When it comes to Bob Marley, it’s best not to delve too deep into the biography and just enjoy the music.
This introduction to Robert Christgau’s Salon review of Chris Salewicz’s Marley bio gives you one reason why you don’t want to go there:
As Chris Salewicz’s “Bob Marley: The Untold Story” isn’t the first to report, many human beings worldwide — he cites Hopis, Maoris, Indonesians and, of course, Africans — regard Bob Marley as a “Redeemer figure coming to lead this planet out of confusion,” and some consider him nothing less than the literal second coming of Jesus Christ. Say what you will about the adoration accorded John Coltrane, John Lennon, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Um Kulthum, this is another order of iconicity. Say what you will about the religious dimensions of pop fandom, Marley’s Rastafarianism renders the metaphor literal. These mystifications bode ill for Marley’s biographers, who number at least 15 or 20 by now. Take, for instance, Stephen Davis, who closes with two triple-indented lines: “Bob Marley lives. He’s a god./’History proves.'” And Davis’ bio is one of the good ones.
In addition to the problems presented by idolatry, several writers have expressed shock and dismay regarding Bob Marley’s treatment of women. He fathered several children, in and out-of-wedlock, and had his wife Rita take care of some of the children born to those other women. In her book No Woman, No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley, Rita claims he forced himself on her several times, “and I call that rape.” In Bob Marley’s defense, his actions reflected Rastafari patriarchal beliefs that emphasize the subordinate status of women and strongly encourage reproduction. Given the simple truth that anyone can find a scrap of text in any religious dogma to justify the most appalling behavior and the most despicable prejudices, it’s not much of a defense, but there it is.
While you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who is as anti-patriarchal as I am, I don’t think it’s fair to single out Bob Marley for a remarkably active sex life grounded in male entitlement. Shit, if I had started this blog by refusing to review any music performed by men with sexist, superior attitudes, I wouldn’t have had much to write about. I’ll also point out that public figures—especially those who have transitioned to The Great Beyond—always suffer from the disadvantage of having the most private aspects of their lives exposed to feed the public’s passion for dirt. Since they’re not around to respond to the allegations, you only get one side of the story, and sometimes that story is twisted to either make some money or make the secret-sharer look good. Unless there is a relevant piece of biographical information or an aspect of Rastafari that is vital to understanding a particular song, I intend to ignore the noise and let Bob Marley’s work speak for itself.
And as I don’t believe in gods in any form, I’ll approach Bob Marley’s work under the assumption that he was a flawed human being like the rest of us and had his share of hits and misses. He was a man with ample musical talent and heightened social consciousness who had the great misfortune of living during a period when people elevated celebrities to god-like status.
Legend is a good starting point for an exploration of Bob Marley and the Wailers, a compilation album that spans a good chunk of their discography. The album has been attacked “for being a deliberately inoffensive selection of Marley’s less political music, shorn of any radicalism that might damage sales,” and according to one source, compiler Dave Robinson selected the tracks most likely to appeal to white audiences. There’s some truth to that, but one could also argue that loading the collection with more accessible songs was a subtle way to open the door to listener radicalization. Legend remains one of the longest-charting albums in history (it’s #58 on the Billboard Hot 200 as I write this), second only to The Dark Side of the Moon on that score. It has sold millions of copies worldwide, and I have a hard time believing that only a few of those buyers stopped with Legend. Most people who hear Bob Marley want to hear more.
Caution: According to Discogs there are 286 versions of Legend. No shit. I have no idea why that is; I only mention it here because my content may not match your content. There is also the ongoing confusion regarding “The Wailers.” The original Wailers disbanded in 1974, but Bob continued to record as “Bob Marley and the Wailers,” and the backing band was occasionally labeled “The Wailers Band” to differentiate them from the Peter Tosh-Bunny Wailer group. I’ll just simplify things by calling all the manifestations “The Wailers” and give Peter and Bunny credit where due.
“Is This Love,” 1978, Kaya: Legend begins with the delightfully irresistible “Is This Love,” a song that could serve as your personal soundtrack whenever you’re having a good day. The nice-and-easy roots reggae beat is the result of a complex, layered arrangement where keyboards, guitar, percussion and vocals all contribute to the reinforcement of the rhythm. Make no mistake: Bob Marley and The Wailers worked hard to make the music sound easy, and “Is This Love” is one of those songs where you find something new every time you listen to it. I especially love the clean tones on Junior Murvin’s guitar when he provides fills high on the fretboard, and the vivid splashes of color in the spot vocals from the I Threes (Rita Marley, Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt) . Bob Marley’s vocal is heartfelt and smooth; confident without being overbearing. I also love how the song focuses on the essentials of love rather than the materialistic trappings marketed to first-world citizens as evidence of one’s affection (flowers, jewelry, candy, cars): let’s just find a little place with a bed and fuck all night!
I want to love you, I want to love and treat, love and treat you right
I want to love you every day and every night
We’ll be together, yeah, with a roof right over our heads
We’ll share the shelter, yeah, oh now of my single bed
The song comes from the 1978 Island album Kaya, which was not well received by certain critics, including and in particular Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs: “Musically, Kaya is a succession of the most tepid reggae clichés, pristinely performed and recorded, every last bit of tourist bait (down to the wood blocks) in place just like a Martin Denny record. Marley sings in a cheerful lilt light and bouncy enough for panty-hose commercials.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. I’ll let Bob Marley himself handle the more thoughtful response:
Some critics at the time suggested that Marley had in some way sold out his hardcore political beliefs to produce an album of softer emotional hues, tailored for the mainstream market. But, as Marley told Hot Press magazine around the time of the album’s release, “Me never like what politics really represent,” adding that his new songs, “They not really move away from anything. ’Tis music. It can’t be political all the while.” (Source: uDiscover Music, “Bob Marley & The Wailers – Kaya” by David Sinclair.)
