Sunday, October 6, 2019

Bob Marley: Exposing the Man Behind the Myth

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Marley:  The Myth

There must be enough articles & books written about Bob Marley to fill the Grand Canyon.  And rightfully so.  He's become a symbol of Third World triumph in the face of immense adversity...of unity & peace among all people regardless of race or political leanings.  He brought reggae out of Jamaica & to the world at large, spreading his message of the Rastafarian faith to millions & coming to be seen almost as a prophet or Christ-like figure.

His charitable nature was unmatched; he gave away much of his wealth to the poor who gathered at his home at 56 Hope Road in Jamaica & never got caught up in the trappings of "Babylon," aka the capitalist system of materialism & wealth.  His only expensive possession was his BMW which he claimed to have purchased because the letters stood for "Bob Marley & the Wailers".  And he never locked its doors.

And yet, the stoic face we see on T-shirts, posters, weed grinders & so many other pieces of merch was that of a mere mortal.  A human being with the same flaws as the rest of us.  It can be hard to remember that when watching fawning documentaries or looking at pictures of the man with his face lit as if Heaven itself were shining its light on him.  He succumbed to poorly treated cancer (acral lentiginous melanoma) at the age of 36 as a result of ignoring its presence too long & then refusing to amputate the affected toe due his spiritual beliefs.  When he passed he left no will behind, which caused much stress for his many children & their mothers scattered all over the globe.  But more on that subject later.

Music / Business

The original group Bob belonged to was called 'The Wailers' & consisted of Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer & Bob Marley.  All three were equal partners--there was to be no lead singer or breakout star.  But as time went on, Bunny & Peter could tell that Bob was being groomed to be the leader by label executives like Chris Blackwell, whom they thought favored Bob due to his light complexion.  Eventually they would be proven right when the band's name was changed to "Bob Marley & The Wailers".

All three men were Rastafarians, meaning they had conservative views on things like drugs, sexuality, manner of dress & other worldly issues.  (Cannabis was considered a holy herb rather than a drug).  While Peter & Bunny stood steadfast in their refusal to play clubs like The Roxy where punks, gays & drug users would be present, Bob was all too willing to play to any crowd in their opinion.  This lead to a major rift between the band & eventually a breakup in 1974.  They also felt like their contributions weren't recognized as much as they should've been--whether it was album covers or song credits, they were relegated to background status.

According to the biographical book So Much Things To Say, Bob was at times a user who ripped off some of the people who worked with him.  He once begged Joe Higgs to come on tour with him at the last minute after Bunny dropped out.  He never thanked him or offered a salary for his work.  Upon returning to Jamaica, Higgs' brother died & he couldn't afford the funeral costs, so he confronted Bob about the situation, asking for "anything" he could spare.  Bob offered a $2000 check.  When Higgs went to cash it, he received only $1500.

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Joe Higgs

Another instance in which a bandmate felt used was when Lee Jaffe, sometimes referred to as the "white Wailer," wasn't given any credit for his contributions to the Natty Dread album on which he played harmonica on the hit "Rebel Music (3 O'Clock Roadblock)".  He got into a physical altercation with Bob after the industry bigwigs changed the spelling of the album's title from "Knotty Dread" to "Natty Dread," the latter of which had an entirely different meaning.  Jaffe felt the change was unacceptable while Bob didn't want to raise a stink.  They ended up in a shoving match that ended in blows being thrown & not speaking to each other for over a year.  At this point, Jaffe went to join Peter Tosh on his Legalize It album & came to understand why Tosh felt Bob had betrayed him by failing to acknowledge his contributions.  It appeared to be a pattern with him.

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Marley with Lee Jaffe


But Bob's violent side could get even darker.  After being shot in his home in 1976, he tracked down the alleged assassin & had him tortured & killed right in front of him.  (According to the ReMastered: Who Shot the Sheriff? documentary on Netflix).  He also beat friend & manager Don Taylor bloody with a stick for allegedly stealing from him before firing him.  These situations may be justified as "an eye for an eye" or karmic retribution, but it certainly doesn't jibe with the image of peace & one love we all think of when we see Marley's smiling countenance.  Marley also hired violent enforcers to go around to radio stations & have his music played in Jamaica...or else.

