High Times Greats: Bob Marley

On his last tour, the rebel superstar proved he could be loved forever.
High Times Greats: Bob Marley
Bob Marley by Kate Simon

For the March, 2005 issue of High Times, Fred Schruers looked back on the life of Bob Marley (1945-1981). In honor of Marley’s birthday February 6, we’re republishing the story below.

In the early summer of 1980, Bob Marley and The Wailers were almost midway through an extensive world tour that would take them from Libreville, Gabon to, unevocatively enough, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Or unevocative Pittsburgh would seem were it not now recognizable as the last venue where Bob Marley ever took the stage. But that June, when my editor at Rolling Stone assigned me to join the band on a leg of their European tour, all seemed well. In fact, with the Uprising album having been recorded between early January concert dates in Gabon and two legendary mid-April dates in Zimbabwe, it looked to be a propitious moment in an epochal career as Bob brought his political message to an increasingly-involved and enthusiastically-widening public. He’d also visit Brazil that spring, hoping to tour later with Jacob Miller and Inner Circle—until Miller’s untimely death in March that year, which left Bob alone (not to dismiss the rapturous and soulful work of Toots and The Maytals), at the summit of reggae music.

I knew little enough about the man, somewhat more about his music. I had interviewed him for Circus magazine in 1976 (coincident with a pair of dates at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater), resulting in a story not reprinted here but available to all where the sole copy I know of sits lacquered onto the wall of the Bob Marley Museum in his former home at 56 Hope Road in Kingston. On the April day of that interview, I’d turned up in the doorway of the suite he often borrowed from Island Records’ Chris Blackwell. I stood uncertainly peering through a haze of blue smoke at a collection of deadlocked and, it seemed to me at the time, hostile or sardonically amused band mates and camp followers. I recall looking at the man himself with what must have been a forlorn expression. He looked back, forehead knitted in that severely thoughtful way of his for a moment. Then came the smile that audiences often saw, as wide and beneficent as any I had ever seen. “Hey, Skip,” he said, and patted an empty spot on the couch where he sat. That was Bob.

I joined the tour in Barcelona, where the concert took place in a bullring that was hardly as intimate as the Beacon but where he demonstrated, with a great sense of the scale of the arena and what size of gesture would reach its far corners, his unerring command of the crowd. He was exuberant on the new song, “Could You Be Loved,” with its Brazilian lilt; fascinatingly querulous with an underbelly of anger as he recited the spoken interludes on “Crazy Baldhead”; and on “No Woman No Cry,” with his hand raised to his brow, shading his eyes as he mimed an entirely believable, supplicating misery, he was completely entrancing.

The next morning I found myself talking in a car parked on a foggy side street with Tommy Cowan, a long-time football-playing pal of Bob who was as much a part of the traveling party as the band. We were discussing Bob’s Rastafarianism (he was specifically allied with the Nyahbingi tribe), and his history as the son of a white Jamaican administrator—Norval St. Clair Marley, a man known as Captain who, Bob’s mother Cedella would recall, “loved to cry”—raised in a rural district in northern Jamaica but knowledgeable of the United States from his time working in an auto plant in Delaware. “Bob,” said Tommy simply, “wants to speak to all the people.”

Bob was so unquestionably the center of the traveling circus that the band, especially young and talented multi-instrumentalist Tyrone Downie, took his cue and was welcoming. They paid me the compliment of being just as stingy towards me with the ganja as they were to each other. A typical private bus transfer from the airport would feature the various band members pulling out their individual, cigar-sized, conical spliffs and drawing deeply and alone on them; any borrowing of the smoke was understood to be momentary and led to a quick, low-voiced, “Re-turn to sendah.” It required the introduction of a small but potent hash joint from Paris to gain any respect from the group. The advisability of such preparations before getting into a small and seemingly shaky turbo-prop plane for the flight from Nantes to Paris through a bank of slate-gray thunderheads was something they were oblivious to, although they glared silently, Rasta-style, at the weather just outside the windows that was soon rattling the plane.

