Saturday, May 12, 2012

Hit Me With Music: The Soundtrack to Kevin MacDonald's Film Marley

"Hit me with music," is Bob Marley's triumphant call in the song, "Trenchtown Rock," heard on the soundtrack to Kevin MacDonald's documentary, Marley (Island/Tuff Gong, 2012). (The film recently debuted in Toronto on May 3rd as part of the Hot Docs Festival, while Marley himself died of cancer 31 years ago, yesterday.) One thing you can say about his music, too, which is chronicled on this two-CD set from the early, ska numbers of the 1960s ("Simmer Down" and "Small Axe") to the more popular works of the 1970s, ("One Love" and "Redemption Song"), is that it never seems to go out of style. Bob Marley's work has now transcended the artist who created it. According to his widow, Rita Marley, that's "because he put his all, his heart and soul and his life, into his music, this is why it has the opportunity and the authority to live after him."

I think the reason for Marley's longevity is the universality of his songs. While they may talk about political activism ("Get Up Stand Up") and the dehumanized aspects of the industrialized world ("Concrete Jungle"), he was also a composer who seemed to cut through the noise of political rhetoric and speak directly to the heart of people. He created an effective sound, especially in the mid-70s, by breaking through geographic lines and bringing his infectious rhythms to ganja-filled auditoriums where he greeted audiences pining for a new idealistic vision in the unfulfilled, post-Woodstock nation. I remember when "Jammin" pierced the pop music of 1977 with an earnest yet irresistible beat. It was as if Marley knew the world could accommodate him even with references to the obscure religious ideas of Rastafarianism. While that likely didn't matter to the throngs of fans who were looking for an excuse to smoke pot, you didn't have to be a stoner to appreciate Marley's intentions. The live Babylon By Bus (Tuff Gong/Island 1978), with its infectious call for a new world, was in constant rotation in every suburban kid's music collection.

On disc two of this marvelous set, Marley also features a number of live recordings that capture both he and his band The Wailers in good form. What impresses a listener going through this soundtrack is how remarkably tight with a rock steady rhythm they were. The live version of "War" is particularly irresistible as Marley laments the woes of the poor and disenfranchised where "everywhere is war." While Marley won assurances with populist calls of "victory" because "we know we shall win ... good over evil," it's the more personal Marley that comes through on many of his songs such as "High Tide or Low Tide" where he invokes God as an equal partner in finding one's salvation in troubled times. The quieter, more intimate artist is revealed in songs like that as well as "Is This Love," which is not on this release.

Considering how crazy and mixed-up the world in which we live tends to feel these days, perhaps it's time for us to rediscover Bob Marley once again. After all, as the tracks on Marley seem to insist over and over, "one good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain. So hit me with music, hit me with music."

John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. His documentary about Wallace Hartley, bandmaster of the Titanic was broadcast on the CBC’s flagship current affairs program, The Sunday Edition. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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