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Bob Marley: 1945-1981

The king of reggae finds his Zion

Bob Marley

Bob Marley

Paul Natkin/WireImage

Open your eyes and look within
Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?
We know where we’re going
We know where we’re from
We’re leaving Babylon
We’re going to our father’s land
– Bob Marley, “Exodus,” 1977

Death took Bob Marley in his sleep on May 11th at the age of thirty-six. It was around noon, just forty hours since he had flown to a Miami hospital after checking out of Dr. Josef Issels’ West German clinic, where he had been treated for lung, liver and brain cancer. Days earlier, Chris Blackwell, a close friend and head of his record label, Island, had shown Marley a photo taken of him when he was sixteen, on the day he was married to Rita Anderson. Looking over Blackwell’s shoulder, gazing at her slight son as he lay in bed, his dreadlocks gone due to the illness, Bob’s mother said that he looked the same now as he did back then.

“Once a man and twice a boy,” Chris Blackwell said later. “That’s the way it was.”

***

The pervasive image of Bob Marley is that of a gleeful Rasta with a croissant-sized ganja spliff clenched in his teeth, stoned silly and without a care in the world. But, in fact, he was a man with deep religious and political sentiments who rose from destitution to become one of the most influential music figures in the last twenty years. His records have sold in the multimillions and have been covered and/or publicly adored by Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Linda Ronstadt and Paul Simon, among others. Marley was also incredibly prolific, writing and releasing hundreds of songs that were bootlegged under nearly half as many labels in an equal number of far-flung locales. There was hardly one kid in the Caribbean who did not want to meet, if not be, Bob Marley.

On the day before his triumphant Madison Square Garden concert in 1979 – a sold-out event that would prove to be a turning point for commercial recognition of reggae in this country–Marley talked about his first record, the solo single “Judge Not,” cut in 1961. He recalled how excited he was when he sang it at a talent show in Montego Bay. He was sixteen then, just another poor country boy in the Kingston ghetto of Trench Town who dreamed of hearing his voice blare out of a jukebox. That same year, he did. And less than two years later, Marley would be a founding member of the trio known as the Wailers, harmonizing with boyhood friends Neville O’Riley Livingston, now known as Bunny Wailer, and Winston Hubert McIntosh, a.k.a. Peter Tosh.

“I was a skinny child with a squee-ky voice,” he said, erupting in the creaking sandpaper cough that was his laugh. “So skinny, mon! Skinny like a stringy bean!”

***

Marley was always open in his gratitude to Chris Blackwell, the white Jamaican producer and founder of Island who rescued him from the shark-infested Caribbean record industry and staked him through thick and, often, thin. Island leased and reissued “Judge Not” (albeit under the misnomer “Bob Morley”) in England in 1964, as well as a succession of Wailers singles, but the initial Island LP, Catch a Fire, didn’t appear until 1973.

The first Wailers album to see widespread international distribution, it was not an immediate commercial smash. But critical reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with much praise for the record’s hypnotic, sulfurous songs. Intriguingly, the loping, hiccuping stutter-beat that propelled them was the inside-out opposite of funky American R&B tempos. Blackwell and Marley were thrilled with the response, and a long-term alliance was forged.

The Wailers had gone through several maturation processes to arrive at their sophisticated, heavily rock-influenced sound in the Seventies and Eighties. There was the ska period (1964 to 1966) with producer Clement Dodd; their shaky rock-steady explorations (1966 to 1967) with Leslie Kong on the Beverley’s label; the Lee Perry era (1967 to 1970); and the obscure but uniformly excellent material turned out in the late Seventies and Eighties on Marley’s independent Tuff Gong label. (Tuff Gong, incidentally, derives from “Gong,” an old street name of Marley’s that was also the nickname of early Rastafarian leader Leonard Howell.

The Waiters’ music was never less than danceable, and Bob assumed the roles of shaman, soothsayer and dance instructor at his concerts, encouraging the audience to fall in step with his lithe rebel’s hop as he transformed the proceedings into a mass mesmerization that owed more to a Pentecostal revival or a Rastafarian Grounation meeting than a rock concert.

