A new book about the Wailers tells their history, and attempts to demystify the figure of Bob Marley, writes Ken Olende
Bob Marley is a towering musical talent who popularised reggae around the world. But he is often lost in his own fame.
Many biographies present him as an almost messianic figure. Author Colin Grant went to Jamaica to look at the context of him in the band and the society from which he emerged.
The book, I & I The Natural Mystics—Marley, Tosh and Wailer, is about how three young men who grew up in poverty in the countryside came together in the slums of the capital Kingston and became the Wailers.
Grant puts the band’s growth in the context of Jamaica’s slave heritage and the struggle for independence from the British empire.
The book explores why Bob Marley was pushed to the front of the group, something resented by the other members Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston (who renamed himself Bunny Wailer). As they developed, all three adopted the Rastafarian religion.
Rastas were heavily influenced by black nationalist Marcus Garvey’s ideas of black pride.
The lyrics “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our minds” from “Redemption Song”, paraphrase one of Garvey’s speeches.
Grant is good on how “history lies just beneath the surface of life in Jamaica.” His previous book was a fascinating biography of Garvey.
What also comes out is the impact of a group of musicians from one of the world’s poorer countries suddenly bursting to the front of international music. At the time reggae was a rebel music both in its form and its content.
Grant illustrates the cut-throat music business where much play was made of racial solidarity and working with black owned music labels.
But often that just allowed black entrepreneurs to rip off black artists.
In 1967 the young Marley got a chance to meet the US star Johnny Nash. But as he cycled to their appointment, the police stopped him:
“The guffawing officers impressed on him a fact with which he was surely familiar: a dutty (dirty) ghetto youth had no business breathing in the rarefied atmosphere of this residential middle class suburb.”
Grant’s own trip across modern Jamaica in search of the only surviving band member, Bunny Wailer, is often fascinating, but sometimes seems artificially shoehorned into the narrative.
Chris Blackwell, the rich, white reggae producer, loved the Wailers ghetto sound.
But he admits in an interview with Grant that as soon as their breakthrough album was recorded he sent the master tapes to London to smooth over the rough edges and “make it more palatable for a rock audience”.
Tosh and Wailer left the band as it was becoming internationally famous, developing their music in Jamaica. Peter Tosh was always the most overtly political, with his epic rants against imperialism, racism and injustice.
At its best the book is fascinating, but it can also be infuriating. Its gossipy, anecdotal style sometimes lacks an authorial voice.
Grant relays at some length a theory from one of Marley’s lovers that the hit “I Shot the Sheriff” is about contraception rather than justice. To me the story seems bizarre, but Grant doesn’t say if he gives it any credence.
Occasionally this attitude leads to sloppiness. When he talks of the lack of father figures in Jamaican society he refers to the experience of life under slavery as a cause. In this he cites several sources for examples.
But no anti-racist should uncritically quote the 1774 History of Jamaica as a source to criticise how male slaves dealt with family life.
It was written by the disgusting racist slave owner Edward Long.
Elsewhere in the same book it states, “That the orang-utan and some races of black men are very nearly allied, is, I think, more than probable… nor… do they seem at all inferior in the intellectual faculties to many of the Negro race… The amorous intercourse between them may be frequent.”
Quibbles aside, the book succeeds with its sense for life in the ghettoes and anecdotes of survival.
It gives the feel of why Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer believed what they did, wrote what they did and why their music still counts.
I & I The Natural Mystics—Marley, Tosh and Wailer by Colin Grant (£20) available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk