Reggae messiah

Garnette Cadogan on some Bob Marley biographies

  • Bob Marley
  • Bob Marley

Garnette Cadogan on Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, revised and enlarged, by Timothy White; Marley Legend: An Illustrated Life of Bob Marley, by James Henke; Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley, by Christopher John Farley; The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century, by Vivien Goldman; Bob Marley: His Musical Legacy, by Jeremy Collingwood; Bob Marley: The Definitive Discography, by Roger Steffens and Leroy Jodie Pierson; Dubwise: Reasoning from the Reggae Underground, by Klive Walker; and This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project, ed. Eric Weisbard

Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, revised and enlarged, by Timothy White (Owl Books, ISBN 0-8050-8086-4, 556 pp)

Marley Legend: An Illustrated Life of Bob Marley
, by James Henke (Chronicle Books, ISBN 0-8118-5036-6, 64 pp)

Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley, by Christopher John Farley (HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN 0-06-053991-7, 216 pp)

The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century, by Vivien Goldman (Three Rivers Press, ISBN1-4000-5286-6, 325 pp)

Bob Marley: His Musical Legacy
, by Jeremy Collingwood (Cassell Illustrated, ISBN 1-84403-505-0, 192 pp)

Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Definitive Discography
, by Roger Steffens and Leroy Jodie Pierson (Rounder Books, ISBN 1-57940-120-1, 177 pp)

Dubwise: Reasoning from the Reggae Underground, by Klive Walker (Insomniac Press, ISBN 1-894663-96-9, 292 pp)

This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project, ed. Eric Weisbard (Harvard University Press, ISBN 0-674-01344-1, 389 pp)

You should be forgiven if you read a Bob Marley biography and feel moved to pray to him, rather than listen to his music. Marley the singer has become Marley the saint, and since his death a quarter-century ago his fans have witnessed him (Him?) transubstantiated from musician to messiah.

Marley biographers are partly responsible. They abstract him from his historical and cultural context to portray him as the Great Man of Reggae. Certainly, he’s peerless as a reggae musician, and has few rivals in popular music, but he became an international superstar because of a constellation of forces. To name a few: a significant West Indian presence in the UK that provided a market for reggae; Island Records’ Chris Blackwell’s role in promoting the Wailers as a rock act; the affection of punk adherents in the UK; the attention of rock musicians like Johnny Nash, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, and Elvis Costello; the rise and burgeoning influence of the specialist rock press; the openness and enthusiasm of that much-maligned group, North American bohemians; and certain crucial circumstances in Jamaica that made Bob Marley, well, Bob Marley. Nonetheless, discussions of his artistic development often neglect his social, political, and aesthetic context.

Indeed, after reading the recent flood of books on Marley, most published in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, 11 May, 2006, I can’t help but wonder if veneration, and veneration alone, is what the authors desire from their audience. Survey the literature on Marley and you’ll find few biographers, but many evangelists. Awash in sentimentality and hero-worship, the books fail to provide what’s truly necessary: a portrait of a musician, with an oeuvre marked by an extraordinary mix of spirituality, protest, and desire.

Veneration and hero-worship are frustrating enough. But, unfortunately, much of the literature also adheres to an over-familiar narrative that follows Marley from womb to tomb, revisiting a breathless fable we’ve heard far too often: Robert Nesta Marley, born in the rural Jamaican village Nine Miles to a deadbeat white father and teenage black mother, raised in the gritty urban ghetto Trench Town, and nurtured in the streets and studios of Kingston, conquered the local musical lingua franca, reggae, and made it an international idiom. Interspersed are other staples: Marley’s conversion to Rastafarianism; his tenure with producer Lee “Scratch” Perry; the impact of his landmark inaugural album Catch a Fire; his rise to international stardom with the help of Chris Blackwell; the near-miss assassination attempt in 1976; the One Love Peace Concert two years later, when Marley cajoled an onstage handshake between adversaries prime minister Michael Manley and opposition leader Edward Seaga; and his romantic forays with paramour and former Miss World Cindy Breakspeare. Marley’s all-too-soon death, caused by cancer that seeped from his injured big toe to swamp his once indefatigable frame, caps the tale, along with a list of his posthumous accolades. Namely, the success of “One Love” as the BBC’s “Song of the Century” and Exodus as Time magazine’s “Album of the Century”; and the New York Times’ designation of Marley as “the most influential artist of the second half of the twentieth century”.

