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.
I’m not much of a celebrity hound, so I don’t often cry when I hear the news of a celebrity’s passing. I may take some time to reflect on their contributions to human culture, which in turn may move me to tears, but I hardly ever cry when I first hear the news. The process of taking your average human being and transforming them into a celebrity is an act of distortion, and if there’s one quality I prize above all in relationships, it’s authenticity. I don’t know how to relate to a distortion.
Oddly enough, I do cry when I hear of the deaths of innocent people I’ve never met, so this isn’t “I have to know you to give a shit about you.” I can relate to people who aren’t distorted through the prism of fame; it’s harder to see the real person behind any celebrity, given the filters of publicity and hype.
The one time I did cry from the get-go on hearing the sad news was when I learned of Joe Strummer’s death in December 2002. I was in LAX waiting for the home-for-the-holidays flight when I overheard a conversation between two fellow travelers sitting behind me. I spun around and interrupted them with, “What did you say about Joe Strummer?” and one of them replied, “He died. It was on the news this morning.” The shock caused me to spin violently away from them and burst into tears. I remember people looking at me with concern or annoyance, their misshapen faces contorted through a cascade of tears. The crying jag continued through the boarding process and throughout the flight. I looked so perfectly pathetic that the airline attendants offered me free booze, without bothering to check my ID (I’d only just turned twenty-one).
I’ve reflected on my reaction from time to time, especially when other famous musical artists have passed into the great beyond. When I learned of the deaths of Bowie and Prince, I was very upset but didn’t shed any tears until I listened to their music and appreciated the extent of the loss. The fundamental difference is that Bowie and Prince seemed “larger than life,” while Joe Strummer always felt real and accessible to me. If I had run into Joe Strummer in a bar somewhere, I can imagine plopping my ass on the stool next to his and immediately engaging in delightful conversation on a wide range of subjects while we smoked up a storm. This was a man who studiously avoided the ridiculous trappings of stardom and who voluntarily took a cut in his royalties to fulfill his vision of Sandinista! He wrote and sung about things that mattered to me and validated my self-image as a common citizen of the world who cares about that world and the people in it. He poked fun at pretense, challenged unthinking authority and stood up for those left behind by unfeeling bureaucracies and politicians. Joe Strummer was the living validation of some of my most cherished values.
But more than anything else, it was the spirit of the man that made him so very, very special. From a technical perspective, he was never a great singer, but he more than made up for his vocal deficiencies with an undeniable élan that could charm even the most dogmatic musicologist. His openness to a variety of musical traditions always manifested itself in genuine enthusiasm for the music and the culture that produced it. While most of us live our lives defensively and protectively, Joe Strummer lived his life like a great improv comedian, saying “Yes!” to every offer.
What upset me the most about his passing was it happened way, way too soon. David Bowie left behind a solid body of work that will live for centuries. Joe Strummer still had a lot of gas in the tank when he died, and I ache to think about the music I’ll never hear, and the fresh, restorative perspectives he always provided.
Streetcore is proof positive that Joe Strummer still had it and then some.
Due to a combination of disputes with Sony and what he described as his own laziness, Joe Strummer had been essentially out of the music business for ten years when The Mescaleros produced their first album. Rock Art and the X-Ray Style feels at first like an extension of late-period Clash with longer songs and reggae sensibilities, but the arrangements are much more complex and layered, displaying the multi-instrumental talents of the band. The marvelous closer, “Willesden to Cricklewood,” demonstrated that Joe’s lyrical talents had not atrophied during his absence. The second album, Global a Go-Go, corrects the faults of that massive sprawl known as Sandinista! by giving us a thoroughly enjoyable guided tour through the world music scene.
