He changed the course of Jamaican music and brought reggae to the world stage. But his songs of freedom still beat with a rock & roll heart
Memory pictures coming in: two snapshots of Bob Marley. In the first, the Wailers are playing one of their mid-70s New York City concerts to a theater thick with ganja and dreads. The music unwinds from the first note like an impossibly sinuous Slinky, the groove steady, one song shading into the next without pause or change of key. Marley is a blur of motion, bobbing, weaving, dreadlocks flying, never seeming to quite touch the stage. It's as if the thick clouds of smoke and the rapt concentration of the mostly Jamaican audience are somehow buoying him up; he's hovering. No matter how much I squint and stare, his feet seem to be floating a few inches above the boards. Maybe it's the ganja. Maybe not.
In the second picture, Marley is sitting on the couch in a posh midtown hotel suite, surrounded by protectively huddling bredren and sistren, looking pale, drawn, severe. It's 1980, and the Wailers – now playing Madison Square Garden – have taken over an entire floor of the hotel, muting the lights in the hall to perpetual twilight, filling their stuffy, carpeted precinct with the unaccustomed smells of ital cooking and, of course, ganja.
There's been a disquieting change in Marley's demeanor. In the past, he would deliver even his most biting critiques of Babylon with an unmistakable generosity of spirit, his face friendly and open, his body language expansive. Each toss of his head set his mane of dreadlocks flying.
"It take many a year, mon, and maybe some bloodshed must be, but righteousness someday prevail," Marley would say. And it would come across more like a prayer than a warning.
This time, Marley sits very still, his head almost swallowed by the knitted cap he's wearing. His critique of the "politricks" of exploitation is as trenchant as ever, but now it's straight on, lacking the warmth and humor that were once such outstanding signifiers of his Rasta state of grace. Warmth? Humor? In less than a year, Marley will succumb to the cancer that only his inner circle knows is eating him alive.
The world Bob Marley came from, the Third World of the political philosophers, is a dog-eat-dog world: Trenchtown, a chaotic maze of shacks and dirt and footpaths and concrete jungle slung precariously along the edge of the 20th-century abyss. His life story has many of this century's most characteristic and horrific leitmotifs – the New World Order's rape of the planet's organic and spiritual resources; the obscenity of plenty and poverty living cheek to jowl under the gun; naked force opposed by visionary religion and deep cultural magic.
There really is only one way out, as Marley sang in "Trenchtown Rock": "One good thing about music/When it hits, you feel no pain." With his induction this year into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he is being honored for his music, which celebrates life even as it embodies struggle. But the music will not let us forget that this is a dog-eat-dog story and that even the big dog gets eaten in the end.
Marley's extraordinary body of work spans the entire history of modern Jamaican music, from ska to rock steady to reggae. But he never lost sight of the emotional center of his art – his people, the sufferers of Trenchtown, of greater Kingston, of all the world's ghettos. They placed their faith and hope in him, and he did not let them down. Later works such as "Survival," "Zimbabwe" and "Coming In From the Cold" are as passionately committed as anything from earlier years.
"It something really serious, is not entertainment," Marley once said of his music. "You entertain people who are satisfied. Hungry people can't be entertained – or people who are afraid. You can't entertain a man who has no food."
No one in rock & roll has left a musical legacy that matters more or one that matters in such fundamental ways. Yet there has been a reluctance in some quarters to accept Marley's music and reggae in general as a part of rock & roll. For their part, reggae musicians have been understandably reluctant to identify themselves with rock & roll's passing parade.
"Me have to laugh sometimes when dem scribes seh me like Mick Jagger or some superstar thing like that," Marley told Rolling Stone in 1976. "Dem have to listen close to the music, 'cause the message not the same. Nooo, mon, the reggae not the twist, mon!"
That was Marley's sense of humor at work. He clarified his position in an interview with author Stephen Davis: "Reggae music, soul music, rock music – every song is a sign. But ya have fe be careful of this type of song and vibration that ya give fe the people, for 'Woe be unto them they who lead my people astray.'"
Marley's election to the Hall of Fame provides the opportunity for a reassessment of this issue – or perhaps a reintegration. He was right to make a distinction between his music's singleness of purpose and various pop ephemeras; that doesn't mean one should separate it from the rest of music in its own proud but insulated ghetto. Because it isn't enough to identify the man as the crown prince of reggae or the Third World's first pop-music superstar. As an artist, he was always playing in the big leagues. No matter what category you put him in, his stature stands undiminished.
