Twenty years after his death, reggae music has spread across and around the world. It is part of the very fabric of global culture. It was once regarded with condescension by all but a few, but since the 1970s it has been inextricably linked with an archetypal image: Bob Marley, holding aloft the red, gold and green banner of Rastafari.
From immensely humble beginnings, with talent and religious belief his only weapons, Marley applied himself to spreading a prophetic musical message. He left this planet only when he felt that his vision of One World, One Love, inspired by his Rastafarianism, had begun to be heard and felt. In 1980, the year before his death, the European tour of Bob Marley And The Wailers played to the largest audience a musical act had ever attracted — 110,000 people in the San Siro football stadium in Milan.
Marley left behind some of the most heartfelt and moving music of the last century. To those already attuned to the culture of Jamaican music, it came as no surprise that the sound-system deejays and the studio wizards of dub should have provided the template for rap music, which, by the time the millennium turned, had become the biggest-selling genre of popular music in the world.
In some quarters it has always been fashionable to try to separate reggae from the influence of Marley, to suggest that his enormous popularity means he was never really representative of reggae and was therefore not truly “cool”. The lie is revealed in remote African and Asian villages where enormous murals of the Tuff Gong are found. As Bob knew only too well, it was his job to open up the world to the music of truth and the love and heartbreak of reggae, with which the philosophy of Rastafarianism is so inextricably interwoven.
Bob Marley became an archetype, which is why he continues to have such a powerful and ever-growing resonance. His music speaks of political repression, metaphysical and artistic insight, gangland warfare and mystical wilderness. His audience continues to grow. To many westerners, Bob’s apocalyptic truths prove inspirational and life-changing; in the Third World, his impact goes further. Among the Hopi Indians of New Mexico and the Maoris of New Zealand, among people in Indonesia, in India, even — especially — in those parts of West Africa from where slaves were plucked and taken to the New World, Bob Marley is the Redeemer returning to lead this planet out of confusion. Some even claim that Bob Marley is the long-awaited reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and the cancer that killed him is a modern crucifixion.
The disease that killed Bob Marley probably had its origins in a barely treated football injury (in 1975, a friend’s rusty running-spikes speared his big toe as he played football in Trench Town). But conspiracy theories still abound: his body was poisoned further while undergoing medical check-ups in Babylonian cities like London, Miami and New York; his hotel rooms or homes were bombarded with cancer-inducing rays; his system was slowly poisoned by the lead from the bullet that remained in his body after the 1976 attempt on his life.
Yes, you think, the cancer probably was the consequence of the football injury. But then you remember that this was a time when the forces of darkness thought nothing of killing a woman like Karen Silkwood who was trying to expose a nuclear risk. How much more must these forces have been threatened by a charismatic, alternative world leader, who through a widely accessible popular art was delivering warnings about the wickedness of the world’s institutions?
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Timothy White, the author of Catch A Fire, the wonderful Bob Marley biography, the extent of the CIA files on Bob has become widely appreciated. Chris Blackwell, who signed Bob to his Island Records label, had personal experience of this. “There are conspiracy theories with everything, especially out of Jamaica, because Jamaicans have such fertile imaginations. The only thing I will say is that I was brought in by the American ambassador in Jamaica to his office, and he said that they were keeping an eye on me, on what I was doing, because I was working with this guy who was capable of destabilising. They had their eye on him.”
The baby boy was born at around 2.30 on the Wednesday morning of 6 February 1945. He weighed seven pounds four ounces, and was named Nesta Robert Marley, “Robert” at the request of Norval, his white father. At the age of five, Nesta was taken from his country birthplace of Nine Miles in the parish of St Ann to live in Kingston by his father, who, to all intents and purposes, then deserted him, placing his son in the care of a woman who lived downtown.
After a year, Cedella, his mother, discovered where Nesta was living and brought him back from Kingston. Before his sojourn in the capital, Nesta had displayed a gift as a palm reader. When a woman back at Nine Miles asked the boy to read her hand, he shook his head. “No,” he said, “I’m not reading no more hand. I’m singing now.”
