From Robert Christgau's "ROCK & ROLL &" column on The Barnes & Noble Review
As Chris Salewicz's Bob Marley: The Untold Story isn't the first to report, many human beings worldwide -- he cites Hopis, Maoris, Indonesians, and of course Africans -- regard Bob Marley as a "Redeemer figure coming to lead this planet out of confusion," and some consider him nothing less than the literal second coming of Jesus Christ. Say what you will about the adoration accorded John Coltrane, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Um Kulthum -- this is another order of iconicity. Say what you will about the religious dimensions of pop fandom -- Marley's Rastafarianism renders the metaphor literal. These mystifications bode ill for Marley's biographers, who number at least 15 or 20 by now. Take for instance Stephen Davis, who closes with two triple-indented lines: "Bob Marley lives. He's a god./'History proves.'" And Davis's bio is one of the good ones.
Maybe it's the ganja -- well, definitely it's the ganja, with its built-in third eye, its aura of secret significance. More fundamentally, though, it's the transport, the release -- the suprarational rewards music lovers love music for, which Marley claims are owed solely to the divinity of the Ethiopian autocrat Haile Selassie. Who are we to gainsay him, especially we white Babylonians? He has bestowed upon us this feeling of transcendence, and not only that, articulated a political consciousness that needs articulating. "I remember on the slave ship/How they brutalized our very souls/Today they say that we are free/Only to be chained in poverty" might not turn many heads at a socialist scholars conference, but by pop standards it's a smart, blunt, hard-headed augury of militance. As a result, many all too readily suspend their disbelief when the politics turn out to herald twistier "reasonings," as Rastas call their stoned biblical bull sessions.
So when I noticed Salewicz embellishing his first-chapter account of Marley's fatal cancer with matriarch Cedella Booker's conspiracy theories and backup singer Judy Mowatt's lightning-bolt premonition, I said uh-oh. But these were feints. Davis's Bob Marley is wrenching on Marley's final months, Timothy White's Catch a Fire provides unmatched blow-by-blow on the Marley estate, and both bring their own details to the life story proper. But Salewicz's book is faster, fuller, and fairer than either. It's faster because through plenty of incident it sticks to the story, a welcome improvement on Salewicz's bloated 2007 Joe Strummer bio. It's fuller due not to Salewicz's relatively late and limited personal contact with his subject, but to the spadework of the 11 other biographers he cites, the low-lying fruit he picked up during two years of living in Jamaica, and what looks from here like some plain old digging. As for fairer, well, Salewicz admires Bob Marley deeply without deifying him. That's what I call reasoning.
Marley was born in 1945 to the 18-year-old daughter of a locally prominent black family in the Jamaican high country and a much older white bureaucrat who married the mother but barely knew the son. He moved to Kingston's Trench Town ghetto at 12 and cut his first record at 17. For the next decade, he and fellow Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston grew in skill and Jah love as they negotiated the rough and tough Jamaican music business. Advised by a motley crew of thuggish Kingston minimoguls, devious Rastafarian elders, and small-time American bizzers, twice joining his mother in Delaware to replenish his capital in working-class jobs, he and the Wailers were the biggest thing in Jamaica by 1970. They performed in the States, undertook an abortive Swedish film project, and ended up in London. And in early 1972 they connected with Island Records' Chris Blackwell, the great white record man who staked them to the breakthrough album Catch a Fire.
For most of his fans, Marley equals his Island output, and understandably so. Not only does it remain music of the highest quality, it was the engine of the cultural, spiritual, and political quest that led to his deification -- his "legend," to cite the title of the Island compilation that has poured from the dorm rooms of millions of stoners since 1984. Nevertheless, this output reflects only a quarter of his tragically foreshortened 36-year-life, for the previous quarter of which Marley was just as prolific. More than White and much more than Davis, though in less musical detail than the scrupulous academic Jason Toynbee (whose study is entitled, what else, Bob Marley), Salewicz respects this truth without tackling the monumental job of codifying it. Near as I can count, the 1970 Jamaican hit "Duppy Conqueror," later re-recorded for Catch a Fire's ruder, stronger follow-up Burnin', has appeared on some 300 Marley and reggae comps.