Though I’ve berated the conventional Marley biography — one that marches along to chronology — I would gladly welcome one that approaches him with unsentimental affection and is written in prose that, like Marley’s best songs, soars with dynamism and vivacity.

No wonder I still reach for Timothy White’s Catch a Fire, the book most rock critics swear is the best biography of Marley. Now in its fourth edition, White’s biography should be on the bookshelf of every serious Marley fan and any casual fan of popular music. White’s work has its flaws, but his wit, eloquence, and verve are refreshing. (White said his book “gives itself over in an atmospheric fashion to the confluence of belief systems that informed Bob Marley. It posits that if everything soberly stated about Marley by those closest to him were true, the story would unfold as I have recorded it.” This gives White critical empathy, but also an occasionally cartoonish voice, and a dubiousness which sidetracks him into hagiography.) Indeed, much that is written about Marley after Catch a Fire is indebted to White. If you value candour more than politesse, then it’s better to say that, post-White, most books on Marley are Catch a Fire rehashes.

Take James Henke’s Marley Legend, which traces Marley’s trajectory from Nine Miles to the world stage. Published twenty-three years after Catch a Fire, Henke’s book reads like a paraphrase of White’s. But, unlike White, Henke barely discusses Marley’s music, a neglect all the more disappointing given his early confession: “The simplest explanation for Bob Marley’s enduring appeal is his music.” Henke, the chief curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, tells us:

At the Rock Hall induction [of Marley], Bono, the lead singer of U2, recalled a trip he and his wife had made to Ethiopia. “Everywhere we went, we saw Bob Marley’s face . . . Prayers catching fire in Mozambique, Nigeria, Lebanon, Alabama, Detroit, New York City, Notting Hill, Belfast. Dr King in dreads. A Third and a First World superstar.

Yet Henke doesn’t explain why Marley’s music has such worldwide appeal, except to throw out a few party-line truisms. He admits that Marley was “a man of contradictions”, but delivers a Marley so straightforward and accessible that the rock superstar might as well have sung bubblegum pop.

Though Marley Legend includes an assortment of memorabilia reproductions, lovely photos, and a fifty-minute CD with two interviews (from 1973 and 1979), it feels like a sterile museum artifact — appropriate, perhaps, given Henke’s curatorial background. Indeed, there is nothing emotive, nothing to draw much protest or praise. With fallow ground to provide something fruitful, Henke interviews Marley’s friends and family and produces a coffee-table book that is imprisoned by its format: an orthodox tale, accentuated with visual ornaments, sans spirit or subtlety. As attractive as the book is, the only question it raises is, do we need another Authorised Version?

Why not examine Marley’s pilgrimage from, say, Nine Miles to the production of his landmark Catch a Fire? And if it can be done with the help of new interviews, archival research, and in under two hundred pages, all the better.

When I saw Christopher John Farley’s 216-page Before the Legend, and read an excerpt-as-blurb suggesting that Farley examined the forces that shaped Marley’s musical outlook before he became a superstar, I thought, here is an idea with legs. Finally, a Marley biography that promises to gallop from the pack.

My enthusiasm was misplaced. Like the others, Farley writes as a born-again Marley believer, high on zeal and sparse with analysis. “I have been running around,” he remarks, “wide-eyed, looking for Bob Marley,” and most of Before the Legend is testimony to his idolising. He tells us:

I had been working on a book about Marley’s life for several years. I had interviewed Marley’s family members, friends, and fellow musicians. I had unearthed crumbling old print interviews of Marley and listened to scratchy home recordings he had made but never released. I had visited his old haunts in Trench Town and throughout Kingston. I had been given unreleased recordings of the Wailers conversing in the studio so I could get insight into how they created their music.

And yet the book he produced is no less conventional than the glut of Marley titles that preceded it. In a work ostensibly about Marley, there is an inordinate amount of commentary about the author. Unfortunately, a self-congratulatory tone suffuses Farley’s little volume, which is littered with far too many asides and meanderings, whose only aim, it appears, is to make the reader aware of the deep access he was granted. Rather than speed his narrative along, Farley distracts the reader with details of his research.