Everyone who has lived through the hell on earth propagated by Donald Trump and the alt-right should know this: you can’t live in the grunge of politics day in and day out. Members of the Resistance! You are hereby ordered to take one day off a week to stay in bed, smoke lots of ganja, listen to Bob Marley and fuck your ever-loving brains out! You’ll awake next morning refreshed, relaxed and ready to do battle with the forces of evil!
“No Woman No Cry,” 1975, Live!: I can understand why Robinson included the live version, but the studio version on Natty Dread does have its virtues: the lyrics and the pleading anguish in Bob Marley’s voice come through with moving clarity; the experience feels more intimate. The live performance turns the song into something more anthemic, draining the lyrics of their evocative power and placing way too much emphasis on the sing-along line “Everything’s gonna be alright.” For me, the impact of the song comes from the recitation of the circumstances and norms of those trapped by institutional racism in Jamaican government housing:
I said I remember when we used to sit
In the government yard in Trenchtown
And then Georgie would make the fire light
As it was log wood burning through the night
Then we would cook corn meal porridge
Of which I’ll share with you
My feet is my only carriage
So I’ve got to push on through
But while I’m gone
No woman, nuh cry
The “nuh” substitution here reflects the Jamaican patois word for “don’t,” so the true translation is “No, woman, don’t cry.” The narrator makes a game attempt to make the best of a bad environment, describing the dirt yard with a single faucet as a place where friends can share food and conversation around the fire. The ethic of “we’re all in this together” is a mere palliative; the conditions they face are embedded in an inflexible system. As there is little they can do from within to change things from within the projects, the narrator explains that he has to leave the community to carry on the fight against the systematic oppression of the poor. The consequence of that decision is that the couple is forced to separate, making her life in the projects all the more difficult—hence the woman’s understandable tears. While we all want to believe that “everything’s gonna be alright,” the woman seems to be more aware of the emotional contradiction in having to trade current intimacy for a better life in an uncertain future. Marley co-wrote the song with soup kitchen owner Vincent Ford (who probably contributed the lyrics), giving Ford full credit so he could earn the money to keep his establishment running. Both the lyrical story and the background make “No Woman, No Cry” a deeply moving song that shines a light on the enormous obstacles the underclasses face in striving for justice and equality.
“Could You Be Loved,” 1980, Uprising: Bob Marley’s last studio album is steeped in his Rastafari beliefs, but rather than coming across as preachy and invasive, I agree with Lindsey Planer of AllMusic, who wrote that Uprising “is a very powerful and singular quest for spirituality in a material world.” It also features some of their most diverse and interesting music, making Bob Marley’s death less than a year after its release all the more tragic. The man still had a lot to give.
“Could You Be Loved” deals with the sense of unworthiness felt by people of color in white-dominated societies. When you are judged as “less than” your entire life, a part of you starts to believe it, even if you know that the people judging you are a bunch of assholes—they still have the power to define your role and status in society, peppering your daily existence with subtle and not-so-subtle forms of invalidation. Bob Marley’s response to this situation is positive energy—energy you feel in both the music and the lyrics. The guitar riff that opens and dominates the song (a riff that came out of a jam session on an airplane and inspired the song’s creation) is a curious figure, combining forward movement with a hint of bluesy tension that mirrors the inner doubt of the unseen recipient of Bob Marley’s urgings. In the first verse, he launches a direct assault against the cultural conditioning designed to keep the oppressed oppressed:
Don’t let them fool ya
Or even try to school ya
We’ve got a mind of our own
So go to hell if what you’re thinking is not right
A bit later in the track, Bob has the I Threes quote . . . Bob Marley!
The road of life is rocky and you may stumble too
So while you point your fingers someone else is judging you
This snippet comes from one of the first songs he recorded at the age of eighteen, a ska piece called “Judge Not” (you can find the piece on the Songs of Freedom compilation). It’s a brilliant insertion, reminding those challenging the system to avoid the endless loop of blame that only serves to strengthen the opposition. With its intriguing arrangement mixing tension with bursts of joy, “Could You Be Loved” affirms that we all deserve to be loved and that others deserve love in return, no matter how cruel or inhuman they may seem.
“Three Little Birds,” 1977, Exodus: This track is a good illustration of why compilation albums can be a pain-in-the-ass. When you hear “Three Little Birds” in the context of Legend, it’s a charming little song that reminds us to take time to enjoy small pleasures, appreciate the joys nature has to offer and avoid allowing petty worries interfere with the appreciation of the wonder that is life. On its own, “Three Little Birds” makes people happy, and that’s not a bad thing. In the context of Exodus, however, the song takes on a greater significance: the fight against oppression is a long, long journey, and even the smallest experiences of the beauty life has to offer is critical to renewing one’s strength. The impact of the song when it appears toward the end of Exodus moves me to tears; when I hear it in the context of Legend, it’s a pleasant but superficial experience.
“Buffalo Soldier,” 1983, Confrontation: The Buffalo Soldiers were a uniquely American creation, beginning their existence in 1866 as U. S. Army regiments consisting entirely of black soldiers who had recently shed the bonds of slavery. Because their presence was not welcome in either the northern states or in the recently conquered South, they were dispatched to the Wild West to assist in the ethnic purification of Native Americans. While the formations changed over time, the Buffalo Soldiers were later dispatched to San Juan Hill to assist William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt in their efforts to launch the American Empire, then to the Philippines to fight brown people in revolt against the American conquerors. When the U. S. entered World War I, racist fuck Woodrow Wilson wanted nothing to do with them, so he sent them to Europe to fight under French command. The Buffalo Soldiers also fought in the segregated army of World War II, and were disbanded once the U. S. finally completed the integration of their heavily armed forces in 1951, ninety-three years after the 14th Amendment guaranteed equal protection under the law for all its citizens.
American progress is the ultimate oxymoron.
