To commemorate the Midnight Raver Blog reaching 100,000 site views, my friend and friend of the blog Roger Steffens offered to share his memories of meeting and following the king of reggae up and down the west coast during the unforgettable summer of 1979:
In our book, Bob Marley: Spirit Dancer, photographer Bruce Talamon and I document the reggae prophet’s final two tours of California in 1978 and 1979. California was a very special place for Bob, especially the south, whose climate and flora Marley felt were similar to Jamaica. The abundance of herb in places like the Santa Cruz mountains and the San Francisco Bay area was another enticement, and Bruce’s photographs capture Marley in near-constant partaking of the sacrament.
According to several of his closest associates, Marley’s favorite concert in North America took place on Haile Selassie‘s birthday, July 23, 1978, at the Santa Barbara County Bowl. He did three sets of encores on a sizzlingly hot afternoon. On page 117 of our book, you can see Bob standing, as if in trance, backstage before his final encore that day, drained, but still “in the spirit.”
I was lucky enough to catch a half-dozen of Bob’s California shows from 75-79. Back in 75 Bob had a series of sold-out dates in San Francisco’s tiny Boarding House club, and so great was the demand that promoter Bill Graham, on just a few day’s notice, booked the giant Oakland Paramount for a show that was almost completely sold out on word of mouth. It was my initial exposure to a man whose music I had become enamored with two years earlier. I had yet to see even a video of him, and didn’t know what to expect. As a rock fan since its birth in the early ’50s I had seen most of the ’50s and ’60s legends live, from Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Jackie Wilson, to Janis Joplin at the Fillmore the night before the Army shipped me to Nam in the war-rattled year of 1967. But no artist had ever captured me quite as strongly as Bob did that night in Oakland, windmilling his Medusa-like locks as he spun in trance- like possession, then standing stock still and mesmerizing the audience, eyes squeezed shut in ecstatic concentration as he channeled his Creator into our slack-jawed midst. I sat next to Moe, a well known Berkeley bookstore owner, who had been told by one of his employees not to miss this unprecedented spectacle. “What the hell’s he saying,” Moe kept asking me, and I translated as best I could. It really didn’t matter then if you knew what his words were, he could have been chanting in Swahili for all the audience cared, so powerful was his presence that night.
Bob’s ’77 “Exodus” tour of California was cancelled when melanoma cancer was discovered in his right big toe in Europe that summer, so it wasn’t until the following year that he returned, in support of his new “Kaya” lp. Critics were decrying its alleged “softness,” saying Bob had taken refuge in ganja-induced oblivion following the assassination attempt on his life in December of 1976. In fact, herbal-grounding was numbingly evident when I met his for the first time, backstage in July of 1978 at the Santa Cruz Civic. My wife Mary and I had been living that summer in Big Sur, and when we heard Bob was coming, we bought tickets to both his scheduled shows. We were among the first in the auditorium early that evening. The soundboard was right in the middle of the floor, and there was a tall man I didn’t recognize, standing by it, curling his nascent dreads around his fingertips. I figured he had to be with the band, so I approached and asked him if they were going to play “Waiting in Vain” that evening. “Why?” he asked. “Well,” I said with excitement, “that’s my very favorite Wailers’ song, especially that incredible lead guitar solo that Junior Marvin plays in the middle of it.”
“You want to meet Bob,” the dread said, catching us completely off-guard. Without hesitation, of course, we both blurted “Yes!” and he began leading us backstage down a long corridor. “What’s your names?” he asked us. I told him and asked his. “I’m Junior Marvin,” he laughed. Boy, I thought, did we say the right thing to the right guy at the right time! Junior ushered us into a large backroom, where four huge cafeteria-style tables had been pushed together, to make a giant table around which each of the Wailers was seated at great distance from one another. The room was virtually soundless; it looked like a convention of zombies! No one was saying anything to anyone. They each had a tall green ant-hill of herb piled in front of them, with their own individual packs of rolling papers.
