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Curating a Legend

“This album will change your life.”

Clichéd? Yes. Accurate? Absolutely.

Twenty-one years later, I’m sitting at the same coffee table. My Dad crafted it in 1973 from some wood and glass he salvaged from the Cooperstown Hospital. A new entrance was being built. He was an intern, on his way to becoming an ophthalmologist.

Bob Marley and my Dad were born in the same year, 1945. I have always taken note of that.

I have seen my Dad age, but Bob has remained the same. Same smile. Same denim shirt. Same spliff, forever being smoked.

How you have seen him is how he will remain. Death will do that.

Legend was my 11th birthday present. It was the summer of 1993. It was a knockout year for music. I was accepting gifts on my parents’ coffee table. An older guy who dated my sister dropped it on me.

“Set aside that Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and make sure you get this into the rotation.”

And I did. I listened to it all the time.

I never thought of it as reggae, just Bob Marley. I loved how every song started with a drum fill. You could skip through the whole CD and hear only drums. I thought it was hilarious. Only with Bob Marley music could you do that.

My Dad always wore aviators and a suit. My friends thought he worked for the FBI. He didn’t. He was a doctor. He grew up in western NY. He played soccer and then went to medical school. His mother was a teacher and his father worked at a bank. He went from being middle class to upper middle class, through hard work, but gracefully. It was consistent and realistic. Nothing drastic. No major roadblocks. A steady slope of social and financial mobility.

I consider the trajectory of Bob Marley’s parallel existence in comparison to the dynamics of my Father’s life.

The legend of my father has been collected by me and my family. His footprint was much smaller and easier to track. His story is uncomplicated and believable. It is supported with public records and the American infastructure.

How do we even come to find out about the legend of Bob Marley though? The man himself,  was known to shroud his own story in mysticism. Journalists and biographers often noted that it was hard to know if you were ever getting the real story from him.  He played the media. He knew the power of folk tales and myth. He had a reputation for subjective trickery. In the very first words of his most famous biography, Catch A Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, Timothy White describes his  struggle obtaining “facts” while doing research for the book. He articulates the concept of “facts” in Jamaica beautifully with three fantastic quotes:

“Facts? About Jamaica? Aha! I love when the country people say there are no facts in Jamaica. It sounds so spooky, but they’re absolutely right, of course. Because there really aren’t any, when you think of it. Not a one”. -Chris Blackwell, 1982

“Facts an’ facts, an ‘t’ings an’ t’ings: dem’s all a lotta fockin’ bullshit. Hear me! Dere is no truth but de one truth, an’ that is de truth of Jah Rastafari.”  -Bob Marley, 1978

“Some mon just deal with’ information. An’ some mon, him deal with’ the concept of truth. An’ den some mon deal with’ magic. Information flow around’ ya, an’ truth flow right at ya. But magic, it flow t’rough ya.” -Nearnelly. A Jamaican “Bush Doctor” 1982
Never underestimate the power of folklore. In the end, history is no more factual than it is simply the story that people tell.  Bob was magic to people. He was a folk hero in the flesh.  He came from nowhere with nothing and somehow managed to be everywhere with everything. For those of us that beg for facts, there are a handful of biographies and a fantastic new documentary that roughly center around the same collected story:

Bob was born on a farm with no running water or electricity, in rural Jamaica; a colonized country. His mother was 15. His father was 60. People don’t really talk about that too much. What kind of a relationship was that? She was black Jamaican. He was European-Jamaican. She was a poor country girl, and he was a plantation overseer that dishonestly paraded himself as a navy man. Marley’s mother had always spoken sweetly of Bob’s father in biographies, but, come on, these days that is a criminal relationship.

But without it, we would have no Bob Marley. So we’re glad it happened?

Bob was tended to loosely. Treated in a way that by today’s standards we might consider neglect. He was picked on for having light skin.

He was moved around from relative to relative, never quite fitting in. His father was mostly out of the picture, and dead by the time Bob was 10.

He started to make a name for himself though. He became popular. He was an athlete. He was seen as a tough guy, hence, the “Tuff Gong” title. He was also known as a great singer.

“Was Bob Marley educated?” asks my wife, as he educates us through the speakers,

“I’ll never forget, no way,

they sold Marcus Garvey for rice, ooh

I’ll never forget, no way,

they turned their backs on Paul Bogle, hey, hey”

(“So Much Things To Say”)

I don’t know. Was he? What is “educated”? He certainly didn’t graduate from high school. Bob left Jamaica for Delaware in 1966. Even though the Wailers (Bob, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer) had a number one single, it wasn’t paying the bills.