The first disc-plus of Tuff Gong's Songs of Freedom box is a good introduction to Marley's strictly Jamaican period, overlapping only slightly with Sanctuary's highly recommended The Essential Bob Marley & the Wailers and barely at all with Heartbeat's earlier, weaker One Love at Studio One 1964-66. But none of these include "Nice Time," "Treat Her Right," "The World Is Changing," or "Black Progress," all of which Salewicz tipped me to, or the Toynbee faves "I'm Still Waiting" and "Jailhouse," not to mention "Milk Shake and Potato Chips," a touching trifle I streamed because I liked the title. There's not all that much sense to be made of a discography that embraces half a dozen producers, a hazily documented myriad backup musicians, and material ranging from "Black Progress" to "Milk Shake and Potato Chips." But dip in and many things become clear.
As a teen, Bob would do anything for a hit, including covers of "And I Love Her" and "What's New Pussycat." He loved American soul music but wasn't always so great at it. He was militant early, as on 1968's "Bus Dem Shut (Pyaka)," "bus" meaning "bust" and "pyaka" meaning "liar." He was on top or ahead of every rhythmic shift in Jamaican pop and several elsewhere. He shared with certain country songwriters the ability to express deep content in simple language, both personal (think Hank Williams) and social (Merle Haggard). And most important in the long run, he had the gift of tune, devising songs so compelling that many from his 1969-71 flowering were inevitably reprised on Island: "Concrete Jungle," "Slave Driver," "Small Axe," "Trench Town Rock," "Lively Up Yourself," "Kaya."
There are purists who claim Marley's music went north once he signed with Island, or broke with Tosh and Livingston, or enlisted American guitarist Al Anderson. But Salewicz isn't among them. Like most observers, he sees Blackwell as an essentially benign force who helped Marley achieve "the international sound we were expecting to have" -- a quote not from Marley but from Livingston, who felt so ill at ease in Babylon that he rejected the touring life for a sporadically inspired solo career as Bunny Wailer. Marley's internationalism was better assimilated in Britain, where Jamaicans dominated the small black population, than in the U.S., where, as Marley knew all too well, a much larger black population preferred competing musics of its own. A cordial but ultimately rather private man, Marley drove himself hard, perfecting his stagecraft and writing a song a day as he studied scripture, pondered politricks, acted the don, played soccer barefoot, bedded innumerable women, and fathered what Salewicz reckons as 13 children by eight of them including his wife Rita, though estimates do vary.
Unsurprisingly, Marley's choices and circumstances embroiled him in contradictions. I hesitate to say his insatiable womanizing is the least of them, especially since some of his kids had it so much better than others -- his son Ky-Mani's Dear Dad is a much better book about growing up in a drug-dealing culture than about music or his dear dad. But at least it's a familiar pattern. Less so the man of peace who delivered the occasional beatdown and hired ropey-haired toughs who promoted his records by delivering many more. And what are we to make of the Marley who Salewicz reports watched the private executions of three men who'd tried to assassinate him shortly before his 1976 Smile Jamaica concert -- a comeuppance that came down a week or so after his 1978 One Love Peace Concert, which Salewicz unconvincingly judges "one of the key civilising moments of the twentieth century" because Marley got two warring politicians to grasp hands onstage for an awkward spell? But I was in fact more shocked by the famously generous philanthropist dropping 35 grand on a Miami dinner with a daughter of the Libyan oil minister, 1953 Chateau Lafite Rothschild included -- and more saddened by Salewicz's account of Marley's embattled 1980 visit to a newly independent Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe's cohort was already proving more autocratic than Ras Tafari's.
To repeat, it was righteous of Salewicz to tell these tales. But that's only because they don't turn his book into a debunk. If it's foolish to deify Bob Marley, it's far more foolish to dismiss him, in effect blaming him for not living up to the magnitude of his achievement. Praise Peter and Bunny all you want -- they deserve it. But credit Marley's reservations: "Is like them don't want understand mi can't just play music fe Jamaica alone. Can't learn that way. Mi get the most of mi learning when mi travel and talk to other people." And recognize in that one-world bromide the seriousness of his cultural-spiritual-political ambitions. Salewicz reports that the assassins just mentioned were armed by the CIA, while others blame the right-wing Jamaican Labour Party. Probably not much difference, and either way you can trust his enemies to know his power. Most of the 14 million Americans who've bought the calculatedly anodyne Legend are in it for the herb. But Marley is very different for people of color such as the Tanzanian street vendors of Dar es Salaam's Maskani district, one of many Third World subcultures to integrate his songs and image into a counterculture of resistance.
