You wouldn’t think he had just played a tough, almost continuous one hour set to a packed Lyceum, London, with no proper encore because it looked as if the crowd was about to pull him off stage in its blind enthusiasm, or that he was to meet the press at noon for a conference encompassing subjects like revolution, what he does with his money, how he felt when two members quit his band after their last British bummer of a tour, and what is his favourite piece of reggae music.
He parries them all, answers most of them with a mild urbanity which belies his reputation of being occasionally difficult, and confirms his own report that the vibration on this tour is decidedly different from the last.
If superstardom consists of being elusive, evasive, incoherent, unpunctual, enigmatic, all-round difficult, then Marley is no superstar. But if it has anything to do with that over-worked word, charisma, with knowing what you are doing and not being diverted from the main object in view, with a burning conviction and a dazzling talent united to communicate, then Marley is possibly the greatest superstar to visit these shores since the days when Dylan conquered the concert halls of Britain, never looking back.
At that Lyceum concert I found myself thinking of Dylan several times, first when he stabbed a pointing finger at the audience during ‘No Woman No Cry’, remembering Dylan’s reported dislike of “finger-pointing” songs, and I wished he could be here crammed into this neck of humanity to feel how effective they can be in the right hands.
And then, as the mass of Afro-topped black heads swept up over the ineffective crash barriers and became a snake-pit of reaching arms, grabbing at his ankles, his wrists, the belt round his pants, I thought of Phil Ochs’ comment that if Dylan ever walked through his audience they would kill him, literally tear him to pieces out of sheer love and adoration, and I understood straight away why there was no encore, a feeling which was confirmed, not dispelled, by the howl of booing when they put the house lights up to show the crowd that the show was indeed over.
The next day, after the press conference, I asked him if he had been scared by the crowd at the Lyceum. “No,” he said, “it no worry me so much. The only thing, I didn’t want them pull me off the stage or hurt me. Them guy held me too hard. Them too strong, real big guys.”
The excitement had started building long before 9.32pm, when he came on to the cries of Radio London DJ Steve Barnard: “Are you ready? Are you ready?” It had built through Third World’s excellent opening set, through the interlude of black music Barnard played to keep them happy as they waited. The crowd milled about, drank from beer cans and bottles, jigged a bit to the music. But as the music continued, as disc followed disc, the cries began to rise out of the crowd like startled birds. “Bob Marley,” called a voice. “Bob Marley,” repeated another.
The house lights go out, and though roadies are still prowling about the stage, all eyes are riveted on it. At one side, a large backdrop with Marcus Garvey, the father of the back-to-Africa movement, in ceremonial and civilian clothes, both European. On the back wall, a fairly small picture, ringed with the red, yellow and green colours of the Ethiopian flag: Halle Selassie, embattled Emperor of Ethiopia, Lion of Judah, considered by the Rastafarians to be the godhead, “Almighty God is a living man” as the song says.
The Wailers’ road manager, Tony Garrett, comes out to invite the sell-out crowd to participate in “a Trench-town Experience ” and the place goes wild as the opening words of ‘Trenchtown Rock’, “hit me with music,” literally hit everyone in the polar plexus. Aston “Family Man” Barrett on bass wears a bowler hat; his brother, Carlton on drums is in faded denim. Two of the old Soul-ettes, Rita Marley and Marcia Griffiths, working as I Three (three because every rasta includes Selassie with himself), are resplendent in long, poppy-emblazoned gowns. They move a little awkwardly, as if they are making up their stepping routines as they go along, as well they might, but their movements coincide perfectly, a blend of professional precision and spontaneous fun.
From where I stand, we can see neither Guitarist Al Anderson nor keyboard player Touter, but we can hear the first’s buoyant melody lines soaring gently up above the tune, the latter’s organ growling along a funky bass.
Marley, he is everywhere, never still, bending his knees sharply on the third beat of every bar. Turning his back on the audience and retreating to stage rear to signify the end a song.
The band goes straight into ‘Burnin” and thence into ‘Rebel Music’ and Marley clearly feels confident enough in his control to relax a bit. He breaks his guitar rhythm to sip from a paper cup. The music is tighter than it used to be, though still fairly loose. So far there have been no solos, until the band swings into ‘Stir It Up’, first of Marley’s songs to become a world-wide hit (for Johnny Nash) and Touter takes a brief keyboard excursion.
“What we need is some positive vibration,” Marley cries at the end of the song, although he’s had little reason to complain at the response so far.
He is working with the crowd, keeping his introductions brief, his movements economical, but all the time he is driving along not only the band, but also the crowd.
He begins ‘No Woman No Cry’ with his arm over his face, forsaking his lilting offbeat guitar to give his hands the opportunity for full expression. He makes the lyrics live, and, incidentally, acquits the rasta of all charges of male chauvinism in this sensitive paean to black womanhood. And when he gets to the words “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” his finger splits the air like a searchlight.
And so it goes, building and building. They open up the roof. Back in the balcony a hundred 20p programmes are waving back and forth in a vain effort to cool the temperature, but what is causing the sweat here is something more than physical heat.
At the end of the song, Marley cries “Jah – Rasta far-I,” the only time we hear the old rasta slogan in the whole evening. ‘Natty Dread’ brings out all the street urchin cheek of its argot, mockery turned back upon the mockers, with love instead of hate. This ought to be the single, not its B- side.
A new intro foxes the crowd for a while until he sings out the words of ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ and if you thought the crowd was wild already, the roar of response at the opening words shows that we haven’t reached the high point.
Looking down at the crowd, I notice a strange thing. Earlier, it had been a fairly even mix of black and white, but now all the heads I can see at the front are Afro-topped (virtually no dreadlocks, by the way). And I see that they have invaded the barely protected photographers’ area and they are bidding fair to invade the stage itself.
There have, of course, been a crowd of anonymous black faces round the sides of the stage all the way through, and at the end of the song Marley and the band disappear into them. It is 10.21 and the band has played for less than an hour.
Clearly this is a rehearsed encore, as the band comes out again and strikes up ‘Get Up, Stand Up’. I Three are punching the sky with power fists and the kids in front are grabbing at Marley. One guy pulls off his jacket and throws it on the stage, it is not clear why.
It is almost as if we have been invaded by a Bay City Rollers crowd, though there is no screaming.
Marley is repeating the words “Don’t give up the fight” so that it becomes a hypnotic litany: “Don’t give up the fight…don’t give up the fight…don’t give up the fight…” He does it ten times, then the guitar takes up the five-note phrase and turns it into a riff, in which it is joined by the organ.
Each time a fist grabs at Marley he smiles slightly, as if to himself, and tries to shake himself free. He never actually looks at any of the guys (they are all males), who do it. By now roadies, DJs, anyone, has been pressed into service as a steward, arguing with the one or two kids who actually make it on to the stage, persuading them to get back down.
The song ends and Marley leaves the stage. There is no way he can come back for more. He has played for almost exactly an hour. The crowd stays for almost half that time again, clapping and stamping in unison, shouting more, but in vain.
No one could have followed that, not even the man who did it.