Marley: ‘his songs were his memories’

Marley, Kevin MacDonald’s engaging and meticulous hagiography, begins with a tracking shot through the Door of No Return at the 17th century Cape Coast fortress in Ghana that was the departure point for the millions of Africans shipped to slavery in the America and the Caribbean. Through this portal Bob Marley’s maternal ancestors would have made their way, carrying with them the identity and culture, the music and belief system that came to define the man.

Bob Marley was born in 1945 in a remote Jamaican village, Nine Mile, and in the lyrical aerial shot that follows Macdonald tracks across the steep, and densely wooded hill country that Marley called home for the first decade of his life.

Macdonald shows us the shack where Marley lived with his mother, Cedella (above).  The last time Bob Marley saw his father was when he was five years old, but there seems little doubt that his absent father had a profound significance for his outlook on life and his music.  Norval Marley was a white man – aged 65 to his mother’s 17 years when they married –  who styled himself Captain, though there is no evidence he ever held any commissioned rank or served in any war. Macdonald illustrates Norval’s story with the only extant photo of him (below) which, uncropped, shows him on horseback looking somewhat seigneurial.  He was employed by the forestry commission to patrol the countryside to prevent the theft of timber. Norval had been born in Jamaica after his family, originally from Sussex, had moved to Jamaica to make a living from trading in mahogany.

Macdonald records that the light-skinned Bob Marley felt rejected as a youngster by both black and white communities: an outsider who came to find his cultural home in Africa in his embrace of Rastafarianism.  In his music and personal beliefs, Marley came to articulate an ethos of personal independence, social defiance and inter-racial brotherhood.  In Marley’s own words:

I don’t have prejudice against meself. My father was a white and my mother was black.  Them call me half-caste or whatever.  Me don’t dip on nobody’s side.  Me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side.  Me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white.

When Bob was 15 or so, his mother Cedella decided to start a new life in America and had a photo taken that would remind her son of her. This, the first photo of Marley that exists, is another of the evocative images that Macdonald draws upon in his narrative.  Around this time Marley had left school, moved to the poverty-stricken Trench Town area of Kingston, and had begun working in various jobs, gradually being drawn into the local music scene.  Eventually, at just 16 years old, he cut his first record, ‘Judge Not’, with a lyric remarkable for its maturity and poise, the first of many that would draw on Biblical inspiration:

Don’t you look at me so smug
And say I’m going bad.
Who are you to judge me
And the life that I live?
I know that I’m not perfect
And that I don’t claim to be.
So before you point your fingers,
Be sure your hands are clean.
Judge not
Before you judge yourself.

Macdonald tells how in Trench Town,  Marley had met up with another aspiring musician, Desmond Dekker, who introduced Marley to another teenager, Jimmy Cliff, who had already recorded a few hit songs. Jimmy Cliff introduced Marley to Leslie Kong the record producer who recorded ‘Judge Not’ – for which he paid Marley $20.00.

In 1963 , Marley and his childhood friend Neville ‘Bunny’ Livingston began attending vocal classes held in Trench Town by Joe Higgs, a successful singer who mentored many young singers. It was in Higgs’ yard that Bob and Bunny met Peter  Tosh; the three of them became the founder members of The Wailers.

Macdonald spends a significant part of the film telling the story of the early Wailers – and rightly so.  He is hampered by the fact that documentation of the early period is thin, but he draws on colourful testimony from his mother, his friends, fellow musicians, a variety of female companions (Marley had nine or 10 children by six or seven different women), record producers, and gangsters.

Marley, Livingston and Tosh were introduced to Clement Sir Coxsone Dodd, the founder of the crucial Jamaican record label Studio One. Soon The Wailers had hit records and a sizeable local following. Their first single for Studio One, ‘Simmer Down’, sold over 80,000 copies, and they went on to record several hits for Coxsone, including ‘Rude Boy’, ‘I’m Still Waiting’, and the original version of  ‘One Love’.

In 1970 the Wailers signed up with producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and Macdonald’s interviewees pinpoint the significance of the move: Perry had begun experimenting with American mixing equipment he had acquired and was employing various sound distortions that became the hallmark of dub and reggae, including bringing the drum and bass to the fore. Perry also added to The Wailers the brothers Carlton and Aston Barrett, playing drums and bass.  Together with Bob’s lyrics they began to forge a unique musical identity, heard on tracks like ‘Duppy Conqueror’, ‘400 Years’ and ‘Soul Rebel’.

Another song from this period was ‘Corner Stone’, written by Marley as a result of being rejected by his father’s side of the family.  The story behind the song is that Marley went to his father’s side of the family – who owned a construction company in Jamaica – to borrow money to buy a car so that he could distribute his records, but was turned away. At one point in the film, Macdonald plays the song to Marley’s second cousin Peter and his half-sister Constance, neither of whom have heard it before:

The stone that the builder refuse
Will always be the head cornerstone
Don’t you pick and refuse me,
‘Cause the things people refuse
Are the things they should use

Constance immediately understands the significance of the song, in which Bob blends religious imagery with the experience of being of mixed descent and his struggles growing up. ‘How true that is’, she says. ‘Bob put the Marley name on the map. He became The Marley… and all of the others that rejected him went into the background’.

From Macdonald’s interviewees we learn how Marley’s approach to life became clearly defined in this period.  He grew tougher, and was incredibly disciplined:  he exercised, ate a strict vegetarian diet, swam, and ran on the beach everyday. He adopts Rastafarianism, the  philosophy that imbues his lyrics, and begins to grow his dreadlocks.  By now, too, every woman falls in love with him, attracted, perhaps, by his innate shyness to which several friends testify.