Marley and the others supplied the religious fervor, but following their juvenile rock-steady meanderings, it was Lee Perry who redirected the group musically and vocally. Marley wrote some of his finest songs (“Duppy Conqueror,” “Small Axe” and “Brain Washing”) with Perry, and while Perry’s substandard recording facilities held them back technically, he pushed Bob to eschew his lazy singing style. Marley’s approach suddenly became urgent, plaintive, unencumbered by the silly vocal gymnastics that sometimes marred the Wailers’ ska and rock-steady singles.

Perry advised the group to minimize its hackneyed falsetto harmonies and work on unobtrusive backing vocals that would serve as a cushion for sharp, assertive leads. Peter Tosh had an errant baritone he’d long tried to contain, and both Marley’s and Bunny Wailer’s tenors were fluid but untempered and sloppy. It didn’t matter, Perry told them, be genuine and go for the gut. And Perry wasn’t obsessed with horns, as were so many other Jamaican producers; he preferred a hard rhythm guitar that was “cuffed” in sharp counterpoint to the bass, which he allowed to belly to the foreground. The tempo was thud-heavy, volatile and as insistent as a nagging child.

This is how reggae should sound!” Perry carped.

Jealousy and internal power plays ultimately plagued the Wailers, and Peter and Bunny departed in 1973 after the followup LP, Burnin’, to pursue solo careers. “Jamaica is a place where you easily build up competition in your mind,” Marley said of the breakup. “People here feel like they must fight against me and I must fight against you. Sometimes a guy feels he should do that because he might never have no schoolin’ and I went to school, so he feel he must sing some song to wipe me off the market or I should do the same. Jealousy. Suspicion. Anger. Poverty. Competition. We should just get together and create music, but there’s too much poverty fuckin’ it up. People don’t get time to expand their intelligence. Sometimes I think the most intelligent people are the poorest – they just want to eat.

“God created the earth for us, but people wonder, ‘Who owns the tree, who owns the ladder, who owns the ganja pipe?’ ” He shook his dreadlocks in disgust.

“When the thieves took up with reggae music, mon, they have it made! It easy in Jamaica for any guy who have a few dollars to rent a studio, go in, get a recording, ask the engineer to mix it. The hustlers move in as soon as he’s gone into the street; the record goes into stores and Jojo knows nothing about what happened! Jamaicans go slow, everything is ‘soon come,’ but if there’s one thing Jamaicans rush about, it’s making a recordin’!”

When he finished, Bob sat quietly for a moment and then burst out laughing. “Ahh, nothin’ is important that much, eh?” he said with a bobbing nod and a shrug.

***

On December 5th, 1976, two compact cars stormed into Marley’s Hope Road compound in Kingston, where the Wailers and the Zap-Pow horns were rehearsing for the upcoming Smile Jamaica concert that was being sponsored by the group and the Jamaican Cultural Ministry. Wielding automatic rifles, at least seven gunmen peppered his home with bullets. Marley’s wife was shot as she tried to escape in a car with some of their children and a reporter from the Jamaican Daily News; a bullet lodged itself between her scalp and skull but did not penetrate the bone.

Meanwhile, Marley’s manager at the time, Don Taylor, was lying in his own blood at the front of the house. Five bullets had torn into his lower torso, and another punctured Marley’s breast near his armpit and then passed through his biceps. Taylor was critically wounded and faced permanent paralysis in his legs, but he recovered fully; Marley was treated at a hospital, released and went on to perform at the music festival. The gunmen were never found, and a motive was never established, although it was presumably political. Jamaica was then undergoing a wave of violence over the future of its Democratic Socialist government, and Marley was seen as being sympathetic to Prime Minister Michael Manley’s controversial regime.

“When I decided to do this concert two and a half months ago, there were no politics,” Marley told a crowd estimated at 80,000. “I just wanted to play for the love of the people.”

At the close of his performance, Bob opened his shirt and rolled up his sleeves to show his wounds. The last thing the audience saw before the reigning king of reggae disappeared into the hills was this spindly man mimicking the two-pistoled, showdown stance of a frontier gunslinger, his head thrown back in triumphant laughter.

