Bob Marley with a Bullet

Page 3 of 4

The sun shall not smite I
By day, nor the moon by night
And everything that I do
Shall be upfull and right

—"Night Shift" Rastaman Vibration

When I first encountered Bob Marley he was sitting in an upstairs windowsill in his house on Hope Road, smoking the inevitable spliff and studying the brilliant tropic treetops, deep in herbal meditation. In fact, Marley was so whacked out of his skull that it was possible to study him in perfect nubian- carving profile for several seconds before it even dawned on him that he had company.

Driving up, the first thing you noticed was the silver gray BMW parked in the driveway. The next thing was that the house is only partially painted – as though the workman, breaking for a noonday spliff, had become so fascinated with how that near psychedelic shade of shocking pink repelled Jah's own light that he'd forgotten to finish the rest.

Hope Road is a relatively affluent street of respectable middle-class dwellings within spitting distance of some of the worst slums in the Western Hemisphere. Hope House, surrounded by a spacious overgrown yard with several smaller structures out back (one of which is being converted into a recording studio), is still palatial by local standards. The place is that particular combination of righteously ratty and pop-star regal the Jefferson Airplane fashioned in the good old days of Up-Against-the-Wall-Motherfucker in the late Sixties. Except that instead of being splashed with a rainbow riot of dayglo, the walls of these barely furnished rooms are streaked with the dour khakis, visceral crimsons and militant mustards of black nationalism.

Surely Marley must have watched us drive up. As he sits there, looking surprisingly like Ché Guevara with his celebrated dreads stashed in an oversized beret, one can only speculate on what grave matters preoccupy him. Now that even Time magazine has acknowledged Marley as "a political force to rival the government," perhaps he is considering the not-so-remote possibility of a surprise raid from the governor general's white colonial headquarters, less than a mile down Hope Road. At least that would explain the tense hush that hangs over this house, making it seem like a guerrilla encampment. Given the uniqueness of his position, however, it seems just as possible he is calculating the effect that the upcoming parliamentary elections in Kingston might have on the sales of his latest single, a scathing political statement called "Rat Race."

In any event, Marley registers the grievously put-upon frown of a general whose vital meditations have been interrupted, when suddenly he notices three white mercenaries of Babylon standing in his doorway. Mustering a terse grace, Marley rises up and leads the way down to the yard, where he had agreed to pose, coy as any major pop star, lounging on the hood of his BMW. Perhaps this proud, imperialist bearing was inherited from his father, who's rumored to have been a white officer in the British army.

Anyone naive enough to wonder aloud why such a righteously rebellious, nonmaterialistic culture hero would own the same kind of car Michael Manley drives will be treated to a taste of fine Rasta logic: BMW stands for "Bob Marley and the Wailers." And why does he submit to so many photo sessions? "I tell you what," Marley says, "if the amount of records sell the amount of photo dem take – great! More than 2 million photo dem take already!"

Not to imply that Bob Marley has been bending over backward or anything. Stu Weintraub, Marley's American booking agent, told me it was touch and go and soon came for a hell of a long time before he finally got Bob Marley and the Wailers to play in the States.

"Every two weeks another emissary would arrive from Jamaica to tell me it was either on or off again . . .  It went on for so long that when I finally met Bob, when he finally showed up in my office in New York, I said, "So, you're a real flesh and blood' person! I was beginning to have my doubts!'"

From the beginning, Weintraub refused to let Marley and the Wailers open for any other act – not even the Rolling Stones, who offered the golden opportunity to expand a growing cult following when they asked to have the Rastaman as the opening act on their last tour.

"Naturally, I had to wonder if I was doing the right thing. How can you turn down a gig like that and not wonder?! But my feeling was that although not enough people knew about Bob Marley yet, he was already on his way to becoming a tremendous star . . . and stars don't open, they headline."

Weintraub says he was finally convinced he'd been right all along when the turnout for the most recent American tour surpassed even his expectations.

"We could have filled large stadiums like Madison Square Garden easily," Weintraub tells me. "But instead I chose to present Bob in medium-sized halls, in more intimate surroundings, where he could come across as what he is – a profoundly religious man expounding a profoundly religious message."

Marley himself will tell you that he submits to invasions of his privacy by foreign writers and photographers more to spread the gospel of Rastafarianism than for fame or gain.

"Mos' time me no see nobody but I brethren, I family," he says with a sweeping gesture of the arm, as though to embrace his extended family who are standing around, his five-year-old son Robbie playing with a miniature car in the yard and a pretty, brown-skinned woman smoking a spliff as though it were a Virginia Slim and gazing pensively down from the upstairs window where we first found him.

"Mos' time me no see nobody but dem, an' jus' stay heah an' wit I music an' I meditatin', mon. But sometime I like to talk to scribes for dem dat slow to catch onto I message, mon. Sometime it good for I and I to talk, "cause sometime it cleah de air, mon . . . you understand?"

Although communication is hampered by his heavy patois and made even more difficult by the use of such exotic Rastafarian expressions as "I and I" (which can be misconstrued as "me and mine" or "me, myself and I" until an outsider is informed that the phrase stands for "you and I" or all "I-manity"), Marley does seem eager to expound on the message behind his music.

"De only t'ing me no like is when dem get I message wrong, mon," states the star, leaning back on the hood of his BMW in his Ché-beret and flicking ash off that cigar-sized spliff like Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar.

"Me hafta laugh sometime when dem scribes seh me like Mick Jagger or some superstar t'ing like dat . . . . Dem hafta listen closeh to de music, "cause de message not de same . . . Noooo, mon, de reggae not de Twist, mon!"

The thought that anyone could possibly get the two mixed up seems to both irritate and amuse him, as well it should; for the message of most roots music is a far and angry cry from the inane anatomical cataloging of Chubby Checker and the like. But it also seems true that the origins of this hybrid ghetto music have as much to do with such delightful pop incongruities as James Brown (or even Hank Williams) caterwauling out of transistorized palm trees as the African rhythms and pentecostal-frenzied Holy Roller sects of myriad fundamentalist persuasions have with sources as diverse as Christianity and voodoo. Marley was already mining the mainstream for popular myth when he created, in his third LP released in the States, a folk hero called "Natty Dread," whose roots were closer to the rebel prototypes portrayed in early AM classics like "He's a Rebel" and "Leader of the Pack" than to old Marcus Garvey. For one thing, his Jamaica-born mother is a naturalized U.S. citizen who now owns a record store in Wilmington, Delaware, and Marley himself spent something like two years in Wilmington with her, working on the assembly line in the local Chrysler plant, it is said, before splitting back to his native island in the late Sixties to avoid the Vietnam draft call.

But when I mention that period to Marley he mutters about how "everyt'ing speeds too fast, people have too much work an' too much worry" in the States. And when I ask him to confirm specifics, his patois turns so thick, so slurred, that it sounds like he's talking in tongues. As his final retreat, he evokes the inarguable privilege of all righteous Rastas and returns to his semicoma and stares off into space, transcending my presence altogether. Marley's reluctance to discuss the time he spent in Wilmington seems as logical as Bob Dylan's refusal to discuss his high school days back in Hibbing, Minnesota.

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