For that matter, it's probably high time we stopped looking at Jamaican music as a reflection or derivation of developments on the American mainland. The realities are more complex than that. Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans created and sustained their own distinctive rock & roll traditions, and so did Jamaica. The processes that shaped all these musics are, in fact, very nearly identical. Arguably, the way these processes work defines rock & roll itself.
It works something like this. Ships come in bringing slaves from Africa, bringing music. In a climate of brutal oppression, the music toughs it out, assuming the importance it had in Africa as the culture's psychic and social foundation. As in Africa, there is an emphasis on rhythms, and the rhythms have a story to tell – often literally as speech-inflected patterns – and work to do. They bring people together, draw them into participation and serve as mediators between the individual, the community and the world beyond the world, the world of the spirits.
As the culture evolves and slavery's death grip at last begins to falter, rhythmic fundamentals begin to spread beyond the ritual setting. As populations leave the countryside for the cities looking for opportunity, dance music built on sacred rhythms spreads into urban dance halls, bars and theaters. There the music encounters the mediums of radio and recording: flashpoint. Suddenly, the venerable rhythms are the latest thing, a pop sensation. From plantation drumming and voodoo ceremonies to country-church "shouts" to Bo Diddley to James Brown: That's the North American version of the tale. The Jamaican version runs from the drumming of the Maroons (runaway-slave societies) to the pocomania and Revival Zion churches to the Rastafarians to mento, ska, rock steady, reggae and Bob Marley.
Robert Nesta Marley was born Feb. 6, 1945, in the heavily forested country of St. Ann's Parish, the child of 19-year-old country girl Cedella Booker and a white colonial then working in the area, Captain Norval Sinclair Marley. The captain did marry Cedella, then abandoned her. Bob grew up in a back-country world whose values and beliefs were still profoundly African, a world more permeable to superhuman forces both natural and supernatural than any city child could know. His grandfather Omeriah Malcolm was a respected man in the parish, a myalman adept in the ways of sorcery and spirit propitiation. Long before he embraced Rastafarianism as a spiritual philosophy and a way of life, Bob Marley was on intimate terms with his culture's deepest mysteries.
When the teenage Marley arrived in Kingston, Jamaican music was entering a period of unprecedented expansion and growth. Mento, an acoustic popular music comparable to the calypso of Trinidad and Tobago, was being displaced from the forefront by an increasingly Jamaicanized take on Southern R&B and soul music. As the new ska sound developed, it began to exert a subtle but increasingly significant influence on North American soul.
Island rhythms had been an important ingredient in New Orleans' musical gumbo since the early days of jazz. Professor Longhair, the founding father of New Orleans' piano-based R&B, specifically mentioned his wartime experience playing with "West Indian boys" as a factor shaping his influential polyrhythms of the 1940s and '50s. By the mid-'60s – when Jamaican tempos slowed, its grooves deepened, and its bass moved out front in the mix, creating the style dubbed rock steady – Jamaican rhythmic ideas were beginning to surface in Memphis soul music as well.
Al Jackson Jr., the seminal Booker T. and the MG's-Stax Records session drummer, began vacationing in Jamaica, buying records, visiting sessions. Listen to Jackson's rhythm arrangement on Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" back to back with the Silvertones' rock-steady cover of the tune, and you will readily hear the connections. All rock & roll styles are derivative of earlier musics in the beginning. Jamaican music quickly grew out of this phase, becoming part of a two-way rhythmic dialogue, transcending geographical and national boundaries.
Marley did not spend much time watching these events from the sidelines. A precocious musician with an already distinctive vocal style, he began making records in 1962. He sounded nervous, high-pitched, painfully adolescent on his debut ska recording, "Judge Not." But already he was drawing on Biblical imagery and themes in original lyrics that had an important social dimension as well as a spiritual and moral imperative: "While you talk about me/Someone else is judging you."
Marley's earliest ska recordings were solo efforts, but the '60s were the heyday of Jamaican vocal groups, and Marley had been woodshedding with a loose group of friends from Trenchtown. When he became dissatisfied with his original recording situation, he auditioned with the group for No. 1 sound-system man Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd.