While in the U.S., he worked as a Dupont lab assistant as well as on the assembly line at a Chrysler plant. Blue collar American work. He went by the name Donald. He grew increasingly introverted. He read. He wrote. He got treated like a black man in America.

Education takes many forms. He became depressed, anxious, and went home.

He converted to Rastafari upon his return to Jamaica. His wife, Rita turned him on to it. She herself had seen stigmata in Haile Selassie’s hands when he had visited Jamaica during Bob’s absence.

Bob continued to triumph in music.

By 1973, his life had changed drastically. He was making international trips as a professional musician. He was a rising star in Jamaica. His band was signed to one of the biggest record labels in the world.

Reggae caught on internationally by way of Bob Marley and the Wailers. It was packaged and marketed directly to white suburban kids, who had missed the end of the sixties and were hungry for their own revolution. The marketing and music worked magic together, and an international awareness of the artist and music began to grow.

He became the most popular Jamaican ever to live, inhabiting a big house in Kingston near all of the Jamaican politicians and elite. He wore a ring that had been given to him by the family of his living God, Haile Selassie I. He toured the world many times over. His albums were bought by people of all races and classes globally, while also providing real-time inspiration to guerrilla movements, fighters and revolutionaries on the African continent.

Only in the 20th century was such an existence possible, with its radio waves, record pressing machines, and globally connected media networks. Rastafari socialist music was pulsing across the world in the form of Jamaican pop.

In 2002 I was part of a recording project in Ghana. We were in one of the premiere studios in the country. Everyone from Fela to Fleetwood Mac had worked there. The house engineer, Panji, was highly revered. He was wise as he was hip. He looked young, but there was no telling how old he might have been. When he heard us discussing Bob Marley, he chimed in:

“Bob Marley is probably the closest thing to Jesus Christ to have happened to the world since Jesus Christ.”

He said it matter-of-factly. Intellectually, as though he had said it before and would say it again.

That statement just gets heavier depending on who and where you are. In fact, Bob Marley spread his message much faster and further than Jesus ever did in his lifetime. Ghana, at least the southern half of the country, is hyper-Christian. It was quite a sensation, to visit Africa, and understand just how big of an icon Bob Marley had become. His image was everywhere. His lyrics are the names of restaurants and written on the backs of taxi cabs. To have listened to his music and to be aware of his message, it was clear that his success had taken on mythological proportions on the continent he sought to address directly in so much of his work. What will 200 more years do for the legend of Bob Marley?

He is a folk hero. His story has become property of the public. His identity is owned and curated by his followers worldwide. He has exceeded his humanity. He has the ability to provide strength without presence. He can be heard over the noise of top 40 trends. Children are taught about him by older siblings, role models, and progressive media. He provides economic relief for anyone who prints his image, name, or associated imagery on a t-shirt, tapestry, or trinket.

My friend Serwa in Ghana didn’t know what a hamburger or McDonalds was, but she was well aware of the works of Bob Marley, the Jamaican. She sang along the words as I played his songs on my guitar.

Such an influential presence on the world stage breeds plenty of enemies. Bob’s legend even includes a tale of a survived assassination attempt. He went on to sing about it two days later at the very concert rumored to have been the event his attempted assassination was meant to prevent. A pop singer being targeted like a head-of-state by political gangsters taking cues from CIA Cold Warriors. A Christ, a Ceaser, and Judas, all present and active in the tale

“How long can they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look?” he sings.

Shortly after he died of cancer at the young age of 36. A cancer, possibly treatable, except that the standard  treatment would have violated his religious principles forbidding amputation. His death is the subject of countless conspiracy theories.

The cancer was harsh. Bob attempted many remedies and strategies in an effort to save his life, eventually giving way to his beliefs and attempting amputation, chemotherapy, and radiation. The end was terrifying and painful. He never made it back to Jamaica alive.

The presence that Bob procured in those 36 years is unlike any before him. Who else had come from where he’d come from and been where he’d been? He became greater than himself. He became legendary.

And how was his legend made known to a young boy like me?  Was his earthly presence so potent,  that he was showing up at my house, on my 11th birthday, against all odds, as Bob Marley from Jamaica, creator of reggae music?

Was there a method to the distribution?  Could Island Records have predicted this? A music so powerful that it would penetrate its way into my suburban living room? My sisters didn’t have this record. It wasn’t on television. My parents didn’t listen to this music. Yet there he was. He was there to alter my course, or perhaps even guide it.  Selassie I ring blazing on the cover. All in a pretty package that was labelled perfectly, Legend.

“This album will change your life.”

