When Bob Marley died aged 36 in 1981, Island Records hurried to contact Peter Tosh (one of the original Wailers trio) to alert him before the news reached the general public. In the seven years since their acrimonious split Tosh had watched Marley’s spectacular rise. After a pause on the phone, Tosh startled Island’s messenger with his response to his former friend’s death: “Well, perhaps it’ll leave a little room for the rest of us to come through.”
Robert Nesta Marley cast the world of reggae in his shadow. This is the case even more now than at his death – and is reflected in the global industry feeding collections of albums, T-shirts, mugs, musicals and documentaries. It’s a development that might well have stuck in the craw of the righteous Rasta Marley, a man who famously maintained he could not be corrupted by the seeds of commercial success (“Babylon nah have no fruit”) and spurned the comforts of materialism. His legacy has been contested ever since his death, in large part because of his disinclination as a Rasta to leave behind a will.
For decades Roger Steffens, compiler of this oral history, has been a leading authority on Marley; his home archive, almost a museum, is an essential pit-stop for any serious scholar. In So Much Things to Say, a title taken from the anthemic Marley song, linking Jesus Christ to Marcus Garvey, Steffens identifies many more pieces of the man than have ever before been put together in one book.
More than a decade ago, David Katz drew on more than 300 first-hand interviews to tell a luminous story of reggae, entitled Solid Foundation. Steffens takes a similar approach, using the transcriptions of conversations he has conducted over 40 years. Marley is illuminated through the reminiscences of his wife, mother, girlfriends, band members, managers and many unknown but stylish Jamaicans who, to paraphrase Derek Walcott, reveal “all Kingston is a 12.30 show”.
Steffens marshals his sources with skill, and we’re left with a complex representation. At the core of the book is the inimitable Wailers trio – Tosh, Marley and Bunny Livingston – who lived and worked closely together for a decade from their first encounter as youths. For a while, Marley’s mother was in a relationship with Livingston’s father – though as an “outside” child Marley was literally kept outdoors and made to sleep on the ground underneath the stilt house. He was strong-willed and his desperate circumstances forced maturity on him at a tender age; he was just another yard-boy “sufferer” who struggled to emerge from the rot and stench of the Kingston ghetto of Trenchtown. Music provided an escape from the parlous fate seemingly predetermined for him.
Steffens catalogues the frustrations of musicians continually preyed on by exploitative managers (Livingston calls them “knickerbackers”). In Marley’s life, some of these older middlemen appeared to occupy the space forfeited by his absent father, Norval, who abandoned him as a baby. This was evidently the case with the Rasta elder and street intellectual Mortimo Planno, an extraordinarily gnarled walrus of a man, who for a time held a Rasputin-like grip on Marley, schooled him in the cultish religion and later attempted to groom him as a proselytising musical ambassador for Rastafari.
The evolution of the group was marked by their change in image – in 1963, appearing in a talent-spotting stage show, they sported flat, shiny hair and satin suits as an ambitious R&B outfit called the Teenagers. A decade later, the Wailers electrified audiences as Rastas dressed in army fatigues with dreadlocks flashing in the night air.
Occasionally, Steffens ventures a critical assessment, employing words such as “disingenuous” when introducing a fanciful tale; but he rarely adjudicates on the accounts presented. If Marley is at the celestial centre of reggae, then Livingston is the brightest satellite. He emerges as a rancorous, mystical and magisterial guardian of Marley’s reputation, as keen as ever to convey the spirit and greatness of his fallen brother. In that task he is aligned with Steffens, the consummate fan.