JUNE 11, 2012
ON A CHILLY AFTERNOON in the late London fall of 1972, three young men walked down a quiet street in Ladbroke Grove. Their brown skin and lilting diction marked them as West Indians. One of the three, shorter and lighter-skinned than the others, carried himself with an assurance bespeaking his extra days’ knowledge of the neighborhood’s damp streets. The trio, known as The Wailers, had been making music together since their teens. They had gained fame in Jamaica singing chirpy covers of U.S. pop hits as adolescents, before moving on, in their twenties, to become masters of the slinky, driving rhythm known as reggae. This music — which had ruled the island’s airwaves since another group of Kingston strivers had waxed a catchy tune called “Do the Reggay” in 1968 — was still largely unknown beyond its country of origin; The Wailers’s trip to England was the result of a break caught by the most ambitious of their number a few years before.
Here’s what happened: at a Kingston party where Bob Marley was singing and strumming his guitar, he’d been approached by two American strangers. The pair — a lanky visiting soul singer called Johnny Nash, and his manager, Danny Sims — sensed something they wanted in the local’s sound. They hired Marley to help Nash expand his Caribbean-influenced repertoire, and then spirited him away to Europe to help Nash write songs for an album of pop-reggae tunes (I Can See Clearly Now) that made the smooth Texan a short-lived star in the early seventies. In partial exchange for that service, Nash’s manager had arranged for Marley to sign a deal with his charge’s British label. CBS Records pushed for Marley to release a gimmicky single called “Reggae on Broadway,” and then failed to promote it. The ensuing UK tour, which commenced when Marley’s group-mates Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston arrived from Jamaica, went quickly south. After playing a series of depressing gigs in suburban school gyms in Dunstable and Croydon, The Wailers informed Nash’s manager they were through. How they were going to get back home without their sponsor, let alone eat, was unclear. Their last hope was a meeting with Chris Blackwell, the sandy-haired son of a Jamaican sugar heiress who had founded a record company, a decade before, with the aim of popularizing his home-island’s music in the UK.
Striding up Basing Street, the trio entered the offices of Island Records. By 1972, Blackwell’s firm had grown out of the boot of his Volkswagen to fill a deconsecrated church on the parade route of the Notting Hill Carnival. His efforts to break Jamaican acts in England had mostly failed — he’d built his business by signing more than a few of the British folk-rock acts on which the look and feel of the late-sixties were based. But he was still convinced that the hirsute fans of Cat Stevens and Fairport Convention could love reggae. When The Wailers walked in, all angry pride and unkempt hair, he felt he’d found the act to make that happen. He gave the group enough cash not only to buy out their CBS contract and fly home, but to make the full-length reggae album he felt English hipsters were ready to buy.
A few weeks later, Blackwell flew to Jamaica. Marley came to his hotel and played him tapes containing a dozen tracks into which, the label head now recalls, “every penny of [his] 4000 pounds had gone.” That his hunch was vindicated is no small part of why Blackwell — as his legion of admirers recount in Keep on Running, a luxe coffee-table book marking the 50th anniversary of music’s most successful independent label — is still regularly introduced at parties as “the Best A&R Man in the Business.” (In 1989, Blackwell sold Island’s catalog, which grew to include acts like U2 and Roxy Music, to Polygram/Universal for £272 million.) Island’s release of those early Wailers’ tapes, filigreed with additional electric guitar to help appeal to a rock audience, as the album Catch a Fire launched Bob Marley’s astonishing rise to fame. Over the next half-decade, he would grow into perhaps the first Third World performer to become a rock star in the First.
All this is well-known — and has just become even more so, with Kevin MacDonald’s as–definitive–as–we’ll–ever–have documentary, Marley, finally reaching theaters this past spring. The long-awaited film, MacDonald’s completion of a project adopted and abandoned by Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme in turn, manages the considerable feat of gather Marley’s key friends and lovers to recount his triumphs and failings, from his rise to his fame through his 1970s heyday. Despite the wealth of lore and stunning footage that fill its two-and-a-half hours, the film treats The Wailers — Marley’s most crucial collaborators — much as one would expect: as attaches to the great man.
