Bob Marley would have been a wizened 62 years old today.
It had been at least a couple of years since I played Exodus, the seminal Marley and The Wailers reggae album. It was most un-tropical outside the mountain retreat, but the coal stove was chug chugging away and we were plenty cozy as the living room filled with the first notes of "Natural Mystic," the album's opening track.
A little under 40 minutes later, with the closing notes of "Funky Reggae Party" fading, I slowly climbed out of a trance-like state and understood for the first time all over again why Exodus is not just a masterpiece. It is the finest example of the genre, but more importantly it is one of a small handful of recordings that the term "concept album" does not do justice. This is because of how it brilliantly distills the most mundane of human feelings with universal truths through words and music that are at once simple and deeply complex.
My introduction to reggae (as well as for traveling mate George Wolkind) came on a sultry summer evening in 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 teeth on Motown in my early teens 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 debut American album of Marley and The Wailers.
But outside of Jamaica, where reggae was the antithesis of its slowed-down precursors, it had only really caught on in the U.K., where it was helped considerably the enthusiastic endorsement of punk bands like The Clash. Marley was on his way to being a star in the U.S., but that had a lot to do with Eric Clapton's 1974 hit cover of his "I Shot the Sheriff."
As Chris Blackwell, who "discovered" original Wailer Peter Tosh and broke Marley internationally on his Island Records label, put it: "At that time, Eric was God, right? So people looked to see where God was going for his material, and it led back to Bob."
As transcendental figures go, Robert Nesta Marley was huge, a the global Rastafarian icon who was part revolutionary and part lover. But there was even more to the private man than our brief public glimpses of him.§
As Vivien Goldman notes in The Book of Exodus, a fine 2006 book on the making and meaning of Exodus by one of the few non-Rastafarians and non-whites to truly have Marley's measure, his reality was deeply enmeshed with prophecy.
The story of Exodus led by Moses as told in the Torah and Old Testament was a natural theme for Marley the man and for his musical canon, writes Goldman:
"Its issues of power, betrayal, hope, disillusionments, and the search for serenity were all uppermost in his mind as he created the Exodus album with the Wailers. The Book of Exodus deals with leaving familiar oppression behind, braving the unknown, and letting faith guide you to a brighter future."
My one relatively minor complaint with The Book of Exodus is that Goldman overstates the Moses-Marley connections, which hardly matter beyond the obvious one -- that like the Israelites, Marley's people also escaped slavery to start life anew in freedom and determined in their worship of Jah, the shortened Rastafarian name for God.
Goldman focuses on a sixteen-month period of exile for Marley and The Wailers.
It began with a 1976 assassination attempt, a perhaps predictable result of Marley being the big prize in a violent tug of war between the two political parties two decades after Jamaican independence, the creative leap that resulted in the making of Exodus in London, and the 1978 Peace Concert back in Kingston, which promised but failed to deliver a new beginning for Marley's downtrodden brothers and sisters.
In its original vinyl incarnation, the emotional extremes of Exodus are more evident than on the seamless compact disc versions, which include a fine remastered and expanded CD with alternate takes and live cuts from the Wailers U.K. tour that followed the release of Exodus.§
Side A of the original flows from "Natural Mystic" to "So Much Things to Say," picks up in intensity with "Guiltiness" and "The Heathen" and thunders to a climax with "Exodus." Side B is a kind of love feast with "Waiting in Vain," "Turn Your Lights Down Low," "Three Little Birds" and "One Love," which Marley combined with a riff on Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready."
Selfishly, I found it somewhat galling that Time magazine in 1999 named Exodus the best album of the 20th century.
How could this mainstream rag appreciate the stories that Exodus told, let alone the humble man whose escape from death would drive him to write and record its nonpareil songs? But that's silly, because a whole lot of people who read Time and may have been as cold as that night back at the shack in the mountains ended up being warmed to their very souls by listening to Exodus.