by Neil Spencer
Among biblical quotations favored by Rastafarians comes psalm 118: “The stone that the builders refused is become the headstone of the corner”, a teaching put to song by Bob Marley on 1970’s Corner Stone, and one that neatly frames a life that began in poverty and ended in global superstardom, a rags to riches tale unparalleled in pop.
Some 36 years after his death, Marley remains a planetary icon, his image as likely to turn up at a Native American protest as on a Camden Town T-shirt. For millions, he represents an irresistible mix of righteous rebellion, physical and spiritual joy (livity in Rasta speak) and, of course, musical genius.
Marley’s story has been told many times, most notably by the late Timothy White, whose Catch a Fire, as much imaginative construct as conventional biography, best captures the mystique that swirled round the singer. Marley’s mythos owed much to the fevered atmosphere of Jamaica in the late 1970s, when millenarian Rasta prophecy became entangled with a political feud that saw Kingston’s ghettos in near civil war amid allegations of CIA destabilization. Marlon James’s Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, centered on the attempted assassination of Marley in 1976, crystallizes the era masterfully.
Roger Steffens, an LA reggae historian and archivist, offers a more grounded approach in this sprawling but absorbing “oral history”, drawing on interviews with 75 assorted relatives, band members, fellow travelers and lovers; a lifetime’s research. Their accounts, not infrequently contradictory, are effectively marshaled by Steffens, who acts as a reliable narrator.
Among the revelations is the extent of Marley’s deprivation in his early years. Abandoned by his elderly white father, an itinerant government overseer who had gotten a local teenage girl pregnant, Marley grew up first in the rural parish of St Ann, later moving to the newly built “government yards” of Trenchtown, west Kingston.