“He had these two little sticks,” Cedella recalls. “He started knocking them with his fists in this rhythmical way and singing this old Jamaican song:
Hey Mr, won’t you touch me potato
Touch me yam, punking tomato
All you do is King Love, King Love
Ain’t you tired of squeeze up, squeeze up
Hey Mr, won’t you touch me potato
Touch me yam, punking potato.
“And it just made the woman feel so good, and she gave him two or three pennies. That was the first time he talked about music.”
Soon after, Cedella herself moved to Kingston, returning to see her son on weekends. When Nesta was 12, in 1957, Cedella decided it was time for him to live with her in Kingston. She moved to 19 Second Street in Trench Town. One of Nesta’s closest friends was a youth called Bunny Livingston, with whose father Cedella had had an affair, bearing him a daughter named Pearl.
It was in the yard of an esteemed local musician called Joe Higgs that Nesta had his first encounter with jazz, a genre favoured by Higgs. “After a while I smoke some ganja, some herb, and get to understand it. Me try to get into de mood whar de moon is blue and see de feelin’ expressed. Joe Higgs ’elped me understand that music. ’E taught me many t’ings.”
Joe Higgs was the first male role model to enter the fatherless Nesta’s life. He assiduously coached the 15-year-old and his pal Bunny in the art of harmonising: he would advise Bob to sing all the time, to strengthen his voice. At one of these sessions, Bob and Bunny met Peter McIntosh, who lived in nearby West Road, another youth wanting “to mek a try” as a vocalist. At the urging of Joe Higgs, the three youths formed a group called the Teenagers, together with a strong local singer called Junior Braithwaite and two girls who sang back-up vocals, Beverley Kelso and Cherry Smith. The Teenagers later became The Wailing Rudeboys, and then The Wailing Wailers.
Alvin “Franseeco” Patterson, later known simply as Seeco, instructed the prospective musicians in the philosophy of rhythm. Seeco was another professional musician living in Trench Town; the burru style of drumming he played was an African rhythm of liberation, co-opted into Rastafari’s Nyabinghi style of inspirational chanting and drum-rhythms. It was this blend of devotion and rebellious fervour that formed the basis of the Wailers’ understanding of rhythm.
After meeting Derrick Morgan, a successful vocalist, Bob Marley linked up with producer Leslie Kong and made his first recording. Judge Not was recorded at Federal Studios in August 1962, the same month that Jamaica gained its independence. The shrill, youthful voice of Bob Marley had the joyous gallop of ska as the backbeat to his first recorded work. But the celebratory sound of Judge Not could not conceal the Biblical tone in this first release. Chiding those who pass judgement on himself and his kind, Marley warns that
While you talk about me
Someone else is judging you.
The song was released under the name of Robert Morley; it sold hardly at all, and airplay was non-existent. Two other Bob Marley ska numbers, Terror and One Cup Of Coffee, were put out by Kong, but they too enjoyed little success. Listeners assumed they were the work of one Bobby Martell: Kong had renamed Bob with this kitsch moniker in much the same way he had changed James Chambers to Jimmy Cliff.
Ten years later, Marley recorded Catch A Fire, his first album for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. It would be another three years before his first international success with No Woman No Cry, and although by then he had separated from his brethren Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, Bob Marley was sowing the seeds of superstardom.
Bob’s end was tragic. After his collapse while jogging in New York’s Central Park on 8 October 1980, he received radiation treatment at the city’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre. Like a portent, his locks fell out. Confronted by a future of grim uncertainty, Bob managed never to lose his wry view of life. Two weeks after his collapse, his death was being reported in the US media. He put out a statement in which his characteristic dry sense of humour was clearly still in evidence: “They say that living in Manhattan is hell, but . . .”
With a similar attitude he strove to make light of his illness to his children. While he was being treated in New York, they flew up from Jamaica to see him at Essex House. “He told us what was wrong with him,” said Cedella, his daughter. “His hair was gone. We were like, ‘Where’s your hair?’ He was making it to be such a big joke: ‘Oh, I’m Frankenstein.’ We said, ‘That’s not funny.’ I knew Daddy had a bad toe, because I would have to clean it sometimes. But I just thought it was a bad toe. I didn’t expect anything else but for maybe the nail to come off.”
