Forever Milking Bob, Continued

FOREVER MILKING BOB, CONTINUED

A review essay by Gregory Stephens

BordowitzRita Marley book

Rita 

Marley with Hettie Jones, No Woman No Cry: My Life With Bob Marley

(Hyperion, May 2004)

Hank 

Bordowitz, ed., Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright: The Bob Marley

Reader (Da Capo Press/ Perseus, July 2004)

Reading these latest additions

to the burgeoning library about Bob Marley, a line from Bob’s song “Crisis”

kept running through my head:

“So much has been said,

so little been done

They still killing the people,

and they having lots of fun”

So what’s the market for more words

about Bob Marley? With all the killing going on in the world today, words

are cheap. Sometimes I wonder about Bob’s skeptical assessment from the

late song “Real Situation”:

“Nation war against nation.

Where did it all begin? Where

will it end?

“Sometimes it seems like total

destruction’s the only solution

But people need hope. A lot of

us still find hope in Marley’s

s songs of freedom. But then words can get in the way of the myth

that animates those songs. Given my own complicity

in the rivers of words still being written about Bob, sometimes I

get the weary feeling: “We’ll be forever

milking Bob.” Ziggy’s dad surely would have shared his take, from

the song “Works to Do,” off the Life and Debt soundtrack:

“How much blood have to be

shed before we rebel?…

Looking for words to say

Bob Marley done said them already

Now I just works to do ”

Words vs. works: listen to Bob

Marley’s anthemic “new psalms” long enough, and eventually you want something

more. Maybe you just want to give it a rest, or hear someone else carry

the torch for awhile. Maybe you’d like to see those words put into practice

for a change. Or perhaps you’d like to know more about the man who sang

them.

This business of milking myths,

or separating man from myth, is a tricky one. But it’s a business, nevertheless,

that is aimed at a market. I imagine that the market for Rita Marley’s

No Woman No Cry, and a Bob Marley Reader published

by Da Capo press– is divided between those fans whose thirst for new

product by or about their hero can never be quenched, and a more skeptical

group who wonder if anything new can really be said, at this point, about

the Marley clan.

The answer to that question, in

the case of Rita Marley’s book, is quite a bit.

Contemporary Jamaica is awash in

rhetorical gender wars. Calls for the assassination

of homosexuals. Or the latest craze, condemning men who engage in

oral sex with women. Given this “culture

of intolerance,” it should be no surprise that Rita Marley’s book

burst into public awareness via some controversial statements she made

about her late husband’s notorious womanizing.

More specifically, there was an

interview with Rita in the Mirror, right on the eve of the book’s

UK publication, that screamed: “ Bob

Marley Raped Me

After one of Bob’s many extended

absences, when he returned to Jamaica around 1974, Rita refused to have

sex with him. Bob forced himself on her, Rita says. Now this claim shouldn’t

surprise anyone who knows much about Jamaican men in general, or Bob Marley’s

private life in particular. But it set off a firestorm in Jamaica that

soon had Rita backtracking. Indeed, this is a muted, very brief incident

in the book, in which Rita merely says that “I was almost raped.” And

in her public interviews, as well as in the book, Rita has gone out of

her way to testify as to what a great provider Marley was, in a material

sense, no matter how absent or unfaithful he was, in a physical sense.

There were some voices of support,

such as Jamaica Observer columnist Mark

Wignall, who had talked to enough Jamaican women who had been raped

by men they know to take Rita’s claim seriously.

But the outrage was acute among

many whose livelihood in one way or another depends on them being custodians

of a rather messianic variant of the Bob Marley culture hero myth. Rita’s

accusations were “below

the belt,” said Bunny Wailer, the last surviving member of Bob’s original

group, the Wailers. “Why would she want (to taint) him at a time when

he is being treated as a saint – this individual who the world is now

seeing as an icon, a prophet and a spiritual leader,” said Bob’s boyhood

friend.

