Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Book Review: Roger Steffens' 'So Much Things To Say' & The Majesty Of Bob Marley

There are no facts in Jamaica, only versions. ~ OLD FOLK SAYING 
For an average white boy from the suburbs, reggae grabbed me hard and has never let go. 
It was the summer of 1973 and I was visiting San Francisco with old friend George
Wolkind.  We drove over to Berkeley one night and caught the Jerry Garcia Band at the Keystone.  They were great, but the revelation of the evening -- and of what turned out to be a 6,500-mile Delaware to Florida to California to Washington state to Delaware trip -- was the mind-blowing music pulsing through the PA system when the band took a break.  I had cut my teeth on Motown in my early teens and adored soul and R&B, but I was knocked over by the swinging backbeat, mellifluous vocal stylings and hypnotic minor chords that ran through what turned out to be the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, the 1972 Perry Henzell-directed classic starring Jimmy Cliff.
I inquired of Garcia Band sound guy Dan Healy and he suggested I could find the album at Trench Town Records in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. The next day I bought The Harder They Come and, on the recommendation of the record store clerk, Catch a Fire, which happened to be the debut American album of a group called Bob Marley and The Wailers.  
Roger Steffens tells a not dissimilar story in the preface to the just published So Much Things To Say, a marvelous oral history of Marley's life and times.  A resident of
Berkeley, Steffens saw The Harder They Come about the time I heard the soundtrack, and he too journeyed to Trench Town Records where he too bought the album.  He was similarly grabbed, over the years has become the leading Marley authority, and like me came to value reggae as not just a wonderful musical genre but a very special way to see the world.
Oral histories can be messy, but that is why they can be far more illuminating than straight nonfiction prose.  In the case of So Much Things To Say, this format and the sometimes contradictory memories of Bob render a humanness to a man who has been endlessly mythologized.   
(One close acquaintance of Bob has it that "I Shot the Sheriff," which was an even bigger hit for Eric Clapton, was an allegory about birth control. Another claims it was a private joke about hanging out with white people.  Yet another swears it was a reference to the police-state violence gripping Jamaica after independence from Great Britain and through much of the 1970s.)  
Ras Rojah, as Steffens' Rasta friends call him, interviewed dozens of people.  Among them were the other original Wailers -- Neville "Bunny Wailer" Livingston, Peter Tosh, Beverly Kelso, Junior Braithwaite, and
Carlton and Family Man Barrett -- as well as wife Rita Marley and lover Cindy Breakspeare, and mother Cedella Booker.  
Then there are the producers and managers, including Lee "Scratch" Perry, Coxson Dodd, Chris Blackwell and Don Taylor.  And Johnny Nash, who introduced Bob's reggae sensibility to the U.S. before Marley himself broke through with his hit "I Can See Clearly Now."       
Sadly, I never saw Bob live although I did get to know Rita, his mother Cedella and uncle Gibson, as well as future reggae star Ziggy when he was still in nappies, because of the proximity of the farm on which I lived to Cedella's home in Wilmington, Delaware and the accidental profusion of organic Jamaican foods that we grew, which made them frequent guests.   
Beyond Bob's stupendous abilities as a songwriter, he had a unique capacity to take the suffering of Jamaicans and other people and turn them into poetry.  He was and arguably remains the only global superstar, although some of his friends told Steffens they
believe he had drifted away from his radical roots bredren, into the arms of the white and brown Jamaican elite and eventually became a "beggar of the jet set," in Taylor's harsh estimation.
Nesta Robert Marley survived an assassination attempt in 1976 and died in 1981 of cancer, his weakened dreadlocks too heavy for his weakened frame.  He was only 36.  His legacy includes an extraordinary range of paraphernalia -- posters, hats, bags, soaps, creams, coffee, dietary-supplement drinks, cannabis oil and Tuff Gong t-shirts (I own two) -- that have made Rita and others who have cashed in on his esstate very wealthy.  Most of Bob's 60 albums and remixes (not counting innumerable bootlegs and marginally listenable pre-Wailers recordings) remain in print, including Exodus (1977), which is my favorite 
Linton Kwesei Johnson, the dub poet and former reggae star, has this to say about Bob in the introduction to So Much Things To Say:
The Rastafarian soul rebel, armed with his distinctive voice, a guitar, a great backing band and fine backing vocals, was a man on a mission to challenge the "isms and schisms" of principalities and powers as he fought against spiritual wickedness in high and low places.  His legacy of catchy danceable songs of defiance, resistance, rebellion, love and hope continues to reverberate around the world; his lyrical and melodic genius guarantees the contemporaneity of his music. 

No comments: