The Great Albums

Bob Marley, Confrontation

When Bob Marley confronted the dragon


July 14, 2002



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 faith.

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 that followed.

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 the race."

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.