By all accounts, the Buffalo Soldiers distinguished themselves in battle but Bob Marley’s song does not focus on their service record. Instead he explores the sickening irony of the oppressors using one oppressed group to assist in the oppression of other oppressed groups. He likens them to “dreadlock Rastas,” another group “fighting for survival” in a different context:
Troddin’ through San Juan
In the arms of America
Troddin’ through Jamaica, a Buffalo Soldier
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival
Buffalo Soldier, dreadlock Rasta
Marley also calls bullshit on the arrogant equation America = The United States by broadening the definition to include all the Americas. “Buffalo Soldier” also features an engaging musical arrangement, seamlessly integrating the horns usually associated with ska into the easier rhythms of reggae. Still, the words are what matter here, and the couplet “Stolen from Africa, brought to America/Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival” is brilliant, soul-shaking poetic economy. I also love how the voices dominate this song, with Bob Marley delivering a vocal tinged with a certain sadness mingled with bursts of clean power and the I Threes taking advantage of an active role with splashes of unison and harmonic support.
“Get Up, Stand Up,” 1973, Burnin’: Peter Tosh and Bob Marley shared songwriting credits and traded verses in this piece of proto-rap religious militancy. The repeated line, “Get up stand up/Stand up for your right” could have come across as a protest song cliché but the anger in Peter Tosh’s dominating voice gives it a “we’re not taking this bullshit anymore” tone that amps up the urgency. The most powerful aspect of the song is the indictment of organized religion (particularly Christianity) for focusing more on the afterlife than valuing life on earth (“But if you know what life is worth/You would look for yours on earth”). My favorite verse belongs to Peter Tosh, who decries the tendency of religion to divide rather than unite and argues that god exists among us . . . with qualifications:
We’re sick and tired of your ism and schism game
Die and go to heaven in Jesus’ name, Lord
We know when we understand
Almighty God is a living man
The last line refers to Rasta belief (not shared by all) that Haile Selassie was the manifestation of god in human form (something strenuously denied by Mr. Selassie, a denial that only made the believers believe it even more). The power of the verse lies less in the details than in Peter Tosh’s disgust with Christian hypocrisy and its historical use as a tool to suppress the non-white cultures; the weakness lies in the undertone of “my religion is better than your religion.” I’m sure that most people who listen to Bob Marley and the Wailers adapt the lyrics to suit their own beliefs, or latch onto single lines like “Stand up for your right” that are easily transferable to any number of causes . . . not a bad thing unless you dig too deep. Personally, I think “Burnin’ and Lootin'” is the better and more relevant song from Burnin’.
“Stir It Up,” 1973, Catch a Fire: The first song to earn Bob Marley serious attention outside of Jamaica avoids any discussion of religion or revolution and instead focuses on the more promising path to human betterment: SEX. Having spent a good chunk of his lifetime practicing the seductive arts, Bob Marley was more than ready to spend some time reflecting on his erotic experiences. The piece is definitely more slow burn than raging fire, and sadly, he resorts to euphemism rather than direct discourse:
I push the wood (stir it, stir it, stir it, yeah)
I blaze your fire (stir it, stir it, stir it, yeah)
Then I satisfy your, your heart’s desire (stir it, stir it, stir it, yeah)
Said I stir it, yeah (stir it, stir it, stir it, yeah)
Every minute, yeah (stir it, stir it, stir it, yeah)
All you got to do, honey (stir it, stir it, stir it, yeah)
Is keep it in and stir it up (stir it, stir it, stir it, yeah)
I could do without the wah-wah guitar, a not particularly sexy sound enhanced by energetic panning that distracts from the sexy groove. It’s a pleasant little number that could accompany a lazy Sunday fuck if you’re into that sort of thing. “Stir It Up” has never found a place on my fuck playlists, but it might work for those of you into the vanilla style of sexual intercourse.
“Easy Skanking,” 1978, Kaya: Oddly enough, the song on this record that does make it into my fuck playlists has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with marijuana, which I use oh, about once every four years. The last time I used it was when writing The Psychedelic Series back in my personal Summer of Love in 2014. What I remember about the experience is that I helped the boulangerie around the corner exceed its profit goals for the quarter, gained five pounds and broke an Incredible String Band LP into tiny shards.
Tip: Don’t smoke dope with me.
Befitting the stoner experience, the lyrics contain little in the way of content while offering plenty of validation of the act of dope-smoking. Bob lights a spiff, end of story. What I love about this song is the music, especially the background vocals from the I Threes, particularly the pattern on “skanking it slow,” where the ladies slide down three half steps and follow it with a gorgeous glide that starts a full step down and eases up one half step to the third (it’s a Bb/Gm chord pattern). The half-step combo followed by that sweet glide is the sound of seduction, a pattern guaranteed to make my diddle twiddle.
Having grown up in the USA, the term “skanking” was a bit confusing, as in the States, “skanky” is a pejorative term applied to low-class broads who use low-quality beauty products and wind up looking like I do after an all-nighter. I’ve also heard the term applied to losers like Kellyanne Conway, so “skanky” probably carries the connotation of “detestable bitch.” In Jamaica, however, skanking was the form of dance used in ska, and “easy skanking” refers to both the more relaxed reggae beat and the cannabis-enhanced lifestyle that accompanies the music.
“One Love/People Get Ready,” 1977, Exodus: I really wish Exodus had ended with “Three Little Birds,” a song reaffirming the value of life on earth instead of a sales pitch urging people to unite under one god. Ain’t gonna happen, people! I loathe songs like this and “We Are the World” that offer fantasyland responses to real world problems as if all we have to do is start loving each other and the world will be magically transformed. Ain’t gonna happen, people! While these songs do some good in the sense of encouraging people to donate to worthy causes, they do nothing to address the underlying causes that created the need for charity in the first place. They’re feel-good songs that involve no commitment or responsibility but allow rich pop stars to feel better about the obscene amounts of money they make.
I am also deeply offended by the emptiness and naïveté of lines like “Let’s get together and feel alright” (this song) and “It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me” (“We Are The World”) as if encouragement was all we needed to motivate us to end human conflict and suffering. Even worse, Marley goes much further with the religious lesson than Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie did, and in the context of Exodus, offers a highly impractical “solution” to the patterns of oppression highlighted in many of the preceding songs. If its tone reminds you of the absurdly idealistic Sixties, you’ll find your perception validated by the fact that the song was originally recorded in ska style by an early manifestation of The Wailers (“The Wailing Wailers”) back in 1966, a year after Curtis Mayfield wrote “People Get Ready.” I wish Lester Bangs had applied his vitriol to this turkey, for it earns my vote as the worst thing Bob Marley ever did.
