Having seen Bob Marley on the cover of seemingly every magazine in America with a cannabis giganticus planted in his mug finally puts you in mind of Robert De Niro’s last words to Harvey Keitel’s dealer/pimp in Taxi Driver: “Suck on this!”
Island gave Marley the big push — the only push any reggae artist really got beyond a guaranteed tax write-off — and now Marley and company are reaping the benefits of such monomaniacal zeal: Rastaman Vibration, the worst album he ever made until this one, hit the Top Twenty, and last summer’s Exodus finished in Billboard‘s Top Hundred LPs of 1977.
My bitterness may seem misdirected, even out of proportion. It’s just one man’s opinion, you understand, but for my money, Toots and the Maytals, who never got promoted properly, are the real heat waves from a Stax/Volt kitchen, whereas Marley (on Island, at least) always struck me as so laid back that he seemed almost MOR. Most white fans simply didn’t agree. “Toots is a very old-fashioned performer,” said one, and all felt that Marley was certainly the prophet incarnate of the Rastafarian scripture: the primest cut of all. (I wonder what that would make Winston “Burning Spear” Rodney? A revisionist?)
So, after becoming addicted to Toots and the Maytals, Burning Spear, et al., I dutifully went back to my Marley records and even bought the early Trojan imports, but it was no good. There were some great songs (which he kept recutting), but the delivery just seemed pallid. Rastaman Vibration was the last straw: an LP obviously calculated to break Disco Bob into the American Kleenex radio market full force, complete with chicklet vocal backups chirping, “Posi-tive!” and an opulent, palmthatch Tarzan-like press kit that would have made serviceable shelter for Gilligan and the Captain. Exodus simply seemed schizoid, one side no better than Rastaman Vibration outtakes, and the other a Rastafarian liturgy mouthing much righteousness but falling leagues short of the corrosive militance that led ex-Wailer Peter Tosh’s concurrently released Equal Rights to go so far as to mention Palestinian guerrillas admiringly. (Tosh has just been dropped by Columbia.) Marley was clearly trying to have it both ways, but broadcasting the politics of Armageddon/liberation while dishing up potential Hall and Oates covers like “Waiting in Vain” is walking a mighty shaky tightrope. On Kaya, he falls off. Guess to which side.
This is quite possibly the blandest set of reggae music I have ever heard, including all the Engelbertisms of would-be crossover crooners like John Holt. It’s pleasant enough if you just let it eddy along, but nothing on the ten cuts pulls you in like the hypnotic undertow of Burning Spear’s Marcus Garvey, haunts like the best from The Harder They Come soundtrack or churns up the guts and heart like Toots and the Maytals. Musically, Kaya is a succession of the most tepid reggae clichés, pristinely performed and recorded, every last bit of tourist bait (down to the wood blocks) in place just like a Martin Denny record. Marley sings in a cheerful lilt light and bouncy enough for panty-hose commercials. Four hundred years? Concrete jungles? Burning and looting? Pass the Man Tan, Irma.
In the past, though his delivery arguably lacked the force and intensity he seemed capable of, Marley always delivered concise, sometimes devastatingly understated, sometimes brilliant lyrical turns. Most of the words on Kaya apparently deal with the simple beauties of vegetable matter, the sun and other aspects of the insensate organic world, and how contented they make the singer feel. The placidity is so completely undisturbed (except in one song of love lost and the last two cuts, which really don’t say anything anyway) that Marley comes off as downright smug.
Some sort of inverse racism must be involved if people can actually ascribe commitment, or even talent, to verses like: “Excuse me while I light my spliff/Oh GOD I gotta take a lift/From reality I just can’t drift/That’s why I am staying with this riff.” Unless Marley is just heaping contempt on his ever-credulous white audience — which seems unlikely since his Jamaican fans are expected to buy this stuff, too — such lyrics place him sub-Chocolate Watchband. There’s also a song about how the rain is falling and how glad he is because that’ll make the dope crop grow. (Wonder if they have a Five-Year Plan?) Melanie Award: “When the morning gather the rainbow/Want you to know, I am a rainbow too.” Rhyming Dictionary op. cit.: “I wanna love you, and treat you right/I wanna love you, every day and every night.” Do these last lines make Bob Marley the Barry White of Montego Bay, or perhaps mean, given the assassination attempts and general war ina Babylon, that he merely wants to love the woman until the fear in him subsides? Probably the latter, considering the tall order placed in “Misty Morning”: “I want you to straighten out my today…/I want you to straighten out my tomorrow.” Whatever happened to Self-Determination Music? Oh well, gotta move with the times. There is one song intimating that his woman left him because she couldn’t take “the pressure around me,” but considering the Rastas’ well-known stand on women in general and the probability of that picture of Marley toting a model around a Paris disco having run in the Kingston Daily Gleaner, one must reserve the benefit of the doubt. Who wants to make the beast with two backs with a walking target who can’t keep his hands off the strange?
It has long been a theory of mine that marijuana should only be legalized for Third World peoples, since ofays in general just can’t handle it, becoming either paranoid, totally withdrawn or excruciatingly cosmic. When was the last time you saw an Arab or a Thai giggling all over him-or herself about the pattern in your carpet, or heard one of them say, “If I say anything weird, let me know, ’cause I’m stoned”? Yasir Arafat to the U.N.: “I need some Korn Kurls and a Yoo Hoo before I can finish my speech. Don’t any of you people ever get the munchies?” If my theory is correct, then maybe we can blame Kaya on an accident of the bloodline, Marley’s father being white. Otherwise, we’re just going to have to accept it: this man wants to be a superstar at all costs and will sell out his music, his people, his religion and his politics to get there. I know Jesus was betrayed by a kiss — but a toke?