Friday, March 4, 2011

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - Marley

Bob Marley is a complicated figure. For millions of people who experienced him and his powerful, uplifting music during his lifetime he remains a touchstone to a spiritual high-water mark in our lives. I know that might sound like hyperbole, but it is really true. At a very important time in my life (right as I entered adulthood) Bob Marley’s music was one of the only things I had found in my life that dealt with spiritual matters in a non-judgmental, non-dogmatic fashion. Marley was clearly a man who believed in a higher power, but his messages were universal, addressing issues as unifying as hunger, freedom, family and brotherly love. He was a remarkable songwriter, whose repertoire lives on in the hearts of millions around the world. He is also one of the very few artists who can honestly be called a world-superstar. He was really the first to transcend race and culture and speak a universally understood language.

On the other hand, there is an entire generation of people who see Marley as the inspiration for way too many stupid frat-boy keggers. His fans seemed a smug, self-righteous bunch of Trustafarians who had swapped Marley’s easily digestible messages for any semblance of critical thought. As usual it is wrong, but unavoidable to see an artist tainted by his most foolish fans. Reggae in general has not fared well on the modern musical landscape. After Bob Marley and Peter Tosh’s tragic deaths the genre seemed to sink under the weight of the tragedy and just lose steam. For a shining few moments in the 1970’s though, Bob Marley and The Wailers seemed as if they might be on the cusp of a wave of an unparalleled spiritual awakening in the world. He appeared above politicians and seemed untainted by the corrupting forces of the modern world. Of course, we now know this was not exactly true. He had feet of clay like all men, but the music he created during his career does indeed stand the test of time as the new release Bob Marley and the Wailers Live Forever: The Stanley Theatre, Pittsburgh PA September 23, 1980 beautifully illustrates. This is the final stage appearance by Bob Marley, and he was dead from the cancer that had weakened him within a year of this concert. Yet when one listens to this incredible document there is little sign of impending doom.

If one were to judge Bob Marley solely on the songs performed at this concert, it would offer pretty compelling evidence of his greatness. The songs read like a page from the book of human aspiration; “Positive Vibration,” “Zion Train,” War/No More Trouble.” “No Woman No Cry,” “Redemption Song,” “Is This Love,” “Get Up Stand Up” to name just a few. It is a magnificent 20-song program of great songs and bravura performances. The Wailers were just unstoppable at this point. They knew how to deliver a show that drove modern rock audiences nuts with huge arrangements, heavy on Al Anderson and Junior Marvin’s great lead guitar work and anchored by Carlton and Family Man Barrett’s crushing rhythm section. For his part, Marley shows no outward signs of weakness, delivering with his trademark intensity, buoyed by the I-Threes backing vocals, he sounds like he could go on forever. But alas, it was not to be. This was the end of his performing career and the world would soon lose one of its best poets of hope.

It saddens me that Marley’s greatness has been placed into question in some people’s minds by the unforgiving passage of time. To me, he is in the category of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan or John Lennon. He is a musician who made a difference in the course of human events, and a human who made music for the ages. Live Forever is a wonderful reminder of this fact.

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