I just realized that this year marks the 30th since the passing of one of music’s most universal artists ever, Bob Marley. To be honest, I am not a big reggae fan. Other than a few Peter Tosh albums, an album of Horace Andy, and assorted tracks from Toots and the Maytals and Gregory Isaacs, my music collection is admittedly light when it comes to reggae. Well, except for Bob. Like most white guys that grew up in the 80s and 90s, I have the one essential album of greatest hits from 1984: Legend. It took me years to move off of Legend to its followup Natural Mystic and to delve into each of his studio albums individually. Allmusic.com rates 5 out of his 13 major albums – a pretty strong endorsement from them. My favorites are Burnin, Catch a Fire, Exodus and the live Babylon by Bus. The songs are so universal that there is probably no point in listing them all.
So instead, I’ll take a minute to muse about why his music is so universal and why it feels fresh still 30-40 years later. I think there are several factors at work in fact. One is, of course, that it is excellent music. The groovy, driving rhythm section, the heavy reverb on the guitars and, of course, the beautiful unmistakable voice of Bob himself with his backup chorus are all so incredibly tightly bound together that the result is highly infectious. I think that his status as a frontman for peace, a rebel fighting for the oppressed, and his untimely death due to cancer at only 36 back in 1981 – 30 years ago already! – all add to his massive legend and his longevity.
I have a third argument that I gleaned years ago from T.S. Elliott in his book of essays On Poetry and Poets where he talks of great works of genius as being both creative and destructive. Bob re-defined and invigorated reggae moving it from the ghettos of Kingston and the pot-filled dens of longhaired white rastafari wannabes to the global stage, with his Wailers but with no real competition at all. However, as seems to be often the case, when you take a genre to such a unique, high place of absolute perfection, it is like the snake eating its own tail. Any artists following Bob trying to create reggae are always be compared (in a condescending manner usually) to him and this stifles creation in the long term. Honestly, I can’t even name a reggae band that came AFTER Bob Marley and the Wailers. So the result is that he has become the universal symbol of reggae that crosses all races and all boundaries – you think of the word reggae and immediately a picture or CD cover of Marley comes immediately to mind, at least it does for me. I think that artists like this who are uniquely identified with an entire genre of music are incredibly rare. I can’t think of any other examples off the top of my head…
We miss you Bob…chase those crazy bald heads…and shine down on us from Zion…we desperately need your light.