Of the original group members, Junior Braithwaite and Beverly Kelso soon dropped out, leaving a tighter-than-tight trio of running partners to carry on. Neville "Bunny" Livingston, later Bunny Wailer, was one of Bob's earliest and closest childhood friends from St. Ann's Parish. Marley's mother and Wailer's father were living together in Trenchtown when Bob and Bunny met Peter McIntosh, later Peter Tosh, who completed the triumvirate.
This trio's mesh of voices was never conventionally pretty. The three voices didn't so much blend as create a constantly shifting ensemble texture, tightly interwoven but with each singer's timbre remaining distinct. Unlike most singers on the way up, Marley, Tosh and Livingston refused to cosmeticize their back-of-town rawness, realizing from the first that their origins were one of their greatest strengths. They had in fact chosen a group name that called attention to these origins; they were Wailers, they said, because they were ghetto sufferers, born wailing.
Dog eat dog; that was the reality of life in the ghetto and in Kingston's music and recording scene. Producers ruled the roost, paying musicians and singers a nominal one-time fee for recording and reaping the subsequent profits. Nevertheless, in 1966, the Wailers took on the system, leaving Sir Coxsone's stable (a move tantamount to professional suicide) to start their own record label, Wail 'M' Soul 'M', and produce the sessions themselves.
"Yes, people rob me and try fe trick me, but now I have experience," Marley said, adding later, "I know, and I see, and I don't get tricked. Everybody that deals with West Indian music . . . thieves!"
If you're listening chronologically to Island's exemplary four-CD set Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom, the move into self-production comes as a dramatic departure. For the first time, the singers and musicians seem to be breathing the same air, producing a superbly organic group sound. The Wailers' 1967-68 rock-steady sides for Wail 'M' Soul 'M' are the trio's first unalloyed masterpieces: "Mellow Mood," "Bend Down Low," "Thank You Lord" and the rest still move, instruct and delight.
After Marley took time off to write songs for the American pop-soul singer Johnny Nash (who recorded "Stir It Up" and "Guava Jelly"), the Wailers met Lee Perry, a former sound-system DJ for Sir Coxsone who was beginning to bring a new sense of space and mystery to Jamaican music. Among the session players who worked for Perry were the two Barrett brothers, drummer Carlton ("Carly") and bassist Aston ("Family Man"). As rock steady mutated into the even trickier, more fluid grooves of reggae, the Barrett brothers staked their claim as the music's definitive rhythm section.
With the hypercreative Perry, a k a Dread at the Control, behind the mixing desk, the wailing Wailers and the Barrett brothers made an imaginative leap into a new and entirely unanticipated sonic landscape. Marley was now a songwriter in a class by himself, and the Wailers-Barretts-Perry team was able to create and sustain a powerfully specific mood and presence for each of his gems. Many hardcore reggae fans consider these recordings, collected on such albums as Soul Rebels and African Herbsman, the high point of Marley's entire career. That's debatable; the music's blinding brilliance is not.
Dog eat dog. Almost 10 years in the forefront of one of the most hectic, intensely creative music scenes on the planet, and what did the Wailers have to show for it? They were still living in Trenchtown, below the poverty line. They never heard their records played on Jamaican radio. "It's because the music shows the real situation in Jamaica," Marley said. "Some people don't like to hear the real truth." And outside Jamaica and the West Indian communities in the U.K., they were utterly unknown, as was reggae itself.
Through Marley's Johnny Nash connection, the Wailers, Barretts in tow, went to England, hoping to tour and stir up some interest on the part of a major record label. They managed to secure a bit of session work, record some demos and play a handful of dates in clubs and schools. They awoke one morning – cold and hungry – to find that their erstwhile management had left the country, stranding them cold and penniless.
Enter Chris Blackwell, a white Jamaican who had done well leasing hits from Kingston for the U.K. on his Island Records label and who was currently scoring major pop successes with the likes of Traffic and Cat Stevens. He still thought reggae could win an audience in the wider world, and to that end he gave the Wailers the budget to record an album. This in itself was an innovative move. Any other label honcho would surely have seen the group's outspoken stand against oppression and exploitation and its embrace of a Rastafarian belief system as potential impediments to commercial success at best. Blackwell encouraged the Wailers to be themselves.
