INTERNATIONAL reggae star Bob Marley, who died of cancer two years ago at the age of 36, lived for most of his performing years in a communal house on Hope Road in Kingston, Jamaica, where the band members and assorted hangers-on adhered to the rules of the Rastafarian religion. In this excerpt from his new book, "Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley," Timothy White describes, in the island vernacular, the rituals at the house on Hope Road.
The routine was always the same; everybody would try to get up in the morning before Bob, but no one ever did. Some would attempt to outlast him the night before, but that never worked, either. It was uncanny; Bob was always the last to take to his little mattress in his upstairs bedroom (bare except for a portrait of Haile Selassie hanging on the wall) and the first to awake. If everybody passed out around 3 a.m., Bob was asleep at 3:15; if one of the dreads lasted until first light, Bob did too. If Bob had to miss his sleep entirely to maintain the upper hand, he did and seemed none the worse for wear.
Regardless of the previous night's activities (which always centered on smoking herb, singing songs and discussing Selassie), Bob, fellow Wailers Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh, Jamaican soccer star Alan (Skilly) Cole and the rest of the brethren would be ready at sunrise for a jog, usually on the sprawling Jamaica House grounds near the police officers' club or at the field site of the Water Commission near Hope Road. But this was merely an "open-yeyes" sprint. If Bob was in the mood "fe discipline in stamina," then everybody would follow as he led the way along Hope Road and down Mountain View Avenue onto Windward Road, heading in the direction of the airport. At the traffic circle, the group would hook a right, and move out, running abreast along the Palisadoes peninsula, for as long as anyone could stand it.
On Sundays, the jogging entourage might go the whole 18-odd miles to Port Royal Point, their lengthening locks dancing in the wind. If they hadn't arranged for a car to pick them up, they'd hike back and pile into Bob's car for a drive to Bull Bay, where they'd wash themselves in the Cane River Falls, scrubbing each other's locks, and then position themselves in the roaring falls so that the torrents pounded against their chests and backs. Next they'd ride to Papine Market, and Rasta cook Gilly would select the day's produce: calaloo, pop-chow (a Chinese vegetable akin to Swiss chard), okra, yams, mangoes, citrus, bananas, plantains, gungo peas, rice, sweet potatoes, guava, pawpaw (papaya), cassava, breadfruit, ackee, arrowroot, avocado. Gilly would also purchase some snapper, kingfish, goatfish and doctor fish. For juices, Bob himself would choose the carrots, soursop and Irish moss, a type of seaweed used for making a sweet, gelatinous drink believed to encourage the libido. Everything would be stuffed into the car and taken back to Hope Raod, where Gilly would prepare for a communal "ninyam" (meal). If they were feeling "ninyam-surrey" (hungrey enough to devour the whole county of Surrey), he'd prepare an ital (pure, healthful) feast, the consumption of which would take up most of the rest of the day.
If the band wasn't recording or rehearsing, everyone just milled around the Hope Road complex until Bob organized the afternoon soccer game. If there weren't enough breddahs on hand for two full teams, the game took place informally on the front lawn at Hope Road. Bob played inside right and was a strong darter and dribbler who preferred passing over shooting; he left the scoring to Alan, whom he idolized.
The early Hope Road scene could be described as a non-dogmatic religious hippie commune, with an abundance of food, herb, children, music and casual sex. Jamaica being a country with a small but obsessively ambitious middle class, the American hippie movement did not arrive on the island for quite some time. It was not until well-to-do, hardcore hippy vagabonds who had survived the late 1960s began to make their way to ready-made paradises like Maui, St. Martin, St. Bart's and other tropical islands in the early 1970s that they discovered Jamaica. These tanned young haves who masqueraded as have-nots established beachheads and campsites between Port Maria and Port Antonio on the North Coast, and in the Chicken Lavish area of Negril, which was adjacent to Bloody Bay and Long Bay on the South Coast.
