I tell them how much I enjoy watching them onstage – they always look like they’re having a party going on in the corner of the stage, looking at each other, whispering between numbers and laughing, generally vibing each other up while they sing those frighteningly perfect-to-the-point-of- sublime harmonies.
Then towards the end of the set, perhaps during ‘Lively Up Yourself’, Bob dances over to them and flings an arm over Judy’s shoulders, swinging his hips against hers, eyes closed in concentration, singing along with them – “yes, lively up yourself,” … and sure enough, Judy, who all through the set has been performing with exquisite purity (tongue delicately poking out in concentration as she swings through the gun-shooting mime that accompanies ‘I Shot The Sheriff’) SPARKLES! even more. Marcia, pale moon-face serenely lovely, looks up and laughs. “Yes, we all brighten up when the big boss is around…”
And what she means by that is not that everyone suddenly starts working extra-hard when Marley’s at hand, just that his energy is inspirational. Serious t’ing, me a tell ya.
Kate said to Bob, “You know, Bob, when you smile it’s like seeing the sun come out.”
She’s right. It was like the sun emerging on the horizon when his head bobbed up behind Seeco’s seat on the bus when they brought out the champagne to celebrate Seeco’s birthday. The gnarled conga-player (he’s had a meteoric rise in the Wailers ranks – starting out as a roadie who kept on crashing out in the dressing-room, he was promoted to cook, but couldn’t, and finally metamorphosed into the nifty congas person he is) was grinning with shy pleasure, his girlfriend squirming with modest glee beside him, as the entire bus sang an affectionate, spirited HAPPY BIRTHDAY to him.
Neville says, “It’s funny, everyone has birthdays on this trip…”
Family’s sitting next to me, his usual blissed-out self, eyelashes curling tight over the swell of his cheek – and I comment on the – well, the nicer atmosphere on this bus.
“Yeah, mon,” Fams sighs happily, “there always is.” The bus moves on through the night, bearing an extraordinary cargo of talent. Movement of Jah people. Backtrack to the interview, London, 30th April 1977. As a man sow shall he reap and we know that talk is cheap (‘Heathen’).
Another bright Saturday, this time in Chelsea.
I’m climbing the white wrought-iron spiral staircase to Bob Marley’s eyrie. When my head reaches floor-level, I see him asleep after a hectic soccer game in the park, on the beige couch, legs dangling over the end in their faded khaki trousers, militant-style, one foot bandaged from a soccer mishap.
On the colour TV the Saturday afternoon sitcom is playing away to itself. The floor’s covered in cassettes, a bag of cashew nuts. The room basks in late Saturday stillness, light rippling through the trees outside in waves that wash over Bob asleep.
Hmmm. Asleep. What to do…
Just then, Bob looks round. Sees me. Closes his eyes again, as if to sort out whether he’s awake or asleep. Decides to be awake. Sorry to disturb you, Bob, but you said I could call by…“Na. cool. One minute…”
…and vanishes downstairs to collect his thoughts. Moments later he re-appears, and establishes himself cosily back on the couch, ready to talk…
“You see me here? The first thing you must know about me is that I always stand for what I stand for. Good? The second thing you must know about yourself listening to me, is that words are very tricky. So when you know what me a stand for, when me explain a thing to you, you must never try to look ‘pon it in a different way from what me a stand for.”
He’s an unusually participant interviewee, always asking me questions –
“What you think about now? How you feel in life? You feel like you gonna live, or you feel like you must die?…”
I feel … movement.
“You feel like you’re gonna live … that’s a good thing. You have people feel seh, yes bwaoy, they gonna die so nothing makes any difference …”
Basically, this interviewee’s as interested in checking out the interviewer as vice versa (and that’s unusual.) Reason being:
“Speaking truly, when people write about me, me no specially like it, y ‘know. Me no really deal with – make and break, that type of word. Whatever I have to say, I wouldn’t like it to be a personal thing, like what me think about meself.
“If you want to do some good, you should say some good things about rasta, so that people can get some enlightenment. “Like today, we talk kind of personal, I don’t come down on you really with blood and fire, earthquake and lightning, but you must know seh that within me all of that exists too…”
Marley’s keen to remind me that he’s not just a man, he’s a spokesman.
Patiently, he explains (“every writer same procedure”) that he no longer regards it as excusable when writers’ refer to His Majesty Haile Selassie as ‘deceased'; Jah Live, and Marley reckons that it’s about time, with the quantity that’s been written about Rasta, that everybody realised it.
A brief crosscut. Just ‘cos you’re a righteous man doesn’t mean you’re not human too. Two contrasting encounters illuminate Marley’s chemistry.