What Marley, like most of the print biographies of the singer, doesn’t treat in depth is the story that ended that same day The Wailers strode into Blackwell’s office: the tale of how three friends, born dirt poor in an obscure sugar colony, gained the skills and acumen to bring their island’s culture to the world — and to herald the birth of “world music,” that curious hallmark of our postcolonial age. Within months of their meeting with Blackwell, The Wailers were en route to breaking up as a group. That Marley’s rise to stardom required leaving his boyhood pals behind is not so surprising; it’s a truth with echoes in a hundred similar tales. In other ways, though, The Wailers’ story offers something different. Firstly, because the brothers with whom Marley parted ways gained as potent a resonance, at least in their homeland, as the group’s breakout star, but also because The Wailers’ story is a tale through which one can trace the larger social history of a sunny isle that has become best-known, over its half-century of sovereign history, for two attributes not sand or sea: music and violence.
In Jamaica, as in many of the world’s younger, darker nations, the seeds of freedom from colonial rule were sown during the Depression. In 1938, Tate & Lyle opened a new sugar factory in the provincial island-town of Frome. On April 29, workers queueing for their wages became upset at their meager pay packets and grew rambunctious. A panicky manager fired a gun over their heads. The ensuing riots spread to sugar estates nearby; scores of workers died. The so-called Frome Rebellion, which inflamed Jamaica for weeks and recalled its freed slaves’ uprisings in the 1800s, destabilized the island by mobilizing its poor. It also gave rise to the two light-skinned leaders whose rival parties still define its politics: Alexander Bustamente, a one-time moneylender whose populist demagoguery on behalf of the strikers made him a hero of the masses; and his cousin Norman Manley, a high-minded barrister. (In 1935, Manley’s artist-wife, Edna, sculpted a statue inspired by era’s labor trouble, dubbed “Negro Aroused,” that still stands by Kingston Harbour today.) The two parties to which the riots gave rise — the Peoples National Party, nominally socialist in outlook, and the Jamaican Labor Party, populist ally of the working man (and, at that time, a rightist proxy for the C.I.A.) — dominated Jamaica’s politics throughout the years leading up to independence in 1962. And they still do.
Whether or not “the early lives of the boys who would become The Wailers were defined by the fallout from Frome,” as Colin Grant writes in The Natural Mystics, his adept biography of the group, is debatable. But it is a sign of Grant’s erudite perspective that he backs up this claim with a capsule-history of the Frome riots and an excursus on the reproductive pathologies of a plantation-society where, as one 19th century observer put it, “every female [was] a prostitute; and every man a libertine.” All three Wailers were born to young black women in the countryside; only Bunny (né Neville Livingston) knew his father well. Bob’s father, the aging n’er-do-well son of white Kingston merchants, did his son’s young mum the courtesy of marrying her before departing her life (though he would eventually reenter Bob’s). Peter (neé Peter MacIntosh) was born to a strict church-going mother in a seaside village not far from Frome; his father was a “a bad boy, a rascal,” he would later recall, who “just go around and have a million-and-one children!”
Bunny and Bob, born in the same remote hamlet in Jamaica’s “garden parish” of St. Ann, were friends from their school days. They met Peter after all three joined the postwar exodus of rural folk from of Jamaica’s countryside, which transformed its capital from a mellow port-town of 190,000 to an overstuffed city twice that size by 1962. All three settled in the dusty precincts west of Kingston’s downtown, whose names — Back-o-Wall, Trench Town — suggested their marginal air. Bunny and Bob first encountered Peter selling sugarcane juice from a cart. Their affinity for the tall, garrulous youth grew into friendship when they learned he could play a guitar he had lifted from his mother’s church. The group was determined to emulate the doo-wop and country singers they heard tuning in to Miami’s WGBS AM and, on clear nights, to the 50,000 watt signal of WLAC out of Nashville, Tennessee.
In every book on Jamaican music, it is customary to register the huge impact this “poor little island” has had on the larger course of global pop. Few discuss the conditions that made this possible which remained, as late as the early 1950s, a musical backwater where the arrival of racy calypsos from urbane Trinidad prompted a fierce debate about music’s bad influence on Jamaica’s youth. At that time, Edward Seaga — later the island’s Prime Minister, but then an ethnologist in its slums — wrote an editorial opining that “[c]hildren who sleep on or below the same bed in which their parents have intercourse . . . are unlikely to be corrupted… by the wittiest of musical works.” And soon enough, it was the influence of another foreign country — the United States — that sparked those children to make music of their own. Unlike other larger Anglophone islands in the southern Caribbean, like Trinidad and Barbados, Jamaica was in range of mainland radio, whose American sounds the island’s musicians were able to absorb and then tweak to ingenious effect.
