It has been decades since Bob Marley’s death, but his music is still played and his face still shows up on tee shirts. From “One Love” and “Jamming” to “Buffalo Soldier” and “Three Little Birds,” you’ve heard his iconic music, but what about his life and career made such an impact? We talk to two Marley experts, James Henke and Vivien Goldman to uncover what made Marley tick and how his message became so prominent.
- James Henke, rock journalist and author of Marley Legend
- Vivien Goldman, adjunct professor at Rutgers University and author of Exodus: The Making & Meaning of Bob Marley’s Album of the Century
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17-13: Bob Marley: Musical Legend and Voice of the People
Marty Peterson: Even now, 36 years after his death, the music of Bob Marley stays relevant and his impact on the culture continues to be felt. Marley is remembered by many as the man who brought reggae music, with its laid-back, identifiably Jamaican rhythms, to the attention of a worldwide audience. There was much more to the man than his pop success, however, as revealed in two books: “Marley Legend” by rock ‘n roll hall of fame chief curator, James Henke, and “Exodus: The Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century,” by NYU adjunct professor of punk and reggae music, and personal friend of the artist, Vivien Goldman. Reggae was created in the 60s in Jamaica and was very popular there, but didn’t enjoy the global acceptance of rock or soul. Goldman and Henke say Marley and the Wailers changed all that through a combination of musical excellence and marketing expertise.
Vivien Goldman: He was a true poet. People really do refer to his music now like the way people refer to the psalms – people turn to Bob Marley’s lyrics for comfort, for sustenance, for inspiration, for courage. You factor that in with his creative marriage with the Barret brothers and they were hit makers right from the beginning of Jamaican music. I remember when I was a girl at school seeing them on “Top of the Pops” on British television performing those hits like “Return of Django” by the Upsetters that galvanize the mods and the skinheads, you know in the U.K and started a whole cultural movement.
James Henke: I think a lot of the credit has to go to a gentleman Chris Blackwell the founder and head of Island Records. At one point they went over to England and Chris Blackwell the founder of Island Records saw them and was captivated by Marley’s songwriting and all that. So he signed them to a record deal. When they made the first Bob Marley and the Wailers album he brought in some American rock musicians and British rock musicians and stuff like that and took Bob’s reggae music and added a little bit more rock and roll mainstream feel to it. Then in terms of marketing the band he marketed them like a rock and roll group. So he put them on the road and they did tours and reggae groups prior to that had not done that. So a lot of it went to Chris Blackwell and the faith they had in Bob as a songwriter and a performer.
Peterson: Marley was much more than a musician. He was also a political activist. Goldman says Marley’s upbringing in the economically depressed area of Jamaica called “Trench Town” made him conscious of the plight of the underclass, and the violence that often was part and parcel of slum life.
Goldman: I remember him telling me about his days in Trench Town, “I had to run from the police all the time. Jump fences all the time.” So he was very aware of an “us against them” with him coming from you might say the bottom of the heap socially speaking.
Peterson: Rastafarianism with its racial focus and its charismatic leader, Haile Selassie, was also a factor in Marley’s activism. The religion spoke to him, and Henke says it changed the message in much of his music.
Henke: The Rastafarian movement was a back to Africa movement and felt that black people should return to Africa. I think it made Bob very aware of the plight not just of black people around the world, but of those less fortunate in all the parts of the world. He came to his Rastafarian beliefs and became a spokesperson for the underprivileged and played shows in Africa and played all around the world. His songs dealt with these issues, with hardship, with poverty. His idea wasn’t just that black people should revolt against white or vise versa anything like that. He knew what it felt like when his song “One Love” says he had the feeling that everybody should get along in the world and everyone should live as one.
Peterson: Goldman says that Marley was a somewhat reluctant activist who tried to walk the line between political factions in Jamaica. In the 1970s, the socialist People’s National Party, the PNP, and its leader Michael Manley, and the Jamaican Labor Party both wanted the reggae community’s support. He wrote the songs “Simmer Down” and “No More Trouble” as appeals to end the violence in Trench Town other troubled areas. Henke says that in 1976, Marley’s peacemaking efforts almost cost him his life.
