Sat | Oct 20, 2018

Marley: The man vs the myth

Published:Saturday | February 7, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

Two tales are relevant to this attempt at disentangling Bob Marley's mystique - which has no practical use to anyone, save for those who make money out of his music and image - from his very human self, through which we can learn tremendously. The intention is not to poke holes in his legend, but for us to see him as a human being from whom we can, and should, learn valuable lessons, and not simply see him as a far-removed shaman on whom we concentrate our need for heroes for one month each year.

And I know a thing or two about hero worship and Bob Marley. As a pre-teenager on return trips to St Thomas from Kingston, when my parents stopped at the Harbour View Shopping Centre for supermarket stuff, I would stare at the album covers on the rack in the store - especially Confrontation and Uprising - and dream about owning them all. This was vinyl days, when the cover art was bigger than the screen of a 10-inch tablet computer.


Tale one. In 1996, I took my only official tour of the Bob Marley Museum. It started in the courtyard and the female guide was twanging terribly. In giving the stories behind paintings on the inside of the wall delineating number 56 from Hope Road, she got to one where Bob had Michael Manley and Edward Seaga's hands intertwined with his, over his head.

She explained about the One Love Peace Concert and, still twanging, declared that after Marley did that, "hall political war hin Jumaica cease!"

I looked through the gate to Hope Road, where a quarter-million minibus was passing by, and said loudly "lie!"

She looked sharply in my direction, I kept admiring the bus. Both of us said nothing. When the tour was over, she came to me and said (without twanging) "tell mi suppen, yuh a Jamaican, nuh true?" I said yes. We had a hearty yet quiet, brief yet meaningful, laugh together, and that was that.

Moral of the story? You don't have to make Bob bigger than he actually is to impress anyone. Without embellishment, his tale is already the stuff that screenwriters dream of coming up with.


Tale two: In 2009, Buju Banton was speaking at the launch of his Rasta Got Soul album at the Undercroft, University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus. The matter of Marley came up, and Buju said, as I wrote in the Gleaner story about a very engaging address, that "he (Marley) was one of the most promoted and well-promoted" artistes from Jamaica.

There was a furore over what was perceived in some quarters as a downplaying of Marley's ability, not least of all because Buju also said, "I am talented in your estimation, but if I did brown, I would be more talented. I know who I am in this society."

Buju was right on both counts, and I will take the liberty of applying his comment about promotion to what he did not say about ability. Bob Marley was not even the best singer in The Wailing Wailers. That goes to either Peter Tosh or Bunny Wailer. Neither was he the best musician. It was Tosh, hands down. But what Marley had was something more valuable than a great range or precision with notes; he had the most expressive, convincing voice imaginable.

When he sang, you knew he believed every superb lyric, and what is more, he made you a believer - if even for as long as the music lasted.


So, if we take the unapproachable myth out of Marley and see him as a man - a very special one who comes along through a unique confluence of ability, circumstances and focus, which will never be repeated - what can we learn? What lessons from his approach to his craft can today's artistes learn to lay to their own (hopefully) pursuits of excellence?

Punctuality. By all accounts, the Tuff Gong was a stickler for time, including on tour, where one writer said he was always the first one on the bus when it was time to move out.

Maintenance of standards. To summarise another Marley writer, he told the musicians that if they did not know a particular part of the music, they should not take a stab at it, but simply not play. He reminded them that musicians are in the audience. So, even if the general crowd did not care much about accuracy, Marley had regard for his peers and their respect. It was returned.

Practice. The rehearsals were long and continuous, with spectacular results as captured on the Babylon By Bus and Live albums, especially, with tons more Marley concerts available on YouTube.

My favourites are Live at Santa Barbara in 1979 (which I first saw on video cassette many years ago) and Live at the Deeside Leisure Centre in 1980, with a particularly moving rendition of Zion Train.

Recruiting and, very importantly, retaining talent. Without the Wailers Band, Bob Marley would have been much less than he became. It was a unit of good musicians which put Marley's voice and lyrics on a consistently suitable platform - even when the Gong put down his guitar. And while successful units have exquisitely bad timing in their breakups (think Black Uhuru), after Peter and Bunny left, the new unit was stable - harmony singers and all.


Openness. This is on so many levels, but one more anecdote is applicable. Ahead of last year's Fun in the Son, I spoke with Tommy Cowan, who showed me a photograph with Bob Marley on the wall of his office. I remarked to Cowan about a story I had heard, when someone encountered him listening to the Bee Gees. The person asked the Skipper why he was paying attention to performers who were so light and Marley replied that they had sold a million records. Cowan chuckled and told me he was a part of that story.

So Bob was open to learning from the Bee Gees, his book of Haile Selassie, and the Bible. He was open to having rock guitars overlaid on Catch a Fire album (listen to the introduction to Concrete Jungle again), he was open to different music forms (Could You Be Loved, works in a disco mix, he hails a couple rockers on Punky Reggae Party). He was open to expressing hurt, whether it was Keep on Moving, in which he sings "tell Ziggy I'm fine", as he had to leave for a while, or over a woman when he moans "my woman she's gone" - it goes on and on.

Importantly, he was open to being recorded. There are an amazing number of Marley pictures from different stages of his musical life, as well as concert and rehearsal recordings. So where my music hero ordered the cameras be turned off at the One Love Peace Concert, so we only have audio of that stupendous performance, the image of Marley with Seaga and Manley's hands over his head is carved into popular culture.

And, by all accounts I have heard from people who were there or read, Tosh was a hit that night and Marley almost wasn't.

I could go on and on and on and the full would still not be told. But while we talk about the Marley myths and mystique, we miss the message of his life, that excellence is possible through a process that he followed. No one is expected to be as great as Bob or anyone else; we owe it to ourselves to be as great as we can be at whatever we do.

And if we do, we should remember another lesson, we should learn from him. I once had a book of Marley quotes which contained this gem. In a press conference, a journalist asked Marley what it feels like to be famous. His reply? "I am not famous to me."