Bob Marley: Life and Legacy (Relix Revisted)
Here’s an archival piece by Wes Orshoski on the legacy of Bob Marley’s career from the September/October 2006 issue of Relix.
Bob Marley standing in front of the mirror, studying his face, head and sunken eyes, wondering what’s happening inside his skull. It’s an image carved into the memory of Wailers guitarist Junior Marvin: his singer, standing backstage at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theater, staring back at himself, disbelieving the findings of doctors at New York’s Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Two days earlier, on Sunday, September 21, 1980, Marley and close friend “Skilly” Cole went for a run in Central Park. Bob and The Wailers opened for The Commodores at Madison Square Garden the previous two nights, and after the upcoming Tuesday night gig at the 2,800-seat Stanley, the band was set to open 60 shows for Stevie Wonder. So it was time to catch up on some exercise.
But while jogging, Marley’s neck froze, his body stiffened and he fell to the ground, temporarily paralyzed. The next day, Sloan Kettering physicians would inform Marley that through the infected, nail-less toe he was urged to amputate years before—the singer refused, insisting that his Rasta faith would carry him through—cancer had spread throughout his body. Tumors were now in his brain, and he may have as little as two weeks to live.
If the then-35-year-old Marley—who, two years before, had prophesized his death at 36, “like Christ”—saw and felt it coming, his band was shocked. Says Marvin: “Before the show, we were told, ‘The doctors have advised that Bob’s gotta take a rest. This is going to be our last show, possibly our last show ever.’ We we’re like, ‘What? You’re kidding.’ We couldn’t imagine that Bob was sick, because he looked okay.”
Backstage in Pittsburgh, disbelief washed over Marley as well. “Standing in front of the mirror, he seemed to be saying, ‘I look okay on the outside, what’s going on in the inside?’” says Marvin. That night, on September 23, 1980, the Wailers played their hearts out, intent on delivering a flawless swan song. Tearing through 20 songs, they ended the show with “Get Up, Stand Up,” featuring Bob, as usual, walking off before the music stopped, leaving the stage as Marvin and company continued chanting the song’s chorus.
“It was kind of a send-off party,” says longtime Wailers bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett. “Everyone was playing with a special soul.” Days later, after Marley’s tumor re-intensified, the band was back in New York, and Family Man would shockingly glimpse his singer without his mighty dreadlocks, gone after radiation treatment.
In less than eight months—after a brief visit to a hospital in Mexico and an extended stay at an alternative cancer therapy center in Germany—Marley would die in a Miami hospital, while en route to his home in Jamaica. Until the end, May 11, 1981, he remained strong, seemingly in denial of his impending demise—at least outwardly.
“The morning before he left Germany, he called me at 5 a.m.,” says Marcia Griffiths, one-third of the fabled I-Threes, The Wailers’ backing vocalists. “He asked me why [his manager] Don Taylor came to my house, if he was trying to break up his group or something like that. Even at that stage, he still had hope.”
“He honestly thought there’s a way for him to get out of this,” says David Hinds of Steel Pulse. “One of the last conversations I had with him, he was talking about trying to get a label together, and wanted us to be part of it. His voice was strong and sprite and he was very optimistic. I said, ‘Bob, all I’m interested in is you getting well, and for us to chant down Babylon together.’”
Producer/Island Records boss Chris Blackwell arranged Marley’s planned flight home on the Concorde. The day before takeoff—with time running out—Marley phoned Blackwell, joking, “Chris, don’t get me no propeller plane.” Despite crossing the Atlantic at supersonic speed, Marley was so ill by the time that he reached Miami that his airline refused to take him on to Kingston, Marvin says.
When news of Marley’s death broke in Kingston, Family Man went to his record shop and pressing plant and told everyone to stop working and to go home. Across town tears streamed down the face of Marvin, who, with his world moving in slow motion, sat down and wrote a song about Bob called “Some Say Have No Fear.”
Long before his last breath, a string of strange coincidences and fateful encounters intertwined with a body of deeply spiritual and prophetic lyrics to help birth the mystic nature that surrounds Marley: There was the singer’s vision of his death at 36. There was his near escape from death years earlier, when gunmen attacked 56 Hope Road under the cover of night, riddling the back of his home with bullets, injuring Marley and Don Taylor, but killing no one. There was the chant session that Marley led in a Kingston stadium in 1978, upon his return to the island after a two-year absence (triggered by the shooting): At the conclusion, two earthquakes shook the ground.
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