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Bob Marley with a Bullet

It I dream, mon, every Rastamon’s dream, to fly home to Ethiopia and leave a-Babylon, where de politicians doan let I an’I brethren be free an’live we own righteous way

Bob Marley on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Bob Marley on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Annie Leibovitz

Man to man is so unjust
You don’t know who to trust . . .
Who the cap fit
Let them wear it

—”Who the Cap Fit” Rastaman Vibration


Two heavy Sahibs are presiding over a small dinner party in the Jonkanoo Lounge of the Sheraton-Kingston. In the background the house band is playing calypso versions of such Rum Culture standards as “You Go to My Head” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.” They are Chris Blackwell, the young Jamaican Caucasian heir to a tea and spice plantation who founded Island Records, and Michael Butler, the “hip millionaire” who backed “Hair.’

Butler is in Kingston in connection with a new reggae musical he hopes to put on the Broadway boards by next fall. It will be called “Irie’ and presumably it will do for the Armageddon of the Rastas what Butler’s previous production did for the Aquarius of the hippies.

Asked if he intends to hire a real Rasta cast, Butler yawns. “Well, I’d like to . . . but I don’t know how many Rastas belong to Actor’s Equity in New Yawk.”

The two young millionaires look like two peas in a pod. But it becomes obvious that Blackwell is not all that thrilled about Butler’s intention to translate his beloved roots music into a slick Broadway musical. Until a few years ago the rip-off on the grand scale was standard practice in Kingston, with greedy shyster producers paying musicians $10 or $15 for a session and pocketing the royalties themselves. Black-well is credited with almost singlehandedly changing all that; he at least pays his artists advances and gives them a fair share of the royalties, and the precedent he set forced other labels to follow suit. He is also most responsible for spreading the gospel of roots beyond the Trench Town ghetto and the Third World. He did it by literally busting his hump – pedaling around London on a bicycle in the mid-Sixties with stacks of singles under his arm, personally delivering product to record stores and hustling disc jockeys to at least give a listen to this contagious roots music of the Jamaican Rude Boys.

There is this story they tell, possibly even true, about the incident that made Black-well devote his life to spreading the fever. It, seems that some years ago, Blackwell’s car broke down in the Blue Mountains – Rasta country – and he was forced to seek shelter in one of their primitive encampments. Being white and growing up in Jamaica, Blackwell was understandably wary of the Rastas. But when the righteous brethren extended hospitality as though he were one of their own, he dedicated himself to making the indigenous roots music of these good and much maligned people a household word on both continents.

Thus, when it is suggested that it would be ironic if Michael Butler rather than Bob Marley finally breaks reggae in a big way in the States, Blackwell says, “Yes, that would be most ironic indeed.”

Then Butler asks, “By the way, Chris, where does one go to hear some good live reggae music here in Kingston?”

A sly Cheshire cat smile spreads across Blackwell’s face. “I’m afraid, Michael, that one doesn’t,” he answers. “You see, reggae isn’t really what you would call a live music per se . . . The only place it really exists is on record.”

Butler is crushed, but Blackwell isn’t quite finished. “I’m afraid, Michael, that the only live music you’re going to hear in Kingston is the kind of terrible tourist crap we’re listening to right now,” he concludes, as the house band climaxes, loud and corn-ball, its raucous calypso rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.”

Didn’t my people before me
Slave for this country
Now you look me with a scorn
Then you eat up all my corn

—”Crazy Baldhead” Rastaman Vibration

The first time I met Rastafarians in any significant numbers and felt the full impact of the wild, freaking frightwigs they call dreadlocks up close was over at Tommy Cowan’s rehearsal studios, in a small stucco building surrounded by several dilapidated shacks on a back lot in North Kingston. Six or seven Rastas and three white visitors were crowded into a small room filled with ganga smoke, listening to a new single, “Babylon Queen-dom,” by former Wailers rhythm guitarist Peter Tosh. There was a lot of sly signifying going on.

