Bob Marley is an icon. It has been over thirty years since his tragic death but to many, he still represents an entire nation and, for sure, an entire genre of music. Even though he sprang forth from rather humble origins and became a world-famous musician, his story is far from the typical rags-to-riches scenario. Throughout his life, Marley held his torch high. And whether his hand used the torch for setting things afire or for lighting a treacherous path for the benefit of those that followed, he was convinced of that hand being guided by a greater force. He believed, and people believed in him -- they still do.
Robert Nesta Marley was listed as being born February 6th, 1945, in the village of Nine Mile in northern Jamaica -- although his mother thought it could have been as much as two months earlier. Looking back today, there is a mythical side to the life and legacy of Bob Marley, and perhaps the uncertainties concerning his birth serve to add to that mystique, but more likely they just tell of the conditions and habits of rural Jamaica at the time. In any case, there is an intriguing shroud of mystery around Marley, woven of different kinds of stories of him, stories not always at all related to his music. For example, a five-year old (or so) Bob is said to have -- accurately -- told the fortunes of people by reading their palms, with his prescience even playing a part in his family's decision to send him to school. He is also said to have predicted he himself would die at the age of thirty-six.
As a teenager, Marley was living in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. He had decided he would become a musician. He left school to pursue that dream, writing songs, finding others to play with and seeking recording opportunities. From early on, he played with Bunny Livingston, and when the pair met Peter Tosh at a jam session, they had a core group which would remain together for more than a decade. In 1963 they (along with some others) formed a band, eventually settling on the name Bob Marley & The Wailers. Marley played rhythm guitar and sang lead vocals, writing the majority of the band's songs.
The Wailers set to work. Their music was based on the traditional Caribbean styles of ska, rocksteady and reggae, but also influenced by pop and rock 'n roll. They did not content themselves with playing whatever others were playing, but strived to find their own voice in that continuum of Jamaican music. And find their voice they did. Success did not come to the Wailers overnight, but eventually it came, through hard work, persistence and undoubtedly, talent. Their popularity rose first in their native Jamaica, then spread further and further until most of the world knew of the Wailers with Marley as their recognizable firebrand frontman.
Bob Marley & The Wailers performing 'I Shot the Sheriff' (Burnin', 1973) in 1977.
In 1974, the ascension of the Wailers was briefly paused by personnel changes: Livingston (at this point known as Bunny Wailer) and Tosh left the group, due to complicated and manifold reasons. (Both pursued solo careers -- with considerable success.) Marley put together a new band (with a rhythm section formed by the Barrett brothers Carlton and Aston) and continued with the name Bob Marley & The Wailers.
Bob Marley & The Wailers released dozens of records of different variety during their long and illustrious career. (Compiling a comprehensive list of their releases seems an extremely exhaustive task, considering the hectic nature of the Jamaican recording industry, particularly during the earlier part of that career.) My favorite Marley records are probably from the highly creative and prolific years 1973-74: Burnin', Catch a Fire and Natty Dread -- this last one being the first full-length with the renewed Wailers line-up. But Marley released some great records before and after this trio of albums, too.
In the July of 1977, Bob Marley was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. The ailment was discovered in his toe after he had acquired a lesion while playing football. It has been suggested (rather convincingly) that the spread of the disease could have been halted had the toe been amputated, but Marley turned down the doctors' recommendations of such a procedure, explaining that his Rastafarian beliefs did not allow his body to be "dismantled". As the disease spread through Marley's body and his condition became worse, he sought and received controversial treatment based on holistic principles at a Bavarian clinic. When it became obvious that no more could be done for him at the clinic, Marley left for Jamaica, wanting to spend his last days on his home island. He never made it there, but died at Miami's Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, on 11th of May, 1981. He was thirty-six years old.
Bob Marley & The Wailers performing 'Jamming' (Exodus, 1977) in 1977.
In many ways, Bob Marley's popularity and significance was and is built on the same building blocks as those of other rock stars. He wrote intriguing songs and performed them with great musicians, playing with skill and passion. He delivered his songs to the audiences in countless concerts -- he was an absolutely compelling, a magical live performer. It is also quite easy to see that Marley was a genre-defining artist: while he's by no means the only important reggae artist in the world, he did play a huge part in the development of said genre (and other related styles of music) since the sixties, and especially in making people aware of it. But if you broaden your perspective and really consider the life and influence of Bob Marley, it is clear that he was something significantly more than just a musician.
Bob Marley's influence, in addition to its musical side, has also a sociopolitical aspect to it. His lyrics and his message were rooted in the social issues and conditions of the people of Jamaica, for whose benefit he never ceased to work. And as he began to reach larger audiences, he also spoke on behalf of the black people in general. He was an all-important voice for ideas such as Pan-Africanism and the Rastafari movement. He committed himself to speaking and fighting for who he considered to be his people. He spoke with the voice of that people.
These days, Marley is often portrayed as a benevolent, smiling advocate for world peace. To some extent, this is of course accurate: Marley often spoke and sang of the need for peaceful co-existence and against strife and oppression. And after all, we're talking of a man who performed in the Smile Jamaica concert of December '76 aimed at stopping the violence between political parties hostile towards each other -- two days after he, his wife and his manager had been wounded by gunfire from unknown assailers supposedly attempting to prevent the concert from taking place! However, I find it disappointing how the more rebellious and even militant side of Marley has been swept under the rug in a sense. I guess it's being done by the music industry in order to harness the sunny side of this legendary artist for the benefit or record sales. There was a more dangerous side to Marley's message, though, particularly during the earlier part of his career. And even if one may not be able to fully relate to that side, that's no reason to pretend it wasn't there, to dilute that part of his legacy. In addition to peacefulness and serenity, Marley also sang of black retribution and Third World uprisings. In my opinion, there's no harm in remembering this.
Bob Marley was a man of conviction. I'm not a big fan of all of his religious or political beliefs -- and some of the ways in which he would mix the two -- but I'm not in the habit of thinking any less of anyone because of their beliefs (as long as those beliefs and any actions based on them haven't caused anyone any harm), particularly anyone coming from as distinctly different cultural background from myself. (And besides, this blog is no place for taking a stand on such issues.) He lived in accordance with what he believed in, with his conviction. Even though it's heartbreaking to think he might have lived longer had he been able to swerve from some of those beliefs, such dedication and determination are admirable.
As I was thinking about a suitably striking way to end this article, one set of words kept cropping up. The words that were reportedly the last words of Bob Marley, spoken to his son Ziggy. Words that are fully in line with what Marley said and sang during his extraordinary life, fully in line with how he led that life.
"Money can't buy life."
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