Munich. Marley’s manager, Don Taylor presents me with my first ever ceremonial bowl of steaming hot Irish Moss (a JA beverage). The city electric spreads out far down below, nothing but shadowy concrete hulks strung about with necklaces of sulphuric fluorescent light. Bob scans the Telegraph, then the Express (Jah only knows how they got here,) and tosses them aside. Sighs, puts his feet in their broken-down Roman sandals (plus bandaged toe – some injury) on the chrome ‘n’ glass table.
What’s new in the papers, Bob?
“Nothing, mon. Same thing every day.”
He moves closer up the table.
“You like that?”
Sure I do, it’s great. I can’t begin to imagine what it is, but there’s cinammon and nutmeg, it’s faintly acrid and faintly sweet … Bob’s eyes are twinkling.
“That’s good for ya…you know that?” His eyes twinkle. “Make your pom-pom wet.” London
I think it was the night they were mixing ‘Heathen’, Bob was sitting on a tall stool by the studio kitchen bar, holding forth about politics with Mikey Campbell, Trevor and some other breddas, locks piled into a towering natural wool hat. Suddenly he swings towards me, pinning me with his eyes.
“Why you no write about Africa?”
Well, Bob, as you know I write for Sounds and they’re a rock ‘n’ roll paper which tends to stick pretty darn close to music. “Seen.” Nodding, meditative, eyes downcast. Looks up. “And if you did write about it, the editors would probably take it out.” Back to the interview
Me love talk about Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, y’know,” he continues, extra-animated, “me feel stronger. Me feel like a celestial thing happen to me, yes mon. Me just feel – different. So, see it, there come a stage where I check that these writers purely defend Babylon, just a different pure bloodclaat BABYLON. Although dem smile at me and laugh at me every day…”
“Ten, twelve years me a sing – am I always gonna sing about aggression and frustration and captivity and all dem t’ing? Well now, you think it’s my pride to really keep on doing that? The thing is, that must end when it must end. Me no gwan sing ’bout dat. Me is ahead. Not A HEAD of a people,” he cautiously interrupts himself, mindful as ever of possible misinterpretations of arrogance, “but ahead of certain things.
“How long must I sing the same song? I must break it sometime, and sing ‘Turn The Light Down Low’, and deal with a woman, talk to some LADY, y’know?” He laughs again, jubilant as – well, as I am, listening to Exodus, the new Wailers album.
When I interviewed Bob, he wasn’t sure of the final running order of the album. He was unaware of the ‘hard/sweet’ contrast between the sides, but very aware of the shift towards overt romance in his music.
“After the shooting … me never want to … to just fink ’bout shooting. So me just ease up me mind and go in a different bag. What me stand for me always stand for. Jah is my strength.”
Things are very different now from the days over a decade ago when he, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailers and Beverley Kelso started out as the Wailing Wailers, cutting tracks that seem incongruous in relation to his present-day persona – ‘What’s New Pussycat’, for example.
“Yes, Coxon [Dodd] our first producer, he tell me a do that. We do all the Beatles, too – ‘And I Love Her’.” glancing up in amusement from where he’s lying on the couch.
“At the time, it no seem strange. ‘Cos we not really trained singers, y’know, we just like singing – learn harmony, like the sound …”
The memories linger on. The decade old ‘One Love’ re-appears on Exodus, and a new version of the equally old ‘Kaya’ is among the dozen odd tracks in the can for possible inclusion in the next album.
“Sometimes me just like record old songs,” Marley comments simply. “Yes, mon, we used to have some nice times singing …”
But in 1977, we’re dealing with forward movement. An onward, upward motion flowing like the breezy rhythms of ‘Jamming’ – “Yeah, ‘jamming in the name of the lord’.” Marley quotes softly, “You can be sure of that … ‘right straight from yard!”, (i.e. JA).
“Every song we sing come true, y’know,” he adds abruptly. “It all happen in real life. Some songs are too early, some happen immediately, but all of them happen. Burning and looting happen – so much time, it’s a shame. The curfew. Yeeeeees mon, everything happen.
“Same thing with ‘Guiltiness’. ‘These are the big fish that always try to eat up the small fish, they would do anything to materialise their every wish . ..’ You always have big fish, ‘cos they manufacture them. That’s all. I don’t have to sing no more song, just that one line – just, ‘guiltiness rest on their conscience…”‘
Sitting in the placid Chelsea comfort, as Marley intones the biting lyrics, I flash back to an equally placid night in Jamaica. The evening cool settled on Marley’s Hope Road home, many brothers and sisters crammed into the tiny bedroom beneath Family Man’s floor. Bob’s sitting on the single bed, legs crossed at the ankle, in frayed demin shorts, playing an acoustic guitar. He’s staring into the eyes of a pretty young fan who stares transfixed as he sings a song so resonant and moving I’m practically slithering through the floorboards – potent Biblical lyrics about big fish eating small fish, who eat the bread of sorrow every day…