“I Shot the Sheriff,” 1973, Burnin’: The biggest mistake the boys made on Burnin’ was to dispense with the female background singers and replace them with male falsetto. “Bloody awful” is a good way to describe the substitution, and the annoyance is doubled here because the background singers carry responsibility for part of the exposé of the killer’s motivation. On the other hand, Bob Marley’s vocal is outstanding, with superb phrasing (note the pause between “For what?” and “I don’t know”) and his confidence in the righteousness of his defense against “the man.” Marley’s lyrics are equally strong, as he transforms an isolated incident into an experience that is sickeningly familiar to black and brown men—state-sanctioned violence at the hands of the police:
Sheriff John Brown always hated me
For what, I don’t know
Every time I plant a seed
He said kill it before it grow
He said kill them before they grow, and so
Read it in the news!
And we read it in the news nearly every fucking day.
Falsetto aside, I prefer Bob Marley’s version to Eric Clapton’s, for I can’t get my head around Eric Clapton shooting anyone, much less a law enforcement officer. The production on his version is also a bit too slick for the subject matter. Marley’s version features relatively spare instrumentation, superbly disciplined sustain on the piano—and I absolutely love the bass-percussion fade on the Marley original.
“Waiting in Vain,” 1977, Exodus: Though based on a reggae beat, “Waiting in Vain” feels more like soft jazz. Other than Junior Murvin’s guitar solo, there’s not much to distinguish it from other longing-for-love songs, and I wish they’d selected the more directly erotic “Turn Your Lights Down Low” instead (though the line “Never try to resist, oh no!” is now kind of creepy after hearing Rita Marley’s side of the story). As the cover versions of both songs demonstrate, there’s more meat in Lauryn Hill’s beat-strengthened version of “Turn Your Lights Down Low” than in the Annie Lennox take on “Waiting in Vain,” which has an ethereal Kate Bush feel and was supported by a video with Annie sporting a Mouseketeer look that guarantees she’ll be waiting in vain forever.
“Redemption Song,” 1980, Uprising: To demonstrate the lasting power of “Redemption Song,” I’ll quote a passage from the book Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover, the tale of an American woman who grew up in a survivalist Mormon family living on an Idaho mountain. She grew up knowing next to nothing about the outside world, was largely and poorly home-schooled, and endured repeated physical and psychological abuse from family members. Eventually she escaped the family nest and attended Brigham Young University, but learned quickly that physical escape barely begins to address accumulated trauma—she still carried the beliefs held by her fiercely dogmatic and mentally ill father, including the family taboo against professional medical care. Mother was a healer who practiced natural medicine; the Westovers were anti-vaxxers long before the term was invented.
While studying in Cambridge on a scholarship, she received an email from her long-distance boyfriend that turned into a revelatory moment:
I studied most mornings in the college library, near a small window. I was there on a particular morning when Drew, a friend from BYU, sent me a song via email. He said it was a classic but I had never heard of it, nor of the singer. I played the song through my headphones. It gripped me immediately. I listened to it over and over while staring out at the north cloister.
Emancipate yourself from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
I scratched those lines into notebooks, into the margins of the essays I was writing. I wondered about them when I should have been reading. From the Internet I learned about the cancer that had been discovered on Bob Marley’s foot. I also learned that Marley had been a Rastafarian, and that Rastafari believe in a “whole body,” which is why he had refused surgery to amputate the toe. Four yours later, at the age of thirty-six, he died.
Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. Marley had written that line a year before his death, while an operable melanoma was, at that moment, metastasizing to his lungs, liver, stomach and brain. I imagined a greedy surgeon with sharp teeth and long, skeletal fingers urging Marley to have the amputation. I shrank from this frightening image of the doctor and his corrupt medicine, and only then did I understand, as I had not before, that although I had renounced my father’s world, I had never quite found the courage to live in this one.
I flipped through the notebook to the lecture on negative and positive liberty. In a blank corner I scratched the line, None but ourselves can free our minds. Then I picked up my phone and dialed.
“I need to get my vaccinations,” I told the nurse.
Westover, Tara. Educated: A Memoir (p. 257-8). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Ironically, Bob Marley might be alive today if he’d followed his own advice . . . advice he borrowed from Marcus Garvey. The full original quote from Garvey is “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.” Interestingly but unsurprisingly, Garvey was a slave to his own dogma of black separation, so much so that he attempted to negotiate a sort of peace settlement with the Ku Klux Klan based on a you-don’t-want-us-we-don’t-want-you perspective. W. E. DuBois thought Garvey was a nut, but I think Garvey’s concept of Pan-Africanism is a sane and natural response to a white-dominated universe, serving to facilitate collaboration between native Africans and those scattered by the diaspora, thereby equalizing the global playing field.
If you were to listen to everything Bob Marley did and arrive at “Redemption Song,” you’d know immediately that song was intended as a special, personal statement from the nature of the arrangement: Bob Marley and a guitar. No drums, no bass, no background singers, just Bob Marley on the acoustic. He sings in a completely natural voice, a voice that strains and cracks at times, giving the song a genuine sense of immediacy. The song opens with a memorable rejection of objectification, using the subject pronoun in defiance of dehumanization:
Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
The following couplet, “But my hand was made strong/By the hand of the Almighty” is historically accurate; slaves found comfort and hope in Christianity, and the church is the center of many African-American communities to this day. The crucial line of the chorus, “‘Cause all I ever have/(are) redemption songs” has multi-layered meaning, for redemption is just as strong a concept in Rastafari as it is in Christianity. What I hear in his tone is a confession of humility and acknowledgment of his personal quest for redemption; the couplet is also layered with the theme of redemption of the human race, a theme highlighted in the second verse:
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
Have no fear for atomic energy
‘Cause none of them can stop the time
How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?