By November 1980, the doctors at the Sloan-Kettering admitted they could do no more. A number of alternative cures were considered: the apricot kernel cancer cure in Mexico that the actor Steve McQueen attempted; a spiritual cure by journeying to Ethiopia; a simple return home to Jamaica. The last plan was abandoned when the island appeared to be in the grip of the most violent general election it had ever known.
After the options had been weighed up, Bob travelled to Bavaria in West Germany, to The Sunshine House Cancer Clinic in Bad Wiesse. A holistic centre, it was run by the controversial Dr Josef Issels, a former SS officer. Issels only took on cases that had been proclaimed incurable, for which he claimed a 20% success rate.
The environment, however, was hostile and alien. The house of the dread who would never tour Babylon during the winter months was surrounded by thick snow. Bob would go to Issels’s clinic for two hours of treatment each day, then return to spend time with the visitors who flew in to be with him, his mother, his wife, members of The Wailers, old friends. Much of his time was spent watching videotapes of soccer matches, particularly those played by Brazil.
Through it all, Bob never stopped song-writing. He seemed to think he could make it. His weight went up and for a time he seemed in better spirits. But the sterile, picture-postcard atmosphere of Bad Wiesse hardly nurtured Bob’s soul. “It was a horrible place,” said Chris Blackwell. “It must have been very disorienting for him. He had virtually no hair, just scraggly bits, and was so thin: he must have weighed 100 pounds or something like that. He looked terrible. But there was something . . . He was still so proud. He said ‘Hi’ and chatted for a bit. He was very strong somehow still.”
The atmosphere where he was staying was even worse: as Mortimer Planner, the Rastafarian elder, described it, vicious psychological warfare was taking place between “the Orthodox and Twelve Tribes factions”. It would be demeaning to everyone involved, including Bob, to describe this in further detail. Suffice it to believe Planner’s words: “A terrible misunderstanding has gone on. For all these people loved Bob.”
Bob developed a craving for plantain tarts, and it was arranged for a carton of them to be flown up to him from Jamaica. Before they arrived, however, he decided he wanted to go home. He had had enough of Bad Wiesse. He knew what was going to happen.
A private plane was hired. Accompanied by two doctors, Bob was flown across the Atlantic.
He made it no further than Miami, however. Judy Mowatt, a member of his I-Threes back-up singers, was at home on the morning of 11 May 1981. A little after 11.30, she recalled, she heard a loud clap of thunder and saw lightning fork through a window of her house and flash on a picture of Bob on the wall. She knew what this foretold. A little after 11.30 a.m., in the Cedars of Lebanon hospital in Miami, Bob surrendered his soul to the Almighty Jah.
Bob Marley at a glance
• 1945: Robert Nesta Marley born 6 February to Cedella Booker and Captain Norval Marley, a 50-year-old white quartermaster attached to the British West India Regiment
• 1962: auditioned for a local music entrepreneur, Leslie Kong; first release, Judge Not (his surname was misspelt as “Morley”)
• Formed the Wailing Wailers with Peter McIntosh and Neville “Bunny” Livingston. In 1963, met record producer Clement Dodd, who agreed to record the group under his label, Coxcone
• 1966: married Rita Anderson and moved to the USA; returned to Jamaica later that year
• 1971: took up Johnny Nash’s offer to visit Sweden and secured a recording contract with CBS
• 1972: the entire clan of Wailers joined Bob in London. Signed a recording contract with Chris Blackwell of Island Records
• 1973: the band began a club tour and became known as a good live support band. Follow-up album, Burnin, released
• 1975: Original Wailers “Bunny” Livingston and Peter Tosh quit; the band became Bob Marley and the Wailers
• 1976: Rastaman Vibration. A free Wailers concert at National Heroes Park announced for 5 December. Wounded in assassination attempt, but concert went ahead
• 1977: Exodus, with hits like Waiting in Vain, Jammin and the title track, topped the UK charts for 56 weeks
• 1978: Kaya released. Returned to Jamaica; received United Nation’s Medal of Peace in New York; visited Kenya and Ethiopia
• 1979: Survival
• 1980: Concert in Zimbabwe. Uprising released. Bob and the Wailers embarked on a major European tour, which took them to the United States. Bob diagnosed with cancer in the US
• 1981: Died, Monday 11 May
• 2000: Exodus named Album of the Millennium by Time magazine
• 2001: Bob Marley star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame