Confronting Marley’s Legacy

King Tut was playing Munich when I arrived in January of 1981 to pay my last respects to Bob Marley. I remember well because I passed the museum on the way to Dr. Issels’s cancer clinic. The synchronicity was impressive: the sarcophagus and golden relics of an Egyptian king (who also died young) being in Germany while the King of Reggae was struggling against his own mortality.

The original reason for my trip was more personal than journalistic. Knowing the man was terminally ill, and aware of certain plans he had made to firmly establish his music and message in North and South America, I had wanted to see for myself whether Marley’s death would be the death of these ambitions. Since 1979 I and a growing number of journalists had been watching Bob Marley spearhead the evolution of reggae music, and it had rapidly become much more then charting the course of one more sexy pop star. Those of us who had goals and concerns larger than our individual well-being found a leader — or if you will, a catalyst — in Marley. Those of us privileged to spend time among his entourage were astonished at the ease with which he brought out the best in people: career gangsters and college graduates, groupies, ingenues and daughters of the people would go about whatever errands he sent them on, cooperating to an extent that would not have been possible had they not been obedient to the strength and warmth of Marley’s own personality.

The various Marley biographies now appearing come close to describing this minor miracle; but just as no one has taken the time to analyze the music and lyrics Marley gave us in any comprehensive way, no one has really discussed the constructive one-worldism that was an everyday part of Wailer tours and the Wailer ethos.

The Issels clinic is in a part of Bavaria particularly beautiful in winter, and as one who had never seen the Alps before, I couldn’t help but compare their austere grandeur with the riotous fertility of the Caribbean. At the office of Tuff Gong Records in Jamaica, Marley kept several world maps with flags marking the routes of various tours and sojourns. Italy and Germany were no stranger to him than the U.S. or Canada. Once you knew him better you might engage in a conversation which unveiled a formidable knowledge of ancient and modern world history, edged with a sardonic humor that could appreciate the fact that Issels’ clinic was mere miles away from the route Hannibal used to descend on Rome.

I took a hotel room within walking distance of the clinic, and spent some part of the next seven days visiting the ailing master. This is why I am sure that the many decisions that Island, Rita Marley and some of the Wailers have made since Bob’s death are partially predicated on his instructions. Although noticeably frail, Marley continued to receive visitors, emissaries, intercontinental phone calls, as well as compose and conduct business during his last months in Germany. His people, for the most part friends of long standing, were well-drilled as soldiers, and did much to create an atmosphere of normal activity around Marley on those days he was well enough to bear it. There were several cassette tapes around full of songs and scraps of songs that Marley had been fooling with in hotel rooms from Miami to New York to London that year, and hearing them I was aware of a distinctly more acoustic turn in his songwriting, a trend well reflected in the songs collected on the artist’s first posthumous LP, Confrontation. I remember a particularly haunting tape with just Marley on guitar singing “Can’t Take Your Slogans No More,” a refrain that captured all his increasing disillusion with the sycophants and arm-chair revolutionaries that had descended on the lucrative Wailers camp in the last few years.

Both Rita Marley and Tuff Gong’s art director, Neville Garrick, confirmed that the title Confrontation was Bob’s own choice for the album to follow Uprising, and if there is nothing on Confrontation to equal the unique harmonies of “Forever Loving Jah” or the unexpected instrumentation of “Bad Card,” it is only because there was not enough time to fine tune these little details.

Rita and Chris Blackwell, founder of Island records, spent much time in private conference with Marley from the time a scheduled American tour was officially cancelled to the day Marley died some eight months later, Bob’s refusal to give in to the severity of his condition prevented certain business decisions from being made — for instance, he refused to complete a will, owing to the document’s negative connotations, and later was unable to because the disease had robbed him of his lucidity and impartiality. But when one considers the extent of the mini-empire of people and projects Bob Marley was involved with (aside from a huge extended family, there were sub-corporations, real estate in several countries, and outstanding contracts to settle up) it’s a wonder that any of it remains intact. Diane Jobson, the lawyer and personal friend who helped Marley run his Jamaica-based business and studios, was shuttling between Kingston, Miami, and Issels’s clinic almost as much as Bob’s wife and mother. None of this inner circle actually entertained the idea of Marley’s imminent death, which is part if the reason it has taken two years for the Wailers to decide to reform, and personality rifts caused by guilt and loss to start healing.

I spoke to Chris Blackwell (left) last year at Island’s New York offices and touched on the issue of Island’s continued involvement with the Marley legacy via Island Pictures. A documentary then in post-production compiled hundreds of reels of footage on Marley culled from disparate sources all over the world. Blackwell was and is sensitive to the issue of exploitation, and strove to make clear that Marley, the documentary, did not pretend to be a biography. Rather, it was a part of Blackwell’s own perceived responsibility to retrieve for posterity the many bits and pieces of Marley’s history tucked away in radio, television and university archives. Studio, performance and interview tapes even now continue to trickle into Island. But Blackwell does foresee a larger project some eight-to-10 years down the line — a genuine biopic based on the full, as yet untold, story, on which he expects the cooperation of the Marley family.

August should find the Wailers preparing for a European tour with the I-Threes’ fronting and the probable inclusion of Tyrone Downie on lead male vocals. This is less odd than it might seem, because Downie had long been cultivating such skills, encouraged and coached by Marley himself. In ’81 a Japanese import album appeared in the states called Pecker Power featuring some members of Yellow Magic Orchestra teamed up with the Wailers, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. On one side (that delegated to the Wailers), Downie, backed by the Wailers and the I-Threes on a techno-pop version of ‘Jamming’, bears an uncanny resemblance to Marley. That same year several of the Wailers were commenting on the progress of Ziggy, Marley’s son, as a singer, and mentioned that the boy did not copy his father so much as he copied Downie’s version of his father style. There is every indication that Marley foresaw his work continuing in ever-changing configurations with or without him. The Survival album is notable for the use of a male chorus and horns instead of the usual emphasis on the I-Threes’ harmonies; and from talking to the band during that tour I found that the I-Threes had been petitioning for time to develop their solo careers, and were probably going to open as a trio for the Wailers during their next European tour. By diminishing his reliance on the I-Threes sound, Marley was preparing for their independence from his own grueling schedules.

In Germany, two years ago, all of this was eclipsed by the deteriorating condition of the man who was still the focus and inspiration of these plans. Several white roadies who’d worked on the European tour dropped by while I was there to hail “the skipper,” as did a steady, respectful trickle of concerned “others” who couldn’t stay away. Bob would joke with us, tease us, if we were being unforgivably maudlin and foolish, even berate us — just as he always did. It took some courage for me to finally express my worst fears — that without him all that he’s built would fall into chaos. “Then put it together again,” he challenged. “The future is now.

“The only light I have is the one my father gave me,” he said, stressing once and for all that Jah Rastafari was the source of anything we might continue to find special and necessary about Bob Marley. And so the mystery of his talent deepened, at the same time that it somehow dispersed and rested like a benediction on all of us who had known him.

Published in: The Record, September 1983