Tosh showed up at the studio wearing a “Legalize It” T-shirt (a promo item for his single of the same name – banned from the public airwaves but available in every ghetto record stall) with wildass natty dreads wigging out and probably enough cannabis resin in the Sherlock Holmesian “chalis” jutting out of his Fearless Fosdick jaw to put him in the Herb Jail until such time as Babylon finally saw fit to fall. In other words: a Rasta right down to his corn plastas.

Back in the mid-Sixties Tosh, Bob Marley and Bunny Livingstone had formed the island’s most popular recording group in the Trench Town ghetto when they were still called the the Wailing Rudeboys. Tosh was here, talking with Gregg Russell, a sullen young man with one wild dread sticking smack out of the center of his forehead like a rhino horn. Like most Rastas who chain-smoke the sacred herb as a sacrament, Russell appeared to be semicomatose.

The only Rasta who looked slightly less than righteous was Tommy Cowan, a beefy record producer whose relatively tame dreadlocks seemed not quite kosher. But Cowan thrust a fist into the air with the others and said, “Jah Rastafar-I” with the same righteous fervor when Tosh sang, “Babylon Queendom, take back your dollahs!”

Considering that these very Rastas were compromising their staunch separatist principles for nothing other than Babylon’s despised dollars by consenting, however reluctantly, to this experiment in culture shock and publicity which had come to think of as the “Greening of the Rastafari,” the line seemed ironic indeed. But when I mentioned this to Tosh, he patiently explained that the money of Babylon was mere paper which would be useless when Babylon finally fell.

“Render unto Caesar what be his, mon, and giveback what mine,” he said, seeming very satisfied with himself for coming up with just the right quote. “Let de Rum Culture keep dem paper money, mon, paper dat is so cheap it not even suffice for rollin’ de spliff!”

Ganga has never exactly been legal in Jamaica, but nobody in the Rum Culture got excited about the Rastas and their copious dope smoking until rumors of “a cult of violence” started a campaign of constant police harassment which continues to this day.

“Dem dat enforces de laws of de Rum Culture claim de Herb Mon him violent,” said Tosh. “But dem no notice when de Rum Mon crash his car into de schoolbus an “destroy all de innocent childrun inside . . .  Dem claim de Herb Mon him kill, but it de Rum Mon who murder in a drunken rage – yeh mon! Herb Mon him no kill . . . him jus’ sharpen de blade, sharpen an’ polish de blade while meditatin’ on him revenge . . . Den him smoke anodder spliff an’ him get to feelin’ righteous, mon, an’ sleep, forgettin’ to commit de crime!”

Then a new face appeared in the door, sniffing suspiciously and saying “Phew, mon, what dat smell in heah?”

The outsiders must have been anticipating the same hippie in-joke about the heavy ambiance of dope in the room until he let go with the punch line:

“Mon, it smell like Am-ur-i-ca in heah!”

A rain a fall but the dirt it tough
A pot a cook but the food no’ ‘nough . . .
We’re gonna dance to Jah music, dance,
Forget your troubles and dance

—”Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)” Natty Dread

Not until it dawned on me that the Rastas and their music are under heavy anaesthesia and that the violence of reggae (like everything else in Jamaica from room service to interviews with Bob Marley) is on a soon come basis, could I understand how so much social outrage could coexist with the ricky-tick syncopations of reggae. The disparity was even more disturbing when I first arrived in Babylon and saw what all that benumbed and bemuted outrage was about.

“Is this the area they call Trench Town?” I asked the cab driver, gawking out the back window at endless pathetic claptrap shanties and tin-roofed shacks. “Noooooo, mon,” he said, swerving to avoid a stray goat, “Trench Town is a bad place. Dat be in de ghetto.”