I had a poster with me for the Greek Theater show coming up that Friday in Berkeley, and Junior said, “Why don’t you ask Bob to sign it.” “Uh, yeah, sure!” I stammered. Junior graciously introduced us, but Bob was definitely “inna de ites” and well red by this time. He signed the poster for me, as did each of the other band members in their turn, and we left to find seats, speechless and freaked to the max. I still have the poster, and since then, nearly everyone of major import in his life – saints and sinners alike – has signed it for me too; it’s perhaps the most precious piece in what has become a massive archive of Bob Marley material, collected from all over the world. And every time I look at it I think of that night.
In Santa Cruz Bob did two 21-song shows, identical in content (which was rare for him) and both, of course, sold out. He didn’t talk at all, though, preferring that the words of his songs speak for him. Or perhaps its was just a tribute to the gift that a young couple we saw backstage had given him. Dressed all in white, barefoot, and both very blond, the couple had presented Bob a donkey-dick bud about l8 inches long. He just smiled, smelled it admiringly, and began building a cricket-bat spliff of it. A-woah!
We drove down to L.A. the following weekend to catch Bob at the Starlight Amphitheater in Burbank. It was a nightmare getting inside, because they had only one entrance, and they were searching everyone. We missed the Imperials’ opening act, but found our seats just as Bob was introduced. The show was similar to that in Cruz – at least until the encores. Later we learned that backstage that night stars like Mick Jagger and Diana Ross were milling about, trying to wangle an invitation to come on stage with Bob, but he was having none of that. So imagine our surprise when, as Bob began to sing his final encore of “Get Up Stand Up,” loping across the stage with massive strides, Peter Tosh appeared, just at the part of the song where he came in on the record. As he reached for the microphone, Bob suddenly caught sight of him, and he broke out into the most massive grin I’ve ever seen, Grand Canyon-wide with delighted surprise. Peter never missed a beat, and the two hugged each other and acted as if they’d never been separated. It was the only time they would ever appear together outside of Jamaica after the breakup of the group, a piece of history that, sadly, most people in the audience didn’t realize was happening. Afterwards, I encountered Peter walking through the crowd. The next day he was opening for the Rolling Stones in the Anaheim Stadium, and I eagerly assured him that we, like many many others, would be there basically just to see him, and that he had a whole heap of fans in L.A.
Rojah and Peter
A few years later, just after Bob died, I interviewed Peter for “L.A. Reggae” a cable tv show Chilli Charles and I had just started, and asked him whether Bob had known he was going to come out on stage that evening. “No,” he said, indicating that it was the Spirit that had moved him spontaneously and “whatsoever the Spirit tell me to do, I do.” What else did he remember of that night? “Well,” he drawled, thick smoke pouring from his nostrils, “I remember we go backstage and Bob clapped my hand and say, ‘Bwoi, the Pope feel that one!’” Then he laughed and, staring straight into the camera in his most terrifying tone, announced, “And three days later, the Pope died!”
At the end of 1979, my new partner Hank Holmes and I had just begun our “Reggae Beat” show on KCRW, the National Public Radio station in Santa Monica, and Bob Marley was our first guest. On the air a mere six weeks, we were the only show in L.A., and so Bob’s publicists asked if Hank and I would like to go “on the road with Bob” during the next two weeks. I was beside myself with excitement.
The first show, however, turned out to be a disappointment. Stuck in the upper tiers of the cavernous, echo-ey Pauley Pavillion, UCLA’s cavernous basketball arena, we couldn’t even make out the songs that Bob was playing, so distorted was the sound. He still had the presence, though, that was obvious – especially when a huge, burly man jumped onstage from the audience and fell on his belly, holding tightly to Bob’s legs. For what seemed the longest time, no one did anything, until finally security guards pulled him off and hustled him outside.