Some say it’s just a part of it
We’ve got to fulfill the Book
This is a rich combination of prognostication, frustration and skepticism—the belief that things have to play themselves out grates in the soul when progress moves at glacial speed due to the ability of the oppressors to destroy those who dare to share their dream of a better future. The second and third repetitions of the chorus come across almost as an apology for only having songs to offer in such a desperate situation. In particular, the invitation, “Won’t you help to sing” expresses a plea for support and the humility to realize that a single human being cannot transform the world. While “Redemption Song” has been covered by many artists, no one can compete with the naked sincerity and growing self-awareness that marks Bob Marley’s plea for a better self and a better world.
“Satisfy My Soul,” 1978, Kaya: Big miss here. Instead of selecting any one of several versions of “Sun Is Shining,” Robinson opted for this comparatively uninteresting alternative from Kaya. The original version of “Sun Is Shining” on Soul Revolution is somewhat primitive but highly alluring, thanks to Peter Tosh’s Andalusian-influenced runs on the melodica. The version that appears on Kaya is certainly produced well enough to pass muster, and it should have been a no-brainer to include the Funkstar De Luxe fusion remix as a bonus track on one of the later releases of Legend. Harrumph!
“Exodus,” 1977, Exodus: The centerpiece of Exodus is a deeply compelling musical and cinematic experience. The relentless core beat stops only for one brief moment in sync with the line, “We’re going to the Father’s Land,” establishing a strong baseline of forward movement. A cornucopia of voices, both human and instrumental, come at you from all directions, sometimes solo and often in unison, calling up pictures of waves of Jah people merging together in one exhilarating march toward Zion. Although Zion isn’t mentioned in the song, it is a vital component in Rastafari theology, a state of enlightenment that is the goal of all Jah people. It is the “place” where you go once you escape Babylon, the wicked Western world of lingering colonialism and modern-day institutional racism. Even this thoroughly secular girl finds the vision depicted in “Exodus” terribly exciting, brimming with what the Rastas call “livity,” the belief that the life-force flows through all living things. “Exodus” is not only a story about people coming together; Bob Marley and the Wailers give us a stirring demonstration of people coming together to make memorable music.
“Jamming,” 1977, Exodus: Okay, now I’m pissed. My version of Legend contains the SHORT version of “Jamming,” a mix that whacks off most of the instrumental interplay between the musicians. I’m going to pretend that this appalling act did not take place and review the complete version that appears on Exodus.
If Trump can change history, so can I!
Side one of Exodus is the socio-political religious side; side two is more laid-back and groove-driven. “Jamming” bridges the gap by combining a smooth groove with a powerful message of resistance. In Jamaican patois, “jamming” means to dance and have a good time, and in Bob Marley’s view, jamming is more than the musical approach he takes, but also the medium of defiance. In the most moving section, Marley sings about the attempt on his life shortly before the Exodus sessions commenced:
No bullet can stop us now, we neither beg nor we won’t bow;
Neither can be bought nor sold
We all defend the right; Jah – Jah children must unite:
Your life is worth much more than gold
The contrast between those lines and the bass-heavy relaxed groove that form the background couldn’t be greater—an aural depiction of what that misogynistic bullshit artist Hemingway called “grace under pressure.” Beyond the groove, we’re treated to some luscious harmonies between Bob and the I Threes and subtle, warm backing from Tyrone Downie on the keyboards. There are moments were Bob sounds like he’s almost crooning, reminding us of his very early years when he was trying to hit the big time through doo-wop.
“Punky Reggae Party,” 1977, single: Around the time The Clash covered Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves,” Bob Marley was in semi-hiding in London after the assassination attempt spawned by Jamaica’s near-anarchic political environment. Vivien Goldman of The Guardian caught up with Marley and reggae super-producer Lee “Scratch” Perry to get their thoughts on the punk phenomenon sweeping the U.K.:
“Well, what do you think?” I eagerly asked. Originally a Scratch production sung by Junior Murvin, the track’s cynical realism had helped it become a punk anthem. At first listen, Bob and Scratch were startled by Joe Strummer’s harsh bark, compared to Murvin’s mellifluous falsetto. “It is different, but me like ’ow ’im feel it,” was Marley’s verdict, though. He liked the link between the two tribes of alienated, angry youth – punks and Rastafari. “Punks are outcasts from society. So are the Rastas. So they are bound to defend what we defend,” Marley concluded. Shortly thereafter, they began recording the single Punky Reggae Party, and by naming an underground social phenomenon, helped further it.
I like that Legend ends with Bob Marley reaching out to a movement dominated by white boys who had rejected their own white privilege to call out the disgusting hypocrisy of the white ruling class, and Bob Marley has a lot of fun with “Punky Reggae Party,” poking fun at the snooty attitudes of upper-class Brits who view people of color and working class heroes as something less than civilized. He also recognizes that in addition to being on the same side of the struggle, punks and Rastas share a similar philosophy regarding the purpose of popular music—to liberate, to reveal the truth and to share in the joy of truthfulness:
It takes a joyful sound
To make the world go ’round
Come with your heart and soul
Come on come and rock your boat
Because it’s a punky reggae party
And it’s tonight
It’s a punky reggae party
And it’s alright
Rejected by society
Treated with impunity
Protected by my dignity
I search for reality
I was always puzzled when I ran across press descriptions of the early British punks as “angry,” because when I listen to The Clash, Sex Pistols or the original incarnation of The Damned, I spend half the time laughing. I don’t know how anyone can listen to thirty seconds of Joe Strummer and not hear the joy in his voice as he calls out the powers that be on their bullshit. Bob Marley’s exceptional gift for melody and appealing voice may have made it easier for the masses to hear his expressions of joy, but that talent came with a downside: his music is often so pleasant that people don’t pay much attention to the words. I’ll bet you that half the people who bought Legend just wanted some nice background music for parties, or perhaps they had a lovely vacation in Jamaica safe behind the patrolled walls of the resort compound and wanted a musical souvenir to remind them of the pleasures of privilege.
