Monday, February 7, 2011

Robert Nesta Marley: The Musician & The Futbolr

Basil Wilson

On February 6, 2011 would have been Bob Marley’s 66th birthday. Marley, like most of us, sought longevity but the dreaded disease of cancer deprived the musical dread of a long life. Marley died at the tender age of 36 yet within those relatively brief years, Marley left a legacy of music that has captured the imagination of the entire world. There is a particularity to Marley’s music. Much if not all of it takes the form of Jamaican patois yet the music is not lacking in universal appeal. Marley’s music has become larger than life and he has sold more records since his passing that when he enriched our lives with his living presence.

I had the good fortune to interview Robert Nesta Marley a couple of times at a time when he was trodding through earth, earnestly attempting to make his mark in the competitive world of “pop” music. I interviewed Marley in the early months of 1978 and a verbatim version of that interview was published in the June/July issue of Everybody’s Magazine in 1978. It was an eventual time in his life. His career was experiencing a meteoric rise. The interview took place in Essex House, the hotel overlooking Central Park. I had a connection to Marley through football. His good friend Allan ‘Skill’ Cole and myself were also good friends through ‘ball’. ‘Skill’ was part of the Marley entourage that had gathered at Essex House.

Marley was forced to flee out of Jamaica in late 1976, as there was an attempt on his life a few days before he was to give a free concert in Jamaica. As Marley stated in the interview, the ‘Smile Jamaica’ concert was a way of him giving back to the people of Jamaica. In retrospect, the concert was ill-timed as political fever was at an acute temperature as the election in December 15, 1970 would determine whether the electorate would endorse democratic socialism as advocated by Michael Manley’s People’s National Party or opt for the more conventional path of capitalism, as personified by the leader of the Jamaica Labour Party, Edward Seaga.

As Marley intimated in the interview, the gunmen came unmistakably to kill him. When he saw the guns, he ran for his life and were it not for his athletic dexterity, the gunmen would have accomplished the objective of extinguishing his life force. Don Taylor, his manager, received four shots that night and other members of the Marley entourage, including Marley picked up flesh wounds from the rapid gunfire.

Marley survived but Chris Blackwell recognized the danger and engineered to fly Bob Marley from the then madness of Jamaican politics. What was quite troubling in the aftermath is that there was no official inquiry into the assassination attempt. No one was officially charged although it is widely known that all those who participated in the assassination attempt are no longer with us.

Two years after the assassination attempt on Marley’s life, a peace movement erupted from below that brought together the street soldiers and generals of the respective political parties. The Peace Movement was preceded by the Green Bay Massacre. The government in power, through the initiative of the military intelligence, sanctioned or not, was instrumental in the entrapment of ten youths from Southside, Central Kingston, five of whom were killed, five of whom escaped with their lives to tell the tale of the military entrapment. Sensing that their lives were not valued by the state, the top ranking in Kingston and St. Andrew came together and brokered the peace.

Marley at the time was an exile in London and was visited by Tony Welch, a ranking from Arnett Gardens and Jack Massop, a ranking in Tivoli Gardens. They exhorted him to return home and to headline the Peace Concert that was planned for the National Arena in April 1978. Marley returned triumphantly and during the concert was able to get both Michael Manley and Edward Seaga to mount the stage and to hold hands in a symbol of national unity.

The Peace Movement soon lost its steam. There was controversy over who would control the rights of the Peace Concert. With the elections looming in 1980, the street fighters reverted to political tribalism and the guns began to bark. Marley remained above the fray and continued to put reggae music on the map.

No one could have known that a bruised toe exacerbated at a pick-up soccer game in Paris would precipitate his contracting of the deadly disease. Marley mentioned that in the game someone tackled him viciously and he noticed the toe kept burning unendingly. When he hopped off the field, he noticed that the toe-nail was severed. In the follow-up treatment in London, he was advised that the toe was cancerous and should be removed. Marley opted for treatment and not for removal.

My memory of Bob Marley is not just as a musical genius but as a footballer. He and Allan Cole had a mutual admiration society. Marley admired ‘Skill’s football prowess and ‘Skill’ in turn admired Marley’s talents as a songwriter and performer. The first time that I spent quality time with Robert Nesta Marley was when he came with Allan to play in a Sunday morning pick-up game at Police Depot on Elletson Road, Rae Town. Marley was not a skilled footballer but he played with great passion, tackled hard, and never stopped running. After the game, we ‘cooled out’ on the beach at the end of Paradise Street and simply reminisced about the runnings in Jamaican society and the musical world. That morning of togetherness took place in 1974.

Like most Jamaicans living in New York, I heard the rumors of Marley being stricken with the deadly disease of cancer. Allan Cole had recently returned from a sojourn in Ethiopia and was running in Central Park with Marley when he collapsed. Despite the serious nature of the illness, I received a call from ‘Skill’ Cole that we should put together a practice game for Bob. We got together at Andrew Jackson High School in Cambria Heights, Queens and I had put together a make-shift team to play against my friend, Bertram “Junior” Charlton’s team,Black Unity. Marley did not play in the first half. He came on in the second half and was his usual energetic self. He enjoyed the game thoroughly. That was the last that I would see of him. That would be his last soccer game. Shortly thereafter Marley left for Germany to see if belated holistic intervention could arrest the metastasized cancer. While they were in Germany, I received a call late in the night from Allan Cole that Marley was not doing well. I spoke briefly to him on the phone and tried to exhort to him to hang in there, not to give up but it was obvious that his life force was ebbing. He was on his way back to Jamaica but died in a hospital in Miami before he could return to the land of his birth.

I was fortunate to have known Robert Nesta Marley. At my first meeting, I was struck at how this son of Trench Town was bubbling with confidence about the greatness of reggae music. He never doubted the universality of reggae music. Jamaicans can take great solace in his contribution to what the African poet and former President of Senegal referred to as ‘the civilization of the universal’. Marley’s life was short-lived, but in death, this remarkable musician is greater than life and his musical legacy has achieved immortality.


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L'Shine;) said...
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L. Francis said...

This was great to read. Thank you for offering this piece of Jamaica and world history.

Anonymous said...

What a great article! I had the honour to see Bob live on stage, 1 year before he died