Unfortunately, the distinction was lost on me. For, not even the most strident protests of Marley, Tosh and other reggae artists, or the reggae cult film, The Harder They Come, had prepared me for the absolute squalor I saw along the narrow Casbah thoroughfares where sullen Caribbean Staggerlees stood on Catfish Row corners outside funky, blasting juke-joints with paint-potched Red Stripe Beer signs dangling down. Nothing had done justice to this place, I realized, staring dejectedly out the window at too many ragged urchins with spidery limbs and swollen bellies swarming through the Casbah swelter, scattering all my palmy, tourist-brochure preconceptions along that dismal roadside.

Then, my spirits lifted momentarily when the first real live Rastafarian I had ever seen breezed by on a motorbike, dreadlocks flying like freakflags. But my driver apparently found the spectacle less than exhilarating. “Bloodclot!” he spat (a mean menstrual epithet which may be the worst thing you can call someone in Jamaica). “Like de fruit fly dat prey upon de crops dem bloodclots wid de dreadlocks is a blight upon dis very island . . . No, mon, dem not de true religious mon what grow de dreadlock for strictly religious purposes as claimed by dem . . . Dem gunmen dat grow de dreads to strike fear in de heart of de people. My advice to you is stay away from dem bloodclots dat call demself de Rastas, mon. Dem racist murderers dat prey upon de tourist and de people alike.”

A couple of nights later I remembered his warning when a guy called “Killy,” who plays conga drums for the Sons of Negus, came to take me and a couple of other Babes-in-a-Babylon to a religious Rasta celebration known as Grounation.

The Grounation took place in Olympic Gardens, a funky suburban shantytown of small decrepit buildings not far from Trench Town, with bonfires burning, babies bawling and dogs barking in the surrounding blackness. The smell of human sweat and ganga was everywhere as the bodies milled around in little dirt alleyways between the clapboard shacks and poured into a crude pentecostal meeting hall, slightly larger than the rest, which looked like a one-room schoolhouse.

The room was packed with people, and the whole scene had the quality of some voodoo hallucination as they danced, fluid phantoms in the glow of a single candle burning on a makeshift altar beside a battered Bible. Killy took his place among a brace of drummers who were already pounding away. They were backing veteran reggae singer Ras Michael, a bearded, goatlike man who was sweating profusely in a bulky cable-knit sweater, singing a song called “In Zion.” This was the most basic, noncommercial type of reggae music – unadorned and undiluted. The pentecostal fervor peaked when Michael went into “Old Marcus Garvey” – a song made popular by another local group, Burning Spear.

Suddenly, several soldiers appeared in the doorway. But the spliffs and the music kept smoking as Ras Michael aimed his song at the intruders like a spear. Wearing the sour faces of party poopers everywhere, they seemed to decompose into the surrounding dark, like spirits banished by communal scorn or some witch doctor’s charm.

The drummers pounded triumphantly and the people rose up off bare fundamentalist benches, bare feet thudding on bare floorboards. Moon-faced women in sack dresses with spliffs lighting their gold-toothed smiles rolled their hips in perfect undulation, while old, rabbinical, bearded Rastamen (dreadlocks snowy but still full of juice) executed sly signifying choreographies and infants barely able to walk danced around the singer’s feet, toddling in perfect reggae time. (This is how you would have to grow up if you wanted to call yourself “roots”!) Meanwhile, a bunch of giggling kids stared in the window as a white photographer danced in spastic, acid-casualty abandonment.

“De roots music have powerful magic, mon, to drive out de armies of a Babylon and make dem soldiers shameful for dem trespassin’,” Michael explained later as we gagged down the ritual goat soup, flavored with herb and ladled out of a big black pot. “Why dem soldiers come here? What need to come where people is peaceful and makin’ music to praise Jah? Dem feel foolish an’ shameful for comin’, mon, to de Rasta camp to disturb de peaceful Grounation . . . “

What bearing it has on the entire subject of roots, I do not know, but eyeing us through the door was a heavyset middleaged woman, swaying in a hammock strung across the alley. She was smoking a spliff and every couple of seconds she would giggle to herself and, in a warbling crone’s drone, she would start to sing. She kept singing the same chorus over and over, and while the melody was familiar, the words sounded foreign through her pepperpot patois . . . until I recognized “Like a Rhinestone Cowboy.”