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Don Taylor, Marley's manager

Perhaps the worst allegation is from Bob's own wife.  In No Woman, No Cry, Rita Marley claims that Bob raped her one night after she refused to sleep with him.  He'd been cheating on her with numerous women & she wanted no part of any sexual relations with him, but Bob said it was her "duty as his wife" so he forced her as she sobbed in disgust, screaming "I hate you!" after the act.  How ironic that he acknowledges Rita as his wife when he wants something from her, because in interviews he can be clearly heard saying he's NOT married & is entitled to "all the queens".  In her book she also claims that he physically assaulted her at times.  This is unforgivable.

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Rita's book.  A must-read.

Then there's the womanizing, which produced upwards of 11 children by nearly as many women...many of which Rita graciously took in as her own to raise during and after Bob's life.  After the assassination attempt (during which Rita was shot in the head), Bob fled to London & left Rita and the kids behind in Jamaica.  He soon started a relationship with Miss World Cindy Breakspeare which made tabloid headlines around the world.  Imagine how Rita must've felt!  Yet like all strong & loyal women in history, she's relegated to a distant second place in the story of Marley's life despite her contributions to raising his talented & well-rounded kids Ziggy, Stephen & Cedella who Bob was rarely around to see.  The kids' take on their father's parenting can be seen in the 2012 documentary "Marley".

Daughter Cedella's segment is perhaps the most interesting.  She recalls not having many friends because locals thought her parents just sat around "smoking weed & playing music" which made for a lonely existence.  And watching her mother's sadness as Bob loved other women was difficult for her too.  His absence in general seems to have affected all his kids; even as he lay dying Cedella tearfully recalls that she wasn't able to "have him to herself" because of all the hangers-on.  Ziggy recalls him being rather cold as a father... not "lovey-dovey" in his words.

The Point?

My intention isn't to slander Marley here.  I've been a fan for years & credit his music with getting me through some tough transitional periods.  But it gets under my skin when ANY human being is deified, their flaws glossed over for the sake of historical brevity or, in this case, mass marketing.  It's highly doubtful whether Marley himself would've approved all the merchandise that came out after his death anyway.

His focus was the music and the message, but even that has been watered down to include only his most palatable hits like those found on the Legend compilation album released after his death.  Marley's music was as much about toppling racism & classism as promoting abstract concepts like peace & love, but somehow fiery songs like "War" & "Rat Race" get put on the back burner in favor of "Three Little Birds" and "One Love / People Get Ready".  This is no accident.  Revolutionary messages are harder to market than feel-good ditties with simple, repetitive hooks.  This is the same machine that's pushing out all this Marley-worshiping memorabilia.

Like all people, Bob was a product of his genes + upbringing.  And his upbringing was traumatic by any measure.  His 60-year-old father impregnated his 15-year-old mother & abandoned them, leaving Bob to grow up without a strong male influence in his life.  He was taunted for his mixed race heritage even by some in his own family, sometimes denied food & forced to sleep on the ground with a stone for a pillow.  The country village where he grew up had no electricity or running water & his home had dirt floors.  His grandfather--the only male role model in his life--had 30 children himself which undoubtedly influenced Bob's womanizing behavior as an adult.

These things aren't excuses for bad behavior but contributing factors to the person Bob became.  Like John Lennon & Jimi Hendrix, both of whom engaged in battering women while preaching peace & love, Bob Marley had a dark side that was as much a part of him as the positive side.  Censoring or downplaying this aspect of his personality is disingenuous at best & hurtful to his surviving family members at worst.  Ironically, Bob himself worshiped a mere mortal in the form of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I who had plenty of flaws himself.  This is how cults begin--attributing divine qualities to regular human beings.

In the end, it was Bob's superstition & distrust of Western medicine (due largely to his Rasta faith) that killed him.  His melanoma was treatable when it was discovered in 1977 but he chose to forego treatment because "Rasta no abide amputation."  He opted instead for a skin graft, telling doctors "I & I don't allow a man to be dismantled.  Haile Selassie I...will heal me wit de meditations of me ganja chalice or take me as a son into his kingdom.  No scalpel shall crease me flesh.  Dem can't kill Rasta.  Rastaman live out."  (from Catch A Fire by Timothy White).  Perhaps most disgusting of all, he had the gall to blame Rita for his cancer, telling his mother that Rita's brief infidelity during his own absence had somehow magically caused the disease.

If infidelity could cause cancer, Rita would've been dead many times over.


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The Wailers:  Bob, Peter & Bunny

Bob Marley when he was sixteen.
Bob at 16

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Bob's children

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Bob's absent father, Norval Marley

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Bob & Rita's wedding

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Rita Marley with her bio children

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