Perfect Sound Forever

Bob Marley

Anniversary, Legacy
Edited by Jason Gross
(February 2005)

I was writing an article about the upcoming 60th anniversary of Bob Marley, wondering what his impact was, or would be, in 2005. I had seen it myself, up close, in Jamaica, through hotel music, record shops, through any place that sold goods of any kind. As much as he was genuinely loved on his home turf, I wondered about the little signs I saw. Beachside performers serenade tourists with Bob, but when I asked for a Gregory Isaacs song, they seemed genuinely relieved.

During a tour passing through Peter Tosh's hometown, a guide made a point to tell us that he himself wrote many of the Wailers' early songs. At a record shop, I asked the owner point-blank, "Do people here really love Marley that much, or do you think they play it up for the tourists?" He laughed, and explained "'s a little bit of both!"

If that wasn't enough, some Jamaican friends here in the States not only agreed with the record shop owner, they also thought he wasn't appreciated very much by African-Americans. As a Marley fan myself, this struck me as pretty curious, so I polled a group of writers around America and Europe to see how they saw Marley's impact, locally, and in a broader context.

Many thanks to these writers for sharing their thoughts,

Jenny Bulley (MOJO)
Reggae, and Bob Marley in particular, have always had a unique part in British popular culture since Chris Blackwell first exported records from Jamaica to England in the 1970s. Ska was huge here, and the Wailers were one of the first signings to the Island label. The rest is history. But yes, Reggae has never been as marginal a music as it is in America, mostly thanks to Chris Blackwell.

Check out Lloyd Bradley's book, Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King, a history of Jamaican Reggae widely considered to be one of the best books [on the subject]. It turns out that even that is riddled with mistakes, but that's what happens with oral traditions. Famously, the Jamaican studios/labels/sound systems almost never put anything down on paper, which is why their catalogues and whatnot are in such disarray now (it's taken Sanctuary years to license Trojan, for instance. Even now, people pop out of the woodwork all the time and claim to own this that and the other recordings, and mostly no one can prove otherwise).

Kandia Crazy Horse (Village Voice, Perfect Sound Forever)
In my day the '70s (*grin*) my parents and their friends all had at least three or four Marley records (vinyl of course!) and quite a few had as many as Bob idolater/pal o' Ziggy Chris Robinson. Nowadays, and without any scientific data, I might be inclined to agree with your mates that any listeners in Gen Y or younger could have his poster (like Che when I was in high school) as an empty symbol of "generic rebellion," if you dig what I mean.

The real island sound that seems to be popular in the younger hip-hop demo is dancehall, the themes of which are virtually counter to the messages of Bob and Jimmy Cliff, Tosh etc. which is not to say the elder guard wasn't homophobic, but certainly they did not express it so overtly and bloodthirstily. Also, they are not as sonically as complex as Lee I guess the answer is we don't know.

I think it'd go on an individual basis: if a 15-25 yr old negro today was really aware of Marley and owned anything beyond Legend, it'd be because either a) s/he was raised in an urban enclave as a Rastafarian, or b) his/her parents were Movement types or Movement inspired and thus engendered Pan-Africanism in their offspring. But this kind of consciousness seems to be rarer and rarer and the Bling Nation certainly discourages true gnosis about one's subjective black fate. [And dreads are no marker of adherence.]

Plus most older negroes grew up or were adults when Bob made his stand, so they'd be more alienated by dancehall (except the lovey stuff of Sean Paul, about whom my mother would or has opined she "can't understand what the fuck he's saying").

Danny Eccleston (MOJO)
I don't think roots Reggae and Marley can be confused really. Marley transcends the genre. He was a pop music visionary with an international mission, whose music happened to be Reggae as it had once been Ska, and then Rocksteady.

The only failure that vexed him in his lifetime is that he never cracked the black American market. Partly this was timing: the Exodus tour missed out the States in '77 when cancer was found in his toe. Part of it was cultural: black American music was in a plush "moving on up" phase which clashed with Marley's scuffed look and talk of "sufferation."

Even when he booked the Harlem Apollo for four nights in 1979, it was packed with whites. The supreme irony is that few did more for interracial understanding in Europe (of course he was a God in Africa), but that the States resisted his message.

That's not to say that had he lived healthily of course (his illness sapped his talent at the end) he wouldn't have won black America over, but it's impossible to assess. His death turned him into something other than a musician, something other than a man. He's a symbol, a martyr, a Saint, a T-shirt icon like Che. He was bloody good, though.