The sun shall not smite I
By day, nor the moon by night
And everything that I do
Shall be upfull and right

—”Night Shift” Rastaman Vibration

When I first encountered Bob Marley he was sitting in an upstairs windowsill in his house on Hope Road, smoking the inevitable spliff and studying the brilliant tropic treetops, deep in herbal meditation. In fact, Marley was so whacked out of his skull that it was possible to study him in perfect nubian- carving profile for several seconds before it even dawned on him that he had company.

Driving up, the first thing you noticed was the silver gray BMW parked in the driveway. The next thing was that the house is only partially painted – as though the workman, breaking for a noonday spliff, had become so fascinated with how that near psychedelic shade of shocking pink repelled Jah’s own light that he’d forgotten to finish the rest.

Hope Road is a relatively affluent street of respectable middle-class dwellings within spitting distance of some of the worst slums in the Western Hemisphere. Hope House, surrounded by a spacious overgrown yard with several smaller structures out back (one of which is being converted into a recording studio), is still palatial by local standards. The place is that particular combination of righteously ratty and pop-star regal the Jefferson Airplane fashioned in the good old days of Up-Against-the-Wall-Motherfucker in the late Sixties. Except that instead of being splashed with a rainbow riot of dayglo, the walls of these barely furnished rooms are streaked with the dour khakis, visceral crimsons and militant mustards of black nationalism.

Surely Marley must have watched us drive up. As he sits there, looking surprisingly like Ché Guevara with his celebrated dreads stashed in an oversized beret, one can only speculate on what grave matters preoccupy him. Now that even Time magazine has acknowledged Marley as “a political force to rival the government,” perhaps he is considering the not-so-remote possibility of a surprise raid from the governor general’s white colonial headquarters, less than a mile down Hope Road. At least that would explain the tense hush that hangs over this house, making it seem like a guerrilla encampment. Given the uniqueness of his position, however, it seems just as possible he is calculating the effect that the upcoming parliamentary elections in Kingston might have on the sales of his latest single, a scathing political statement called “Rat Race.”

In any event, Marley registers the grievously put-upon frown of a general whose vital meditations have been interrupted, when suddenly he notices three white mercenaries of Babylon standing in his doorway. Mustering a terse grace, Marley rises up and leads the way down to the yard, where he had agreed to pose, coy as any major pop star, lounging on the hood of his BMW. Perhaps this proud, imperialist bearing was inherited from his father, who’s rumored to have been a white officer in the British army.

Anyone naive enough to wonder aloud why such a righteously rebellious, nonmaterialistic culture hero would own the same kind of car Michael Manley drives will be treated to a taste of fine Rasta logic: BMW stands for “Bob Marley and the Wailers.” And why does he submit to so many photo sessions? “I tell you what,” Marley says, “if the amount of records sell the amount of photo dem take – great! More than 2 million photo dem take already!”

Not to imply that Bob Marley has been bending over backward or anything. Stu Weintraub, Marley’s American booking agent, told me it was touch and go and soon came for a hell of a long time before he finally got Bob Marley and the Wailers to play in the States.

“Every two weeks another emissary would arrive from Jamaica to tell me it was either on or off again . . .  It went on for so long that when I finally met Bob, when he finally showed up in my office in New York, I said, “So, you’re a real flesh and blood’ person! I was beginning to have my doubts!'”

From the beginning, Weintraub refused to let Marley and the Wailers open for any other act – not even the Rolling Stones, who offered the golden opportunity to expand a growing cult following when they asked to have the Rastaman as the opening act on their last tour.

“Naturally, I had to wonder if I was doing the right thing. How can you turn down a gig like that and not wonder?! But my feeling was that although not enough people knew about Bob Marley yet, he was already on his way to becoming a tremendous star . . . and stars don’t open, they headline.

