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The Life and Times of Bob Marley

How he changed the world

March 10, 2005 12:00 AM ET

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 969 from March 10, 2005. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Bob Marley was already dying when he stood onstage in Pittsburgh that night, in September 1980. He had developed a malignant melanoma — an incurable cancer, by this time — that he had let progress unchecked, for reasons that he probably could not fathom at this hour. He was a man with no time, with a mission that no one in popular music had ever attempted before. In the past few years, he had managed to popularize reggae — a music that had once sounded strange and foreign to many ears — and to convey the truths of his troubled homeland, Jamaica, for a mass audience. Now he wanted to find ways to put across truths about people outside Jamaica and America, England and Europe. He wanted to speak for a world outside familiar borders — a world his audience didn't yet know enough about.

He wouldn't see that dream fulfilled. He would be dead in a few months, his body sealed in a mausoleum back in that troubled homeland of his.

But something fascinating has happened since Bob Marley died twenty-four years ago: He has continued. It isn't simply that his records still sell in substantial numbers (though they do), it's that his mission might still have a chance. It isn't a simple mission. Marley wasn't singing about how peace could come easily to the world but rather about how hell on earth comes too easily to too many. He knew the conditions he was singing about. His songs weren't about theory or conjecture, or an easy distant compassion. His songs were his memories; he had lived with the wretched, he had seen the downpressors and those whom they pressed down, he had been shot at. It was his ability to describe all this in palpable and authentic ways that sustains his body of music unlike any other we've ever known.

Bob Marley made hell tuneful, like nobody before or since. That's what has kept him alive.

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