It’s on matters to do with marriage and money that some critics have argued that Macdonald’s film is too respectful.  Certainly the names of several family members and various close business associates are listed in the credits as producers – which must have imposed a certain reticence. Some have suggested that  Macdonald glosses over the pain that Marley may have caused in his private life,  having had so many children with different partners.  He even denied that he was married to Rita Marley on the grounds that marriage was a reactionary encumbrance that his religion did not recognise. However, Rita appears to hold no grudges and speaks movingly of their time together, and of being by his side at his death.  As also does the former Miss Jamaica and Miss World, Cindy Breakspeare, who bore him a child and was also with when he died.

One of the film’s producers is Island Records impresario Chris Blackwell, and this is no doubt the reason why Macdonald evinces a certain delicacy when approaching questions of money and recording contracts.  There’s a passing reference to the fallout between Peter Tosh and Blackwell which led to him leaving the group (with Tosh, characteristically abrasive, referring to him as ‘Whitewell’).

Nevertheless, all of the people that Macdonald approached agreed to be interviewed and to the release of rare photos and film footage (some never seen before), and many provide fine testimony.  When it comes down to it, I’m not that exercised about Marley’s personal life: it’s the music that matters.

One good thing about music,
When it hits you feel no pain –
So hit me with music

By the time the live recording of the Wailers’ historic concert at the Lyceum in London in 1975 was released – the album that opened with that declaration from the electrifying version of ‘Trench Town Rock’ – Bob Marley and The Wailers were superstars.  In the film, someone recalls Marley’s puzzlement that at their concerts the audiences were predominantly white.  But there was an obvious reason: his music had an instant and visceral appeal to people like me baptised in the sounds of the sixties, Marley’s lyrics the embodiment of that same sixties blend of peace, love and rebel politics.

The breakthrough had come with Catch A Fire, the Blackwell-financed album with stylings to appeal to the rock audience. Blackwell recalled:

I was dealing with rock music, which was really rebel music and I felt that would really be the way to break Jamaican music. But you needed someone who could be that image. When Bob walked in he really was that image.

By 1977 Marley had achieved international stardom international stardom through albums such as Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration and Exodus. His songs introduced Rastafarian ideas to the mainstream audience, and inspired a generation with their spirit of resistance and empowerment – none more so than ‘War’,  its lyrics adapted from an speech  by the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie but its presentation is archetypical Bob Marley:

Until the philosophy which hold one race superior
And another
Is finally
And permanently
And abandoned –
Everywhere is war –
Me say war.

That until there no longer
First class and second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man’s skin
Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes –
Me say war.

That until the basic human rights
Are equally guaranteed to all,
Without regard to race –
Dis a war.

The film explores Marley’s ambivalent attitude to politics, through his appearance at the ‘Smile Jamaica’ concert of 1976 shortly after the attempt on his life, and his performance at the One Love Peace Concert, held on 22 April 1978 and aimed at ending Jamaica’s political gang violence. Marley knew gang leaders on both sides and, as the film reveals, entertained some of them at his Hope Road home in Kingston.  Macdonald speaks to Claudie Massop, leader of one of the most violent gangs, who was a friend of Marley’s and who persuaded him to return from London to perform in the peace concert.

After the attempt on his life, Bob flew to London where he lived for the next year and a half, recording the albums Exodus and Kaya – and playing football all the time in the Battersea park just round the corner from the house he rented with the rest of the Wailers. They would take on anyone – indeed, legend has it that one day they took on and they a team of National Front supporters. It was during one of these kick-arounds that Marley suffered the injury to his toe that would eventually kill him.

In Pittsburgh on 23 September 23 1980, Bob Marley performed his last concert.  Two days before Marley had learned that the cancer that had taken root in his big toe in 1977, following  the football injury, had metastasized and spread throughout his body. He fought the disease for eight months, travelling to Germany to undergo a controversial form of treatment at the clinic of Dr. Josef Issels.

The final section of the film, in which the women closest to Bob tell of the last months of his life is undoubtedly moving.  The women – including Rita Marleyand Cindy Breakspeare – had wanted Marley to be treated at home in Jamaica, but, as Breakspeare laconically notes, ‘in those days the men decided everything: we women just had to go along with it’.  Macdonald precedes these recollections with an elegiac tracking shot up the mountain road to the wintry Bavarian clinic where Bob’s mother read the Book of Job to the emaciated singer, and his dreadlocks were shaved off, their weight having become unbearably painful.  At the beginning of May 1981, it was finally agreed that Marley should return to Jamaica – but he did not complete the journey.   He succumbed to the cancer in a Miami hospital on 11 May 1981.

The film doesn’t end there, though.  In a coda Macdonald films individuals in countries across the world singing ‘One Love’, the song that has become a global anthem of peace, but which contains all of Marley’s contradictions in its verses.

One love, one heart
Let’s get together and feel all right
Hear the children crying
One love
Hear the children crying
One heart
Sayin’ –
Give thanks and praise to the Lord

And I will feel all right.

Behind the feel-good sentiments of the chorus  lies a judgemental message that sinners will ultimately pay for their evil deeds. Yet it was the very different sentiments of these words from ‘Get Up Stand Up’ that inspired me when I first heard them on Burnin‘ in 1973:

Some people think a great God will come down from the sky,
Take away everything and make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth,
You will look for yours on earth
And now we see the light,
We’re gonna stand up for our rights!

‘Marley wasn’t singing about how peace could come easily to the world but rather how hell on earth comes too easily to too many’, commented Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone. ‘His songs were his memories; he had lived with the wretched, he had seen the downpressers and those whom they pressed down’.

Kevin Macdonald’s film is, as Roger Ebert remarks, ‘a careful and respectful record of an important life, lived by a free spirit’.

See also


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