The next show was in San Diego, and Hank and I rode the bus through Babylon with Bob down the coast. Don Taylor, Marley’s manager (with whom he seemed to be in constant argument) told all the reporters present not to talk to Bob because “He needs to rest.” That was readily apparent, and you can see the stress on his face in many of the pictures in “Spirit Dancer.” The cancer was coursing, unchecked, through his bloodstream, eventually finding new homes in his lungs and brains, and he seemed a shell of the man we had met the year before. I remember we drove by San Clemente, and I pointed out Nixon’s house out on the bluff. Bob’s only comment was, “What year him president?” That evening, the venue proved to be another disappointment, as the bass bounced off the boards of the San Diego Sports Arena, and I despaired of ever hearing Bob in decent surroundings. It was the problem of his becoming so big – small clubs were mostly out of the question now. But the audience seemed pleased with the show. On the way home, the band jammed in the back of the bus, guitarist Al Anderson beating time with drumsticks on the bathroom door. I remember writing an article for the new L.A. Weekly about the trip, and commenting that the band members and touring party all seemed a surprisingly healthy lot by rock and roll standards, eating only Ital food, and pausing often, mid-puff, to give thanks and praises to Selassie I. When we got back to L.A. the straight-looking middle-aged bus driver told me that he loved driving Marley “because every time the band gets off the bus, I get to sweep up, and they leave behind about a half a pound of roaches!”
Rojah with D.C.’s own Jim Fox
The following Monday evening, I arranged for a private screening of Jeff Walker’s film of the historic “Smile Jamaica” concert, and an unreleased (more accurately, a suppressed) documentary that Walker had made of the assassination attempt on Bob’s life the weekend of 3-5 December 1976. Walker had been Bob’s publicist at Island Records at the time, and Bob had yet to see any of the footage. The company said they did not want any of the footage to be released because it was “too political.” Fascinated, I sat in a bungalow at the Sunset Marquis in Hollywood and watched Bob watch himself, first in the hospital having his wounds bandaged, then in his hideout in the hills, then speeding down in the police chief’s car to perform “one song” at the Smile Jamaica Concert, whose audience had grown to 80,000 people before his arrival. Bob ended up doing almost 90 minutes of the most stunning, triple-meaning music you’ve ever heard. As he watched, the only emotion I saw him display, though, was when he viewed footage of Family Man Barrett, his bass player, filmed the day after the shooting. “Fams” was shown putting his fingers into the bullet holes just inches from where he had been sitting, when Bob suddenly laughed really loudly. The room went chillingly silent. To this day I don’t know what he found funny; perhaps he thought he could cheat death forever.
The next night, Randy Torno and Jim Lewis, makers of the film that came to be known as “Heartland Reggae,” brought their raw footage of the One Love Peace Concert to show Bob – again, the first time he had seen this equally historic event. The climactic moment, when Bob invited Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, sworn political enemies, onstage to shake hands lead to one of the most revealing comments I ever heard Bob say. Journalist John Sutton-Smith asked Bob what was going through his mind at that moment and he said, “Well, I man no politician. But if I-man a politician, only one t’ing to do at that moment.” Then, pausing for effect, he said, “Kill them both!”
A couple of days later Bob played what would prove to be his final show in L.A., a benefit for the Sugar Ray Robinson Foundation at the Roxy. We were invited along for the sound check, and Hank and I and our wives sat virtually alone in the club for three hours, while Bob played all the instruments, and Fams went up into the little sound booth just above the stage, and balanced everything. I was impressed by some new tune that he was working on, something about “redemption songs” which he sang over and over and over again that day. Think of it: five months into a world tour, assuredly a superstar by this time, Bob still managed the soundcheck almost all by himself, painstakingly assuring that everything would be perfect for this important Hollywood audience of music business heavies. It would be the last time I ever saw him.
San Diego, 1979 photo by Roger Steffens
But those memories are as strong as yesterday for me, as I imagine they are for most everyone in California who saw him. As he predicted, “the music will just get bigger and bigger.” He could just as surely be speaking of himself, for no artist has sold so many records after his passing than Bob Marley, the shimmering spirit dancer who knew his time on earth was limited, and made the perfect most of it.