Marley’s homeland is a one-time slave depot caught between white colonialism and African pride. As the warring native factions in its present independent government deliberate about what is best for their country, they never lose sight of the fact that, until 1962, a Jamaican’s opinion was far less important than that of an Englishman. Marley symbolized a bold, hopeful bridge spanning the cultural chasms of Jamaica, and the third world was galvanized by his denunciations of colonialism and his vivid depictions of ghetto strife, while white listeners were drawn by his passion, his conciliatory codas and the childlike affection in his lulling ballads. Ironically, aspects of Jamaica’s racial tensions were reflected in the Marley family tree.

Robert Nesta Marley was born in the rural parish of St. Ann, Jamaica, on February 6th, 1945, to Norval Marley, a white, fiftyish British army captain stationed on the island, and his seventeen-year-old Jamaican wife, Cedella. Marley was efficacious in his ability to straddle his bloodlines. “He was just like any other little boy, always playful, lovin’ and cooperative with his friends,” says Cedella Marley Booker (she remarried in 1963). “But sometimes he was a little selfish. And he always looked to me like he was hiding his true feelin’s.”

Bob was eight years old when his parents separated. His mother decided to give up her tiny grocery store in Alva, a village near the district of Nine Miles, Rhoden Hall, and move to Trench Town. His father died two years later. “I believe it was malaria,” says Mrs. Booker.

In their early days in Kingston, Bob’s mother made ends meet by working as a cook or servant. Although the two lived modestly, Mrs. Booker, disliking the area’s inferior public-school system, struggled to earn enough to send Bob to private institutions.

But she wasn’t breaking her back doing other people’s wash so her son could boot a soccer ball off the tumbledown walls of Babylon, and as soon as Bob completed grammar school, she insisted he settle on a trade.

“I really didn’t choose anything special as a job for him,” she says. “I knew men who were doing welding for a livin’, and I suggested that he go down to the shop and make himself an apprentice. He hated it. One day he was welding some steel and a piece of metal flew off and got stuck right in the white of his eye, and he had to go to the hospital twice to have it taken out. It caused him terrible pain; it even hurt for him to cry.”

At the time, the Marleys were sharing a roof with best friend Bunny Wailer and his father, Thaddius Livingston. Once his eye healed, Bob convinced his mother that he could make a more comfortable living pursuing a musical career with Bunny. “Bob wrote little songs, and then he and Bunny would sing them,” his mother says. “Sometimes I’d teach him a tune like ‘I’m Going to Lay My Sins Down at the River side.'”

Bunny says that he constructed a guitar out of “a bamboo staff, the fine wires from an electric cable and a large sardine can.” He and Bob made do with the crude instrument until Peter Tosh, who lived on nearby West Road, joined in with his battered acoustic guitar. They formed a group and called themselves the Teenagers, the Wailing Rudeboys and then the Wailing Wailers, playing in local “yards” for tips and eventually in small clubs and talent shows in Kingston theaters.

In 1963. Mrs. Booker immigrated to Delaware and moved in with relatives. Because of the expense, Bob stayed behind in the care of Mr. Livingston and other friends. Moreover, he was committed to his musical career in Jamaica, since the Wailers had grown, with the guidance of Joe Higgs (half of the popular singing duo Higgs and Wilson), into a group worthy of a recording contract. Mrs. Booker sent for her son in 1964, just as the Wailers were establishing a relationship with Studio One, one of the top three recording outfits on the island, so he asked to remain in Jamaica.

Finally, in 1966, he paid his mother a visit, but he had little use for the United States, and Delaware in particular. By his own admission, “Everything was too fast, too noisy, too rush-rush.” Nonetheless, he prolonged his stay to earn money to start his own record label back home, and thus put some distance between himself and the predatory producers he and the Wailers were forced to deal with.

Among the jobs he held, under the alias Donald Marley, were a stint as a DuPont lab assistant and a short stretch on the night shift at a warehouse and on the assembly line of a nearby Chrysler plant. The introverted singer made few friends, preferring to merely tolerate the present and fantasize about the future. In his mother’s words, he was “lost without his musician friends.”

On weekends, he lolled around the house, picking out simple melodies on a cheap acoustic guitar and writing lyrics in a little book, a combination diary and songwriting ledger that he guarded judiciously. One of the songs that emerged from that private journal was “It’s Alright,” a caustic, exhortatory dance tune he cut in the late Sixties for Lee Perry’s Jamaican record company, Upsetter.

