Tuesday, February 06, 2007

In Appreciation of Bob Marley

And so we celebrate today what would have been the 62nd birthday of Robert Nesta Marley, reggae singer-songwriter extraordinaire, international star, uniter of black and white, and prophet.

Marley (February 6, 1945 – May 11, 1981) is best known for popularizing reggae outside of his native Jamaica with songs like “No Woman, No Cry,” “Three Little Birds,” “Exodus,” “One Love,” and “I Shot the Sheriff,” which most people will swear was written by Eric Clapton. (Who did have a big hit with it.)

My introduction to reggae and Marley came during the summer of 1973 when the soundtrack from “The Harder They Come” by reggae pioneer Jimmy Cliff was played through the house system at the Keystone Berkeley, a music club in Berkeley, California, between the sets of a Jerry Garcia Band show.

I had cut my musical teeth on Motown and adored soul and R&B, but this was something else: I was knocked over by the swinging backbeat, Cliff’s mellifluous vocal stylings and the hypnotic minor chords that ran through most every song.
The next day I bought my first two reggae LPs – “The Harder They Come” and, on the recommendation of the record store clerk, “Catch a Fire,” which happened to be Marley’s American debut album.

Bob Marley experienced racial prejudice early on because he was of mixed race, and racial-identity themes run through much of his music.

He once told an interviewer:
"I don't have prejudice against myself. My father was a white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don't dip on nobody's side. Me don't dip on the black man's side nor the white man's side. Me dip on God's side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white."
Marley also experienced poverty, another frequent theme in his songs, after he and his mother moved to Kingston's notorious Trenchtown slum following the death of his father.

Except for Jamaica and in England, where he had became popular in the early 1970s, stardom eluded Marley and his band, The Wailers, until “No Woman, No Cry” from the “Natty Dread” album broke big in 1975 and became the first international reggae hit.

Now successful and increasingly influential and wealthy, Marley was pressured to take sides in the violent battles between political gangs in Kingston.

In December 1976, just before a free concert organized by Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley in an attempt to ease tensions between the warring groups, gunmen burst into Marley’s home and shot he, his wife Rita and manager Don Taylor. Rita and Taylor sustained serious injuries. Bob received only minor wounds to the chest and arm and performed at the concert.

In 1978, Marley performed at another concert, the One Love Peace Concert, again in an effort to calm the warring parties. Near the end of the performance he brought Michael Manley and his political rival, Edward Seaga, together at center stage and made them shake hands.
No one else in Jamaica had the power to do such a thing.

Marley practiced Rastafarianism, an important element in the development of reggae.

This Afrocentric movement emerged among working class black Jamaicans in the early 1930s. The name Rastafari comes from Ras (Duke or Chief) Tafari Makonnen, the pre-coronation name of Haile Selassie I, the longtime emperor of Ethiopia. Rastafarians interpreted the Bible to have prophesized the coming of Selassie (variously referred to as King of Kings and Conquering Lion of Judah), whose status was considerably elevated among blacks because he was the only African monarch of a fully independent state. Meanwhile, Rastafarian political ambitions were drawn from the writings of Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey.

Marley’s waist-length dreadlocks and use of marijuana as a sacred sacrament – both Rastafarian traits -- were central to his public persona, but he was a deeply religious man and, like Selassie, is seen as a prophet.

It was in “Redemption Song," perhaps Marley’s most spiritual offering, that he sang the famous lyric:
"Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds . . . "
Marley was diagnosed with cancer – a malignant melanoma that started in a soccer wound on his right big toe – in 1977. Citing the Rastafarian belief that the body must be whole, he refused amputation and the cancer spread.

He played his final concert at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh on September 23, 1980. Despite belatedly seeking medical help from a specialist, his cancer had progressed to the terminal stage and he died in May 1981 at age 36.

Twenty five years after Bob Marley’s death, his music continues to grow in popularity and is enormously popular in Africa, where he is a sainted figure.

I never saw Marley perform live. I blew my last opportunity to do so by being out of town when friends saw him in Philadelphia just before he played his last show in Pittsburgh.
That certainly is my loss. The body of work that Marley left us is enormous, and there is not a throwaway song in his discography. He was possessed of a powerful musical intellect, and his songwriting and arranging got better and better over the years. I can only imagine where his muse would have taken him had he lived.

Some people try to pigeonhole Marley as an angry black minstrel who sang about the "downpressor," as he called authority, but he was so much more than that as his rich catalog of songs, including many about faith and love, abundantly shows.
For me, Bob Marley's music and lyrics remain as fresh today as the first time I put “Catch a Fire” on a turntable in San Francisco in 1973.

But how is it that he speaks to me?
Because no matter one’s race or station in life, no matter one’s experiences, his message is universal.
In one of the stranger confluences in a life rich with them, Bob Marley and I crossed paths on two occasions but never actually met.

Depressed that his career wasn’t going anywhere, Marley moved to Wilmington, Delaware, my home town, in 1966 where he and Rita, whom he had just married, lived with his mother. He worked at a Chrysler Corporation auto assembly plant (the inspiration for his song “Night Shift”) while I was attending university a few blocks away. Marley soon concluded that working on an assembly line was not his calling and returned to Jamaica, where his career finally took off.

We sort of crossed paths again in the late 1970s. I was living on a farm where we had dairy goats and a large vegetable garden. Folks from Wilmington’s Jamaican community would stop out to buy goats milk and partake of the garden’s bounty, which included pig weed, which we considered a noxious pest but they relished and would serve as a side dish with goat’s head soup, among other . . . um, delicacies.

Rita Marley, who was living part time in Wilmington, would come by with her children (and Bob fathered a slew of them with several women). Her brood included a very young Ziggy Marley, who would go on to became a big reggae star in his own right.

Our goats milk operation was modest and self service. Customers would take a gallon jug from a refrigerator in the milk house and leave the dollar or two that we charged in a cigar box.

It was rare that none of us were at home. This was, after all, a working farm, but one day that was the case. When we checked the cigar box that evening, there was a twenty dollar bill among the ones and loose change a note written in a barely legible scrawl:
"Thanx for the good milk. Love ya! Bob Marley"
Best CD: “Exodus” (Tuff Gong, 1979)

Best CD compilation: “Songs of Freedom” (4 CD boxed set, Tuff Gong, 1992)

Best documentary on DVD: “Bob Marley: Spiritual Journey” (Waterfall Home Entertainment, 2003)

Best biography: “Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley” by Timothy White (New York: Henry Holt, 1992)


doomsy said...


Thanks for the nice remembrances of Bob Marley - it gives me a lot of good things to think about.

cognitorex said...

What a pleasant post Shaun. World peace and concerts and great beats and open minds and goat's milk to be sure.

samrocha said...

Great post! May I add my own favorite album of marley and the wailers.... Legend. I will also be posting in his honour later today...

M said...

My blog title is inspired by a Marley song.


Bob Marley was, is, and always will be a legend.

Happy Birthday Bob.

Frank Partisan said...

Very nice post. Thank you for the memories.

samrocha said...

BTW I linked your posts in my article for yesterday...

Anonymous said...

Insightful post... Thanks for a Marley re-cap and some new things to think about, too.

www.granada-3d.com said...
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