Peter and Bunny wouldn't have brought Marley near such a consummation. Nor would the rhythmic muscle and dubwise byways of Lee "Scratch" Perry, who the purists reasonably account Marley's best and toughest producer. In fact, it worked pretty much the opposite. The gunmen who invaded Marley's Kingston compound in 1976 managed to crease Bob's arm and Rita's skull. After playing the concert in bandages two days later, the two fled to England, where Marley took musical vengeance not by screaming bloody murder but by fulfilling his crossover dreams with heightened understanding, focus, and subtlety. In six months he recorded all of Exodus, which Time magazine hyperbolically declared the greatest album of the century in 1999, and the equally blessed Kaya, which leads with the languorous "Easy Skanking" and climaxes with "Runnin' Away" and "Time Will Tell" -- this normally unalienated visionary's haunted meditation on the confusions of fame followed by a promise of justice no tougher than anything else on his gentlest albums sonically and his most acute aesthetically. Exodus and Kaya opened the door on a three-year period in which he cemented his international fame while fighting the cancer he might have beaten if Rastafarianism looked more kindly on Babylonian medicine, amputation in particular -- the disease began in a long-troublesome big toe he reinjured playing soccer barefoot.
Marley's big Kingston concerts didn't prevent Jamaica from turning into the most gun-ridden state in the western hemisphere. Lee "Scratch" Perry relocated to Switzerland. The Maskani district has been plowed under to make room for a bank. And reggae has evolved into a beat-dominated music of crotch-first sexism and toxic homophobia that's far livelier than the Bob-worshipping hippie and Afrocentric crap that surfaces wherever spliffs are smoked or tourists go dancing. In short, Bob Marley has yet to remake the world -- a failing he shares with just about everyone else who's tried. But that doesn't mean he hasn't changed it. Gandhi and King and Mandela didn't leave utopias behind either, and unlike them, Marley was merely a musician no matter how much praise he proffered Jah. His music is as firmly ensconced in the pop pantheon as the Beatles' or James Brown's, and it signifies a remade world even if that doesn't make it so.
A Redeemer? We don't play that. "Redemption Song"? That we play. "Won't you help to sing, these songs of freedom/Cause all I ever had/Redemption songs, redemption songs/Redemption songs."
Read an Excerpt
Bob Marley The Untold Story
By Salewicz, Chris
Faber & Faber Copyright © 2010 Salewicz, Chris
All right reserved.
ME ONLY HAVE ONE AMBITION, Yâ€™KNOW. I ONLY HAVE ONE THING I REALLY LIKE TO SEE HAPPEN. I LIKE TO SEE MANKIND LIVE TOGETHER â€" BLACK, WHITE, CHINESE, EVERYONE â€" THATâ€™S ALL.
In early 1978 I spent two months in Jamaica, researching its music and interviewing many key figures, having arrived there on the same reggae-fanaticsâ€™ pilgrimage as John â€Johnny Rottenâ€™ Lydon and Don Letts, the Rastafarian film-maker. My first visit to the island was a life-changing experience, and I plunged into the land of magic realism that is Jamaica, an island that can be simultaneously heaven and hell. Almost exactly a year later, in February 1979, I flew to Kingston on my second visit to â€the fairest land that eyes have beheldâ€™, according to its discoverer, Christopher Columbus, who first sighted the â€isle of springsâ€™ in 1494. Arriving late in the evening, I took a taxi to Knutsford Boulevard in New Kingston and checked into the Sheraton Hotel.
Jet lag meant that I woke early the next morning. Seizing the time, I found myself in a taxi at around quarter to eight, chugging through the rush-hour traffic, rounding the corner by the stately Devon House, the former residence of the British governor, and into and up Hope Road. â€Bob Marley gets up early,â€™ I had been advised.
Arriving at his headquarters of 56 Hope Road, trundling through the gates and disgorging myself from my Morris Oxford cab in front of the house, there was little sign of activity. On the wooden verandah to the right of the building was a group of what looked like tough ghetto youth, to whom I nodded greetings, searching in vain for any faces I recognised. In front of the Tuff Gong record shop to the right of the house was a woman who wore her dreadlocks tucked into a tam; she was sweeping the shopâ€™s steps with a besom broom that scurried around the floor-length hem of her skirt. A sno-cone spliff dangled from her mouth. Wandering over to her, I introduced myself, mentioning that I had been in Jamaica the previous year writing about reggae, showing her a copy of the main article I had written in the NME. She was extremely articulate, and I discovered that her name was Diane Jobson and that she was the inhouse lawyer for the Tuff Gong operation (over the years I was to get to know her well; and her brother Dickie, who directed the film Countryman, became a close pal).