Weintraub says he was finally convinced he’d been right all along when the turnout for the most recent American tour surpassed even his expectations.

“We could have filled large stadiums like Madison Square Garden easily,” Weintraub tells me. “But instead I chose to present Bob in medium-sized halls, in more intimate surroundings, where he could come across as what he is – a profoundly religious man expounding a profoundly religious message.”

Marley himself will tell you that he submits to invasions of his privacy by foreign writers and photographers more to spread the gospel of Rastafarianism than for fame or gain.

“Mos’ time me no see nobody but I brethren, I family,” he says with a sweeping gesture of the arm, as though to embrace his extended family who are standing around, his five-year-old son Robbie playing with a miniature car in the yard and a pretty, brown-skinned woman smoking a spliff as though it were a Virginia Slim and gazing pensively down from the upstairs window where we first found him.

“Mos’ time me no see nobody but dem, an’ jus’ stay heah an’ wit I music an’ I meditatin’, mon. But sometime I like to talk to scribes for dem dat slow to catch onto I message, mon. Sometime it good for I and I to talk, “cause sometime it cleah de air, mon . . . you understand?”

Although communication is hampered by his heavy patois and made even more difficult by the use of such exotic Rastafarian expressions as “I and I” (which can be misconstrued as “me and mine” or “me, myself and I” until an outsider is informed that the phrase stands for “you and I” or all “I-manity”), Marley does seem eager to expound on the message behind his music.

“De only t’ing me no like is when dem get I message wrong, mon,” states the star, leaning back on the hood of his BMW in his Ché-beret and flicking ash off that cigar-sized spliff like Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar.

“Me hafta laugh sometime when dem scribes seh me like Mick Jagger or some superstar t’ing like dat . . . . Dem hafta listen closeh to de music, “cause de message not de same . . . Noooo, mon, de reggae not de Twist, mon!”

The thought that anyone could possibly get the two mixed up seems to both irritate and amuse him, as well it should; for the message of most roots music is a far and angry cry from the inane anatomical cataloging of Chubby Checker and the like. But it also seems true that the origins of this hybrid ghetto music have as much to do with such delightful pop incongruities as James Brown (or even Hank Williams) caterwauling out of transistorized palm trees as the African rhythms and pentecostal-frenzied Holy Roller sects of myriad fundamentalist persuasions have with sources as diverse as Christianity and voodoo. Marley was already mining the mainstream for popular myth when he created, in his third LP released in the States, a folk hero called “Natty Dread,” whose roots were closer to the rebel prototypes portrayed in early AM classics like “He’s a Rebel” and “Leader of the Pack” than to old Marcus Garvey. For one thing, his Jamaica-born mother is a naturalized U.S. citizen who now owns a record store in Wilmington, Delaware, and Marley himself spent something like two years in Wilmington with her, working on the assembly line in the local Chrysler plant, it is said, before splitting back to his native island in the late Sixties to avoid the Vietnam draft call.

But when I mention that period to Marley he mutters about how “everyt’ing speeds too fast, people have too much work an’ too much worry” in the States. And when I ask him to confirm specifics, his patois turns so thick, so slurred, that it sounds like he’s talking in tongues. As his final retreat, he evokes the inarguable privilege of all righteous Rastas and returns to his semicoma and stares off into space, transcending my presence altogether. Marley’s reluctance to discuss the time he spent in Wilmington seems as logical as Bob Dylan‘s refusal to discuss his high school days back in Hibbing, Minnesota.

The public myth must be protected, especially now that some reggae purists are complaining that his latest American LP, Rastaman Vibrations, seems noticeably diminished in roots and perhaps a shade too rock & rolly. But the album’s sales, according to the people at Island Records, have already topped his previous three LPs combined and the album is still climbing the charts, goosed along by his recent tour. Most of these detractors may not be ready to relegate Bob Marley to the commercial limbo where Jimmy Cliff, the first reggae artist to become well-known in the U.S., now languishes. But these critics now point to Burning Spear, a group heavily into African chants, as the group to listen to if you want to hear some nitty-gritty roots, rude and raw.