Streetcore was to be the next release, and the band had gone pretty far in the recording process when Joe passed away. While Joe never got a crack at the final mix (about which there was some grumbling from fandom) and some of the tracks are first-take vocals, band members Martin Slattery and Scott Shields did a superb job with the mixing and the mastering. Their work on Streetcore succeeds on many levels, but most importantly, Slattery and Shields’ production allows Joe Strummer’s irrepressible, undying spirit to shine through. Joe’s vocals sound as strong and confident as they did on London Calling, and the inclusion of two Joe-and-acoustic-guitar songs give Streetcore an unusual sense of intimacy, as if you’re hanging out with Joe in the living room while he plays some tunes he picked up on his travels. While the general consensus describes Streetcore as Joe Strummer’s return to his rock ‘n’ roll roots, the diverse influences that formed Joe Strummer’s approach to music still remain, giving the rock-oriented pieces greater richness. There’s also more than a touch of American country-western music, appropriate for a record where Joe continued to explore his combined wonder and exasperation with the United States.
Streetcore opens delightfully with “Coma Girl,” a melodic-harmonic rocker with deftly-executed rhythmic changes and gorgeous energy. The opening of the song is absolutely thrilling, with Joe’s voice soaring with total commitment over the spare accompaniment of a rough electric guitar providing a tension-building rhythm. Whenever I hear Joe sing those opening lines, I want to scream out, “Oh, man, have I missed the fuck out of you!” The bass enters subtly on the third line, but interestingly enough, avoids duplication of the main rhythm while foreshadowing a brief shift to a reggae beat in the transition lines (“And the rain came in from the wide blue yonder/Through all the stages I wandered”). All this is a build-up to the driving chorus, with its catchy tune and energizing harmonies. This pattern will repeat itself throughout the song, leading to the let-it-the-fuck-out closing choruses. While the pattern has enough variety to keep the listener interested, Joe varies both phrasing and melody throughout the song to give it added spice.
The lyrics are based on Joe’s frequent visits to the Glastonbury Festival, and the song has become something of a festival anthem since Bruce Springsteen opened his set with “Coma Girl” in tribute to Joe back in 2009. However, the lyrics could easily be applied to the vibes at any American outdoor music festival or a Dead concert (“I was crawling through a festival way out west/I was thinking about love and the acid test”). Here in the “wide blue yonder” Joe encounters the Coma Girl, “Mona Lisa on the motorcycle gang,” an alluring and mysterious figure completely fixated on excitement in the present tense. Nothin’ like a babe on a motorcycle to send guys and discriminating gals into a coma! The last verse establishes her presence as the woman in charge (fuck yeah!) while cleverly synthesizing a series of symbolic images from rock rebel culture:
As the 19th hour was falling upon Desolation Row
Some outlaw band had the last drop on the go
‘Let’s siphon up some gas let’s get this show on the road’
Said the Coma Girl to the excitement gang
Into action everybody sprang
The oil drums were beating out doo-lang, doo-lang
Joe Strummer was the embodiment of the rebellious spirit that drives great rock ‘n’ roll, and “Coma Girl” is a great rock song because it captures that ethos so beautifully.
Way back on Sandinista! Joe tried his hand at preachin’ to the masses with “The Sound of Sinners,” with mixed results. He does much, much better with the more melodic pattern and hot groove of “Get Down Moses,” a mesmerizing, ass-shaking experience. Part anti-drug message and part biting commentary about the modern irrelevance and ineffectiveness of ol’ time religion, Joe is in superb voice and the band is in top form. I just love listening to this arrangement with its diverse instrumentation providing unexpected splashes of color over tight percussion and heart-melting bass. And I really love the line, “Sayin’ the truth crystallizes it like jewels in the rock, in the rock,” something we all have to remember in these horrible days of alternative facts and orange-haired frothing at the mouth.
