Bob Marley: 1945-1981
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.