When Marley first recorded the song, it featured a bouncy, whoa-whoa chorus and antagonistic touts of “Do you like it hot or cold?” His temper had cooled by the time he recorded the song as “Night Shift” in the mid-Seventies, but the words changed only slightly, the power of one young man’s determination shining through as he described his lonely, ass-backward work schedule:

The sun shall not smite I by day
Nor the moon by night
And everything that I do shall be upfull and right . . .
Working on the night shift,
With the forklift. . . .

Marley’s stay in Delaware reportedly came to an end when the draft board discovered the lean West Indian after he applied for social security. But when asked about his departure, Bob would shrug and maintain that the ultimate impetus for his flight came from a far less mundane quarter.

While asleep at home one afternoon, he had a dream wherein a man attired in khaki and a weathered hat appeared, described himself as an emissary for the deceased Norval Marley and presented Bob with a ring set with a curious black jewel. He awoke from his mystical reverie and described the vision to his mother. She then produced the very ring in the dream, and Marley slipped it on his finger.

But it made him extremely uncomfortable to wear it, and he reasoned that he was being tested by God to ascertain whether he was more interested in personal gain than in spiritual fulfillment. He removed the ring and handed it back to his mother. After he returned to Trench Town, the message of the dream was interpreted further by Mortimer Planner, a Rasta elder and sometime record producer active in the ganja trade.

Bob Marley subsequently embraced the beliefs of the Rastafarians, who take their name from Lij Ras Tafari Makonnen, the given name of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie; they also draw a good deal of their ideology from Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa admonishments during the Twenties and Thirties, as well as from the Coptic and King James Bibles.

Slowly but surely, Marley let his Sam Cooke haircut go to seed, allowing the lengthening tresses to wind themselves into dreadlocks. He shunned alcohol, tobacco, meat, certain predatory species of marine life and food prepared with salt. Anything, in short, that was not I-tal, a Rasta term meaning “pure” or “natural.”

During a 1977 U.S. concert tour to support his Rastaman Vibration album, Marley was sitting in a hotel room, reading a newspaper article that ridiculed his patois. He slammed the paper on the table. “Fucking hell!” he raged. “Tell me, why do they make fun of me? Why do they make fun of Rasta?!” He began to spew out his frustration with those who mocked his dreadlocks, his dialect, his religion, his heritage. He said that he once gave an autograph to a journalist who then told him he was surprised Marley could write, and that he pointed out errors in a story to another reporter who could not conceal his amazement that this rope-haired Rastafarian knew how to read.

Marley was equally distraught over what he saw as the racism and ignorance of critics who damned his music along thematic lines while making no attempt to investigate its underpinnings, to learn that it was steeped in folklore, in the country maxims he had been raised on, in Rastafarian tenets. But what cut deepest was when some black DJs and station programmers in the United States called his records and those of his colleagues “jungle music” and “slave music.”

Still, Bob Marley was one of the most revered figures in the third world. Wherever he traveled in the Caribbean or Africa (and Europe, for that matter), he sparked enormous outpourings of affection and admiration. A hero of mythic proportions in his own country, where he was honored with a state funeral, Marley had been given a special citation by the United Nations in 1979 on behalf of third-world nations. And it was no accident that when Rhodesia became the independent state of Zimbabwe the next year, the first words spoken following the order to lower the British flag and raise the new standard were, “Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers!” The government had invited Marley and his band to perform at the ceremony marking the birth of a nation. An inspiration for black freedom fighters the world over, he was mobbed in Nigeria, Gabon and every other African country he played in or visited. When his death was announced, the degree of devastation felt beyond our borders was incalculable.

Bob Marley believed that he and his loved ones would one day be free of the degradation and moral turpitude of Babylon, a land without borders in which men sin and suffer for it. He was certain that someday he would enter Zion, the promised land where Jah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Power of the Holy Trinity, 225th ruler of the 3000-year-old Ethiopian Empire, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Heir to the Throne of Solomon, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, would take his hand. Across time and space they would keep that sacred appointment. You had to envy a man with so profound a faith, and you could not fail to be affected by the fervor of his answer in song to those who claimed that Selassie had died in 1975.