Kevin Alexander Gray
I don't know the numbers on Marley's sales black and white but Marley's music is what most black Americans think of when they think of Reggae. Marley ranks higher in the consciousness movement of the late seventies than...let's say...Gil Scott Heron. Marley popularity in the black community was probably at its highest right before he took sick. Most folk I know have some Marley. And the popularity is based on the blend of rhythm and analysis.

We have a poster of Marley at our black newspaper office.

My wife and I went to see him in Atlanta when he was touring with Stevie Wonder. He canceled due to illness at the very last moment and was replaced by Heron. But the crowd at the Omni was most decidedly black. And they were there expecting to see Marley. I am not the norm, but I have all of Marley's albums and a framed picture of him on the wall in my den. The barbershop down the street from my house (in Columbia, SC) has a poster on the wall with the lyrics to "War." We have quite a few culture/book shops (even a white-owned "Rasta" store) who all sell world music and such but Reggae and in particular, Marley remains at the center of their music sales and the anti-white supremacist cultural outlook.

How one feels about certain Caribbean people really depends on where they are from. My Nova Scotian mother's grandfather Ben Gray was from Jamaica and that (among other things) connects me to the culture. But many black Americans may still see Jamaica as a reminder of British colonialism and the perception is that Jamaicans have a kind of British arrogance.

Then there's the economic question, wherein most see the island as a vacation spot they will never be able to afford to visit.

The thing that Marley did, that time has undone, was to show the poverty and colonialism and talk about how the two were linked, which, if you jumped into the way back machine and took a trip to when Marley was hot, folk would give you that economic observation of Jamaica, as opposed to now, where ads portray Jamaica showing a colored person wearing a admiral's hat offering drinks to a couple on the beach.

I would loudly argue that Marley has a special place of importance in black American culture that many underestimate, including the Jamaicans who made the comment about the Marley posters. That smacks of arrogance more than ignorance.

I believe Marley still sells (for a deceased person) in the top ten, and if there is a decline it's perhaps due to who owns the radio stations and who programs those same stations. Here in SC, the only place you'll hear Reggae is on the college station.

Hip-hop rules the market and even on the classic soul stations, "I Shot the Sheriff" ain't in the rotation. Maybe every now and then, especially around MLK Day, "Get Up Stand Up" gets a day of play.

Marley survives by being passed down and acquired, but I would still say that Marley is one of the most significant artists for black baby boomers.

Lisa Iannucci
I used to co-manage a Borders Books & Music store here in the DC area, and we sold incredible amounts of the Legend CD. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say it was #2 or #3, sales-wise, for Borders in the region, behind Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.

I think that Marley is big here because DC is such a culturally diverse area (people think it's really white-bread here but I assure you it's not!), a lot of college students/graduates, foreign embassies, immigrants from Latin America, Africa, Asia. And a lot of people have resettled here from other parts of the country. People of all ages and economic/racial strata seem to be really drawn to Marley's message of empowerment, hope, personal integrity and dignity.

That, and it's a heavily music-conscious area, and the grooves are righteous! He definitely draws listeners across racial boundaries, too. It's definitely about the music more than a cultural phenomenon, I would say. Don't see a whole lot of Marley shirts here when you see them, they seem to be worn more for his association with marijuana than for political reasons.

Greg Kot (Chicago Tribune)
Marley still gets steady airplay here on a major commercial rock station, WXRT (they also play a smattering of Peter Tosh, but that's about it), and the roots Reggae scene is alive and well on weekends at clubs like the Wild Hare. If you go on the club's website, the first thing you'll hear is a Marley song. But I'm not sure Marley's legacy means much to anyone anymore beyond buzzwords like "Jah," "spliff," and "Jammin'." He's become the soundtrack to 1001 frat parties, where "Lively Up Yourself" apparently sounds just dandy next to Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher."

Dane Baker (Verse Chorus Verse)
Many Southerners associate Bob Marley with class and race struggle. Just from personal experience, I know that white and black Southerners take something a little different away from his music, but Bob Marley epitomizes the fight for justice, for people on both sides of the coin. That resonates pretty strongly with people below the Mason-Dixon it's in our DNA, we understand it at a basic level even today.

Dave Marsh (Listmaker Extraordinaire)
Reggae was at least at the beginning (ca. '70-'80 or '85 or so) very much a white bohemian affectation in this country. Historically, there is tension between West Indians and black people who trace their lineage mostly to the United States (West Indians are perceived as snobbish; they have clearly been favored over black people from the U.S. by white people in many ways).