Bunny’s reaction dramatizes why

discussion of these issues is long overdue: precisely because Marley is

being treated as a saint, while new generations imitate his promiscuity.

This tempest will remind some of the uproar after revelations about Martin

Luther King Jr.’s womanizing. In both cases, custodians of the legacies

of these freedom fighters fear that awareness of their humanity, and indeed

their vices, will prevent people from continuing to honor them, or putting

their words into practice.

But once we confine our heroes

to statues, and ignore their clay feet, then we cannot “forward in this

generation,” as Marley sang. Or learn from their mistakes.

Marley’s last years were a tragedy,

a largely unlearned lesson about the extremes of co-dependency. Rita sees

much of this clearly in retrospect: Bob was living completely for other

people. He was surrounded by “’yes’ people.” His admirable ethic of self-sacrifice

was corrupted, until “other people had taken over his life completely.”

Things only got uglier after he

died. Peter Tosh and Bunny came to a meeting with Rita at 56 Hope Road,

and Peter began ripping Bob’s photos off the wall. Bunny told Rita that

Bob’s death had been “the wages of his sin and corruption.” Rita admits

candidly that she has “been waiting twenty years for these words to be

in print”—that after insulting her and Bob, Bunny told her that she should

shut down Bob’s headquarters and “come and work for them

Better to pass over most these

later years discreetly, and focus on what is clearly the strength of Rita’s

book, the years before Bob became an international superstar. Ms. Marley

begins with a scene at Bob’s deathbed which both prefigures what would

come after, and points back towards what had led her to that fateful day.

In a Miami hospital, Rita began crying and said “Bob, please, don’t leave

me.”

“Forget crying, Rita! Just keep

singing. Sing! Sing!” Bob said. And so she did—she kept singing, and she

learned to understand the part her voice played in this story. So that

now, when like many of us, she hears Bob “everywhere,” she also hears

her story. “Because I’m on almost all of the songs. So I also hear my

voice.”

The future Rita Marley was born

in Cuba as Alfarita Constantia Anderson. She grew up, like Bob, essentially

without her parents. Bob had his mother for a few years, and Rita had

her father for a few years, but they were both the product of broken homes.

Rita’s father Leroy Anderson was

a musician and a carpenter. When Rita was five, her mother Cynthia Jarrett

left Rita and her brother Wesley to start a new family. Her father took

the children to live with his sister Vida, known as Aunty to Rita.

Aunty is an unsung hero of this

story. She eventually divorced from a Mr. Britton, who had two sons outside

the marriage, and dedicated most of the rest of her life to raising Rita,

and later taking care of the children of Rita and Bob while they went

through the long, seemingly endless struggle to make a career in music.

For both Rita and Bob, their parents

were a “present absence” in formative ways. When Rita was nine, her mother

remarried and didn’t invite her daughter to the wedding. A couple of years

later, her Aunty bought her father Leroy tickets to England and told him:

“go find a life.” Rita did not see him for another 10 years.

Rita trained to become a nurse.

But like many teens in similar circumstances, she became pregnant at age

17. It was really through her daughter Sharon that Rita began to see Bob,

then known as Robbie, as a partner.

The young Marley was serious and

stand-offish. But he had a very generous side. When he found out that

Rita had a baby, he began taking on a parental role. When he had spare

change, he would bring the baby food. The ultra-suspicious Aunty “began

to give in to his nice ways and manners.” “And this is where my love came

in,” Rita remembers. She looked at him and thought, “oh, such a nice

guy.”

This is the impression many people

had of Bob Marley in those years. Serious, self-disciplined, well-mannered,

good with children. “We both became parents for Sharon,” Rita notes. Yet

even as romance blossomed, “at first, and maybe always, I cared for Robbie

Marley from a sisterly point of view.”

The young couple’s conflicts were

exacerbated by a lack of money that kept them under Aunty’s roof for a

decade, and later by Bob’s immersion in his musical ambition and the extracurricular

activities it entailed. The young couple had physical fights. Bob went

off to live in Delaware with his mother a day after they got married.