That’s probably my internal pessimist taking over, but I think I have ample reason to worry about the state of our world as we slide towards authoritarianism grounded in racism and hatred. The world could really use a heavy dose of Bob Marley right now to remind us that injustice and oppression are unacceptable options guaranteed to bring more misery to the human race, and that we all need to take some time away from the struggle against mental slavery to replenish our energy though liberal indulgence in life’s simple pleasures.
If you’re thinking about exploring the oeuvre of Polly Jean Harvey, MBE, here’s a recommendation: skip Dry, Rid of Me, the universally acclaimed To Bring You My Love and get straight to the fucking point with 4-Track Demos.
PJ’s early period was steeped in grunge, a genre developed in reaction to the excessively smooth and synthesized sounds of the 1980’s. During its peak years from 1991-1995, grunge dominated the rock airwaves, with Nirvana leading the way. Grunge was both a sound and an attitude, celebrating darkness over light, the ugly over the beautiful, the rough over the smooth. In the hands of its best practitioners, it captured a deep sense of dissatisfaction, not only with life in general, but with the ugliness underlying the pasteurized veneer of modern civilization. Grunge was a negative expression of liberation expressed in heavy distortion, deep bass and plenty of pure noise. Kurt Cobain’s death took the steam out of the movement, but it couldn’t have lasted that much longer anyway: you can’t hold that much anger and rage forever. Most grunge artists faded into oblivion, but some (like PJ Harvey and Radiohead) managed to work their way out of the genre’s limitations while still remaining open to exploring the darkness in different ways.
Operating in parallel to grunge was the emergence of what I’ll call the Woman Unbound movement, when women artists began to sing about not-very-nice things that girls weren’t supposed to talk about. Some operated on the punk-grunge dynamic (Courtney Love); some fell into the riot grrrl camp in revolt against the patriarchy (Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney); some integrated brutal honesty with folk music (Ani DiFranco); and others like Liz Phair and Alanis Morissette just liked to throw in the word “fuck” every now and then.
PJ Harvey was a special case. Her music has always tilted towards performance art, and her version of Woman Unbound was often expressed through characters. This choice allowed her to insert the proper aesthetic distance between self and subject matter (see Keats, John, re: “negative capability”), and to explore the dark and ugly side of the human psyche with relative abandon. She told The Sunday Times during the Rid of Me promo period, “I’m fascinated with things that might be considered repulsive or embarrassing. I like feeling unsettled, unsure.” During her early years, whenever PJ Harvey made a choice regarding lyrical structure and content, she almost invariably chose the most gruesome imagery, the most abrasive word or the most unsettling character trait.
PJ was going through a rough patch in her life during the period when she composed the songs that appear on Rid of Me and 4-Track Demos, and some of the content qualifies as truly disturbing. The fact that she chose to share those dark thoughts and feelings with the listening public speaks volumes about her artistic courage, for while we all have dark fantasies and impulses of one kind or another sometime in our lives, we are conditioned to share those only with very close friends or with the local neighborhood therapist. The essential difference between the two albums is that the demos were recorded in closer proximity to the emergence of those unsettling emotions.
And that’s why I come down firmly on the side of those who believe that 4-Track Demos was her best early-period work. A while ago I came up with my second official altrockchick theorem regarding the performance and recording of music: “The size of the production must correlate to the essence of the music.” The songs on 4-Track Demos (eight that wound up on Rid of Me and six others) are songs of raw, uncensored emotion, and deserved production that was equally raw and unfiltered . . . i. e., no production at all. Demos are generally aural sketches of mood and theme designed to give the producer an idea of what the artist wants to achieve, but in this case, PJ’s original sketches often have more impact than the finished product. Even Rid of Me producer Steve Albini encouraged PJ to release the demos—and in a strange twist, Albini’s work on Rid of Me was criticized for its “deliberately crude production (that) leaves everything minimal and rough.”
Not rough enough, Steve. Not rough enough.
The demo of “Rid of Me” opens the album; PJ wrote this dramatic monologue about a lover’s revenge when she was “at her illest” and “almost psychotic” after a nasty breakup. While I’m sure the experience of writing the song helped her purge some pretty raw feelings, the artistic goal was to make the psychotic come to life, and have her serve as a warning of the dire consequences of obsessive attachment. The official version on Rid of Me kicks off (if you could call it that) with a nearly interminable introduction played at a leisurely pace at relatively low-volume. If you’re the least bit familiar with grunge music tropes, you may suspect that you’re being set up for the classic Pixies-influenced soft-LOUD juxtaposition, and BOOM! Right you are! By this time the feature hadn’t quite attained cliché status, but here it is certainly a distraction, a standard-issue musical trick that has nothing to do with this particular situation and attaches an on-off switch to the character’s personality, turning her into a two-dimensional bore. Although you could barely hear PJ in the intro, The LOUD further diminishes PJ’s vocal, masking subtleties and lyrics behind a wall of distortion, heavy bass and neanderthal drums. You have to strain your ears to hear the piece of monologue that dramatizes the twisted erotic motivation (“Lick my legs I’m on fire”). In the end, the production obliterates the most important character trait of the psychotic narrator: her agitation.
By contrast, the demo version kicks off at a higher speed, imbuing the muffled guitar picking with the missing agitation. PJ’s delivery of the key vocalization, “Hah hah ay hey” is crisp and exciting, communicating that this crazy bitch means business. As the narrative proceeds from that point, we hear the character go further off the rails, largely because we can actually hear the subtleties—her off-rhythm phrasing, her tonal shifts from supplication to threat, the pressure in her chest, and her voice gradually rising in volume. By the time we get to “‘Til you say don’t you don’t you wish you never never met her” passage, we don’t need the drums and bass to make the point—on the demo, PJ does it all with her manic intensity and distorted power chords that describe the frantic distress of the woman. The “lick my legs” lines are now audible and totally creepy, like, what the fuck, are you trying to seduce me, kill me or both? When I hear the produced version, my response is “Interesting piece.” When I hear the raw version, it scares the living shit out of me because it reminds me of times when I felt similarly ugly feelings myself.