There seemed to be a superficial affinity between rich hippies and Rastas, the former having inherited the means to turn their backs on much of society, the latter having inherited the conviction. The Rastaman knew he had no choice; the hippies, full of themselves, said the same thing as they sat half-naked on the patio at Rick's Cafe and sipped rum punch. Young middle and upper-class Jamaicans were drawn to these hot spots and happenings, and they began to mimic the appearance of Rastas -- but they completely disregarded the strict dietary rules, the religious beliefs and the humility of the authentic dreads. Rude boys did likewise. Eventually, these two groups of quasi-dreads began to trip on acid, share the rum bottle, sprinkle opium into their spliffs (ganja joints) and cruise the hippie strongholds in search of various kinds of action.
Jamaica had been trying to shake off the Caribbean malaise and establish itself in the world community since the days of Norman Manley and Bustamante. To this end, the government had undertaken a highly aggressive tourist campaign in the late 1960s, hoping to lure businessmen who would want to hold sales conferences at the island's hotels, purchase land along its coasts, and invite other investors and real estate speculators to help develop a poor but beautiful island that was not plagued with the population density and dictatorial oppression of other island nations in the area.
But these promotional campaigns succeeded mostly in attracting American hippies, who in turn were discovering and celebrating the last aspect of Jamaican culture the government wanted to promote: the Rastafarians -- a murky, mystical cult composed of sufferahs who were praying every day for the whole island to sink into the sea in a hail of fire and brimstone, while the rest of the population was praying for Tappan ranges, color TV and young doctors and lawyers who would marry their sons and daughters.
IN 1974, an event occurred that was to shake the tiny island to its foundations like a second Hurricane Hattie. Bob Marley and the Wailers had gone back into Harry J's studio in the summer of 1973 and emerged by year's end with a new LP, "Burnin"." Shipped to America and Europe, it was the first completely unique musical offering to arrive in record stores since the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The Beatles album had generated considerable outrage in the straight world because of its apparent LSD boosterism ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"). But that was a mild snit compared to the underground furor set off by the release of "Burnin"." On the back cover of the LP was a photo of Bob, dreadlocks ta raas, drawing on a spliff as big as an ice cream cone. Inside were color photos of shantytown street life, of men and boys of all ages who also sported locks, of good looking Bob Marley and his trim and fit band members wearing red, green and gold tams and passing joints in front of their King Street record shop. The record itself was filled with dangerous wailing Black Power songs like "I Shot the Sheriff," "Burnin" and Lootin"" and the real sizzler "Get up, Stand up."
A lot of people believed that a Mau-Mau-inspired cult of demonic antiwhite murderers had been uncovered in the Caribbean. The music conjured up images of white tourists being hacked to death on the fringes of tropical golf courses.
Soon everyone began demanding to know who these snake-haired specimens from the Gone World were. Paul McCartney himself popped up in a British newspaper to nonchalantly explain that the Wailers were a reggae group that played "tighten-up music," as the British kids called it. McCartney added that reggae was "where it's at!"
Not only that, noted another British tabloid, but when Mick Jagger married Bianca, he had a reggae band (the Greyhounds) play at the reception. And even America's own Paul Simon had headed down to Kingston to do some recording.
The American press, which had been napping in 1973 when the Wailers' first Island Records album, "Catch a Fire," had appeared, now began running long, detailed pieces on this Jamaican cult that salaamed in front of icons of an Ethiopian despot and smoked more pot than the populations of Haight-Ashbury and Greenwich Village combined. Pillars of communities from Manchester to Memphis were lining up to express their outrage, and the Wailers were in the eye of the gathering storm, which was rolling back toward Jamaica, building strength with every league.
Jamaican society unfolded the Daily Gleaner (or The New York Times or the Miami Herald, flown in from Florida) one morning to realize that a Rastafarian had suddenly become one of the best-known figures in the Third World. He was quoted like a poet, heralded as the Mick Jagger of reggae, the West Indian Bob Dylan, even the Jamaican Jomo Kenyatta. Yet he was not a politician, not a statesman, not a business executive, not a scholar. He was a sufferah. A guitar-strummin" street urchin. The product of the dalliance of a white captain the the West Indian regiment and a bungo-bessy from the bush.
