There have been an estimated 500 books about Bob Marley, according to author/broadcaster/historian/archivist Roger Steffens. Many are excellent: See Stephen Davis’ Bob Marley, Vivien Goldman’s career-peak profile The Book of Exodus and Steffens’ own Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Definitive Discography, co-authored with Leroy Jodie Pierson, which may be the most lovingly Herculean feat of record-collector archaeology ever.
So why do we need another? Steffens offers plenty of reasons in his accurately titled So Much Things to Say, due out in paperback October 30th. Here’s one: a riveting, nearly 40-page account, told from multiple eyewitness perspectives, of Marley’s 1976 Smile Jamaica performance and the (probably) politically motivated assassination attempt that preceded it. In one example of how he draws together the voices of this oral history into an illuminating narrative, Steffens writes: “It was, in my opinion, the most unprecedented and incredible moment in twentieth-century popular music history: Bob standing there with the bullet in his arm singing a cappella in front of eighty thousand people, just days before a pivotal national election, beside his wife who has a bullet lodged in her skull. What can you possibly compare that to?” This ain’t overstatement: From his hardscrabble Jamaican youth to his emergence as international superstar and revolutionary icon, Marley’s life story may be the most compelling in pop history.
As a respected reggae historian and an ongoing chronicler of Marley’s life and times, Steffens had for decades been compiling the interviews used in So Much Things to Say, both as host of the pioneering Reggae Beat show on KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, and as writer for The Beat, the groundbreaking music magazine that grew out of it. He’s the book’s guiding voice, but So Much Things to Say is a collective accomplishment. Marley’s lifelong comrade Bunny Wailer brings deep insights, as do other bandmates (especially singer Judy Mowatt and Wailers keyboardist Tyrone Downie) and associates. Steffens even includes the voices of other authors, Davis among them, giving credit where credit’s due.
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The mythology around Marley can make truth fuzzy; the book’s humble epigram is an “old folk saying” that maintains: “There are no facts in Jamaica, only versions.” Still, Steffens convincingly revises history: Marley father was evidently mixed-race, not white as often believed, and a British Army private, not an officer. Elsewhere, notably regarding the attempt on Marley’s life, Steffens lets multiple theories coexist without completely resolving them. Similarly, a teargassing incident in April 1980, at Marley’s legendary concert for Zimbabwe’s independence celebration — at the invite of President Robert Mugabe — unspools with chaotic crosstalk and conflicting memories, as one might expect given the circumstances. Deals with producers (including Lee Perry and Coxsone Dodd) and managers that turned sour are handled similarly, further testament to the universal shadiness of the music business.
Yet Steffens’ guiding hand draws a portrait with empathy and respect. Vivid stories of the Wailers as a five-person vocal group, back when Marley was known as “Lester,” come from original members Beverley Kelso, Junior Braithwaite, Ermine “Cherry Green” Bramwell and others. Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer discuss the split of the original Wailers trio, which Steffens considers, rightly, on the same order of cultural magnitude as the Beatles’ breakup. Cindy Breakspeare (“the great love of [Marley’s] life,” the author suggests) speaks candidly of his rise from pop star to presumed Third World savior, as do many friends, with remarkable tales at every turn. On occasions, one still wishes for more — wife Rita Marley, in particular, isn’t heard from enough.
But there are other books, other versions. In this one, Steffens accepts the mystery inherent in any honest history, and the result is a landmark.