We get a nice shift with “The Long Shadow,” a song Joe originally wrote for Johnny Cash, whose work he deeply admired. Joe extended a Southern California vacation to hang out with Johnny during the recording of American IV: The Man Comes Around simply because he loved hanging out with The Man in Black. The unforeseen meeting of these two greats did result in the Cash-Strummer duet of “Redemption Song,” but we’ll get to that in a minute. In truth, “The Long Shadow” is a tribute song where Joe emulates Johnny’s singing style with obvious gusto (and a faux-Western drawl). I find it hard to imagine Johnny Cash actually covering the song, especially with lines that are so Strummer-ish like “And I hear punks talk of anarchy.” Even so, I enjoy listening to Joe adopt the primitive style of country-western singers and strummers, and as was true with everything he did, he put his whole heart and soul into the effort. The song’s epitaph is a fascinating admission of a man who spent a good deal of his life exploring the music of diverse cultures, and expresses something I’ve recently come to appreciate about myself:
Somewhere in my soul
There’s always rock and roll
When I’ve been away from rock for a while, it’s the emotional equivalent of nicotine withdrawal on a transatlantic flight: I simply have to have it and have it NOW! In Joe Strummer’s case, I think he was self-aware enough to know that his voice and orientation towards life was best manifested in the driving rhythms, nasty guitars and the inherent fuck-the-authorites character of rock ‘n’ roll. When it came to rock ‘n’ roll, Joe Strummer was The Natural.
This is vividly demonstrated on the next track, “Arms Aloft,” the most exciting rock ‘n’ roll number in the Strummer repertoire since “Clampdown.” This explosive number starts in an entirely disarming manner with a static beat leading to the first verse, where Joe sings over a guitar playing a pattern of selected high octave notes from the simple F-C chord pattern. The relative quiet reflects the mood of the lyrics, where Joe is singing to a friend going through one of those “life’s fucked me in the ass without lube” moments and can use a little empathy from a fellow traveler:
Sometimes there’s no star shining
Scouting the edge of the universe
Sometimes you can’t see a horizon
Between the ocean and the earth
The guitar then shifts to a fuller but still subdued version of the F-C pattern, joined by a solid bottom of bass and drum. After two rounds, Joe re-enters with a slight sneer in his voice to indicate that he ain’t buying this poor-me shit—“And just when you were thinking about slinking . . . ” and the guitar pattern collapses into a perfectly out-of-nowhere, delightfully devilish F#5 on the concluding word, “. . . down.” Now Joe is ready to drive this baby home with “I’m gonna pull you up! I’m gonna pull you ’round!” Then WHAM! We get full, deep thrust in an explosion of driving rock ‘n’ roll with Joe’s voice squeezed through a filter to emphasize the shift. The words that burst out of the sonic sieve are a timeless reminder to everyone that when things are going bad, we all have the tendency to shade everything in a negative tint and behave as if we’re acting out our parts in a disaster movie with no hope of rescue. “Fuck that!” responds Mr. Strummer:
May I remind you of that scene
The spirit is our gasoline
May I remind you of that scene
We were arms aloft in Aberdeen
May I remind you of that scene
Let a million mirror balls beam
May I remind you of that scene
Shit, man, I’m ready for the post-fuck cigarette after the first verse and chorus! Fortunately, I have a very large appetite for orgasmic experiences, and “Arms Aloft” is the fuck buddy who never quits. Driven by an exceptionally strong bass pattern, the second verse is dedicated to us common people who have to work for our daily bread. Save us from our self-pity, Joe!
And you say living ain’t nothing but hassles
In a Manila envelope frame
And driving coal all-night to Newcastle
It’s getting to be a repetitive strain
And just when thought you were going down the drain
May I remind you of that scene
The spirit is our gasoline
After a fabulous instrumental bridge of sliding, twisting, cascading guitar effects, the band dials it down just a smidge to clear the way for Joe to step up and remind us, “I’m gonna pull you up, I’m gonna pull you out!” and “Arms Aloft” shifts into a hard-driving fade until the band collapses from sheer exhaustion, having left it all on the bedsheets and then some. My favorite line in the fade is “We got all this and Bird and Diz,” referring to the legendary Bebop heroes who pushed musical boundaries to the limit with virtually no hope of commercial success. It would have been a hell of a lot easier for Parker and Gillespie to forget about expanding musical boundaries, get a steady gig with a big band and play the dance music people wanted to hear. Why didn’t they do that? Because the spirit was their gasoline, just as it was for Joe Strummer.
