At its most striking, Bob Marley’s voice communicates a sense of unbreakable determination, mixed with a great weariness; he really does sound as if he has lived the 400 years of bondage he sings about, and also as if he is capable of lasting at least as long again, if that’s what it takes to see in the new day his music demands.
Everything in Marley’s work is political, but most often personalized as well. The singers on “Get Up, Stand Up,” a very rhetorical song, don’t sound like rhetoricians; they sound like real people leading a march, talking to other people who are as yet too timid to join, but will. Marley’s assumption of the burden of a people’s history may sound like a hero’s role, but he has rarely sounded like a hero, let alone a savant or a priest; in his singing he has managed to shrink himself back to the streets. Who has ever listened to his version of “I Shot the Sheriff” and doubted that Marley knew what he was talking about? “Concrete Jungle,” the Wailers’ greatest recording (from Catch a Fire, their first American LP, recently reissued) comes at you as the last—or the first—testament of a bunch of Trenchtown derelicts. Marley’s thin, desperate vocal stands out, but just barely; the real story is the ragged, astonishingly complex group singing as it fades in and out of blurry cross-rhythms, and the way the tune hits its one moment of revelation in Aston “Family Man” Barrett’s guitar solo just before the whole piece drops back into the oblivion from which it came.
There is nothing that even approaches such music on Rastaman Vibration, Bob Marley and the Wailers’ fourth American album. In his lyrics Marley is as committed to the struggle as he has ever been, but in his singing he sounds above it. I can’t hear the weariness or the determination either; everything—the lyrics, the music, the singing—sounds very pro forma. Even on “Johnny Was,” about a man shot down in the streets “by a stray bullet,” when Marley explicitly puts himself into the song as a passerby who comforts the victim’s mother, he sounds detached, as if the situation is unreal.
Worse, the situation is unreal. The politics are hopelessly confused, which often happens when one is working from formulas: The formulas bump into each other. “Johnny was a good man/Never did a thing wrong,” the chorus informs us over and over again—this after Marley has wondered if Johnny’s mother will be able to accept her son’s death “now that she knows that the wages of sin is death,” which comes just before we are told that Johnny “died just because of the System.” What in the world does this mean?
“Rastaman Vibration” reminds me of the albums Sly Stone made after There’s a Riot Goin’ On, when “The Family Stone” ceased to be much more than a tag to put on the album covers. With the exception of Tyrone Downie’s organ playing, the band is faceless and rhythmically inert. Aston Barrett is wasted. Marley makes pronouncements. but the intensity that has made his vision so compelling that American audiences have risen to their feet to sing the words of “Get Up, Stand Up” is missing from every element of the music on Rastaman.
What this bodes for Marley I have no idea; Rastaman Vibration isn’t the only music he’s made in the past year. “Jah Lives,” the Jamaican single he released after the death of Haile Selassie (Jah), has the primitive sound of pre-American albums such as Rasta Revolution and African Herbsman, but also the stronger vocal presence of the musically more sophisticated American LPs. Marley sings as one of many whose life was shaken by the Rasta God’s death; if he sings that Jah lives, it doesn’t sound as if he is privy to superior knowledge but as if he has fought with the fact of Selassie’s death and maybe beaten it. For that matter, the strongest piece on Rastaman is ‘War,” which is nothing more than the words to a speech Selassie gave at Stanford in 1968 plus a short chorus added by Marley. Marley makes lines like “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited” sound like music.
I know Marley is capable of far more adventurous work than anything on Rastaman Vibration; I want to see him challenge the reggae form itself, just as Selassie’s death must have challenged him. If that takes time, I’ll wait.
Village Voice, May 3, 1976