“Much of this book, because it is about Marley, is also about Jamaica,” he tells us. But the book fails to provide historical insight into Marley’s Jamaica as well. Instead, it is punctuated with ruminations on the relationship between reggae and rap, the value of muses, the nature of creativity, and so on, loosely stitched together in a narrative that lacks cohesion, originality, and force.

Far too often, I encountered a topic that grabbed my interest (for example, Marley’s paternal lineage), only to be led down byways by purple prose: “His voice, so guava sweet when singing, is low and ragged when speaking — when he talks, he has the resonant, ringing tones one would expect to emanate from a burning bush.” Frequently, too, my desire for shrewd commentary was frustrated by Farley’s jejune observations:

Bob’s connection to the rap world is an important one. It helps to show that reggae was bigger than reggae. Jamaica is an island, but its culture conquered continents. Marley struggled in vain to make inroads with black American music fans. In death, he launched a new career as a hip-hop icon. America rejected him in life but embraced him in the grave.

Though his bad prose is forgivable, Farley’s failure to provide incisive musical and cultural criticism is more difficult to pardon. Farley, a former pop-music critic at Time magazine, passes off cliché as criticism, and offers generalities where judgement is required. He notes that “an artist’s initial years of struggle represent the most interesting period of his or her career,” but makes little attempt to delineate Marley’s formative years. Consequently, we leave his book no nearer to Bob Marley’s past or musical influences.

Other writers on Marley — starry-eyed purists panting for the Marley albums made with ingenious producer Lee “Scratch” Perry — fare no better. Obsessed with authenticity, they hawk a primitivism that declares authenticity is whatever clings to home, and shuns the corrupting influence of rock.

Field Mahoney, writing in Slate magazine last year, reminds me of the self-appointed cultural arbiters who argue that the Marley of Island Records “sold out”, while the Marley labouring for Jamaican producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd was the musician at his creative peak. No matter that some of Marley’s most creative and heartfelt work followed his move to Island Records. No matter also that Dodd didn’t give Marley a cent in royalties. Mahoney asserts:

Legend was a doozy — a defanged and overproduced selection of Marley’s music. Listening to Legend to understand Marley is like reading Bridget Jones’s Diary to get Jane Austen.
(“Free Bob Marley!”, Slate, 22 February, 2006;

Like the purists, he yearns for the Bob Marley whose “golden period was the three albums he cut with the original Wailers and the brilliant, certifiably insane, Jamaican producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry: Soul Rebels, African Herbsman, and Rasta Revolution.” Yet Mahoney’s search for the real Marley is illusory and futile. Why is his Marley more authentic than the Marley of Legend? He claims that the records he favours “are more satisfyingly complex, both lyrically and instrumentally, than much of Marley’s later work” — a contention that parallels the primitivism arguments made by the British press when Marley entered the international music scene. Inadvertently, Mahoney and others champion the backdrop of their cherished songs and albums — poverty, injustice, social anxiety, and violence — and underplay the conditions that continue to plague Bob Marley’s Jamaica. The purists never decry the nefarious Jamaican recording industry of the 1960s, depicted with microchip accuracy in The Harder They Come, but they gush over its soundtrack.

Mahoney, to be fair, departs from them with a lucid attempt to reconcile the apocalyptic Marley of “Small Axe” with the peace-loving Marley of “One Love” (though, if you think of “One Love” as a jolly anthem of love and unity, you haven’t listened carefully). Read Mahoney’s article, especially, if you’re frustrated by “the cult of Marley as a cuddly ‘One Love’ Rastafarian”.

In his jaunty ska version of “One Love” recorded in Clement Dodd’s Studio One in 1965, Marley proclaimed, “Let’s get together and I’ll feel all right.” A dozen years later, he recorded a buoyant reggae version for Island Records, with an omission (he cuts “I’ll”) that made the song more universal.

In The Book of Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century, Vivien Goldman says the song “inject[s] blazing revelations into the heart of one of the happiest songs ever composed.” She compares its structure to Michelangelo’s David, quotes Chris Blackwell and former I-Three Marcia Griffith’s reminiscences of the song, and makes some observations about its ubiquity. All interesting stuff, but we are nowhere closer to understanding the song as song, nor Marley as musician. We are not told why Marley altered “One Love”, or about his efforts to be more universally appealing. This inattention to Marley as musician (and Goldman’s nostalgia and Marley-worship) bedevils The Book of Exodus.