It’s music, baby! Live it the fuck up!
The contrast between “Arms Aloft” and “Ramshackle Day Parade” couldn’t be greater: one is a song of spirit rising from the ashes, the other a song of spirit crushed by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Over a gentle background of echoed piano and touches of synthesizer, Joe opens the song by depicting the cinematic innocence of America at the start of the new century:
Muffle the drums
The hope of a new century comes
Was it all the amphetamine presidents
And their busy wives
Or did Manhattan crumble
The day Marilyn died
All your life, dreamer of dreams
Somehow connected with the silver screen
Half closed eyes, you realize
Loving the life that is paradise
In the Technicolor fade
JFK and Marilyn were America’s fantasy couple, one the symbol of active masculinity (cloaking Addison’s disease and a degenerative back condition), the other the glamorous sex symbol par excellence (cloaking natural mousey brown hair and lifelong depression). The tendency towards naive fantasy that characterizes the American psyche was further fueled by the end of the Cold War and seemingly unstoppable economy: TV pundits talked constantly about “the new American century.” 9/11 destroyed not only the precious lives of three thousand people but the American fantasy of continuous progress and unbridled optimism. The parade of people walking home on the Brooklyn Bridge after the horror of that sunny day was the cruel opposite of the celebratory ticker tape parades of the past:
This is the ramshackle day parade
Of all those lost, unborn, and unmade
And whose heads got filled with a neon lava
And remain buried underneath this road
Taking the freight elevator
From the incinerator
The ironic line “Bring out the banners of Stalingrad” describes a Pyrrhic victory, and given the continuing decline of the United States in the years following 9/11—masked temporarily and only superficially by the Obama years—the image of a “victory” that causes you to sacrifice everything you stand for is entirely appropriate, given where America is today. “Ramshackle Day Parade” is a haunting and challenging song, brilliantly arranged and executed.
My friends (hah!) over at Pitchfork didn’t think much of Joe Strummer’s version of “Redemption Song,” claiming it “verges on comedy.” Oh, my goodness! I guess if you’ve only got fifteen minutes and a limit of 800 words to write a piece for the moronic music consumers who read your shit, you need to keep your snark skills sharp! Perhaps if Mr. Hartley Goldstein had eliminated the TWO OPENING PARAGRAPHS ABOUT HOW HARD IT IS TO BE A MUSIC CRITIC, he might have had some room to write more intelligently and perceptively about Mr. Strummer’s work. As it is, he only mentions half of the songs on the album and blames both Joe Strummer’s widow and Rick Rubin’s production for Joe’s poor showing on “Redemption Song.” To say I believe Mr. Goldstein misses the point would be the understatement of all understatements, so allow me to politely offer an alternative viewpoint to that lazy prick’s senseless meanderings.
No matter what Joe Strummer did in his career, no matter how many musical avenues he explored, and no matter how complex and rich his arrangements could be, all his songs are Everyman songs that anyone who learns a few simple chords can play. The two acoustic numbers on Streetcore allow us to hear Joe without The Clash or The Mescaleros filling in the spaces. All we get is Joe Strummer, armed only with his acoustic guitar and his gravelly, wandering voice. Does his performance on “Redemption Song” come close to any of Richard Thompson’s acoustic masterpieces? Fuck, no! What comes through is his spirit, his passion for human freedom and his deep respect for a great song. That’s good enough for me! Still, I wish they could have included the Cash-Strummer duet instead—the combination of Johnny’s sadly fading voice as he makes one of his last recordings and Joe Strummer’s respectful counterpoint is incredibly moving. Both would be gone within the space of two years, but when I hear that recording, it inspires me with the hope that I leave this mortal sphere singing, no matter how old and creaky I sound.
