is dead, but his music lives on’. And indeed it does. And so does Dave’s work, as we can see in the exhibition opening tonight, a project that Dave had proposed only recently, not realising he would not be here to see it.

Hippocrates wrote,

Life is short
and art long
opportunity fleeting
experimentation perilous
judgement difficult.

And one of the earliest English poets made a similar observation in these gnomic verses:

Frost shall freeze
fire eat wood
earth shall breed
ice shall bridge
water a shield wear.
One shall break
frost’s fetters
free the grain
from wonder-lock
—One who all can.

Winter shall wane
fair weather come again
the sun-warmed summer!
The sound unstill
the deep dead wave
is darkest longest.
Holly shall to the pyre
hoard be scattered
when the body’s numb.
Name is best.

Name is best. According to this idea, our work is our legacy, and perhaps our only realistic hope of immortality. And this is a compelling notion, one which drives a lot of our activity and ambition.

But why are you here tonight? Because you wish to honour Dave’s name? His art? His music? Yes, of course. Because all of those memories are worthy of our honour and our attention.

But I know that what really drew you here is love.

[Even if you didn’t get a chance to get to know Dave personally, you share in his love of music, of art, of education… and most of all, of life.]

I see this love in the tears that still well up in Dave’s colleagues eyes when they speak of him. And I saw it in the actions of his students at their graduation ceremony, when they each laid a flower on the stage – not taken from the same bunch, but each chosen individually – a beautiful image of love in diversity – and in the face of adversity… because let’s not pretend otherwise: death is the enemy.

Death is the enemy, but God is love. (And here I am quoting scripture again…)

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God…

So now I invite you to keep a few moment’s silence, in the spirit of that love, as you understand it, in grateful and hopeful memory of Dave Hendley – may he rest in peace.’