The Caribbean rhythms that have influenced black music in the United States are by and large other than Reggae, in fact almost all from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. I would say Haiti is a bigger influence than Jamaica, at this point. It's only really in the hip-hop area that some Reggae influence has been felt directly, and that is very small, and almost entirely in terms of vocal styles, not rhythms.

More important, maybe, Island marketed Marley like a classic rock star (which he was or became among other things), which means they marketed him by and large to white people in this country. It was different in the UK, where the bulk of the black population is West Indian, and very, very different in Africa, where Marley's association, in particular, with both back-to-Africa aspects of Rasta and with the Zimbabwean freedom movement made him stand out.

Where this comes together, to me, is in the specifics of Marley's greatness, which have to do with songwriting and intense guitar playing. Not rhythm. Yellowman is probably more influential. And I mean that seriously. African-Americans in general have never as a whole favored back-to-Africa movements (even Garvey's was relatively small, which is one reason why so easily crushed), nor do they pay nearly so much attention to African and Caribbean culture as to their own. Plus, it's about 25 years after Marley's prime. I wouldn't be surprised if the proportion of the A-A population with Stevie Wonder records is on the decline, too. Though I would guess that in Marley's case, there wasn't much to decline from.

[Marsh later said, "Kevin (Gray)'s strong disagreement (and a long talk we just had on the phone) convinces me that I overstated the case quite a bit."]

Fred Mills (Magnet)
Marley is taken pretty seriously down here (North Carolina area). Primarily and logically in towns like Asheville, where I live, that have college campuses. I'm sure if you talked to someone in Chapel Hill they'd agree, and cite the existence of numerous Reggae bands. Certainly the frat-boy element is a part of that; it was when I went to UNC in the mid '70s, as we had good progressive radio in the area and several regional bands that featured Reggae, which was considered a party-hearty phenom in some quarters. Don't worry, be happy, mon! NC is a big pot-smoker's state too, as anyone who's ever done a fly-by over the mountain pot fields in the summer can attest.

Too, the jam band scene, which again tends to be embraced in college towns or towns that have a strong boho element, has only added to said embrace. That's a bit of a more recent phenomenon, but the same principle holds party 'n' pot, but not necessarily with the Kappa Delta Taus, and unless you're of the type to mistakenly think that jam band-ers are but burned out Dead fans, you can instantly grasp why that community would so readily embrace so much of what Marley represented: peace, community, good vibes, sharing the musical wealth, etc.

Jam band-ers are the most open-minded musical sorts I've ever met, no lie; these are folks who'll tape Sonic Youth and Television shows just as rabidly as Little Feat and Allman Brothers, displaying a willingness to get into multiple musical forms simultaneously. Somehow I don't think you'll see that happen at a Modest Mouse or Arcade Fire show.

Asheville and I'm gonna bet that Boone, Chapel Hill, Duke U, maybe UNC Charlotte and other college campus areas too takes the annual Marley Day celebration seriously, and there's always a mini-festival and side events. It's significant that despite the obvious pot usage you'll encounter, these are always billed and treated as family events you see loads of kids, and not the scruffy little hippie urchin types, either. That's partly the aging demographic, you know: parents in their early-thirties who got into Marley or Reggae ten years earlier and now are taking their kids to enjoy a daytime outdoor event. But think about how much coolness that holds for the future, that a whole new generation can grow up on Marley and hopefully pick up on the positive things of his legacy.

Throw a dart around and you can hit a guy or gal in long thick dreads around here too, particularly down on Lexington Ave, which has a lot of offbeat shops and restaurants. (Restaurants around here always have the inevitable Rasta-looking wait or waitress but only the tourists blink an eye). As with the kids mentioned above, they're not necessarily hippie-ish; personally, I don't like chicks in dreads, but some of them are still quite beautiful in an Ani DiFranco sense, dressing stylishly for both work and play.

And the local community/public station, WNCW-FM, regularly programs Reggae and never fails to program lots of Marley, especially on his birthday. Probably if you go into areas where there is no radio airplay i.e., no noncommercial radio you won't find too many Reggae-ish residents. Asheville probably has fewer blacks than a lot of other NC towns 'dunno why, maybe the job market, since most of the mills are gone, and Hispanics make up the bulk of the construction work force here but the annual Goombay festival downtown, held in the old traditional "black" district of town, always has plenty of Jamaican/African-attired blacks, quite a few in dreads, and the many vendors' stalls with crafts and clothing never fail to have numerous images of Marley (tees, posters, wall hangings, etc.), along with the traditional Jamaican flag color motifs.