Then a 5 Series BMW purred into the yard. Driven by a beautiful girl, it had â€" like many Jamaican cars â€" black-tinted windows and an Ethiopian flag fluttering in the breeze from an aerial on its left front wing. Out of it stepped Bob Marley. He greeted the ghetto youth, walked towards them, and began speaking with them. On his way over, he registered my presence. After a couple of minutes, I walked towards him. I introduced myself, and he shook hands with me with a smile, paying attention, I noticed, to the Animal Rights badge that by chance I was wearing on my red Fred Perry shirt; again, I explained I had been to Jamaica for the first time the previous year, and showed him the article. He seemed genuinely interested and began to read it. As he did so, like Bob Marley should have done, he handed me a spliff he had just finished rolling. Nervously, I took it and pulled away.
After a minute or two Diane came over. Gathering together the youth, she led them in the direction of a mini-bus parked in the shade that I had not previously noticed. Bob made his excuses â€" â€We have to go somewhereâ€™ â€" and walked over to the vehicle. Then, as he stepped into it, he turned. â€Come on, come with us.â€™ He waved with a grin, climbing down out of the vehicle and holding the door open for me.
I hurried over. Ushering me into the mini-bus, Bob squeezed up next to me on one of its narrow two-person bench-seats, his leg resting against my own. I tried to disguise my feelings â€" a sense of great honour as well as slight apprehension that the herb I had smoked was beginning to kick in, suddenly seeming a million times stronger than anything I had ever smoked in London. I was starting to feel rather distanced from everything, which was possibly just as well. Bumping through the potholed backstreets of what I knew to be the affluent uptown suburb of Beverly Hills, I ventured to ask Bob, who was himself hitting on a spliff, where we were going. â€Gun Court,â€™ he uttered, matter-of-factly.
I blinked, and tried quickly to recover myself. The Gun Court had a reputation that was fearsome. To all intents and purposes, the place was a concentration camp â€" certainly it had been built to look like one: gun towers, barbed-wire perimeters, visibly armed guards, a harsh, militaristic feel immediately apparent to all who drove past its location on South Camp Road. The Gun Court was a product of Michael Manleyâ€™s Emergency Powers Act of 1975. Into it was dumped, for indefinite detention or execution after a summary trial, anyone in Jamaica found with any part of a gun. (In more recent times, it is said, the security forces adopt a more cost-effective and immediate solution: anyone in Jamaica found with any part of a gun, runs the myth, is executed on the spot â€" hence the almost daily newspaper reports of gunmen â€dying on the way to hospitalâ€™ . . .) The previous year, when I had been in Kingston with Lydon, Letts, and co., the dreadlocked Rastafarian film-maker had been held at gunpoint by a Jamaica Defence Force soldier whilst filming the exterior of the Gun Court. At first the squaddie refused to believe Letts was British; only after being shown his UK passport did he let him walk away. What would have happened had he been Jamaican?
â€Why are we going there?â€™ I demanded of Bob, as casually as I could.
â€To see about a youth them lock up â€" Michael Bernard,â€™ he quietly replied.
Michael Bernard, I learned later, was a cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre.
Having descended from the heights of Beverly Hills, a detour that had been taken to avoid morning traffic (like most of the rest of the world, and especially in Jamaica at that time, when cars and car parts were at a considerable premium, this was nothing compared to the almost permanent gridlock that Kingston was to become by the end of the century), we were soon pulling up outside the Gun Courtâ€™s sinister compound.
At nine in the morning, beneath an already scorching tropical sun, the vision of the Gun Court was like a surreal dubbed-up inversion of one of the ugly, incongruous industrial-trading-estate-type buildings that litter much of Kingstonâ€™s often quite cute sprawl.
At the sight of Bob emerging from the mini-bus, a door within the main gates opened for his party. We stepped through into the prison. After we stood for some time in the heat of the forecourt yard, an officer appeared. In hushed tones he spoke to Bob; I was unable to hear what passed between them, which was probably just as well â€" it being almost a year since I had last enjoyed a regular daily diet of patois, I was beginning to register I could comprehend only about half of what was being said around me.
Then we were led into the piss-stinking prison building itself. And through a number of locked, barred doors, and into the governorâ€™s broad office, like the study of a boarding-school headmaster, which was also the demeanour of the governor himself, a greying, late-middle-aged man who sat behind a sturdy desk by the window. We were seated on hard wooden chairs in a semicircle in front of him. I found myself directly to the right of Bob, who in turn was seated nearest to the governor. Through a door in the opposite wall arrived a slight man who appeared to be in his early twenties. He was shown to a chair. This was Michael Bernard, who had been sentenced for an alleged politically motivated shooting, one for which no one I met in Kingston believed him to be responsible.