Later Rita went to live in Delaware with young Ziggy, while Bob tried

to make it as a songwriter for Johnny Nash. When Rita voiced her desire

to come home, just before Stephen was born, Bob discouraged her. “I realized

we’re separating, we’re growing apart,” Rita recalls. When she did return

to Jamaica, still under Aunty’s roof, now with four children, some nights

Bob didn’t come home. Divorce crossed her mind. But she decided that “even

if I’m angry as hell at Bob, I have to be strong for him.”

The pattern was set. Bob and Rita

had a relationship that was often more like brother and sister than lovers.

And Rita was increasingly left alone, often angry at her husband, but

determined to be the pillar in their unstable lives.

As soon as Marley signed a deal

with Island Records and gained access to the uptown property at 56 Hope

Road, the philandering began in earnest. “I tried to train myself to think

of Bob as a good loving brother more so than a real husband,” Rita observed.

But Marley’s sense of entitlement to have “many queens” became ever more

brazen. A breaking point for Rita was when the film star Esther Anderson,

“on loan” from Island Records head Chris Blackwell, publicly scolded Rita,

telling her to “stop breeding and let [Bob] find a life.”

Finding a life is the theme of

the second half of Rita’s memoir. While Bob found fame, Rita established

a semblance of stability for their children. With the help of a Rasta

elder named Gabby, and with Bob’s money, Rita bought a government block

house at Bull Bay, 12 miles outside of Kingston. It had no water or electricity,

but it was a grand adventure for Rita and her children. Friends trucked

in water; the children enrolled in local schools. Rita planted a garden,

and later, moved into farming. “Whatever I plant grows,” she says proudly.

Eventually she got water and electricity.

Not long after moving to Bull Bay,

Bob disappeared for two months. No one knew for sure where he was. One

day he drove up in his Jeep, unannounced.

“Where have you been?” Rita asked.

“I don’t know,” responded Bob.

Despite his “I don’t know program,”

Bob thought of this as “the family house.” Coming by after a tour was

“coming home” for him. It was only through the private life Rita established

that Bob ever experienced any sense of normality.

Rita had a basement room dug for

Bob, a private getaway, and a little studio. At night, after putting the

kids to bed, they’d go down to this basement, “sometimes to make out…

but more often just to rehearse and compose.”

Her descriptions of life at Bull

Bay are, for me, the most endearing part of the book. There were talent

shows with the kids–dress rehearsals for the Melody Makers, sometimes

with Bob in attendance. But he was still essentially a visitor. Sometimes

he brought a girl in his car. More than once he flew into jealous rages

over Rita’s imagined infidelities with a male friend named Tacky. Once

Bob’s lover Cindy Breakspeare came in the room and called him “darling”

while Bob was discussing his suspicions with Tacky, who then called him

on his hypocrisy.

Rita was still financially dependent,

but charting her own path. She opened the Queen of Sheba restaurant, with

Bob’s blessing and support, and supplied this from her own farm. But Bob’s

career had proceeded without her contribution, except as mother. So it

was after years of de facto professional separation that Bob asked her

to record and then tour with him as part of the I-Threes.

“One thing about working for Mr.

Marley—he pays you,” Rita says emphatically. It was a professional relationship,

primarily, that brought Rita back into Bob’s career. The more that Bob

became “corrupted by show business,” the more that Rita’s relative immunity

to his glamorous fantasy life seemed to bother him. She could always “bring

him up to reality,” because Rita “was there from the beginning, from one

[pair of] underpants, and those were my hands, every night, washing them

out.”

Reading Rita’s story, especially

her unwanted burden of the legal battles over Bob’s estate, one senses

that the whole of her relationship with Bob after around 1971 was a long

detour. This detour chewed up a couple more decades, as she fended off

the sharks that swarmed over his iconic remains, and struggled with the

long shadow Bob cast over her life. One could understand if Rita came

away from this experience embittered, or mercenary. And on the latter

count, I’ve heard my share of horror stories. But Rita Marley comes across

as a very sympathetic personality in this book. One cannot but respect

her for being strong for her children during so much upheaval.