John Morthland (author, Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste : A Lester Bangs Reader, writer for Austin Chronicle, Texas Monthly, Creem, Rolling Stone)
Reggae has always been very popular in Austin; my theory is it has something to do with the quality of the pot down here and the general attractiveness of ganja culture in general (hot weather might have something to do with it too). In the '70s, when Reggae bands coming to the States could only play eight or ten towns, Austin was always one of them. Any Reggae act of note that comes to the US (which isn't many, post 9/11) still plays Austin. Austin has almost always had a venue for world music, and the bigger touring Reggae acts could play the more popular rock clubs. Austin has always had decent Reggae bands of its own, some all-white but most mixed. There used to be a Reggae festival, called the Bob Marley Festival if memory serves, on Town Lake every year. Houston is also a huge Reggae town, but there it's more native Jamaicans. Unbeknownst to most, Houston is one of the most ethnically diverse cities America (surpassed only by NYC, L.A. and Miami, I'd say).

Honest, I had no idea until I got here, but it's incredible how many immigrant communities there are over there, and Houston Intl Fest (every April) is one of the finest music festivals I've ever been to. The Caribbean in general and Jamaica in particular are well represented in Houston. Reggae is popular and Marley is God. Traditionally those have been the two main Texas cities for this, but it is both musical and cultural in both places (albeit the musicians and cultures in the two cities are coming from very different places).

Piotr Orlov (eminent freelancer)
Roots Reggae is actually very popular around here (Los Angeles), specifically in Long Beach, which hosts a couple of major Reggae fests a year (old and new acts, mixed) and which is the major local stop for all Reggae cats hitting the West Coast, specifically a club called Vault 350.The Reggae community on the radio also does little to differentiate the dubs, the DJs, the modern dancehall-ers and the Ska/lovers rock/golden age classics.

(Well, maybe they keep an eye on gay-bashing lyrics, but sound-wise, it's all in the mix.)

There's a Sunday afternoon Reggae show on Indie 103.1, a Thursday evening one on KXLU, the Loyola Marymount station that is the best college radio station in town. Thing is, I don't recall either show playing Bob not that I listen to them religiously though I have heard Marley programmed into regular blocks on both Indie 103 and the local classic rock station. This leads me to believe, that he's crossed over from being thought of as Reggae to being considered a classic.

In 2005, no one I know puts Bob Marley on the stereo anymore and no one discusses him because what Marley symbolizes at this point is such an accepted clich that it's miles away from Marley the artist. I don't know if the layperson appreciates him as anything beyond that "one love" symbol. For me though, Bob was great 'cos he was a dope songwriter, a dope soul singer and a dope collaborator, who was trying to look at the world situation (his peoples' world situation) through eyes that were both realistic and empathetic.

Bart Plantenga (author, WFMU DJ)
Marley for me is a strange character. As martyr, symbol, troubadour, dreadlock Woody Guthrie type, he is nonpareil. But sonically, I have always found his post-Lee Scratch Perry stuff wanting in dub-ness. That big feel could have put some of his thin, reedy material way, way over the top (for me).

When traveling to Morocco many years ago, I noticed that Marley was the only "Western" cassette to be found amongst the thousands of cassettes offered by the hundreds of cassette dealers (1987!) in the various market squares. Same goes for parts of Spain. He crossed all boundaries and can be found everywhere in the Netherlands on T-shirts, in the most commercial record stores, in drug paraphernalia shops...

He is in many ways a musical equivalent of Che Guevera. Symbol (and also clich ) of freedom, liberation, causes, and the voice/image of the hope of the oppressed.

Roger Steffens (Chairman of the Reggae Grammy Committee; founding editor, The Beat)
Today, there is no more famous or respected countercultural icon than the late Bob Marley. His face is as ubiquitous as Che Guevara's on T-shirts worn by oppressed people all over the world. The head of Amnesty International has said that, everywhere he goes in the world today, Bob Marley is the symbol of freedom. From a West Coast perspective, the roots music of Reggae, the kind that Bob came out of and modernized, is still a strong current, buoyed by numerous roots festivals in the summertime, and America's biggest annual Reggae event, the Bob Marley Days held in mid-February at the Long Beach Arena. Its lineup has returned to an all-roots event this year, in rejection of the dancehall music that had brought a potentially unruly crowd to the shows in recent years.

