High Times Greats: A Quiet and Heartfelt Elegy For Bob Marley by Roger Steffens (1995)

This elegy for Bob Marley reminds us that 40 years after his death, we still mourn the legend.
High Times Greats: Elegy For Bob Marley
Wikimedia Commons

For the March, 1995 issue of High Times, Roger Steffens, coauthor of Bob Marley: Spirit Dancer and Bob Marley and The Wailers: The Definitive Discography, penned an elegy for Bob Marley (1945-1981), who died 40 years ago on May 11 at the age of 36.

Elegy For Bob Marley

Here’s the fantasy: Bob Marley didn’t die. Doctors cured his melanoma in 1977, and no grave claimed him in 1981. In ’82, he records an entire album of songs livicated (never DEAD-icated, cuz Rasta nuh deal wit death) to the ongoing freedom struggle in South Africa. Repatriation borrows an echoey snap-snap from the juju of his good friend King Sunny Ade, and sells 10 million copies in Africa alone.

In 1985, he moves to Shashamane, Ethiopia, to the area that His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I, gave to motherland-returning Rasta people. Bob invests tens of millions of dollars in its infrastructure, financing housing, schools, hospitals and cultural centers. The town becomes known informally as “Marleyville,” and Rastas by the hundreds arrive weekly from every corner of the planet. Rich fields of Jah holy herb surround the settlement.

Bigger than Elvis, Bob now plays virtually nowhere but stadiums, to enormous throngs of Swedes, Peruvians, Australians, Japanese, Russians, Americans, Arabs and Jews. Talk of a Nobel Peace Prize begins when, in 1989, Bob performs a spontaneous set of liberation music atop the Berlin Wall as more than a million Germans fill the streets singing “One Love.”

In Jamaica, where he rarely ventures, his 11 children are in charge of various aspects of his multimillion-dollar holdings. A yearly flow of albums is released, all timely, provocative and eternal, but Bob still doesn’t even possess a home of his own, preferring to spread his wealth communally. Almost single-handedly, Bob has funded the rebuilding of the slums of western Kingston, of gardens, soccer fields, water, power and sewage systems; there’s even talk of his running for Prime Minister on the Jamaican Unity ticket. The future, believes Bob, is filled with unlimited opportunities.

But, sadly, we know what really happened. So then how do we measure Bob’s works and gauge their lasting effects? What is his place in the world, almost 14 years after his passing, as we celebrate what would have been his […] birthday?

Something of his achievements can be found in the 11 million copies sold of his greatest-hits album, Legend, which has held the number-one slot on Billboard’s catalog charts longer than any other record in history. Or the fact that his four-CD box set, Songs of Freedom, has sold a million copies and is still charting.

A moral figure as well, Marley is recognized, particularly by native peoples, as an exemplar of empathy for our Mother Earth. A farmer himself, Bob understood the seasons’ cycles, the daunting daily tasks of survival. Maoris envision him in dreams, Solidarity protesters in Gdansk carry his picture. He wanted nothing less for his children (and we are all among that number) than absolute freedom. “Every government on the face of this earth is illegal,” he said resolutely.

And in the face of those illegally constituted bodies, every law made by man was itself an unlawful infringement: Only Jah law can live. And “Jah made herb for the healing of the nation,” Bob reiterated at every opportunity. In an unpublished song, Bob sang—channeled, really—these words: “Lift my spliff and take a draw/Somebody say I’m breakin’ the law/They make everything to try and arrest you/So the wicked and the gunmen can molest you.”

Herb is nothing less than Jah’s own sacrament, the Eleusinian mystery that reveals the ever-present and immortal link between I (singular) and I (God). No wonder Babylon represses it.

That repression is still, in fact, intact. This past summer has seen Army-clad gunmen in a vehicle with official plates driving to Bob’s daughter Cedella’s house and robbing her and her friends of more than $100,000. And son Ziggy is currently caught up in a small-scale civil war, the result of his magnanimous gesture of trying to build a new recording studio on the borderline between the still-warring ghetto factions of western Kingston. Like his father, Ziggy wants both sides to come together and quit the politrickal madness, but as usual, one side wants it all.

Bob’s humility is one of the things that made him such a likable human being. “It’s not me,” he would say, “it’s just Jah.” He was a missionary for God Almighty in His kingly garb, a living man in the here and now, with no apology. “Wake up and live!” he shrieked from the stage of Harvard Stadium in one of his most rabble-rousing performances back in ’79, and that is his most lasting legacy, a Huxleyan cry to “Pay attention!” and make things right.

Many years ago, an English poet wrote 21 words. They were not about Bob, but they could just as easily have been:

my heart is full
but sometimes
only of your absence

I have been healed
but sometimes, still
my whole heart hobbles

Rest well, Bob, you earned it.

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