biblical quotations favoured by Rastafarians comes psalm 118: “The stone that
the builders refused is become the headstone of the corner”, a teaching put to
song by Bob Marley on 1970’s Corner Stone, and one that neatly frames a life
that began in poverty and ended in global superstardom, a rags to riches tale
unparalleled in pop. Some 36 years after his death, Marley remains a planetary
icon, his image as likely to turn up at a Native American protest as on a
Camden Town T-shirt. For millions, he represents an irresistible mix of
righteous rebellion, physical and spiritual joy (livity in Rasta speak) and, of
course, musical genius.
Marley’s story has been told many times, most notably by the late Timothy White, whose Catch a Fire, as much imaginative construct as conventional biography, best captures the mystique that swirled round the singer. Marley’s mythos owed much to the fevered atmosphere of Jamaica in the late 1970s, when millenarian Rasta prophecy became entangled with a political feud that saw Kingston’s ghettos in near civil war amid allegations of CIA destabilisation. Marlon James’s Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, centred on the attempted assassination of Marley in 1976, crystallises the era masterfully.
At his HQ in Kingston, where he had “moved the ghetto uptown”, Marley regularly gave away thousands of dollars
Roger Steffens, an LA reggae historian and archivist, offers a more grounded approach in this sprawling but absorbing “oral history”, drawing on interviews with 75 assorted relatives, band members, fellow travellers and lovers; a lifetime’s research. Their accounts, not infrequently contradictory, are effectively marshalled by Steffens, who acts as a reliable narrator.
Among the revelations is the extent of Marley’s deprivation in his early years. Abandoned by his elderly white father, an itinerant government overseer who had gotten a local teenage girl pregnant, Marley grew up first in the rural parish of St Ann, later moving to the newly built “government yards” of Trenchtown, west Kingston.
In both places he found himself pilloried as a mixed blood “red bwoi”. Joe Higgs, a gifted singer who mentored the fledgling Wailers in the arts of harmony vocals, recalls Marley being an “outcast in the house” his mother shared with her partner, the father of Bob’s fellow Wailer, Bunny Livingston. Marley, says Higgs, was marginalised even by his mother and “slept beneath the bottom of the house”. His father’s family, the so-called “white Marleys”, were even more dismissive. In the blunt assessment of Gayle McGarrity, an academic and one of Bob’s confidantes: “They treated him like shit.”
Later to become the hard-nosed triumvirate of Bob, Bunny and Peter Tosh that conquered Jamaica, the Wailers were originally a loose group of teenagers whose female members, Beverley Kelso and Cherry Green, describe the innocence of the group’s earliest incarnation in an optimistic, post-independence Jamaica, an innocence soon burned away by a piratical music business. The group’s first producer, Coxsone Dodd, gave them chump change for their hits. An association with Lee Perry, with whom they cut some of their best work, ended in a violent showdown over unpaid royalties.
Much later, after he had become an international star, Marley would hand out a beating to his manager, Don Taylor, after discovering embezzlement. Violence and corruption, endemic in ghetto life, were never far away. Another manager, Danny Sims, who teamed Bob with soul singer Johnny Nash in the late 1960s, bragged of his mafia connections.
Yet Marley himself remained unfazed by the riches that flowed his way. At his headquarters in Hope Road, Kingston, where he had “moved the ghetto uptown”, he regularly gave away thousands of dollars – his business manager, Colin Leslie, recalls handing out cash and cheques into the small hours. Many of Steffens’s interviewees mention Marley’s generosity, along with his shyness and perfectionist attitude to music making. He was not one for the high life; his preoccupations were music, football, the Bible and beautiful women. His affair with Cindy Breakspeare, a Miss World, put him on the tabloid front pages; his visit to Gabon arose from an affair with the president’s daughter. His 1966 marriage to Rita (who was in his band) became an odd, sibling-like arrangement.
The attempt on Marley’s life, days before he was due to play a Smile Jamaica concert, makes for one of the most compelling chapters here. Of the half-dozen gunmen who attacked Marley’s compound, several were likely known to Bob – such are ghetto runnings – but who paid them remains uncertain. Were they acting for Edward Seaga’s rightwing JLP party or for gangsters calling in the gambling debts of Marley’s close friend, Skill Cole? Or was it (as Marlon James suggests) the CIA? The episode remains blurred. Marley claimed to know, but said only: “Is top secret, dat!”
It was cancer, not bullets, that ended Marley’s life. Again, there are assorted ideas about what induced the cancer that began in a big toe; that it was a childhood accident or a football injury is refuted by Dr Lowell Taubman (“Malignant melanoma does not arise from injuries”), while Christopher Marley, Bob’s cousin, informs Steffens: “Our family has a long history of skin cancer and at least one prior case of melanoma.”
Marley’s passing in May 1981 coincided with a shift in Jamaica’s cultural and political firmament. A few months previously, Edward Seaga had triumphed in a general election that cost 800 lives. The age of computerised reggae, gangster lyricism and ghetto cocaine was dawning. So Much Things to Say (the title of a Marley song) is a fitting tribute to the tumultuous life and complex character of the country’s favourite son.
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