Goldman’s book is a lively mix of memoir, reportage, criticism, and history, and had I read The Book of Exodus a few years ago I would have been keen to call it a fresh take on Bob Marley. However, the “making of an album” format is now a publishing cliché, and I’m weary of the genre. Its limitations are many, particularly its fetish for the-album-as-artifact and its encouragement of navel-gazing. Although Goldman occasionally shifts perspective from telephoto to wide-angle, I left her book feeling somewhat claustrophobic, wishing for more of Marley away from the studio. Nonetheless, a focus on Marley’s recordings is invaluable, for it introduces Marley to us as a musician.

Roger Steffens and Leroy Jody Pierson’s Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Definitive Discography is as it proclaims: definitive. (Though, I should add, a lot of it relies on Bunny Wailer’s memory, which the authors prudently admit is fallible). Steffens and Pierson have produced an attractive compilation of almost everything you ever wanted to know about every Marley single and album — released and unissued. Moreover, they have included brief biographies of all three Wailers, reproductions of rare album cover art, photos of music personnel, and a wonderful essay on record collecting that doubles as an insightful portrait of the manic world of obsessive reggae fans. Had James Henke used it, he wouldn’t have erroneously claimed that Marley’s “third single, ‘Terror’, was released under the name Bob Martin” (“Terror” was not his third single, it was never released, and there are doubts whether it was even recorded). Field Mahoney also would have known not to call African Herbsman an album (it was a post-Catch a Fire 1972 Trojan compilation).

Steffens and Pierson’s discography is organised chronologically, which seems obvious enough until you see the organising principle of Jeremy Collingwood’s Bob Marley: His Musical Legacy. Collingwood organises his discography in chronological order under various producers and labels. His book, which is supposedly about Marley’s legacy, is really a long discographical essay. Divided into two sections, “Jamaica” and “The International Years”, Collingwood’s book is a hodgepodge of liner notes, photographs, brief histories, briefer profiles, an abbreviated guide to record collecting, and a discography. But who is the audience for this book? It’s too cursory and generic for reggae and Marley fans, and its liner-notes-as-narrative approach will attract few, if any, general readers.

In contrast, Dubwise, by Klive Walker, is one of the finest books in English on reggae, and if Walker’s prose were more eloquent, I’d declare it the best guide, apart from The Rough Guide to Reggae, to understanding Jamaican popular music.

The commonplace story of Jamaican music presents it as a linear progression of styles: mento begat ska begat rocksteady begat reggae (the high point) begat dancehall (the aberration), and now the world awaits another saviour to redeem the music. Occasionally one pops up, only to disappoint (Buju Banton), or disappear (Garnet Silk). This crude history of Jamaican music is the setting for most biographies of Marley, so when I read Walker’s departure in Dubwise I was exhilarated.

Walker argues that reggae is the result of a constant process of musical lending and borrowing, a much more complex music than the end-result of a stylistic succession. As a result, the Marley he presents is a much more interesting, complex, and creative musician than the one we usually encounter.

Dubwise devotes two (of eleven) essays to Marley, and they reveal fresh insights by mapping his Jamaican influences and interpreting his international significance. For example, Walker demonstrates that Jamaican poet and folklorist Louise Bennett influenced Marley’s songwriting, while jazz trombonist Don Drummond influenced his musicianship. He also makes a strong case for appreciating Marley’s entire output, defending Marley’s Island Records albums through incisive musical criticism. For example:

Natty Dread is a concept masterpiece because of its words, but also because of the music that provides an appropriate vehicle for the lyrics to have maximum impact. Aston “Family Man” Barrett’s bottom-heavy soul-searching bass lines and his brother Carly’s rickety-tick, on-the-one, one-drop trap drumming embrace like passionate lovers on each and every track. The album’s undiluted roots reggae rhythms were only one characteristic that provided the music on the album with a distinct persona. What takes it to an altogether different level of creativity is its use of the blues . . . the Wailers are not really trying to fuse blues and reggae in a simplistic way. The album’s music offers something much more organic; it offers a blues that adapts itself to the objectives of roots reggae.