What became clear upon landing was that Bob Marley and The Wailers, with a gig booked on a plain on the outskirts of Le Bourget Airport, owned the city. The Marley entourage—with their dreadlocks, their red, gold and green satin tour jackets, and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell languidly overseeing it all with the French actress Nathalie Delon at his side—were treated like royalty. A private boat ride down the Seine was memorable for the moment when Tyrone got in a scuffle with a local gent he thought had shown disrespect to Nathalie. The concert itself was up to the compelling Marley standard. The highlight may have been the rush of the bus back into the city’s center, accompanied by the blaring klaxons of a 20-strong motorcycle escort.

Perhaps, though, the real moment of insight came in the lobby of the Hotel Nikko as the band was fitfully assembling to decamp for Dijon (and soon, London’s Crystal Palace). I was saying farewell to Bob, whom I wouldn’t see for almost three months, as Rita Marley and her fellow I-Threes came off the elevator heading for the narrow, steep escalator that led to the street. Rita was wrestling her bulky, rolling suitcase and in a moment was in an unpromising contretemps with the escalator. There was a moment of hesitation. Bob was not a faithful husband and Rita was not an easy wife, but there was much history and respect between them. With one of his easy smiles sent over his shoulder by way of goodbye, Bob Marley, Rebel Superstar, hastened as inconspicuously as possible across the lobby, wrangled the suitcase onto the escalator and glided out of view.

The rest of the story is, of course, not happy. The band did their sweep through the British Isles and headed for America, where New York would be their base. Word came that Nesta had collapsed while jogging in Central Park. He performed two nights at Madison Square Garden, and the evident energy and fire he brought to those gigs now seems heroic; perhaps he had a foreboding sense that these would truly count. The day after the second, I was scheduled to accompany Bob and the band out to the annual West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn.The plan was for the band to travel the parade route on a flatbed, waving and grooving to their own recordings played through a sizable speaker setup. I met Lister, the Island aide who had promised “soon come” to a generation of journalists, downstairs in the Essex House lobby, and we rode up to the room with its view all the way north up Central Park to Harlem.

Once again I found myself in the doorway of his suite, and again there was that smile—one I appreciated all the more because of the obvious effort it cost him. Bob was wearing one of his concert outfits, a tight denim suit with bell-bottoms, but the dreadlocks he liked to unleash with a flourish were gathered under a tam and his face looked drawn. He was seated in a stiff-backed wooden chair immediately beside the door, as if he’d diligently brought himself that close before sitting back down. He seemed to be gathering himself for a moment. Finally he looked up. “Lister,” he said, with real regret in his voice, “naw cyan do it.”

Bob would play that final Pittsburgh gig on September 23, 1980, and save for a brief, spoken recording (made in one of the hospitals where his life guttered out, but ostensibly sent back from a recuperative visit to Africa), he was essentially done communicating with his public in his earthly form. The next time I saw him he was laying in state in a Kingston arena, Bible and guitar nestled in his arms. He had once survived an assault by gun, during the Jamaican political wars he helped to defuse, but he was mortal after all.

His body was transported, often on single-lane roads, in a winding caravan to his mausoleum near his birthplace in Nine Mile in St. Ann’s Parish. As he was put in the tomb, I found myself one of many white faces that had made the pilgrimage. Next to me was Chris Blackwell, certainly somber but as usual attentive to the tenor of the assemblage, and at the same time offering comfort with personal and private grace. Afterwards, Kate Simon and I found ourselves at an impromptu memorial at Tuff Gong Studios where Cedella Booker, swaying at the center of a small gathering of musicians, powerfully sang a hymn. We had put aside our work implements in that sacred space. As I was phoning in the story of the day’s events to the Washington Post, I could hear the repeated, gently rocking refrain spilling through the open studio door: “And I say, Hail, Hail, Hail…”

Later Blackwell would say of Bob’s early death, “It’s a continuing sadness,” and certainly that’s true. But what’s proven daily—I remember thinking one day listening to Bob’s Legend collection play over and over in a barefoot bar called Rasta Baby II on a Thai beach—is that Bob Marley’s life and music is also a continuing joy.

Fred Schruers has been writing about music and movies since the 1970s. He’s the author of The Kinks (1987) and Blondie (1980). Kate Simon’s photo and Fred Schruers’ story are excerpted from Rebel Music: Bob Marley and Roots Reggae.

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