That’s what art is supposed to do!
The demo version also has a certain energy lacking on the studio version—the demo sounds like that moment when a songwriter has tinkered with a song just enough to find the sweet spot, and PJ performs it with the excitement that comes from knowing that you’ve just written one hell of a song. The studio version, by contrast, seems more professional, and if you’ve ever spent any time browsing through the profiles on LinkedIn, you know that professional = boring. I wouldn’t go so far as to classify the studio version of boring, but it does lack a certain gusto.
As for “Legs,” where a similarly disturbed woman cuts the legs off the lover who threatens to leave her, I wouldn’t even bother with the produced version, which comes across as somewhat melodramatic. What makes the demo version a more compelling experience are the vocalizations that accompany the act of cutting, a combination of twisted squeals and feral growls of pain and anguish that could have only come from a woman having an out-of-body experience triggered by intense pain. I’ve only heard sounds similar to the sounds PJ makes on two occasions: once when I was witnessing a close friend give birth; and more commonly when I’ve been engaged in the act of fisting a female partner (I imagine that I sound just as feral when I’m the recipient of a fist, but the experience is so intense that memories are completely attached to the sensation). While the woman in this song is reacting to the experience of mutilating another person (not my bag) and not experiencing the pain herself, I’ve always interpreted those growls to reflect the natural empathy of the female half of the species for the victim—even when she’s the perpetrator.
“Reeling” didn’t make the cut for Rid of Me, but the full band version did appear as the B-Side to the “50ft Queenie” single. Too bad, because the full band version buries what little there is in this song. Polly Jean shifts from gruesome to something close to whimsical, wishing for DeNiro to sit on her face and dreaming of sipping nectar somewhere on the Costa del Sol. I guess it’s kind of a break-in-the-action song that wasn’t considered quite good enough to break any action.
“Snake” is a fresh look at the Adam and Eve myth featuring the serpent as seducer who crawls between Eve’s legs, promises her the world and transforms the dull act of eating a piece of fruit into an orgasmic moment. The moment after Eve swallows the fruit (or Satan’s semen, as it were), PJ gives us another moment of those compelling feral vocalizations, and by the sound of it, Eve is getting a pretty decent bang in the bargain. PJ seems to perpetuate the myth of woman-as-weak by blaming it all on the guy, but I think what she’s getting at here that women sometimes create the circumstances that lead to victimization . . . a theme that is covered more effectively on “Hook.”
“Hook” is one piece that works better with full production. The storyline tracks the dawning awareness of a modern Eve who sells her soul to a man who happily exploits her weaknesses; whether the references to her being blind and lame are metaphoric or real hardly matters. Once the deal is consummated, she feels trapped (“life is nothing with his chain”) even though she facilitated her imprisonment by validating his masculinity and desire for control (“‘Til my love made me gag/Called him daddy take my hand”). In listening to the demo, it’s obvious that what PJ was going for here was a claustrophobic environment to reflect the mental state of her anti-heroine—vocals, guitar, drums and organ are piled onto the tape to the maximum limits of each channel (I can visualize the meter constantly dancing in the red zone). The recorded version cleans up the noise (and dispenses with a superfluous introduction) while still providing sufficient claustrophobia to make the ironic point: the woman has created her own prison by embracing the “weak female” stereotype in exchange for security.
Both versions of “50ft Queenie” hit the mark, as both are played with the rough intensity demanded by a song that savages pre-existing definitions of gender. Though I do rather like the acoustic guitar picking in the demo version, the electric guitar on the studio version is one of PJ’s best-performed riffs. This is the song that comes closest to realizing PJ’s mission in her early years as described in an interview with Spin: “I had just come out of my teens and at that time you really want to make your mark on the world. So I just wanted to say something that hadn’t been said in that way before. I was trying to cause a riot in one way or another.” “50ft Queenie” is a riot of liberation where the stereotype of “bigger is better” is consumed in a joyous bonfire of distortion and relentless energy.
“Driving” is another track that failed to make the cut for Rid of Me, and while I kinda sorta understand that in terms of “fit,” I’m puzzled that the song hasn’t appeared anywhere else. This is one of my favorite PJ Harvey songs, a poetically economical vignette about a bride who leaves her future oppressor at the altar. In the midst of her flight, she pauses for a moment to reflect on the experience, a reflection expressed through some of PJ’s most memorable lines:
Imagine your whole self is filled with light
Your voice ringing out
Through the whole fucking town
Fuck yeah! Liberation! This demo is one of the rougher ones in terms of sound quality, an “arrangement” of barely-tuned trebly guitar, PJ’s insistent lead vocal and a spate of background vocals that could represent the inner voices urging restraint or the voices of the wedding party united in shock. The chord pattern never varies throughout the song, expressing strong determination to get the fuck out of there, whatever the cost. Below you’ll find an alternative version with slightly altered lyrics recorded live with a full band featuring PJ giving it all she’s got—-conclusively proving once and for all that “Driving” did not deserve to languish in obscurity.
“Ecstasy” served as the closer for Rid of Me, and here the demo serves as a sketch desperately in need of fat guitar and thick bass to actualize the bitch-in-heat sensibility of the lyrics. The recorded version maintains the simplicity of the demo, and the bass makes all the difference. What’s remarkable is that there isn’t all that much of a difference in the intensity of PJ’s vocal, telling us that she didn’t need the band’s power to call up her woman-on-the-make persona.
