Waiting in vain

Kellie Magnus on No Woman, No Cry, by Rita Marley with Hettie Jones


CRB ARCHIVE

Issue No. 2 – November 2004Kellie Magnus on No Woman, No Cry, by Rita Marley with Hettie Jones

 

No Woman, No Cry: My Life With Bob Marley by Rita Marley with Hettie Jones (Sidgwick & Jackson, ISBN 0-283-07364-0, 209 pp)

There are as many pretenders to the post of Bob Marley confidante as there are to the throne he left behind. Every dreadlocked singer wants to be Bob. Every casual acquaintance who passed through the gates of Tuff Gong claims to be the one who knew him best. Few would seem to have as legitimate a right to the latter claim as Marley’s wife, Rita. But in a new memoir, co-written by poet Hattie Jones, Mrs Marley serves up a book of recollections as disappointingly slight as an album from a mediocre Marley wannabe.

The memoir begins with Marley’s answer to the question she’s often asked — what it’s like when she hears Bob’s voice on the radio. She responds with a memory of the day Bob died. May 11, 1981: Rita, in a hospital room with a terminally ill Bob, is singing to him:

I had put his head in my arm, and I was singing God Will Take Care of You. But then I started to cry and said, “Bob, please, don’t leave me.”

And he looked up and said, “Leave you, go where? What are you crying for? Forget crying, Rita. Just keep singing. Sing! Sing!”

So I kept singing, and then I realised, wow, that’s exactly what the song was saying: “I will never leave you, wherever you are I will be . . .”

So if I hear his voice now, it’s only confirming that he’s always around, everywhere. Because you do really hear his voice wherever you go. All over the world.

And one interesting thing about it, to me, is that most people only hear him. But I hear more, because I’m on almost all of the songs. So I also hear my voice, I also hear me.

Unravelling the strains of this complex duet is the tacit promise of No Woman, No Cry’s prologue and, indeed, what one would expect from a book written by the wife and long-time collaborator of one of the greatest cultural icons of the past century. Musical hero, superstar, legend: Bob Marley died from cancer at the age of 36, leaving a generation of global fans hungry to hear more of his voice, and hungrier still for a glimpse into the private life of a man whose personal appetites appeared as formidable as his talent. That his wife is, on her own merits, an accomplished singer, songwriter, humanitarian, and mother furthers expectations for a richly layered tale of the private and public lives of reggae’s best-loved couple.

Sadly, the rest of the book fails to keep the promise of the prologue. Details of their professional and personal lives are there: the story of Bob and Rita’s meeting as teenagers in Trench Town; their early days in the music industry; Bob’s meteoric rise to superstardom, and the deferral of Rita’s own career dreams; the infidelity that checkered their marriage. But, in a style surprising for a songwriter, Marley tends to tell rather than show, to glibly summarise profound and often painful experiences with a detachment that leaves the reader cold. She recounts her life with Bob with the casualness of a colour commentator — sometimes relying too heavily on the assumption that the real details of the story already have been told, sometimes tossing out curiously elliptical remarks and flitting on to the next memory.

Marley applies the same sleight-of-hand writing style to her individual experiences. Of her early days growing up in colour-conscious Jamaica, she says only “I learned discrimination early and underestimated my own value because of my colour.” Then it’s on with the story.

Perhaps Marley’s reticence stems from a wish not to disturb her husband’s memory and legacy. Perhaps it is her personal style, a coping mechanism developed through years of learning to share her greatest love with the rest of the world. What is clear is that the determination not to sweat the small stuff works better in life than it does in print. In the gaping silences in Marley’s story, the voice that’s heard most clearly — louder than Bob’s or Rita’s — is that of a publisher eager to put a saleable Marley bio on the shelves.