Forever lovin’ Bob

Georgia Popplewell on Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright: The Bob Marley Reader, ed. Hank Bordowitz


Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright: The Bob Marley Reader, ed. Hank Bordowitz (Da Capo Press, ISBN 0306813408, 314 pp)

Recently, the BBC wrote the Bob Marley Foundation to request an interview with Mr Marley for a television documentary on the song No Woman, No Cry. Although this report emerged on the Internet on April 1, 2005, it was not, apparently, an April Fool’s joke. That there is somebody on this planet who knows so little about Bob Marley that he or she could make the mistake of thinking the man was still alive is shocking, for if the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus”, one would have to say that Marley is bigger than God. As Marley historian and reggae archivist Roger Steffens points out in the foreword to Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright: The Bob Marley Reader — and to belabour the Beatles comparison — “you hardly see any Beatles t-shirts around any more, except for those few featuring John Lennon’s sorrow-inducing visage. Can you imagine an image of Elvis sewn onto the sleeve of an armed guerilla? When was the last time you saw a Michael Jackson flag or a Bob Dylan sarong or Madonna rolling papers? All of these exist in Marleyite forms, his iconography well nigh a new universal language . . . the symbol of freedom throughout the world.”

It is undeniable that, for enduring cross-cultural and cross-generational appeal, there is no artist who comes close to Robert Nesta Marley, the man The New York Times has called “the most influential artist of the second half of the 20th century”, the mastermind behind both the composition designated song of the century by the BBC (One Love) and TIME magazine’s album of the century (Exodus). Twenty-four years after his death on May 11, 1981, Bob Marley’s music continues to have relevance for listeners throughout the world, and his face is as iconic and recognisable as Che Guevara’s — with the fundamental difference that those who sport Marley t-shirts might actually be able to tell you something about him. He’s been called reggae god, prophet, tropical mystic, messiah, and, commonly, “the first Third World superstar” — as we continue to await the second. And underlying all this is the irrefutable quality and substance of his work, both musically and in terms of its potency as a vehicle for ideas.

While numerous books have been written about and around Marley, most have been biographical, efforts either to recount the details of his life, as in Timothy White’s definitive Catch a Fire, or to document Marley’s effect upon the author, as in manager Don Taylor’s Marley and Me: The Real Bob Marley Story or Marley’s widow Rita’s high-profile 2004 confessional No Woman, No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley. Until the appearance of Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright, few — if any — popular texts have attempted the daunting task of sifting through the volumes of articles and writings on Marley (an image which comes to mind here is of the rooms wallpapered with newspaper clippings at the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston), to construct something resembling a loose narrative of his life and the reception of his music in the global context.

The pieces featured in Every Little Thing are organised into two main sections. The first, entitled “Stir It Up, Wake Up, and Live: The Life and Times of Robert Nesta Marley”, is itself sub-divided into chapters, each bearing the title of a Marley song (the section about the Marley estate and its legalities, for instance, is called “Judge Not”, after Marley’s early hit), and each comprising several essays organised according to a rough chronology, beginning with Marley’s early days at Studio One and leading up to the 1990s. Section two, “Music Gonna Teach You a Lesson: The Meaning of Bob Marley”, is similarly organised, but less convincing in its cumulative effect. The chapter introductions by editor Hank Bordowitz are sometimes awkward and occasionally embarrassingly hagiographic, but in general do the job of contextualising what is to follow.

Bordowitz hasn’t been snobbish about pedigree: pieces have been selected from a motley assortment of publications, ranging from The New York Times and The Village Voice to magazines like Essence and the pro-marijuana High Times, to a press release from Cedella Marley’s clothing company and a Marvel comic book. Also included are interviews with former Wailers Peter Tosh, Bunny Livingston, Al Anderson, Aston Barrett, and Earl Lindon. Most of the featured writers, interviewers, and publications are non-Caribbean, with some big names among them, including British singer Robert Palmer, African-American writer Alice Walker, Rita Marley, and former prime minister of Jamaica Michael Manley, whose contribution is a curious piece of reggae-related propaganda pulled from the Rising Sun, the newspaper of the People’s National Party.

In tone, the essays run the gamut of the attitudes any celebrated and charismatic figure would inspire, including worshipfulness and respect, but also skepticism, cynicism, and a desire to co-opt and consume. One criticism that could be leveled at any essay collection is an inconsistency in the quality of the pieces, and Every Little Thing contains its share of forgettables. The standouts, however, include an excerpt from I Was a Wailer, a book by the reverential yet egocentric Lee Jaffe, a fine example of the type who seems more concerned with a famous figure’s effect on him than the reverse, and who speaks in rhapsodic language from within the cloud of cannabis which seems to have enveloped him during his time with Marley.

Carol Cooper, in a 1980 essay from The Village Voice that succeeds in being both rigorous and strongly partisan, analyses the critical reception of Marley in the US, tracing the roots of the African-American ambivalence towards him (an issue mentioned in a number of the essays) to a rift between Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois. Also from The Village Voice, Isaac Ferguson offers the collection’s clearest description of Rastafarian philosophy, and Vivien Goldman offers a groupie’s-eye view of a Wailers tour. Also interesting, regardless of whether you believe them, is an article by Alex Constantine from High Times touching on some of the conspiracies surrounding the 1976 shooting at Marley’s Kingston home and whether the cancer which killed him may have been CIA-induced. Another fine piece (this one from section two) is an excerpt from the book Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom, recounting the story of the Wailers’ now legendary visit to Zimbabwe for that country’s independence celebrations.

But it is rock critic Lester Bangs’s lengthy, rambling, provocatively irritating piece, published in CREEM magazine in 1976, that lingers longest in the memory, perhaps because it addresses some of the issues that the common official discourse about reggae does not. Bangs grapples with the subject of how vested this music is, for example, in the continuance of oppression, in poverty, in a certain kind of backwardness. “I’ve been on lots of press junkets before,” he writes, “but this was the first one into Darkest Africa. What I meant to say is that a whole bunch of people were flown, all expenses paid, to Jamaica, so that we could look at these people, and go back and write stories which would help sell albums to white middle-class American kids who think it’s romantic to be black and dirt-poor and hungry and illiterate and sick with things you can’t name because you’ve never been to a doctor, and sit around all day smoking ganja and beating on bongo drums because you have no other option in life. I know, because I am one of those kids, caught in the contradiction — hell, man, my current favorite group is Burning Spear.” A self-confessed cynic, Bangs could find the music brilliant but the circumstances in which it was produced back in the 1970s appalling, and the article is actually more about Jamaica than about Marley, who is in fact made out to be a bit of an addled mystic. It’s a fascinating, paranoid, and deeply personal essay which recalls Naipaul, in that it is as much about Bangs as it is about Jamaica, but telling nonetheless.

 

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), May 2005. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.