Henke: He would meet with various politicians and at one point there was actually an attempt on his life prior to Michael Manley I believe it was then Prime Minister of Jamaica wanted to put together a free concert and have Bob headline it. Two days before the concert that was to be called Smile Jamaica, two days before some gunmen broke into Bob’s house and shot him and shot his manager and various other people. Although they never found out exactly who did it, the belief is that it was a politically motivated attack as they didn’t want him siding with the government. After that incident Bob moved to England for a while and then came back.
Peterson: While in England, Marley recorded his album, “Exodus.” Goldman calls the recording “the album of the century.” But what makes it so much better than any of Marley’s other collections?
Goldman: For a start, on a technical level Bob was very keen to utilize the new technology that was starting to emerge, things that would change the found of the guitar, different pedals, different synthesizers were just starting to come in. He was determined to make a record that was top quality on an audio level that would stand up to anybody. He used this man called Roger Mayer who did the sound effects for Jimi Hendrix, for things like “Purple Haze.” He wanted to enter into the international arena on that level.
Peterson: Goldman says that the music itself takes the listener on the road between death and rebirth.
Goldman: It was even more noticeable when it was an album how it led you through the torments of person-kind, the songs like “Guiltiness” where you confront the venal brutality that people can inflict on one another through the “Heathen,” which is a martial song mobilizing the troops to fight against evil. It’s these very intense confrontational things and then you go through to side two. It’s a release like coming through a dark tunnel into the light and literally you can hear three little birds singing, the famous three little birds of this song. It’s got songs like, “One Love.” These songs are so precious and very much loved and many, many people turn to them because they somehow give you a sense of the joy of simply being alive. Those songs put us in touch with that feeling and remind us, yeah, we’re blessed.
Peterson: The title, “Exodus,” had a lot of meaning for Marley, a devout Bible reader. England was the homeland of his absentee white father, Captain Norval Sinclair Marley, a land superintendent for the British Government in Jamaica. Goldman says that while in the UK, Bob Marley felt as if he was in exile in his father’s country — like a “stranger in a strange land” – a quote from the Book of Exodus. She says that there is also another level of meaning to the Exodus album’s title that was revealed to her by Wailers bass player, Family Man Barrett.
Goldman: He pointed out to me that he and Bob had been listening to the themes from “Exodus,” from the famous film with Paul Newman, and it was a big hit worldwide, including in Jamaica. They listened to it and shortly thereafter Bob would come back with his own theme from Exodus. They had been discussing it and how emotional it was, how it transported you and how it gave you strength. Then he came back with his own song called Exodus. So Family Man transposed and manipulated the music of the theme from Exotic because they all loved that track so much and he made it into the Bob Marley Exodus that we know. So actually Ernest Gold’s theme from Exodus is deeply embedded in the DNA of Bob Marley’s Exodus.
Peterson: Marley’s success never went to his head like so many recording artists today. While he did have his beloved BMW, Goldman says his lifestyle was low-key.
Goldman: This chat I had with him obviously many years ago was at the time of the recording of the Exodus album in London. We were talking about what he liked to wear, which was generally a tracksuit, some old t-shirt and some broken down sandals. He always looked great because he had loads of style and was gorgeous. But he actually said, “I don’t like to wear flashy, expensive clothes,” like what they would think of now as bling, bling, “because I don’t want my fans to have to, as it were, go through changes and have a difficult time trying to emulate me.” He just wanted to be a simple person in that respect and project a simple integrity.
Peterson: Bob Marley died of cancer on May 11, 1981 at the age of 36. While his life and career were relatively short his legacy to music and social issues continues to grow.
Goldman: He has become a towering figure who has come to symbolize his dream of one love in a world in which people cooperate and work together and don’t try and tear each other down. He’s become a symbol of hope of a better world. And not only for people from the developing world like the islands, say, but also for everyone everywhere you go you see Bob Marley’s image. You can go to the most distant place and you’ll see a poster or a t-shirt in the most remote area. Even people who don’t know the details of his life or even much of his music they know that he was like a righteous man who created beautiful things in his life and that’s something to aspire to and a man to be inspired by.
Peterson: Marley’s memory, his music and his life are documented in Vivien Goldman’s book, “Exodus.” Jim Henke’s book, “Marley Legend,” is a scrapbook of Marley memorabilia, including a CD of an interview with the singer. Both books are available now. For more information about all of our guests, visit viewpoints online.net. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook and Pat Reuter. Our executive producer is Reed Pence. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Marty Peterson.
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