In the late 1950s, deejays bearing such grandiloquent sobriquets as “Duke” and “Coxson,” who began their careers by competing to play the latest imports from Miami at street parties, gained local fame by “toasting” boastfully over their records; then they hit on the idea of making records themselves, thus forging a new homegrown industry. Around the same time, island musicians, accustomed to playing swing jazz for tourists, began to develop a new style called “ska” for those impresarios to record. Tosh, Marley, and Livingston rode this bouncy, horn-driven rhythm to local fame after winning an audition with leading Kingston producer Clement “Coxson” Dodd. “Simmer Down,” the Wailin’ Wailers’ first release on Dodd’s Studio One label, shot to the top of the Jamaican charts and stayed there. On that record, they addressed themselves to the “rude boys” with whom they had passed afternoons on Kingston’s parade ground, calling for calm amidst the heady days of the nation’s newfound freedom:
Simmer down, oh control your temper
Simmer down, for the battle will be hotter
Simmer down, and you won’t get no supper
Simmer down, and you know you bound to suffer
Simmer down, simmer, simmer, simmer right down
By the end of 1964, The Wailers, affecting shiny suits and shinier dance routines,were headlining a packed Christmas concert at Kingston’s Palace Theater. But just as they kicked off “Simmer Down” — as Grant describes in an exemplary scene from The Natural Mystics — the house lights went dark. The blackout was citywide, but the crowd didn’t know. A notorious “rudie” called Big Junior, his head swollen from a cameo appearance in the film-version of sometime-Jamaican Ian Fleming’s novel Dr. No, smashed his wooden chair on the floor. The Wailers only escaped the ensuing riot by barricading themselves in a backstage loo. In a young country where the rule of law was as inchoate as its electrical grid, a song urging self-control may have made street-tough youths into singing stars. But it was outlaws like Big Junior — who, flocking to shoot-em-up westerns popular in Kingston’s cinemas, joined in the action by firing their own pistols at the screen — that remained its favorite folk heroes.
In the wake of their first hit, The Wailers scored a bevy more. Some were originals composed on Tosh’s guitar. Others were ska covers of soul and pop hits reworked from records found in their producer’s collection. On most, the group’s most prolific songwriter and driving force, Marley, sang lead, though Tosh took over on some notable exceptions, including a rock-ish version of the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You See.” Never paid royalties by their producer for any of their records, they survived on a small retainer. In 1966, Marley, determined to win the group some capital of their own, left Jamaica to “work some money” in the U.S.A., where his mother had emigrated a few years before.
Marley’s six months as a forklift operator at a Chrysler plant in Delaware solidified the links between slavery and wage-slavery he would later point out in songs like “Slave Driver” and “Night Shift.” They also happened to coincide with an event that led The Wailers to a religious faith, and language, that helped them make those links for a global audience. That language had its roots in the life of another of St. Ann’s émigré sons, Marcus Garvey, who (as Colin Grant detailed in his first book, the important Garvey biography Negro With a Hat) opened his Harlem headquarters of the United Negro Improvement Assocation in 1917. On Garvey’s home island, the power of his rhetoric — “Africa for the Africans, at home and abroad” — attracted a large flock of followers. One group of them, as they sat watching newsreel footage of a new Ethiopian Emperor in Kingston’s Carib Theatre, grew convinced that one of his prophecies had come true. “Look to the east,” Garvey was supposed to have said, “for the crowning of an African king.” For most of the next few decades, the Rastafari (named for Haile Selassie’s Amharic honorific, Ras — Prince — Tafari) remained an obscure if visible feature of Jamaican life. And then, in April 1966, Selassie visited the island.
Among the thousands driven to worship Selassie as a living god that day were Tosh and Livingston. In Delaware, Marley received a letter from his hometown sweetie about how, when the Emperor had waved to her from his motorcade, she’d glimpsed Christ’s stigmata on his palm. All three, upon Bob’s return, stopped cutting their hair, and began spending much of their time at the Trench Town “yard” of Mortimo Planno, the charismatic Rasta who had hosted Selassie on behalf of Jamaica’s government. Whatever their personal reasons for embracing the faith, Rastafari gave The Wailers a liturgical language that, in an era of Black Power and African freedom struggles, bespoke connections among black people everywhere. Now they set out to forge a new sound befitting that language – and to build a reputation as serious businessmen that would lead Chris Blackwell to entrust them, a few years later, with 4,000 pounds to record their music and lyrics for the world.
