Bob Marley: Eating the Bread of Sorrow

No one knew it was reggae superstar Bob Marley's last world tour. His biographer Garry Steckles is still weeping and wailing over missing it

  • Bob Marley. Photograph by David Corio

The last time I had the chance to see Bob Marley live was 30 years ago. And – I’ve never stopped kicking myself for this – I blew it.

Bob was coming to the Montreal Forum, one of the Wailers’ first North American stops on their epic tour promoting the Survival album, a roots reggae odyssey that had already taken them to Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Hawaii. In late October of 1979, just a few days before heading to Canada, he’d performed seven shows at the fabled Apollo Theatre in the heart of Harlem, and tickets for his Montreal Forum date were a hot item.

Not that I had any worries on that score. Bob’s publicist, Charles Comer, was on the road with him. And Charles was one of my closest friends, so not only was I sure of getting a good ticket, I’d also have an all-access pass, and I’d be hanging backstage with Bob and the band before and after the show.

There was only one problem: I was scheduled to work that night. I was front-page editor at the Gazette, Montreal’s venerable English-language daily, I was due in the office around three in the afternoon, and, try as I might, I couldn’t find anyone willing to swap shifts.

So, reluctantly, I resigned myself to my fate. I’d be editing stories, writing headlines and worrying about deadlines while Bob, Family Man, Carly and the rest of the Wailers were rocking the Forum, less than a mile away.

I wasn’t wildly amused, but, I told myself, it could have been a lot worse. I’d seen Bob many times before, and the previous year I’d managed to catch him twice: first at the One Love Concert for Peace in Kingston, Jamaica, and, a couple of months after that, at the Montreal Forum. Charles Comer, though, was not a man to take no for an answer, and, while he eventually resigned himself to the fact I couldn’t make it to the show, he was determined to get me to the Forum for the sound check. “I’ve told Bob you’ll be there, he’s really looking forward to seeing you,” Charles informed me by way of encouragement.
I’d met Bob in Jamaica when I spent much of the week leading up to the Peace Concert hanging at 56 Hope Road, Marley’s home and, for a few weeks, the operational centre for the historic event. I’d also interviewed him a few times, and Comer, a non-stop hustler for publicity for all his clients, was hell-bent on getting me to spend time with his artist…and, of course, to write about it in the Gazette.

But the sound check was scheduled for around 5 pm – which was when the paper’s main news conference was always held. And missing the news conference was a no-no – as in a firing offence – for whoever was handling the front page.

To appease Charles, at least slightly, I promised him the paper would send a reporter to the sound check to interview Bob, in addition to the reviewer from the paper’s entertainment section.

Which is exactly what happened. I smoothed things over with the legendary publicist – whose clients over the years included the Beatles, the Stones, the Bee Gees, the Who, Grace Jones, Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Chieftains and Peter Tosh – when we hooked up after we’d both finished work. And, despite the fact the reporter who interviewed Bob told me he’d kept asking why I wasn’t at the Forum, there was some solace in knowing that Marley would be around for a long time. There were sure to be plenty more opportunities to see him perform and, with any luck and with Charles Comer’s help, to spend some time with him.
What I didn’t know – and, come to think of it, nor did he at the time – was that Bob Marley was seriously ill. Bob believed he’d made a full recovery from melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer that had been diagnosed in his right foot in 1977. He’d had an operation in Miami, where his big toe and much of the skin next to it had been removed, and, when he’d returned to the Cedars of Lebanon hospital for a checkup a few months after the surgery, he’d been assured he was fine. Always fit and active, he was back to playing his beloved soccer at every opportunity, and his dancing on stage was as energetic as it had ever been.

In late spring of 1980 Bob set out on what would be the most successful tour of his career, in support of the Uprising album. He broke attendance records in Europe, at least one of which stands to this day, and kicked off the North American leg of the tour in mid-September. Montreal was again one of the scheduled stops, and this time I was determined it was a show I wouldn’t miss. I had the tickets organised well in advance, and I’d arranged a day off work.

But then, after the Wailers had played in Pittsburgh on September 23, the rest of the tour was suddenly cancelled. Bob was exhausted, the world was told. In fact, he had collapsed while jogging in New York’s Central Park and had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The Pittsburgh concert was the last he’d ever play. On the morning of May 11, 1981, at the age of 36, the Third World’s first superstar died in Miami.


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