Bob Marley's Reggae Legacy: Sects, Drugs and Rock & Roll

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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.

Rita Marley on Bob's Life

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.

The Life and Times of Bob Marley

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.

This story is from the February 24th, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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