The Wailers' first two Island albums, Catch a Fire and Burnin' (both from 1973), represent another new beginning for Marley. Both albums freely raided his enormous back catalog of songs, and while some of the versions issued earlier may be the definitive ones, as albums, Catch a Fire and Burnin' are themselves definitive Marley records. They are the powerful, unified masterworks of an artist at the height of his powers.
With the release of Catch a Fire, the pressure was on. After a U.S. tour that found the Wailers driving thousands of miles to play for audiences that were frequently small and uncomprehending, Wailer and Tosh elected to drop out of the rat race and go solo. This development broke up one of the era's greatest vocal groups, but Marley assembled the I-Threes (Rita Marley, Marcia Griffiths, Judy Mowatt) to fill out the band's vocal sound and kept touring. He was a man with a mission.
"God sent me on earth," Marley once said. "He send me to do something, and nobody can stop me. If God want to stop me, then I stop. Man never can."
Marley's next three studio albums – Natty Dread (1974), Rastaman Vibration (1976) and Exodus (1977) – made him an international star. The Wailers were now officially Bob Marley's band, still piloted through the rhythmic rapids by the incomparable Barrett brothers but now expanded to include a clutch of superb musical individualists who were fundamentally team players, including guitarists Al Anderson and Junior Marvin and keyboard men Earl "Wire" Lindo and Bernard "Touter" Harvey.
Brutal as the Wailers' nonstop touring schedule was, the real brutality was waiting for Marley back home. Jamaica in the middle and late '70s seemed to be a society coming apart at the seams. The country's two rival political parties both employed gangs of ghetto gunmen to settle their differences. They also leaned hard on Marley for public support. At the same time, there was a great deal of resentment in the air. Jamaica's ruling class traditionally despised the Rastafarians for offering scathing critiques of the "shitstem" while refusing to take part in it. The emergence of a dreadlocked Rasta as Jamaica's No. 1 citizen to the world was seen as a public-relations disaster and, for many, a personal affront.
No rock & roller has ever had so many formidable and sinister forces arrayed against him. Marley found it expedient to maintain social relationships with gunmen and politicians from both political parties. "The devil ain't got no power over me," he asserted. "The devil come, and me shake hands with the devil. Devil have his part to play. Devil's a good friend, too . . . because when you don't know him, that's the time he can mosh you down."
Marley proved miraculously adept at advocating justice and an end to neo-colonial exploitation of the increasingly beleaguered island while maintaining a sovereign's indifference to the machinations of partisan poitics. But attempts to manipulate him for political gain continued unabated, and Marley well knew that the slightest miscalculation could have fatal consequences.
In 1976, representatives of the country's ruling, nominally socialist government persuaded Marley to headline a free outdoor concert in Kingston that would be strictly apolitical, a plea for peace among the ghetto's warring factions and a celebration of "one love, one heart." Two nights before the concert, two carloads of gunmen broke into Marley's house with barrels blazing. Astonishingly, no one was killed, though Marley and several associates were wounded. Showing remarkable courage, Marley honored his promise to sing at the concert. Showing good sense, he left the island the next day and didn't return for more than a year.
"They claim that I was supporting a political party, which is not true," Marley insisted afterward. "If it was really true that I was defending politics, then I would have died that night, because me know that the politician is the devil . . . . My job is to come between these politicians and become something else for the people."
Throughout these difficult years, Marley remained committed to his Rastafarian ideals and to self-determination for his people. In the Third World, especially where liberation struggles were in progress, he was seen as both a popular musician and a revolutionary ally. When Zimbabwe won its freedom from the white Rhodesian regime in 1980, the Wailers played at the independence celebration. Through it all, Marley continued to forge a visionary music that opposed the tide of violence and celebrated the rhythms of life.
His diligence never faltered; finally, it was his own rebellious cells that brought him down. The cancer that finally killed him on May 11, 1981, had apparently developed from an untreated soccer injury – although in circumstances such as these, one can never be entirely certain what happened or why. One can only be certain of Marley's enduring musical legacy.
The beauty of Marley's music is that while it holds a special significance for the sufferers of this world, it speaks to any listener with an open heart. You don't have to understand the sociopolitical background or the Rasta subculture – or even Marley's Trenchtown patois – to get it. The rhythms are as close as your heartbeat, the voice speaks a language the spirit understands. And, yes, when it hits, you feel no pain.