Like the folk purists who screamed “sellout” when Bob Dylan went electric, such critics are missing the point that Marley, like Dylan, has transcended genre – that he may even have transcended roots! You only have to see him onstage, a dancing dervish, dreadlocks windmilling, to realize that here is a rock & roll star.

Yet, Marley seems genuinely committed to his faith, and when he talks about the pilgrimage he soon plans to make to Ethiopia, it is clear that his heart remains in the highlands of that mythic mecca. “It I dream, mon, every Rastamon’s dream, to fly home to Ethiopia and leave a-Babylon, where de politicians doan let I an’I brethren be free an’live we own righteous way. Dat’s why I goan der buy land an’ bring my family back wid me, mon, because a-Babylon mus’ fall. It true so much wickedness mus’ end, but when? Me an’I brethren no want to wait no more, ’cause our Jah, him tell us go home to we Ethiopia an’ leave a-Babylon to perish in it own wickedness, mon. I doan know why . . . but it mus’ be . . . “

Since it is difficult for an outsider to argue with the black and white logic of Rasta doctrine, we ponder such things in solemn silence for a while, watching dusk descend on the yard, where several of the brethren are standing around in a slightly unnerving state of suspended animation. And while Marley seems to have made his own private peace with the contradictions of being both the revered spokesman for an indigenous Jamaican religious sect and a marketable commodity in the roaring rock & roll arenas of the world, these silently scornful members of his extended family, with their impenetrable almond eyes, begin to seem less hospitable. Maybe they’re not exactly trying to Mau Mau anybody – for Marley, after all, is the paterfamilias who will pay their passage to the promised land, and Marley’s will is clearly the law of this lawn.

Then Marley seems to brighten and he says, “It take many year, mon, an’maybe some bloodshed mus’be, but righteousness someday prevail . . . Yeh, mon, me know, “cause everywhere we go when we play outside Jamaica, all ovah the whorl, I see I dreadlock brethren everywhere . . . a-growin’ up strong like herb stalks in de field . . . Yeh, mon, it gladden I heart to see Natty Dreadlock him everywhere growin’ strong . . . it future, mon.”

Nor does he think it might compromise his message and turn his faith into some fad (“like the Twist”) if some young people started growing dreadlocks more to emulate Bob Marley than to follow the tenets of Rastafarianism.

“It be good, mon,” he insists. “”Cause dat be a beginnin’. First dem grow de dreadlocks den dem soon understan’ de message an’ be righteous.”

When I remind him of how the hippies – surely he must remember the hippies? – once thought that merely growing hair and smoking dope would make them righteous, that nowadays it is note uncommon to see long-haired policemen, Marley insists that the analogy does not apply.

“You will never see de dreadlock, mon, be a policeman,” he snaps, seemingly annoyed at the very inference.

“Dat’s why I seh in I new tune, “Rat Race’: “Rastamon no work for CIA . . . ‘ It never be, mon, because Rastamon him not like hippie . . . Him hold-a on long time an’ hippie no hold-a on, him fail. De hippie should-a hold on five more year until we come. Den dem hippies be de Rastamon, too! Yeh, mon, look at you: you have de beard an’ you hair look like de dreadlocks!”

No, the man is not without his own wry humor, to be sure.

But Marley suddenly seems to turn off the charm when a photographer requests that he move to another part of the yard, where there’s still a patch of natural light. Marley flatly refuses, telling him that if he wants him in another place he will have to come back another day. While Marley’s ultimatum seems less the whim of a pop prima donna than an honest admission of inertia, it only adds to the stalemated tension as the shadows of the dreadlock brethren lengthen in the darkening yard, making the distances between us seem vast as all Ethiopia.

This story is from the August 12th, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone.


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