Need I say it? Dubwise is mandatory reading for anyone interested in Bob Marley, reggae, or Jamaican musical culture.

Also obligatory is Jason Toynbee’s “Authorship Meets Downpression: Translating the Wailers into Rock” — an essay in the volume This Is Pop — which features an analytical approach rare among Marley biographers. He encourages us to approach Marley as poet rather than as prophet, musician rather than messiah, and, in about five thousand words, chronicles the metamorphosis of Bob Marley and the Wailers from Jamaican popular musicians to international rock superstars.

With solid historical inquiry, acute music criticism, and theoretical sophistication, Toynbee provides a first-rate analysis of how the Wailers engineered the translation. He recognises that Marley didn’t become popular by single-handed resolve, as most narratives would have us believe, but that a confluence of factors ushered the Wailers into stardom, such as the influence of the rock press and “the packaging of the Wailers” as a rock band.

The Wailers were a studio band for “Coxsone” Dodd and Lee Perry before they met Chris Blackwell. To appeal to the rock market they had to be “rebuilt as a reggae band that could record albums, play live, and [adopt] what amounted to a rock band ethos of self-sufficient authorship”. So the Jamaican vocal trio transformed from a band with pretty equal members to a supergroup with a front man:

In terms of personnel, two Wailers, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, became singer-guitarists while the third, Bunny Livingstone, sang and played percussion. Carlton and Family Man Barrett, Lee Perry’s former house rhythm section, were then added on drums and bass, respectively, but now as “full” members of the band. Finally, all the musicians adopted an inflected but still recognisably rock image. Key here were Marley’s trademark denim shirt and jeans, which became the arch signifier of the new hybrid project. Marley took the initiative as spokesman for the band, but initially at least, he was primus inter pares rather than leader.

Toynbee is at his best when analysing the ambiguity that emerges when Jamaican reggae becomes international rock. “Black, Rastafarian, politically militant, and from the postcolonial margins, the Wailers were not merely outside rock, they were Other to it,” he tells us. “How, then, to find a way to translate the group?” His explanation — a model for everyone who writes about Marley — reveals Marley’s success as anything but inevitable.

Bob Marley and the Wailers had to “negotiate their transition to the international market from a completely different kind of musical culture and infrastructure in Jamaica,” Toynbee reminds us. He shows how the political, social, and aesthetic proclivities of Jamaica and the international rock scene shaped the evolution of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Not only does Toynbee enrich our understanding of Marley and his milieu, he also sensibly discusses the appeal and genius of Marley’s music:

As the Wailers urge, “Simmer Down”, Marley’s rasping tenor, on the very edge of falsetto, offers a hysterical counterpoint. Never before has a plea for moderation — the song is addressed to fractious rude-boys — sounded so desperate.

Marley’s music juxtaposes seemingly incongruous forms and feeling, and part of his musical genius is getting us to go along cheerfully without objection. (As my music-scholar friend, Lynn Abbott, says, “[Marley’s music] reminds me of the Cajun Two-steps that chug merrily along while the guy is singing, I’m condemned to walk down the big lonesome road for the rest of my days.”) Fire-and-brimstone messages travel on a buoyant rhythm. Religion, revolution, and romance nestle comfortably on the same album.

Marley and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse share stage with the mellifluous I-Threes and the funky Barrett Brothers duo. And simple, alliterative lyrics communicate complex stories (“I shot the sheriff / But I didn’t shoot no deputy”). We dance to “One Love”, which is as much about oppression and God’s apocalyptic judgment as love and unity, and rock to “Redemption Song”, which laments slavery’s horror. And we sway to “No Woman No Cry”, with its plaintive tale about ghetto life. We cannot surrender to Bob Marley’s music without giving in to its tensions and contradictions.

Indeed, Marley was a master of the incongruous, wrapping painful realities in wonderfully playful melodies. Those who take it upon themselves to detail his life, then, are obliged to illuminate the ambiguities rather than regurgitate stale stories. The biography worth reading will examine Marley as the musician he was and the icon he has become, rather than the messiah he has too often been made out to be.


Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), February 2007. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.

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