Bob's message is more alive now than ever, and he continues to be responsible for half of all the Reggae sold in America, 24 years after his passing. So Bob is certainly a musical icon, but he is so much more a spiritual, moral, political and fashion figure as well, although he'd be disturbed by those last two qualities. When asked who he was, Bob said with an angry snarl, "Me a rebel!" Thanks to the ubiquity of his recordings, and a constantly renewed audience of young mavericks, Bob is assured of immortality. Unfortunately, most African-Americans remain in the dark about Marley. He doesn't speak to their needs, it seems, and his level of anger is not high enough for today's volatile youth.

David Toop (author, Ocean of Sound, Crooning on Venus, contributor to the Wire)
The UK is a second home to Reggae, because of colonial history. Reggae, specifically Ska and rock steady, was perhaps the most important vehicle for making Afro-Caribbean immigrants visible (beyond their perceived role as bus conductors and nurses) in Britain in the 1960s and early '70s. Roots Reggae and Bob Marley's first two LPs in particular forced everybody to realize that this wasn't just entertainment music that could be divorced from the realities of life as a (mostly unwanted) immigrant with two homes. These were musicians and songwriters with strong views on slavery, colonialism, religion, politics, and so on and that's one of the reasons why roots Reggae was such an important part of UK punk.

Efren del Valle (Perfect Sound Forever)
Twenty-something years after his death, Bob Marley's presence in Spain is quite remarkable. Be it through the very fashionable dreadlocks, his face stamped on every other teenager's T-shirt, the ganja logos everywhere, his legacy has become something more image-related than purely musical. I can't say Marley's spirituality has leaked into our music or social scenes in what you would call a significant manner. Much got lost along the way and the remains, the clich s, prevail, but Reggae is perhaps understood here as the most global of anti-global manifestations, being the flagship for many nonconformists, a true impersonation of freedom.

Daniel and Seth Nelson (Perfect Sound Forever)
Too many people, whether black or white, associate Bob Marley with drug use, namely smoking pot. We live about ten miles from Boulder, Colorado, a huge city for neo-hippies, Trustafarians, and the like.

Bob Marley worship is huge around here and it seems that the messages in his music take a backseat to his status in the drug culture. The worship is mostly from white fans as the Boulder area has a very small black population. It seems that most Bob Marley fans aren't even interested in other Reggae music, which is sad.

Where we live, and around the world in general, Bob Marley is without a doubt deified. The image of Bob Marley seems to have more power than his actual musical output.

We've never understood why Bob Marley alone is worshipped, and other Reggae artists specifically, are overshadowed, despite the shared positive messages.

We've heard it said before that because Bob Marley is half-white, he alone had the ability to reach audiences that no other black artist could ever dream of doing. While this definitely is true in many ways, Bob Marley's status in poorer non-white countries is equally godlike in stature, but not for the drug relationship, as it seems to be in America and Europe.

So to answer your question, yes Bob Marley worship is serious where we live, mostly by whites. But his following around the world crosses all colors.

Chris Ott (Perfect Sound Forever)
It's just one more thing white Americans can feel guilty about: we made Bob Marley unfashionable. In the late '70s and early '80s, Marley, Caribbean culture and...I'll tactfully say "features" in general, became inexplicably popular with rich white kids, igniting the restless embers of phony collegiate liberalism. It was the pot, clearly, but also the idea that Reggae was Not Your Parents' Grateful Dead.

It's so tragic when you go back and pore over how directly and wonderfully punk/dub/Reggae cross-pollination happened in the UK, but like punk itself, that owes to geographic, economic and historical considerations. In the US, it was Morning in America, The Preppy Handbook and Animal House on loop every weekend, in every college town. The early '80s are really a disaster on every level in American pop culture: all at once, we were turning punk into jocko homo hardcore (from within) and marginalizing challenging outr music by rewarding its most ineffectual, pseudo post-modern satirists.

We are a nation that loves to eat innocence, and in our hunger we have the capacity to make anything, even the beatific Bob, embarrassing to the rest of the planet. We absorbed Reggae's laid-back vibe as laziness, never understanding the historical background it evolved in contrast to and most importantly in conflict with. America is just appallingly stupid when it comes to empathy and context, and that's how we neutered the radical element of Bob Marley's music: it was largely contextual, and the symbolism in his lyrics was easily re-appropriated and mistranslated. He became the sequel to Peace and Love, American Style, an excuse white kids used to get high, and like so many here have echoed, after years of being passed around as such, he has become a mere icon. It is an unforgivably vague fate for a man that carried the hopes of so many who never asked on his back, and with a smile.

Also see...

An excerpt from Richie Unterberger's Bob Marley book

Marley's song "Trenchtown Rock" in detail

Marley's song "Rat Race" in detail

A closer look at the Wailers' album Burnin'

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER