July 14, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP
The commercial is ubiquitous on several stations across the radio dial,
in formats ranging from classic rock to hip-hop. It starts with a cheesy
band of studio hacks doing their best to imitate the mighty Wailers, but
sounding as if they ought to be playing some podunk Holiday Inn. After the
obnoxious announcer's booming voiceover, the chorus rolls around--"NASCAR
driver/Thrilling America!"--and the realization kicks in.
The tune is one of Bob Marley's greatest, and the words are supposed to
be, "Buffalo soldier/Win the war for America." Co-written by Marley and N.G.
Williams, better known as King Sporty, it was inspired by the true story of
four post-Civil War regiments of the U.S. Army composed of African-American
privates under the command of white officers. Dubbed "buffalo soldiers,"
these black fighters were compelled to pursue and persecute renegade
Cheyenne, Comanche, Apache, and Sioux--the descendents of slaves,
unwillingly brought to this country, used as tools in the white man's
genocide of Native Americans.
"Buffalo Soldier" also includes the immortal line, "If you know your
history/Then you would know where you're coming from." But for some reason,
the marketing geniuses hyping "the biggest thrill in American auto racing"
left that one out of their bastardized cover version.
The transformation of one of Marley's most subtle and inspired political
anthems into a sales tool is symbolic of the fate of the artist's music more
than two decades after his death from cancer. Reggae today is the party
soundtrack of boneheads, and Marley is their pop icon: As the craftsman of
dozens of memorable tunes, he is the genre's Elvis Presley and the Beatles
combined. His songs are blasted at sporting events (pro wrestling as well as
NASCAR); they're inescapable at frat parties, and they are covered by
countless bad bands on setlists that give equal space to Jimmy Buffett.
Amid all of this white noise, Marley's true accomplishments--like those
of that other great black musical synthesist, Jimi Hendrix--have been
reduced to a cartoon: He's that guy who sang about smoking weed, right? And
the posthumous marketing of this fiction has been relentless.
The facts are these: Robert Nesta Marley was born to a middle-aged white
father and a teenage black mother, most likely in 1945, in the infamous
ghetto of Trench Town, Jamaica. He began his career as a professional
musician at age 16, covering American vocal heroes like the Drifters and Sam
Cooke, but first winning renown for working with fellow innovators Bunny
Livingston and Peter Tosh to slow down the island's frenetic ska beat in
order to form a new sound called reggae.
In 1973, Marley signed to Island Records, whose founder, Chris Blackwell,
recognized his talent and launched an ambitious campaign to introduce his
brand of reggae to the world at large. As he won the ears of rock fans,
Marley became a platinum-selling artist--the Third World's first
international superstar--but the tuneful charms of his music were often
paired with the incisive political commentary of his lyrics, which
challenged racism and imperialism, and spread the gospel of his Rastafarian
On tour in 1980, Marley collapsed while jogging in New York's Central
Park; cancer had spread to his brain, lungs, and liver, and he died in May,
1981. "Confrontation" is the first and best of the many posthumous releases
According to Catch A Fire: The Life of Bob Marley, Timothy White's
definitive biography, Marley envisioned "Confrontation" as the last
installment of a trilogy that began in 1979 with the intensely political
"Survival" (originally called "Black Survival") and continued with 1980's
"Uprising." Together, these albums would chronicle the battle of the Third
World against "Babylon," the symbol of its oppression.
While the first two albums were rife with inspirational fight songs,
"Confrontation" was the resolution: The war was over, and people would now
have to confront the good and evil in their own souls, much as Marley had
done while readying himself for death. "Dem a go tired fe see me face,"
reads an inscription from the artist in the liner notes. "Can't get me out a
An unusually quiet and introspective vibe permeates songs such as "I
Know," "Give Thanks & Praises," and "Chant Down Babylon," which were
compiled and mixed by Blackwell from demos and unreleased recordings dating
from the fertile period of 1979-80. The Wailers rhythm section of Aston and
Carlton Barrett finesse the familiar reggae grooves rather than powering
them home, and showboat guitarist Junior Marvin lays back, gently decorating
Marley's beautifully expressive vocals. Meanwhile, behind him, backing
vocalists the I Threes (the trio that included his wife Rita) sing with more
soul and passion than ever.
Despite these lulling and lovely sounds, Marley has lost none of his
fiery conviction, or his fearlessness in facing controversial enemies. In
the cover illustration, he is depicted as St. George riding a white steed as
he slays a horrible dragon. Some see it as an allegory for his battle with
cancer, but in the original version, he wore a miter, the liturgical
headdress of the papacy. As White explained, the Vatican was a symbol to
Rastafarians of "the doomed latter-day Babylon decried in Revelation." In
their eyes, the Catholic Church had not only condoned the slave trade, it
had abetted Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, the homeland of the religion's
icon, Haile Selassie.
While his anger at the injustices of the world was undiminished, Marley
didn't condone violence: The revolution he envisioned was powered by music
and ideas. "A reggae music, chant down Babylon," he sings in the opening
track. In "Mix Up, Mix Up," he urges followers to "Speak the truth, come on
speak/It ever cause it what it will"; "Lord, we free the people with music,"
he adds in "Trench Town," an homage to the area where he was born. In the
end, he knows that history is on his side, and victory is inevitable.
"Blackman Redemption," he sings. "Can you stop it? Oh no! Oh no!"
The marketing of Marley is insidious, and it is easy to be distracted by
that. Reissued last year in pristinely remastered form, the CD edition of
"Confrontation" comes with a drop card offering an array of "officially
licensed Bob Marley merchandise," including nine different T-shirts ranging
in price from $18 to $30; a $20 baseball cap, and the "Catch A Fire Bath
Set," complete with scented soap, oil, and bath salts for $35.
Nevertheless, within the album's grooves, the real Bob Marley lives on,
waiting to goad and comfort, inspire and scold, celebrate and mourn with any
who will hear his central message--"Get up, stand up/Stand up for your
rights!"--which is as timeless today as it was when the Wailers first
entered the recording studio.
Often overlooked in the 1992 controversy that nearly ended her career was
the fact that Sinead O'Connor sang an a cappella rendition of a Marley song,
"War," before ripping up a picture of the Pope on "Saturday Night Live."
(Her beef with the Church was different than the Rastas'--she was angry that
the Irish are denied the right to choose--but the message was the same:
"Fight the real enemy.") Marley also resonated with renewed force during
"America: A Tribute to Heroes," the telethon broadcast in the wake of Sept.
11, when Wyclef Jean sang a heartbreaking version of "Redemption Song"
("Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our
minds"), injecting the words "New York!" before the rousing choruses.
Marley's music lives on, as do his ideals. And both are ready to be
reclaimed from the legions of Tommy Bahama-wearing party hounds by any who
share some portion of his spirit and soul.
BACK TO NEWS
BACK TO GREAT ALBUMS