Thursday, June 17, 2010

Revolutionary Rastaman: An Encounter with Bob Marley

Bob Marley cannot seem to rest in peace. In 2008 director Martin Scorsese was working on a documentary about the reggae singer, who died of cancer in 1981, but dropped out last year due to scheduling conflicts. Jonathan Demme signed on, with blessings from the Jamaican performer’s family. The plan was to screen the finished work in February 2010, coinciding with what would have been Marley’s 65th birthday. When the rough cut displeased billionaire real-estate heir Steve Bing, the chief investor, Demme also exited the project. Somewhere in Rasta heaven, Marley must be jamming. As a prolific songwriter who regularly excoriated wealthy capitalists, perhaps he’s even referencing a line from “Stiff Necked Fools” to sum up his feelings on this cinematic stalemate: ”Yes, you have got the wrong interpretation/ Mixed up with vain imagination...”

Anyone who ever caught one of his live performances is likely to comprehend why filmmakers would be drawn to this charismatic artist. I succumbed to his spell one tepid July night in 1978: Whirling dizzily, Marley pointed the index finger of his left hand heavenward. Thousands of eyes in the old Montreal Forum were riveted by the wiry man with dreadlocks splaying out as he spun, apparently singing and dancing himself into a trance, mesmerizing every soul in the place. Those souls were standing on their seats, writhing along with him.

My only face-to-face encounter with Marley took place a few months later, in October. I was among a succession of journalists from around the world interviewing him at his New York hotel. An autumn wind rattled the panes of a spacious suite in Manhattan's ultra-elegant Essex House while his band, The Wailers, sat watching a rerun of "Ironside." In an adjacent bedroom their leader was meeting the press, a junket timed to coincide with his four-day stint some 66 blocks uptown at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. When I arrived, an Italian television crew was winding up a conversation. His words, filtered through a lilting Jamaican accent, were sometimes difficult for American and European ears to decipher.

"Is it difficult to be a star?" wondered the young woman who had been questioning him.

"I'm a revolutionary Rastaman," Marley replied.

"But is it different for you now that you've become so famous?" she persisted.

"I don't t'ink so," he said.

"Do you have a religious experience on stage?" the TV reporter asked.

"I can't explain what happens up dere," Marley said.

When the woman told him she had been to Jamaica several times, he chided her: "A tourist?" She protested that she was practically one of the people, even attending some Rastafarian religious events.

"Take it seriously now?" Marley looked at her with a sidelong glance.

"I am serious," she insisted. "I listen."

"T'ink positive, when you listen," Marley advised. "Too much negativity goin' round."

The familiar aroma of marijuana hung in the air and the ashtray on the table next to him contained the remains of many spliffs. These roaches arguably were evidence of a Rastafarian ritual, just as dregs of wine in a goblet might signify a Catholic mass has taken place.

During the next interview -- mine --Marley suggested that his music’s universal appeal came from the fact that "we got no country. We say we want to work for God, getting to de people. Everyone, everyone, EVERYONE on de earth will know about Rastafari because reggae music will spread it. So everyone will have a chance." The people have the power, he pointed out, and "de people are forever."

The son of an African woman who emigrated to Jamaica and an English plantation owner, Marley said he could not describe what he was like before finding the faith. "I grow up to be a Rasta. When I wasn't a Rasta, I was only growing. By de time I could go anywhere, I a Rasta, you hear? Everyone search for something, you know? Real life, I seek, not just in de sense of eating and clothes, but natural, spiritual living, and de togetherness. Other churches fight one against another. I finally say: no, dat never right. When I find Rastafari, I say: ‘Yes, can tell you about God now.’" Rastas pray, Marley explained, "daily, minutely, hourly. Praying is when every word must be acceptable in front of God.”

Though forewarned by the Italians’ lack of success when asking what happens to him while performing reggae, I tried to phrase the same question differently: "Are you aware of your audience when you play?" "Let me tell you somethin'," he offered. "Sometime, music is a different t'ing, you know. Music is a cleansingness. It above. A cleansingness, specially music de way I deal with it.” He quoted from his song “War,” its lyrics a 1968 speech by Haile Selassie -- the late Ethiopian emperor Rastafarians consider to be God -- that promises continual conflict in the world until racism disappears. “I can't t'ink dat maybe one guy doesn't like dat; he gwan gone off on me now,” Marley explained. “I can't t'ink dat clear now because what I am saying, it too strong...When I am singing if I t'ink dat I give myself to God, that means me am dere. When it's over, a different t'ing. I conscious again, you know, but it kind of my own business what happen, cause is a dangerous road." He punctuated his statement with laughter.

My interview ended when the next media representative was ushered into the room. In the midst of our goodbyes, someone asked the revolutionary Rastaman to pose for a picture. "Could you possibly keep talking or something?" the photographer requested.

"I got somet'ing better dan dat to do, mon," Marley volunteered and promptly lit up one of the more sizable remnants of a spliff.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law and Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.