And this Rasta's brethren, who refused to lift a finger for their country, who declined to hold a job or use birth control or honor any civilized institution within its borders, who wanted little more than a zinc sheet over their heads, a keen-edged cutlass, a dugout that didn't leak and a full pipe of "collie weed" (ganja) -- they had been rewarded with international recognition, as poets and philosophers! And their own Bob Marley was being called a "black prince"! "We work and sweat for generations to pull this misbegotten slave depot out of the Stone Age!" Jamaica's leaders howled. "We knock ourselves out to gain respect as an emerging nation raised on hopes and dreams and blessed with skills and diligence, and these ghetto rats crawl out of their outhouses and hillside lean-tos to hum a few bars of some gully ditty, and they get sainted, turned into royalty, lionized!"
But the situation was far worse than that, because the Rastas had been drawn into the political arena and had become a significant political force. That outrage had been orchestrated by none other than Michael Manley, the fair-skinned pretty-boy son of Jamaican National Hero Norman Manley. The junior Manley, brash standard-bearer of the opposition Democratic-Socialist Peoples National Party (PNP), had conspired to take back the government from the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP). And he did it by manipulating the growing Rastafarian population.
Running for prime minister against incumbent Hugh Shearer, Manley organized in the ghetto. He sought in particular to win the hearts and minds of rising JLP leader Edward Seaga's natural constituency: the Rasta slum musicians whose records Edward had once produced. Manley had wrangled an invitation to visit Jah Selassie I in Ethiopia and returned with an elaborate miniature walking stick the emperor had given him as a token of his esteem. In Trench Town, that was the only imprimatur Manley required, but he went much further than that.
Christening the staff the "Rod of Correction," Manley had taken it into the hills, out on the savannas and into the lowliest lanes of the Dungle, where even the goats didn't graze. The superstitious peasants and Rasta sufferahs turned out by the thousands to kneel and kiss the relic, tearfully thanking Michael as if he were Joshua reincarnated. There were scenes of adulation among the working-class population that were wholly unprecedented in Jamaican political history. He even used a reggae single by Delroy Wilson, "Bettah Must Come," as his theme song. The PNP, out of touch with the grass roots since the mid-1950s, was mounting a comeback of truly Mosaic proportions.
Manley was no sooner in office than he took as a bride a 27-year-old radio and television personality, Beverly Anderson. And since he was practically next door to a Rasta superstar like Bob, he and his bride started dropping in on his noted neighbor. Indeed, Manley surreptitiously passed entire evenings at Hope Road on several occasions.
Meanwhile, Bob and Alan were making their own rounds, frequenting the hippest and the toughest nightclubs in Kingston. Dressing up stoshus in expensive threads brought in special from Miami, they would stroll into discos not far from Hope Road, like the Genesis and the Epiphany and the too-rude Turntable on Red Hills Road in St. Andrew, and the ladies and bad boys would "check dem strong," especially because they were two of the first well-known dreads to display their locks socially rather than tucking them away beneath their tams to placate the cops. Soon enough, they were being given "de mightiest" herb by rude dudes like Earl "Tek-Life" Wadley and Earl "Frowser" Bright, and powwowing vigorously with political kingpins like Aston Thompson (alias Bucky Marshall) of the PNP and Claudie Massop of the JLP. These were the kinds of breddahs who could open doors in solid concrete walls and deliver tire traction in quicksand; they were connected ta raas.
Everyone in town with an ax to grind was monitoring the King of Reggae and his crowd to see what his friendship with Manley might add up to. Some felt they got an inkling of the answer when the Wailers released "Natty Dread" in 1974, the dreadest LP yet, with a painting of Bob on the cover that looked like the Rasta equivalent of the Shroud of Turin. On the back cover his fist was raised, his locks licked his shoulders, and he looked much like an urban guerrilla -- one who was gonna tek nuh prisoners. In short, it seemed that Bob was becoming a self-styled revolutionary, a Jamaican Jose Marti, perhaps. Maybe Marley, like Manley, was too full of himself and his radical visions.
When the Wailers did a show in Kingston in 1973 with the Jackson Five, the tension within the group was unbearable -- everybody tasting in his own way the amazing fame that was at their fingertips and wondering who, within or without, might try and pull the plug.
Bob Marley's final album, "Confrontation" (Island Records), will appear in record stores nationwide this week.