One of the most important musical phenomena of the 1970s was the emergence of reggae, a gentle dance music combining American rhythm and blues with the loping, syncopated beat characteristic of the traditional music of the Caribbean. From the late 1960s until his death from cancer at age 36 in 1981, Jamaica's Bob Marley was the undisputed king of reggae.
To many of his fans, though, Marley was much more than a gifted composer and performer. As Timothy White writes in "Catch a Fire," he was "a hero of mythic proportions" throughout the Third World. With his songs about black awareness, social revolution and mysticism, Marley became a charismatic symbol of black political freedom. It is fair to say that no one, not even Bob Dylan, has so successfully woven political and social sentiment into the fabric of a popular musical form as Bob Marley did with reggae.
In this new book, which purports to be a biography, White spins an impressionistic account of Marley's life and the various public and spiritual forces that helped shape his music. "This book gives itself over in an atmospheric fashion to the confluence of belief systems that informed Bob Marley," White cryptically notes in a preface. "It posits that if everything soberly stated about Marley by those closest to him were true, the story would unfold as I have recorded it." Judging from the results, Marley's associates must have found White, who has written for Rolling Stone and The New York Times, a singularly gullible and uncritical mark. With its imagined conversations and acceptance of mystical impressions as fact, "Catch a Fire" is more of a novel--or perhaps a fable--than a conventional biography.
Marley was a member of the Rastafarian faith, a black Jamaican sect that combines Christian and African beliefs, worships Haile Selassie as a god and smokes huge amounts of marijuana as a religious rite. Rastafarians almost never cut their hair, braiding it into long, snaky strands called dreadlocks. They believe that the black race is specially blessed and that blacks will one day return to Africa.
Rastafarian ideas dominated much of Marley's life and music, but curiously enough his father was white. Capt. Norval Sinclair Marley of the West Indian Regiment gave his name and his facial features to his son, but little else. He deserted his 19-year-old black wife after they married, and contributed nothing to the family's support. White recreates an occasional childhood scene, but Marley's early life and education remain incompletely drawn. Even more important, however, White ignores the significance of Marley's mixed parentage. It must have been much on the mind of someone who became a prominent black cultural figure, but White never discusses what Marley or anyone else thought about it.
In the early 1960s, Marley and two of his friends from the Kingston slum of Trench Town, Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh (originally McIntosh), began to play music together in the "rock steady" style that preceded reggae. They called themselves the Wailers and became probably the finest reggae band ever. Unfortunately, White captures none of the flavor or the craftsmanship of their music. For pages on end, he writes about record deals and the business squabbles of music promoters, but the nature of Marley's exceptional talent fails to come to life.
Many other parts of his personal history are also left annoyingly unexplored. Marley's mother lived in Wilmington, Del., for many years, and her son frequently visited her. But the possible American influence on Marley's music and social outlook is all but ignored. Even his conversion to Rastafarianism is handled loosely. At a concert in 1978, Marley was dramatically able to unite Jamaica's bitter political rivals, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, but his political beliefs are never spelled out beyond a few bland generalities.
Besides an overripe novelistic style ("A cock crowed into the amber glow filtering through the palm forest in the western hills, announcing the sunset"), White disingenuously adopts the ghetto patois of Kingston as part of his vocabulary. The book is burdened with much irrelevant information on Jamaican politics and history, the music business and a rather naive account of the life and supposedly divine powers of Haile Selassie. People reading "Catch a Fire" will learn next to nothing of the personal drive, the conviction and the musical inventiveness that propelled Marley and reggae into eminence.
In the only letter of Marley's quoted in this book, he writes eloquently of his inner ambition: "Mom, here I enclose this money. I just send it to you as a token of love. It is not much, but I worked hard for it and I want you to be proud of me. Now I am singing . . . There is something in me, and when I am singing with everything in me I feel it." Perhaps, in the end, it is better to let Marley and his music speak for themselves.