Now that her children are self-sufficient,

Rita has relocated to Ghana. Her work in a mountain village there appears

to combine roles as social worker and entrepreneur. And in some ways,

she had learned from Bob’s mistakes. While Bob handed out money freely

to thousands, a horde that arguably ate him alive, Rita has taken a different

approach. Rather than just passing out money to people who become accustomed

to handouts, Rita’s stance has been more like that old saying: “Give a

man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach him how to fish and he’ll eat

forever.”

* * *

Rita Marley’s No Woman No Cry

is on the inside looking out. There is little about Marley the

myth, and maybe more than we want to know about Bob’s all-too-human

limitations. By contrast, Every Little Thing Gonna Be Alright: The

Bob Marley Reader is on the outside looking in. It tells much more

about Bob’s mythic or iconic dimensions.

The tone is set by the editor,

Hank Bordowitz, author of the bio Bad Moon Rising. On the very

first page of text, a mini-intro titled “Marley: Cultural Icon,” Bordowitz

informs us that Marley is a “cultural martyr who suffered for the sins

of his audience.”

Ouch. That reminds me of a red-headed

singer at a Ft. Worth Bob Marley Festival in 2002 who shrilly declared:

“Bob Marley died for your sins!”

One could grin and bear such lunacies from enthusiastic fans, but in a

book whose editor and writers surely want to be taken seriously, it does

more than set one’s teeth on edge. It’s enough to make me want to point

out the element of truth in assertions made by Bunny Wailer or Peter Tosh

that Bob Marley may have died early because of his own “sins.”

About the foreword by Roger Steffens.

I know Roger personally and admire his long decades of work promoting

reggae in Los Angeles, and spreading the gospel of Bob Marley internationally.

But Steffens too has a tendency to wander into hyperbole and even hagiography.

What does it mean to claim that Marley is “without question one of the

most transcendent figures of the past hundred years”? Transcendent in

what sense? How do we square Bob’s outsized appetite for women and herb

with the assertion that he “cared nothing for earthly trappings.” Aren’t

addiction to sex, to ganja, and the quest for fame all earthly “trappings”

that entrapped Marley in different ways?

This Reader is divided

into two main sections. The first is titled “Wake Up and Live: The Life

and Times of Robert Nesta Marley.” Each chapter takes a Marley song to

indicate its focus. “Waiting in Vain” is an oral history of the 1962-1972

period. This includes a reflection by Rita Marley published in Essence

in February 1995 that is clearly a first draft for part of her book.

Chapter Two, “Stir it Up,” covers

the rise to international acclaim by Marley and the Wailers from 1972-1976.

This includes a lengthy excerpt from Lee Jaffe’s book One Love,

which I have reviewed previously. Most

of the writing dates from the 1970. We listen in on jaded New Yorkers

who know how obvious some of Marley’s stage mannerisms were, and yet acknowledge

that they found his charisma irresistible.

The best piece in this chapter,

and maybe in the book, is Lester Bangs’ “Innocents in Babylon.” Bangs,

writing for his Creem Magazine (immortalized in Almost Famous),

freely confesses that Marley is his least favorite Jamaica artists.

That critical distance, and the fact that he has no editorial restraints

(this piece runs over 40 pages), leads to some typically Bangsian gems

(as well as superfluous motion). It should be no surprise that Bangs felt

most at home in Jamaican record shops, rather than waiting around on stars.

His time in one deafening store produces this memorable line: “the guitars

chop to kill.” Bangs was also present at a well-known twilight interview

that Stephen Davis conducted with Marley, and at a rather bizarre quasi-“groundation”

conducted by Ras Michael, Chinna Smith, and others.