Joe and the Mescaleros get back to ass-kicking rock with “All in a Day,” where the constant refrain of “Hey, hey!” presents the listener with the overwhelming urge to join in. It’s a great dance number with some nice breaks to let the listening audience throw in a few exuberant shouts. It’s followed by the majestic “Burnin’ Streets,” an update of “London’s Burning” a quarter of a century after the first Clash album hit the U. K. shelves. Joe is in particularly fine voice here, supported by a nicely flowing arrangement highlighting acoustic guitar and Mellotron. Not much had changed in twenty-five-or-so years, but the passage that surprised me highlights Joe Strummer’s lack of tolerance for guns in a civilized society:
Too many guns in this damn town
The supermarket, you gotta duck down
Baby flak jackets on the merry-go-round
I’m thinking, “Compared to the gun-crazy USA, what the fuck are you talking about?” I remain eternally grateful that the NRA hasn’t extended their satanic claws to England’s green and pleasant land, praise the fucking lord and don’t pass the fucking ammunition.
Joe Strummer spent part of his out-of-the-industry years as a BBC disk jockey in a programme appropriately titled London Calling. You can find recordings of his shows in the BBC archives or on YouTube, and I highly recommend them. I mean, can you imagine a better disk jockey than Joe Strummer? His natural curiosity and deep knowledge of world music made him a perfect fit for the job, and exposed a lot of people to music (including me) that I would never have heard anywhere else.”Midnight Jam” is essentially an extended instrumental with snippets from Joe’s programmes, riffing on the music he’s spinning. While that doesn’t sound like much, the combination of that unmistakable voice and solid backing makes for a compelling listening experience. My favorite “line” is “Since the last programme I’ve been around the world touring with a group—you name every jail in Germany, I’ve been there.” The line is both a reaffirmation of rebellion and a final nod to The Man in Black, who made some of his best recordings in prisons.
Streetcore ends with the third acoustic number, “Silver and Gold,” Joe’s cover of the Fats Domino-Bobby Charles song originally titled “Before I Grow Too Old.” The two original versions share a New Orleans feel, differing largely in the tempo—Bobby skips through the song at a decent clip while Fats takes it slow and easy. Reflecting his late fascination with voices from the American heartland, Joe turns the piece into a Western tune, replete with harmonica and Tymon Dogg on the fiddle. Obviously, the song’s lyrics take on more meaning because of his sudden death, but I think if had Joe lived to a ripe old age, this song would be remembered as an anthem to his commitment to live life a certain way: at breakneck speed, and if you break a few rules along the way, fuck it.
Oh, I do a lotta things, I know is wrong
Hope I’m forgiven before I’m gone
It’ll take a lotta prayers to save my soul
And I got to hurry up before I grow too old . . .
Heh, I’m gonna go out dancin’ every night
I’m gonna see all your city lights
I’m gonna do everything silver and gold
And I got to hurry up before I grow too old
Joe sings the song with almost boyish sincerity, and when you realize this is the last thing we’ll ever hear from Joe Strummer, it hits you with a combination of terrible sadness and irresolvable frustration that he died way, way before his time.
At a time when several Western countries are turning the clock backwards to pursue the discredited ideology of Nationalism that gave us decades of war, the life and work of Joe Strummer reminds us that there is an alternative to fear-driven self-destruction: the celebration of human diversity and inclusion. Through his endless curiosity about different cultures and the music of those cultures, Joe Strummer was the model world citizen, actively chipping away at the real and imagined borders that divide us. I am certain he would be absolutely astonished to return to the world of today and see that its inhabitants have responded to fear by splitting apart instead of coming together . . . and I’m equally certain he would respond forcefully with songs that expose the absurdity and validate the humanity. Streetcore is the final gift from a man who lived life to the fullest and had complete confidence that the human spirit could survive the worst tendencies of the human race.
The spirit, after all, is our gasoline.