Even at the time it sounded cliché. I think it was said to make the gift seem more special than he thought it was. It was a toss-away statement that stuck.

Forever more, it was always there. Bob Marley music, and it was always great. Marley music always leaves something to reveal for the next listen. There isn’t a bad song. His body of work offers a lifetime of education, discovery, and enjoyment. I never stopped searching for his music and I continue to find gems of lost material that have been scattered throughout the world waiting to be found.  Currently I am getting into this, and this, and these will forever be my favorite *NOT FOUND ON LEGEND

2015 here I am. I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.  That 11 year old birthday boy is now 32, writing down thoughts about reggae. Going on tour to Colorado with his reggae band. Recording musical reggae records. The trajectory of my life could be charted from the day I was given that album.  Learning of the legend provided me with inspiration and education, with all the cliché foreshadowing and suburban overkill included. It brought me to the dance. I wanted to be a part of it. Ever since I started to play music, I have dreamed of playing Bob Marley music.

Can we even say we play the same music as Bob Marley? No. We can’t. We don’t. He showed us the steps, but we do our own dance.

We play reggae music. It is 100% because of him, and because of that record. Reggae was delivered to us by Bob Marley. In this way, he is our musical uncle. We call him “Uncle Bob” to our kids. The legend became part of our 2015 American culture, whether Bob Marley the man would have wanted it that way or not. Today, you can hear some of his more political numbers while waiting for your coffee at Starbucks, or even pumping gas.  Somehow that’s just the way it is. The message overcomes or has it been overcome itself? Background music while the world burns?

“Some say that’s just a part of it. We’ve got to full fill the book” Bob Marley “Redemption Song”

Bob Marley has been everywhere for me. I grew up with him. He was the voice I would quote if you asked me of a poet. He made the music I got stoned to, fell in love to, trudged through life to. His songs kept me warm as I huddled with friends around one broken headphone speaker, singing along as we waited out a cold Berlin night after missing our train in the rain. His music has played in my dreams. It was playing in the airport as I landed in Africa for the first time. He was with us at our wedding. His song “Work” blasted in the delivery room as my wife gave birth to our daughter. We dance as a family to his music.

This is living with him in our lives.

I once read two books about Jesus and Bob Marley at the same time. Both were described by their friends in very similar ways. Both were regarded as having a direct relationship with God. They were seen as special messengers while living, and endured legacies as prophets long after death. People take Jesus into their lives. They make him theirs. Will Bob Marley be bigger than Jesus one day?

What if I told you that Bob Marley smoked crack? Sniffed Coke? Beat his wife Rita? Sent in goons to Jamaican radio stations who threatened violence if his music wasn’t played? What if I told you that after his assassination attempt in Jamaica, he had the assailants tracked down, and executed before his very eyes? What if he fathered several unknown illegitimate children? What if he was an international drug smuggler? What if you heard that he left his bandmates with no legal ground to stand on after he died, leaving them financially broke, despite his knowledge of his illness, and the acknowledged time to sort out his affairs?

This is part of the folklore as well. Part of the legend. Rumors. They circulate.

Would that remind you of something Jesus would do? Why wouldn’t it? What more don’t you know about Bob Marley than you do know about Jesus?

A legend’s identity is publicly curated. The facts become diluted as the stories churn. That story slowly cooks into what we know to be history.

I don’t know if any of those claims are true. I never will. Some people do, but they will be gone in time. What if they were, though?

Would that change who Bob Marley was to you? Would that change how you feel about his music? Would you not want your kids to call him Uncle? Does his message lose its meaning?  Would you stop listening to him? Would his work be worth less to the world? Would it be Bob Marley the asshole instead of Bob Marley the legend?

The truth is often hidden in the clichés.

Legend did change my life. It is one of a few foundational blocks that has me sitting here at this coffee table, reflecting on my life, the life of my father, and the life of Bob Marley. And I live the good life. I enjoy it. I am grateful for it. I consider myself lucky. The kind of lifestyle, that lets you sit around at the same homemade coffee table for 32 years that your Dad built. He is visiting me next week. He will be 70 soon. We are grateful for our good fortune and time together. Bob lived a different life. It started out rough and ended rough. He burned bright. It was short, propelled to power out of pain, with seemingly limitless boundaries. The ripples of his life cross-patterned into mine and all of yours. Legendary for sure.

Bass player and songwriter for Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad, James feels, plays and lives the music. Lucky for us he also has the knack for remembering what happened and writing it down in his own voice.
  • Great article, James. Fortunate to see you and the band play at the coach house in San Juan Capistrano and meet you after your set. Love the band and these types of insights are fun to read. All the best.