Chapter Three is “Top Rankin’:

The First Great ‘Third World’ Star, 1976-1981.” This includes Vivien Goldman’s

portrait of the Wailers in Europe. Goldman’s feature is memorable for

human dimensions of the Tuff Gong it reveals. Bob justified Kaya’s

love songs and muses: “How long must I sing the same song?” When Vivien

drinks Irish Moss for the first time, Bob tells her that this is good

for her: it “make your pom-pom wet.” In a different register, Carol Cooper’s

Afrocentric feature in the Village Voice describes Marley’s

ambition as “to resurrect the political ethic of Garveyism.”

Chapter Four, “Blackman Redemption,”

is about the “Second Coming” of Marley 1981-2002. One can see how quickly

reportage turned to hagiography in those years. (It means the biography

of saints, or an idolizing biography). Writing for the Village Voice

in 1982, Isaac Fergusson describe’s Marley’s 1967 semi-retirement

from the music biz, when he farmed at St. Ann’s, as a time in which “he

made a covenant with a new God.” Ah, check with Rita for her memory of

that hard-scrabble period!

The much shorter second section

of The Bob Marley Reader is titled “Music Gonna Teach Them a

Lesson: The Meaning of Bob Marley.” An essay by the late Jamaican Prime

Minister, Michael Manley, on “Reggae and the Revolutionary Faith,” is

worth a read. I don’t think the Honorable Manley needed to put it in all-caps,

but it’s worth repeating: in contrast to, say, soca (or R&B, etc.)

“THE GREATER PART OF BOB MARLEY IS THE LANGUAGE OF REVOLUTION.” “It is

this assertion of revolutionary possibility that sets reggae apart,” he

adds.

Does Bob’s visionary work, what

Steffens rightly calls “an embarrassment of riches,” lose any of its “revolutionary

possibility,” now that it has been so relentlessly commercialized, or

now that we know more clearly just how flawed Marley was as a human being?

I don’t think so.

There’s a famous anecdote, which

Ree Negwenya relates in her account of Marley’s visit to Zimbabwe, of

the I-Threes fleeing to their hotel after getting hit by tear gas. Bob

was coming off stage when Rita, Judy Mowatt, and Marcia Griffiths returned.

Half-smiling, he said: “”Hah! Now I know who the real revolutionaries

are.”

We ought to know by now how many

meanings that line can have. Rita Marley’s book is important because it

shows who stayed at home while the freedom fighters were fighting. I hope

the next Marley Reader grapples with some troubling questions

Marley’s life raises, such as: is the “revolutionary impulse” best enacted

abroad, or at home, and what is “the woman’s place” in such movements?

And, can we or should we aspire to outgrow the messianic mindset? Idolatry

was both Bob Marley’s strength (his faith in his “perfect father”), but

also a form of mental slavery in both the man and his admirers.

———————————–

Gregory

Stephens is the author of On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture

of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley. His current

book project is Real Revolutionaries, including a chapter about

Marley’s use of Marcus Garvey’s concept of “a second emancipation.” Contact:

gstephen@email.unc.edu



About Gregory Stephens :

Gregory Stephens is Visiting Instructor in English at the University of South Florida, teaching Film, 20th Century Literature, and Popular Culture. From 2004-2008 he was Lecturer in Cultural Studies and Film at the University of West Indies-Mona (Jamaica). At UWI he earned a Masters in Spanish literature, with a thesis on Zapatista discourse. His writings on Latin American literature have appeared in journals such as Latin American Literary Review and Confluencia. Stephens is the author of On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley [Cambridge UP, 1999]. | View all posts by Gregory Stephens

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About the author

Gregory Stephens is Visiting Instructor in English at the University of South Florida, teaching Film, 20th Century Literature, and Popular Culture. From 2004-2008 he was Lecturer in Cultural Studies and Film at the University of West Indies-Mona (Jamaica). At UWI he earned a Masters in Spanish literature, with a thesis on Zapatista discourse. His writings on Latin American literature have appeared in journals such as Latin American Literary Review and Confluencia. Stephens is the author of On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley [Cambridge UP, 1999].

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