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Bob Marley with a Bullet

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The public myth must be protected, especially now that some reggae purists are complaining that his latest American LP, Rastaman Vibrations, seems noticeably diminished in roots and perhaps a shade too rock & rolly. But the album's sales, according to the people at Island Records, have already topped his previous three LPs combined and the album is still climbing the charts, goosed along by his recent tour. Most of these detractors may not be ready to relegate Bob Marley to the commercial limbo where Jimmy Cliff, the first reggae artist to become well-known in the U.S., now languishes. But these critics now point to Burning Spear, a group heavily into African chants, as the group to listen to if you want to hear some nitty-gritty roots, rude and raw.

Like the folk purists who screamed "sellout" when Bob Dylan went electric, such critics are missing the point that Marley, like Dylan, has transcended genre – that he may even have transcended roots! You only have to see him onstage, a dancing dervish, dreadlocks windmilling, to realize that here is a rock & roll star.

Yet, Marley seems genuinely committed to his faith, and when he talks about the pilgrimage he soon plans to make to Ethiopia, it is clear that his heart remains in the highlands of that mythic mecca. "It I dream, mon, every Rastamon's dream, to fly home to Ethiopia and leave a-Babylon, where de politicians doan let I an'I brethren be free an'live we own righteous way. Dat's why I goan der buy land an' bring my family back wid me, mon, because a-Babylon mus' fall. It true so much wickedness mus' end, but when? Me an'I brethren no want to wait no more, 'cause our Jah, him tell us go home to we Ethiopia an' leave a-Babylon to perish in it own wickedness, mon. I doan know why . . . but it mus' be . . . "

Since it is difficult for an outsider to argue with the black and white logic of Rasta doctrine, we ponder such things in solemn silence for a while, watching dusk descend on the yard, where several of the brethren are standing around in a slightly unnerving state of suspended animation. And while Marley seems to have made his own private peace with the contradictions of being both the revered spokesman for an indigenous Jamaican religious sect and a marketable commodity in the roaring rock & roll arenas of the world, these silently scornful members of his extended family, with their impenetrable almond eyes, begin to seem less hospitable. Maybe they're not exactly trying to Mau Mau anybody – for Marley, after all, is the paterfamilias who will pay their passage to the promised land, and Marley's will is clearly the law of this lawn.

Then Marley seems to brighten and he says, "It take many year, mon, an'maybe some bloodshed mus'be, but righteousness someday prevail . . . Yeh, mon, me know, "cause everywhere we go when we play outside Jamaica, all ovah the whorl, I see I dreadlock brethren everywhere . . . a-growin' up strong like herb stalks in de field . . . Yeh, mon, it gladden I heart to see Natty Dreadlock him everywhere growin' strong . . . it future, mon."

Nor does he think it might compromise his message and turn his faith into some fad ("like the Twist") if some young people started growing dreadlocks more to emulate Bob Marley than to follow the tenets of Rastafarianism.

"It be good, mon," he insists. ""Cause dat be a beginnin'. First dem grow de dreadlocks den dem soon understan' de message an' be righteous."

When I remind him of how the hippies – surely he must remember the hippies? – once thought that merely growing hair and smoking dope would make them righteous, that nowadays it is note uncommon to see long-haired policemen, Marley insists that the analogy does not apply.

"You will never see de dreadlock, mon, be a policeman," he snaps, seemingly annoyed at the very inference.

"Dat's why I seh in I new tune, "Rat Race': "Rastamon no work for CIA . . . ' It never be, mon, because Rastamon him not like hippie . . . Him hold-a on long time an' hippie no hold-a on, him fail. De hippie should-a hold on five more year until we come. Den dem hippies be de Rastamon, too! Yeh, mon, look at you: you have de beard an' you hair look like de dreadlocks!"

No, the man is not without his own wry humor, to be sure.

But Marley suddenly seems to turn off the charm when a photographer requests that he move to another part of the yard, where there's still a patch of natural light. Marley flatly refuses, telling him that if he wants him in another place he will have to come back another day. While Marley's ultimatum seems less the whim of a pop prima donna than an honest admission of inertia, it only adds to the stalemated tension as the shadows of the dreadlock brethren lengthen in the darkening yard, making the distances between us seem vast as all Ethiopia.

This story is from the August 12th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.

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