Tuffer than tough

By Geoffrey Dunn

Bob Marley, by Garry Steckles
Macmillan Caribbean/Signal Books/Interlink Publishing,
ISBN 9781405081436/9781904955412/9781566567336, 267/212 pp

Graffiti portraits of Bob Marley

Graffiti portraits of Bob Marley in Prague, Czech Republic (photo by [blu:]skin); Andria, Italy (photo by Smeerch); and Santiago, Chile (photo by action datsun)

Perhaps no cultural figure in recent history has achieved the iconic stature of Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley, the Jamaican singer and songwriter who popularised reggae music for a worldwide audience during the 1970s. In the quarter-century since his untimely death from cancer at the age of thirty-six, Marley’s legend has grown to near-mythic proportions, and his popularity, both in the Caribbean and globally, remains remarkably ascendant.

Time magazine — the conservative American media institution not known for its avant garde musical sensibilities — selected Marley’s pathbreaking 1976 album Exodus as the finest ever recorded. Not to be outdone, the BBC selected “One Love” as the musical anthem to close out the twentieth century. From the hardscrabble shantytowns of the Caribbean to homogenised American suburbs, from the impoverished favelas of Brazil to the trendiest bars of Tokyo, Marley is regaled as a larger-than-life figure who transformed world consciousness with his musical genius.

By now, the touchstones of Marley’s all-too-short life are well known: born of an uneasy union between an elderly white father and the teenage daughter of a well-to-do farmer in rural Nine Mile, Marley moved to the mean streets of Kingston as a young boy. It was there that he first hooked up with a pair of Trench Town street tuffs — Peter McIntosh (later to be known as Peter Tosh) and Neville Livingston (Bunny Wailer) — with whom he formed a ska group called the Wailing Wailers in the early 1960s, and with whom he forged his initial success. He married young, fathered many children, embraced Rastafarianism, and eventually reached the heights of musical stardom before succumbing to malignant melanoma in May 1981.

It is a story that has been told several times — two of the better earlier tellings are Timothy White’s Catch a Fire (1983) and Rita Marley’s No Woman No Cry (2004) — but it has now been cast in a delightfully fresh light in Bob Marley by Garry Steckles, a widely respected music critic and journalist. Steckles, currently serving as an editor in Abu Dhabi, has a profound understanding of Caribbean music — he and his wife ran a restaurant and nightclub in St Kitts for thirteen years — and he continues as a music columnist for Caribbean Beat. He focuses on the musical narrative of Marley’s life and, by so doing, crafts a biography that is rich in musical detail and lore.

Take, for instance, his description of a tropical evening in Nine Mile during the 1940s: “It was always live music,” Steckles writes.

Electricity hadn’t reached rural Jamaica in those days. Omeriah [Marley’s maternal grandfather] himself played the accordion and the violin, and another relative was an accomplished, semi-professional musician who played banjo, violin, and guitar in one of the mento-quadrille bands that provided entertainment at social gatherings.

Bob Marley begins with what will be a treat for Caribbean readers of the biography, an elegant introductory poem by David Rudder, entitled “Miss Cedella’s Son”, in which he proclaims: “The thirsty were quenched, the hot got cool, as you stirred it up . . . stiff / Emancipating us in every strum, until it felt like the cold four hundred / years just faded away with every riff.” Rudder, of course, provides a perfect epigraph for a biography of Marley. He has also walked the walk.

1950s Jamaica was a country teeming with music — with its traditional variations of mento being crowded out by the sounds of American rhythm and blues. The young Nesta, as he was then known (it was actually his given first name), was tuned into the dynamic sounds of the radio and, more importantly, to the massive, amplified sound systems first put together in Kingston parking lots and dancehalls.

Although compact and wiry, Marley carved out a place for himself in Trench Town with his fists, and he earned the nickname “Tuff Gong,” one of many sobriquets bestowed upon him throughout his life. He was one of Jamaica’s “rude boys,” tough and serious, but he was also saddled with a driving ambition and a cartload of musical talent. Steckles takes us back to the fledgling recording studios of Kingston, with their rough-and-tumble characters like Clement “Coxson” Dodd and Lee “Scratch” Perry, who were to make Marley and the Wailers regionally famous, but who fleeced them of their royalties.

Of particular interest to me are the details surrounding Marley’s discovery by Chris Blackwell, an aristocratic white Jamaican who had relocated to England and founded Island Records. After Marley’s first album, Catch a Fire, was recorded at Island in October 1972, Steckles writes, Blackwell’s desire to “break the group internationally” led to him to “soften the sound” in order to make it “more palatable to reggae neophytes.”

“The mixing of Catch a Fire didn’t take long,” Steckles declares, “but the changes that were made at Island’s studios in Basing Street were substantial. In effect they involved toning down the bottom end, bringing the high end forward, and adding some rock-flavored guitar and keyboards.” Two American musicians were also brought in to embellish the sound. Marley, surprisingly, didn’t mind.

In many ways, Blackwell did to reggae what Harry Belafonte had done to calypso — popularise it for a worldwide audience — the difference being, of course, that back in Trinidad the true practitioners of calypso refused to compromise their art form. Marley had no such compunctions.

Perhaps my biggest objection to traditional Marley hagiography is the oft-repeated contention that Marley “eschewed politics.” While he admittedly distanced himself from the mundane political tensions of Jamaica and the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean, as Steckles makes clear, both Marley’s life and his music were profoundly political. In many respects, his lyrics form a call to arms:

Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my hand was made strong
By the ’and of the Almighty.
We forward in this generation

While Marley may well have been the first truly global musical superstar, what’s more important is the fact that he forged the first unified global archetype in his music, one that transcends not only race, region, and religion, but nation-state and language as well.

I will never forget a rainy late evening in the mid 1980s when I was walking through an impoverished neighborhood in my family’s hometown of Riva Trigoso, Italy, when I came across two young men playing “Redemption Song” on a tape player while nestled under a footbridge. I sat with them for a while, and though they spoke not a word of English, they understood implicitly the deep meaning of freedom and emancipation crystallised in this Caribbean anthem. Its message was universal.

Bob Marley is the initial installment of the “Caribbean Lives” series published in the UK by Macmillan Caribbean and Signal Books, with future biographies of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Learie Constantine, Jimmy Cliff, Brian Lara, and Louise Bennett currently in the works. There’s even talk of including Sparrow and Rudder. If they are all as informative and as well written as Garry Steckles’s splendid biography of Marley, it promises to make for a memorable series on the history of Caribbean politics and culture.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2008

Geoffrey Dunn is a journalist, filmmaker, and historian, based in California. He has produced and directed more than a dozen documentary films, most recently Calypso Dreams (2003).