Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Robert Nesta Marley

Bob Marley transcends. He transcended his background, he transcended the boundaries of Reggae music and he ultimately transcended the constricts of a typical mortal to become something more to history. Bob is possibly the first and the greatest “world star.” Bob is beloved in every corner of the world, and for reasons that are not just musical. Bob Marley has become a symbol of the good that resides in us all, which we can tap into by channeling our shared humanity. Unlike any other celebrity I can think of Bob Marley’s fame only has a passing relationship to the wonderful music he made. He has become an historical humanitarian.
But it is the music that brings us here. Beginning with his earliest Jamaican recordings, there is something that sets it apart. The keening voice, those unforgettable melodies, and always a message. I got turned on to him in 1975 when Bob Marley Live came out. I was drawn to the colorful cover depicting Bob in trance mode on stage at the Lyceum Theatre in London. I only knew Eric Clapton’s version of “I Shot the Sheriff” which had risen to the top of the charts the year before, riding high on its revolutionary message and the drum work that partially defines Reggae. Immediately upon putting on Bob Marley Live I was transported to another world. Everything about this music was exotic and meaningful to me. I went back to the record store (King Bee Records on Evans) and got more. I got Natty Dread (1974) and Burnin’ (1973) and devoured them like a starving dog. I literally could not believe how great this guy was. His songs resonated with me politically, socially, and intellectually. Like Dylan, Marley seemed to be able to put the basic human struggles into 4/4 time tossing off anthems like it was nothing.

In 1976 when Bob Marley and The Wailers released Rastaman Vibration his trajectory was set and he started to be recognized by the mainstream. With Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh now both out of The Wailers the focus was entirely on Bob, and he rose to the situation like few in music history. Taking his music to new, commercial heights without relinquishing any of its inherent depth and meaning, Bob vaulted to the world stage, touring the continents, rubbing elbows with international leaders, and locking himself in as a spokesman for the downtrodden of the world.
My own obsession continued. Bob’s outspoken advocacy for marijuana as a religious sacrament didn’t hurt. As his fame grew, and his dreadlocks became mighty, he just seemed to become more and more profound. His albums sold in greater numbers and again he was transcending. His songs were all over the radio, he appeared on Time Magazine. My mother read about him in the New York Times. He was as cool to the underground as he was acceptable to the mainstream - a very rare achievement.
December 5,1979, Bob Marley and The Wailers play at D.U. Arena. I couldn’t be more excited. We got there early and my friend Dan Gamble who I knew from my year at D.U. comes over to me. He’s working security backstage and he has a huge grin on his face. He hands me a gigantic joint - “It’s what they’re smokin’ backstage man - dig it!” It was indeed strong, in a way most American stoners were not used to in the 70’s. When the Wailers hit the stage it was non-stop top rankin’ and skankin’ the whole evening. Performers and audience merged into a cloud of rhythm heavy good vibes. One of the great concerts of my life! A little more than a year later Bob would be gone.
Bob Marley has held a very special place in my heart and my collecting for a long time. I now recognize that the moment he became super-famous was the moment his music changed to a slightly more commercial sound - yet that does not affect my appreciation for him in the least. Like The Beatles, commercial success for Bob Marley just meant a bigger platform for his message, it did nothing to water it down.
A couple of years ago, legendary Boulder Reggae DJ and Twist and Shout customer Roger Gillies (Postman Roger Dread) sadly passed away and I got the call to come look at his collection for purchase. I knew Roger well, thus I knew his collection of Reggae, and particularly Bob Marley, was going to be large. I didn’t realize how large. Probably the largest collection I’ve ever bought, it was the World Book Encyclopedia of Reggae. He had it all! Our customers were the beneficiaries as literally thousands of Reggae CDs, LPs, and memorabilia flooded the store over the next 6 months. It was mind-blowing. However, the most incredible piece was a photo, not a record. For several months after he died, I kept getting calls from former friends, lovers, and associates of Roger’s asking about his collection. Invariably, the conversations would go something like this. “Well before I get off the phone, I wanted to ask you about one specific picture….” After two or three of these conversations I would head them off at the pass - “Just so you know, I’m keeping the lion picture.” The lion picture was taken by photographer Bruce W. Talamon who Postman befriended after purchasing some photos from him. Beautiful black and white portraits of Marley onstage and backstage - he had tons of them. His house was filled with framed photos of Bob. One really stood out though. In this photo, Bob is on stage - the photo in the middle of an intense performance. Now I’m not a big believer in the supernatural, or conspiracy theories, but I’ll be Jah-damned if in this photo Bob Marley isn’t transmogrifying into the Lion of Judah. Think I’m crazy? Look for yourself. Look at his hands turning into claws. Look at his face. This is not photoshopped - this is one of the most amazing photos ever. It’s such a powerful photo I hesitate to share it - but here it is. It’s the jewel of my Marley collection! Thank you Postman! Here it is with some other great Marley items. Today, decades later, if I’m feeling blue, there are few quicker fixes than putting on some of those original Trojan recordings.
- Paul Epstein

No comments: