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Life of Bob Marley Continues to Inspire Books

‘Untold Story’ and ‘Wailing Blues’ add to lore of reggae superstar

Sep. 28, 2010
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Timothy White’s Catch a Fire will probably remain the classic Bob Marley biography, but that hasn’t prevented everyone who ever met the reggae artist from writing his or her own account. British music journalist Chris Salewicz interviewed Marley only once, but his time spent in Jamaica has resulted in a readable account of the dreadlocked singer and the music he came to embody, Bob Marley: The Untold Story (Faber & Faber).

The book’s title promises more than Salewicz delivers. The story has been told over and over and any new details he gleaned (what Marley ate on the morning of his wedding?) adds nothing to the picture of an unexpected superstar-prophet from unlikely origins, the Trench Town ghetto in Kingston, Jamaica. But for fans who haven’t already devoured the previous biographies, Salewicz is as good a source as any. The author captures the richness of the island’s musical culture as Marley came of age, with its mobile “sound systems,” native rhythms and wealth of influences pouring in from Latin America and the United States through the radio. He also catches the fire of Rastafarianism with its prophetic moral stance against the ills of Western civilization (“the Babylon”), its glorification of ganja and its Afrocentric search for God that dovetailed well with post-colonial strivings all over the world.

Marley wasn’t the first Jamaican to score a hit record overseas, but his songs and persona struck the loudest chord. Salewicz might be right in claiming that Marley’s tireless world tours of the ’70s had much to do with cementing his T-shirt-ready image. But his songs are what have endured. “One Love” and “No Woman, No Cry” are wonders, despite the best efforts of entrepreneurs to cheapen his memory with product lines of everything from clothes to coffee. One can only imagine what Marley would say to these money-changers in the temple of his music.

John Masouri recapitulates the rise of reggae and Rastafarianism from the perspective of one of the singer’s collaborators in Wailing Blues: The Story of Bob Marley’s Wailers (Omnibus Press). Aston “Family Man” Barrett, who received his moniker early in life for always shouldering responsibility, became one of Marley’s strongest hands. Masouri travels much the same ground as other biographers until he settles into Barrett’s bitterness over the way Marley’s wife, Rita, and others in the singer’s circle have treated his legacy. The wrangling over money was titanic and the Family Man lost out. He also castigates the keepers of the flame for “not following in their father’s footsteps of roots, culture and reality.” According to Barrett, they have watered down the music and turned the message into a bumper sticker. “They don’t have any culture. They look like roots Rasta, but they are in no way praising Jah or the orthodox.”

Where there is smoke, there is probably at least some fire. Masouri found other disgruntled voices willing to go on record about a dream that turned into a cash cow.


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