In November 1966, using the recently-returned Marley’s savings from his union wages, The Wailers bought a shack near Kingston’s Half Way Tree and founded their own label. The logo of Wail N’ Soul ‘M Records pictured three interlocking hands to evoke the power of their trinity. Bunny, Peter, and Bob rented studio time, recorded and pressed their own records, and delivered the finished discs to Kingston’s deejays and shops by bicycle. (To keep them fed, Peter also peddled wooden combs on the side.) The group often recorded with a fellow ex-Dodd protégé called Lee “Scratch” Perry, an eccentric mixing-board genius who was a key architect of a slow, rocking rhythm we now identify with reggae, built by emphasizing the “offbeat” accents in boogie blues. (Perry described the rhythm as “stepping in glue.”) The Wailers soon left Perry’s camp, but not before finding a potent new sound with the house band at his Black Ark studio, some of whose members stayed with Marley until the end.
The time with Perry also stirred up tensions within the group. Bunny had long viewed himself as Bob’s “inch man,” and he now worried that Perry, who had invited Marley to live in his house, was looking to steal his best friend. Tosh, with his own performer’s ego, resented that his one-time guitar “pupil” was now receiving more of their producer’s love. He was also far less given than Marley to 16-hour days in the studio. By the time of their London sojourn, The Wailers were apart as often as they were together: on the day that Johnny Nash happened on Marley strumming his guitar in Mortimo Planno’s yard, Tosh was on the beach somewhere; Bunny was locked in jail for smoking the holy weed.
That Marley insisted, after catching his solo break, on making his “bredren” party to every contract he signed abroad bespeaks the filial bonds that joined the three Wailers together. By now though, Bunny and Peter, for better or worse, knew their place: when the group assembled to have their photo taken for their first Island record, they arranged themselves behind Bob without being told to do so. Catch a Fire landed in shops in April 1973; Island’s timing, which is to say Chris Blackwell’s, couldn’t have been better. The Harder They Come, a feature film shot on location in Kingston’s streets, had just become a surprise hit at the Venice Film Festival. The film was a reggae-drenched re-telling of the true story of Rhygin, a pistol-toting hood who’d become a folk hero in 1950s Kingston. The gunman’s struggles — brought up to date and tailored to the persona of the reggae star Jimmy Cliff — now included fighting to make his way in the rotten record business. When the film opened at Kingston’s Carib Theatre, local hoods queued around the block to see themselves, rather than John Wayne or 007, projected on screen. Lines in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts were just as long. Blackwell (who, Chris Salewicz reports in Keep on Running, had worked as a young PA on the set of Dr. No) had also helped finance The Harder They Come. He knew there was no better time to break Jamaican culture to the world. Part of the reason he had signed The Wailers was that the sweet-natured Cliff — desiring “mainstream” fame, and uneasy with his gangster persona from the film — had made the mistake, one week before The Wailers appeared in a Blackwell’s office, of parting ways with Island in favor of corporate EMI.
The Wailers, the group Blackwell signed to replace Cliff, as the producer now recalls, had one key advantage over their predecessor: they were the characters portrayed in The Harder They Come. Their record, with its outlaw mien and wailing guitars, arrived in shops as if straight from the screen — it met with rapturous reviews in the rock press, and was bought by long-haired hippies and West Indians, too. Its brilliant follow-up, Burnin’, appeared the next year. The album’s front cover may have once again featured the group’s leader smoking a joint. But Tosh, who stood scowling in a group photo on the other side, supplied its most searing verse:
We sick and tired of your ism-skism game
Dyin’ n’ goin’ to heaven in-a Jesus name
We know and we understand
That mighty God is a living man
You can fool some people sometimes
But you can’t fool all the people all the time
So now we see the light (what you gonna do?)
We gon’ stand up for our rights
The uncanny mix of street-tough allure and righteous politics had been with them since “Simmer Down.” But as Jamaicans’ hopes at independence descended into postcolonial dread, and their capital became a fiery battleground for gangs armed by politicians, The Wailers had moved from urging control to extolling uprising.
It was their last record as a group. Back in Jamaica, Tosh stewed over Blackwell’s re-naming the group “Bob Marley and The Wailers.” Livid that Island’s head had refused to support Tosh’s own solo project, he began calling Blackwell “Whiteworst” to friends. Bunny hated each trip to England more than the last. He retreated to a Rasta camp down the coast from Kingston, where he informed an Island employee, who had come to collect him for another tour, that he was done “jukeboxing himself.” With the big severance checks Peter and Bunny received from Blackwell upon leaving the group, Bunny (who subsequently adopted the surname “Wailer” as additional compensation) bought a swath of remote Jamaican jungle where you could “plant your own corn, watch it grow, then pick it.” Peter, recovering from a drunk-driving accident that shattered his windscreen and scarred his face, concentrated on his first solo LP, released in 1976. The pointed pro-marijuana message of “Legalize It” made him as large a figure in Jamaica as Marley, who was by then spending more time touring the world than engaging himself with island affairs.