“Hardly Wait” is probably the most “complete” arrangement on 4-Track Demos, the mood established by simple guitar chords with power chord variation in the verses and a metronomic rhythm reinforcing the irritating march of time. The dominant imagery in the song appears in the fade lines, “In my glass coffin/I am waiting.” The source is the Grimm’s fairytale “The Glass Coffin,” where a stag picks up a tailor’s apprentice and carries him on his antlers to a place where he discovers a glass chest containing (yes, you guessed it) a beautiful young maiden. The maiden uses her feminine wiles to convince the apprentice to let her out, whereupon she gives him a bullshit story about how she rejected the marriage proposal of a traveling magician . . . although she didn’t know he was a magician when she gave him the brush-off. “Abracadabra!” cried the pissed-off magic man, and the next thing she knew, our heroine was trapped inside a glass coffin. She agrees to marry the apprentice, trading one coffin for another.
Excuse the editorial commentary on marriage.
PJ plays the maiden, and by the looks of things, this version of the maiden appears to be preggers! When the apprentice shows up, she gets straight to the point: “Here, Romeo, make my water break.” If my interpretation is correct, PJ is describing pregnancy as a glass coffin: you’re in confinement and everyone gazes at you as if you’re part of a freak show.
Not to offend the mothers in the crowd, but if that’s PJ’s editorial comment, I wholeheartedly agree. Pregnancy isn’t an option for me, and I think I’d make a lousy mother. I would make a cool aunt, but alas, I’m an only child.
Way back in 1993, grumpy critic Andy Gill of The Independent criticized Steve Albini’s production of “Rub ‘Till It Bleeds” because “When someone coughs over the strummed intro to ‘Rub ‘Til It Bleeds,’ he doesn’t bother to stop them and start again, or even mix it out.” Hmm. I wonder if he was equally offended by the cough in the intro to “Taxman.” Maybe he would have preferred the demo version, which is certifiably cough-free. Or maybe he found the image of a bleeding penis uncomfortable . . . men are very protective of their johnsons.
Obviously Gill missed how challenging the piece is in terms of managing dynamics. PJ described the experience as “quite a difficult song for me because it took me a long time to get the timing of the pauses right. There are a lot of pauses and it keeps building to a crescendo at the end of each verse. Then when it hits the chorus, it has to explode. That was very hard to get that feel right.” PJ mapped it out pretty well on the demo, and I do prefer the rougher version because she sounds more wicked as she alternates between seduction, excess, fake apology and yanking that thing like there’s no tomorrow.
The rough sex continues with “Easy,” which wins the award for most titillating and troubling song on the album. The music is frigging hot, with PJ in full seductive mode gliding easily over harsh guitar and throwing in sandpapery vocalizations (Hah! Hah!) that mimic the rhythm of a straight-up fuck. From a musical perspective, “Easy” is one of my favorites; from a lyrical perspective, well . . . like many a PJ Harvey song, you can interpret it in multiple ways. The first verse is a mini-ode to “easy girls”, with their “Legs wide, hips swinging like a doorway.” The second verse shifts to the easy girl’s perspective, where she willingly spreads her legs only to run into the classic weak male fear of female power and its corresponding reaction: “I open once and you call me Devil’s gateway.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s all Eve’s fault, we’re all witches who deserve to be burned at the stake, yada, yada, yada. What leads to some confusion is the last verse, where the easy girl appears to accept the male projection and willingly embraces the guilt trip:
And I deserve it
I asked you for it
Have to admit it
We dress like tigers
And I deserve it
You can read those lines in one of two ways: complete submission to the myth of the evil woman or total manipulation of the male ego so he’ll get over it and get on with the fuck. The “I asked you for it” is the common accusation thrown at a rape victim; then again, women do ask for it in either explicit terms (like me!) or through the ambiguous language of seduction. “We dress like tigers” is equally ambiguous, as women have been known to wear lingerie with tiger stripes or leopard spots to suggest “bad girl” status; then again, tigresses are mean fucking animals that will bite your head off in a New York second. I’m generally comfortable with ambiguity, but as a woman who takes pride in her status as a slut, I feel uncomfortable with the indirect approach because it leads men to assume way too much and gives rapists an out. One thing is I do know is that “Easy” is a fabulous piece of work and a complex piece of poetry—unsettled and unsure.
The same cannot be said for “M-Bike,” a weak song about a guy who gets a boner over his motorbike instead of his girl. Fortunately, it’s followed by “Yuri-G,” an ass-kicking dramatic monologue apparently delivered by a mentally agitated woman with a moon fetish who is encouraged by her doctor to make a voodoo doll to represent “Luna.” The girl takes tremendous pleasure in torturing the doll (“I stuck them in, I stuck them in real clean/I stuck them in a mile”) but instead of breaking her fetish, she becomes even more obsessed with the object of her fascination:
I drew her down on me
I drew her with a smile
I’d give it all you see
I’d give my sorry eyes
I’d give just everything she’s got me so mesmerized
Yeah I wish I was Yuri-G
It’s just the things that she does to me
The more uninteresting interpretation is that this is a mini-bio of Yuri Gagarin and PJ is using her highly-developed hyperbolic abilities to express the single-mindedness of the astronaut in an unconventional way. A broader interpretation is that the moon has long been a symbol of female power and the struggle here involves the desire to experience lesbian love in its most intense form and the equally strong pull to deny those urges and be a good girl. I really don’t give a fuck which interpretation is the correct one, but I love the demo with a passion. The version on Rid of Me is a rhythmic mess and the production somehow manages to turn PJ’s intense and varied vocal—a transition from little girl to raging woman—into a comparatively faint, monotone whisper.
“Goodnight” is the last track, and no, it’s not a cover of Ringo’s silly closer to The White Album, but sort of a country-western grunge tune satirizing American hicks. The word “goodnight” is completely absent from the song, indicating a “mood piece,” and the mood created here is “stupid and thick,” poking fun at merkins who love the wide open prairies. Goodnight, indeed!
Okay, I take it all back . . . sort of. You should listen to Dry, Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love because they’re the works of a true artist in development, deliberately pushing societal and personal boundaries with as much courage as she can muster. It must be exhausting to be PJ Harvey sometimes, but the effort has produced so much rewarding music that I hope PJ has experienced sufficient compensation for the pain. I find her music absolutely fascinating, and because I love rough and raw in all its variations, I think 4-Track Demos qualifies as a unique and precious gift of truthfulness in art.