I stood on the other side of the glass in Harry J’s Kingston studio on the autumn evening in 1975 when Marley laid down the vocal tracks for “Jah Live.” As he sang, the crisp mesh of music and testimony grew louder, spiraling upward, higher and higher in a dizzying prosody of tension and release, until its spell was awesome in its psychic grip.

The truth is an offense, but not a sin!
Is he laugh last, is he who win!
Is a foolish dog barks at a flying bird!
One sheep must learn to respect the shepherd!
Jah live! Selassie lives, chil-dran!
Jah live! Jah-Jah live!

My final encounter with Bob Marley was last fall, the day after his second concert stand at Madison Square Garden. I was unaware of it at the time, but he was about to undergo diagnostic treatment for cancer at New York City’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital. Stretched out on the bed at the Essex House, he looked drained, frail and annoyed by the flock of hangers-on that filled the numerous rooms of his suite, guffawing loudly and helping themselves to room service.

The aura of joy that had always surrounded him had begun to dissipate. His payment for the previous night’s show arrived, and he looked pensively at the crisp stack of bills as if studying an old gimcrack to see if it still held meaning or should be discarded. He absently passed the money to a band member.

Several months later, I was told how sick Bob was. I began to think back on the pleasurable years I spent immersed in Bob Marley and the Wailers.

I remembered hunting through the basement of Daddy Kool Records in London in the winter of 1976. A contact at Island Records had told me it was a particularly good place to locate vintage ska, rock steady and reggae. Sure enough, there were tiers of singles and LPs stacked halfway to the ceiling and spilling out of broken bins. I waded into the confusion and located two of the many treasures I was after: a copy of “Simmer Down,” the Wailers’ first single, which was cut in 1964 for Jamaican producer Clement Dodd’s Studio One; the seminal trio was augmented by singers Junior Braithwaite, Beverly Kelso and a woman named Cherry. Singer Joe Higgs had helped them iron out the kinks in their harmonies, and instrumental backup was provided by various Skatalites. The rude-boy classic, admonishing unruly ghetto youths to control their tempers, was an instant hit.

The second record was the original version of “Duppy Conqueror,” which the Wailers recorded in 1967 while under contract to the Upsetter label. As Peter Tosh once explained to me, “The Wailers were more interested in ‘reality music’ than ‘I love you darlin,” and all that,” and the raw, rancorous call to arms that was “Duppy Conqueror” closed with the challenge, “Don’t try to show off/For I will cut you off/I will take your rass off.” I’ve never found a band as compelling as the Wailers and a singer who could fire my imagination like Marley.

What I will remember most about Bob Marley is how his music was so much a part of his life. Near the end of our first meeting, in Kingston in 1975, he began to speak about children, how close he felt to them, how their presence always strengthened him and how blessed he was by his own brood.

I told him how I had shuddered when I’d read a story in the Jamaican Daily News about the plight of local youngsters who forage through huge trash heaps on Causeway Road outside Kingston for food and clothing.

He nodded slowly and then told me he had recently written a song called “Children of the Ghetto.” “When my children are old enough to sing it,” he said, “I’m gonna record it with them.”

(“Children of the Ghetto,” since retitled “Children Playing in the Streets,” was released on Tuff Gong in 1979 by the Melody Makers, a group consisting of Bob and Rita’s four children.)

Slumped against the great, gnarled tree beside his house on that sun-splashed day, their father began to talk-sing the lyrics:

Children playing in the streets
In broken bottles and rubbish heap
Ain’t got nothin’ to eat
Only sweets dat rot dere teeth
Sitting in the darkness
Searching for the light . . .
Moma scream,” Watch that car!”
But hit-and-run man has gone too far.*

When he was finished, Bob turned away to watch Rita and son Robbie cavorting on the lawn, and he slipped into a trance. He picked up a stick, rolled it in his palms; his arms tensed and he broke the stick in half with a loud crack!

Then he relaxed, and his lips wrinkled in a weary grin.

“Ahh, Jamaica,” he sighed. “Where can your people go? I wonder if it’s anyplace on this earth.”

I saw his eyes; he knew the answer to that question.

*Copyright 1979, Tuff Gong Music

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