For many reggae fans, Tosh and Marley function as rough equivalents of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X: the one an inspired conciliator with a prophet’s smile (never mind how key the juxtaposition of “screwface” scowl and lover’s grin were to Bob’s appeal); the other an icon of black rage, glowering behind dark glasses (never mind the goofy strain central to Peter’s manner and hits). Tosh’s partisans have suggested that he never equaled Marley’s fame because Island’s publicists — and a racist world — preferred Bob’s “Caucasian features” to Peter’s darker mug. But Tosh’s self-destructive streak, and his rebel’s disdain for playing Babylon’s games, also played a role. (For his most devoted fans, of course, these traits only compounded his charm.) Tosh’s differences from Marley were clearly displayed during a historic Kingston show at which they both appeared in April 1978. The “One Love Peace Concert,” held at Jamaica’s National Stadium, was aimed at slowing a spate of violence between gunmen loyal to the ruling PNP party, now led by Norman Manley’s son Michael, and followers of Edward Seaga’s rival JLP party. Marley, who had been driven from the island by an attempt on his life a year before, returned from exile to perform his new worldwide hit, “Jammin.'” He summoned Seaga and Manley to his side, getting them to join hands over his head in a symbolic show of music’s unifying force. Tosh, on the other hand, capped his set by lighting an enormous spliff on stage, defying the “shitstem” to arrest him. (Among those impressed by Tosh’s act was Mick Jagger, who went on to sign his old fan to Rolling Stone Records.)
Before long, both Bob and Peter would be dead (Marley was martyred by cancer in 1981, Tosh by a robber’s bullet six years later). Bunny, on the epochal night of the “One Love” show, stayed home — a fact which suggests much about the one Wailer doomed to survive. It was Bunny who made perhaps the most accomplished record of any of The Wailers’ late output: 1976’s Blackheart Man. Its best track, “Dreamland,” revived the old Garveyite dream of repatriation. But “Dreamland,” with its backing harmonies provided by a certain B. Marley and P. Tosh, also evoked an earthly idyll: a sunny tropical isle where childhood friends, not torn apart by Babylon’s logic or “politricks,” could once again sing together in the sun.
To have you all, in my dreamland
Would be like heaven to me
To have you all, in my dreamland
Would be like heaven to me
We’ll get our breakfast from the tree
We’ll get our honey from the bee
We’ll take a ride on the waterfall
And all the glories, we’ll have them all
And we’ll live together on that dreamland
And have so much fun
We’ll live together on that dreamland
And have so much fun
A few years ago, Bunny Wailer was booked to perform on a bill with today’s top “dancehall” reggae stars for a gala Christmas concert at the National Stadium. When he began to sing, young music fans pelted him with beer bottles, driving him from the stage in a shower of glass, back to his recluse’s life. Living out his days in full Rasta regalia, to judge by his rare on-camera interview in MacDonald’s film, Bunny is still sore about how things ended with The Wailers. “I was left to look like the only cold front,” he now says of his refusal to tour, “but I stuck with my position. And I’m still holding my position.” Chris Blackwell, who released Bunny’s Blackheart Man despite their differences, is glimpsed commenting on the same decision: “I think [he] just didn’t want to be in cold, in the snow; it just wasn’t worth it to him.” Both men wear the wizened look of natural positivity worn down by their island’s strife.
In Jamaica today, tastes are governed by famed street parties like Passa Passa, where the lewd lyrics and “daggering” dances on offer would scandalize calypso’s 1950s critics into silence. One recent weekday night, I stopped by in the small hours. Teens with Uzis strode the perimeter of an area forged when Edward Seaga bulldozed Back-O-Wall to build a swath of housing for JLP voters. In “garrison communities” like Tivoli Gardens, drug gangs are a more visible force for poor residents than their government. Last spring, an extradition order arrived from Washington DC for Christopher “Dudus” Coke, the Tivoli “don” who made Passa Passa Jamaica’s go-to fete. Police entered Tivoli to arrest Coke, the don’s neighbors resisted, dozens died. Dudus, disguised in a pink women’s wig and glasses, was soon detained at a roadblock leaving the area. But not before Kingston burned, as it had during the 70s gang wars, with CIA drones hovering above the harbour, outlined against plumes of smoke over the downtown theater where The Wailers, in the early, hopeful days of the nation’s self-rule, sang “Simmer Down” for the first time.