Discussions now began, the essence of which concerned questions by Bob as to the possibilities of a retrial or of Bernardâ€™s release from prison. Bernard said virtually nothing, and almost all speech was confined to Bob and the governor. I asked a couple of questions, but when I interrupted a third time Bob wisely hushed me â€" I was starting to get into a slightly right-on stride here. Most of the dialogue, I noted, was conducted in timorous, highly reverent tones by all parties present, almost with a measure of deference, or perhaps simply hesitant nervousness. (Over the years I was to decide that it was the latter, noting that often Jamaicans called upon to speak publicly â€" whether rankinâ€™ politicians at barnstorming rallies, Rasta elders at revered Nyabinghi reasonings, Commissioner of Police Joe Williams in an interview I conducted with him, or crucial defence witnesses in the rarified, bewigged atmosphere of English courts â€" would present themselves with all the stumbling hesitancy and lack of rigorous logic of a very reluctant school-speechday orator. Yet in more lateral philosophical musings and reasonings, there are few individuals as fascinatingly, confidently loquacious as Jamaicans when it comes to conversational elliptical twists, stream-of-consciousness free-associations, and Barthes-like word de- and re-constructions.)
After twenty or so minutes, all talk seemed to grind to a halt. Afterwards I was left a little unclear as to what conclusions had been arrived at, if any. At first I worried that this was because initially I had been struggling with the effects of the herb, which seemed like a succession of psychic tidal-waves. Then later I realised that the purpose of this mission to the Gun Court was simply to show that Michael Bernard had not been forgotten.
Bidding farewell to the prisoner, wishing him luck, and thanking the governor for his time, we left his office, clanking out through the jail doors and into the biting sunlight. Soon we were back at 56 Hope Road, which by then had become a medina of all manner of activity. â€Stick around,â€™ said Bob. I did. And on a bench in the shade of a mango tree round the back of the house promptly fell asleep for at least two hours from what was probably a combination of jet lag, the spliff, and some kind of delayed shock.
This visit to the Gun Court with Bob Marley was one of the great experiences of my life. I was in Jamaica for another three weeks or so. During that time I saw Bob several more times. I watched rehearsals at 56 Hope Road; saw Bob playing with some of his kids â€" the ones that had just released their first record as the Melody Makers; and found him with one of the most gorgeous women who had ever crossed my eyes (a different one from the car-driver at 56 Hope Road) at a Twelve Tribes Grounation (essentially, dances steeped in the mystique of Rastafari) one Saturday night on the edge of the hills. She turned out to be Cindy Breakspeare, Jamaicaâ€™s former Miss World. I also interviewed Bob for an article: whilst doing so, I remember feeling a measure of guilt for taking up so much of his precious time â€" though I didnâ€™t realise then precisely quite how precious and finite it was. Part of the reason I thought this was because I felt Bob looked terribly tired and strained â€" it was only just over eighteen months later that he collapsed whilst jogging in Central Park with his friend Skill Cole, and was diagnosed as suffering from cancer.
It came as a deep, unpleasant shock just before midnight on 11 May 1981 to receive a phone call from Rob Partridge, who had so assiduously handled Bobâ€™s publicity for Island Records, to be told that Bob had lost his fight with cancer and passed on. (I had always believed that Bob would beat the disease . . .) Although I wrote his obituary for NME, it seemed my relationship with Bob and his music was only just beginning. In February 1983, I was back in Jamaica, writing a story for The Face about Islandâ€™s release of the posthumous Bob Marley album Confrontation.
Again, jet lag caused me to wake early on the first morning I was there. This time I was staying just down the road from the former Sheraton, at the neighbouring Pegasus Hotel. Getting out of bed, I switched on the radio in my room. The Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) seven oâ€™clock news came on with its first story: â€Released from the Gun Court today is Michael Bernard . . .â€™ Wow! Phew! JAH RASTAFARI!!! That Jamaica will get you every time. The island really is a land of magic realism, a physical, geographical place that is like a manifestation of the collective unconscious. Or is it that Bob Marley, as someone once suggested to me, is very active in psychic spheres and has a great sense of humour? Was this just something heâ€™d laid on for me in the Cosmic Theme Park of the Island of Springs, I found myself wondering, with a certain vanity.
Excerpted from Bob Marley : the untold story by Chris Salewicz.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2009 by Chris Salewicz.
Published in 2009 by Faber and Faber, Inc..
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