A new biography
of the reggae legend draws a satisfyingly complete picture despite a few
factual bumps and omissions.




Chris Salewicz’ Bob Marley biography Bob Marley: The Untold Story (Faber and
Faber) isn’t the only work that makes it easy to believe that Bob Marley’s
vision of peace, justice and racial harmony was so vital that had cancer not
claimed him it seems almost certain that some cabal of “baldheads” would have
come up with a way to silence or eliminate him. Marley’s transcendent music
makes the best case. Listening to “One Love”, “Rastaman Vibration”, “So Jah
Say”, etc.,  one can’t help but wonder
what would have been if only…


Could the Cheney-like forces of evil ever have
flowered in a world that had both a healthy and mature Bob Marley and, say,
John Lennon in it? 


Commencing his book, in February of 1979, a little
more than two years before Marley’s death, Salewicz had at least a passing
personal and professional acquaintance with him. For the most part he doesn’t
let his feelings of admiration and respect for his subject get in the way. If
it seems that sometimes he stretches a bit to justify some of Marley’s more
questionable behaviors, Salewicz makes a credible case for the reasons behind


Like two other pop messiahs of the era, Lennon and
Jimi Hendrix, Marley also grew up with a mother (Cedella) who, for various
reasons, was sometimes absent. But if he wasn’t given the mothering he needed,
he certainly wasn’t short for familial love. Save for one aunt he described as
a “slave driver,” he seems (by others’ accounts if not necessarily his own)
to have gotten a lot attention and care from various maternal family members,
including one who helped him learn to play the guitar, and from his mother’s
father in particular. According to Salewicz, Marley sometimes spoke of his
maternal grandfather as the only person who “really” loved him. And, unlike many
American children of mixed race parentage of the time, he was openly
acknowledged, if not embraced, by his father’s family who took at least
perfunctory interest in his welfare during his childhood.    


Most of the incidents and experiences in Marley’s
life and career the book deals with are fleshed out. Among those that go
unexplained are his mother’s financial situation after her marriage to Marley’s
father Norval and the on/off relationship (or non-relationship) between Bob and
his father.  Norval Marley seems to have
expressed some concern with Marley’s education and welfare early on, but he
pretty much disappears very shortly after and Salewicz never tells us why. Neither
is there an explanation for Cedella’s financial hardships while Nesta Robert
Marley was growing up.


Her family is described as fairly well off and she
doesn’t seem to have become estranged from her father, Bob’s grandfather, after
her marriage. But, despite his affection for young Bob, he doesn’t seem to have
offered much practical support, nor did her in-laws, who were at least as well
off and probably more so. Perhaps Cedella Marley was just determinedly
independent – or maybe a consistently credible explanation was not to be had by
the time the book was written.


But poverty is not what set Bob Marley apart from
his friends and neighbors; being of mixed race was another matter.


It’s logical to infer (as Salewicz seems to do)
that part of the impetus behind Marley’s vision of racial harmony is his desire
to achieve that goal on the personal level of healing the pain of having no
real relationship with his father (though Norval Marley, like other ostensibly
“white” Jamaicans, may have had some blood connection with black Jamaica in his
not necessarily distant ancestry).  


Most of what Salewicz writes rings true and jibes
with other biographical sources, though there are a couple of factual bumps.
Salewicz refers to Marley’s song “Down In The Valley” (recorded by Judy Mowatt,
a member of Bob’s backing group the I-Threes) as being about an African leader
called “Lulumba.” Maybe it was a lapse in his knowledge about 20th century African political history or it may just be a misprint, but though he
gives no first name, Salewicz probably means the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba. And
if you don’t know who Edgar Tekere is, Salewicz isn’t going to tell you.


At least once Salewicz is just flat out wrong. The
British-born journalist interprets Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” as being about
Native Americans allied with the Union cause during the Civil War, but a quick
check of the song’s lyrics would have corrected that: “There was a buffalo
soldier in the heart of America; stolen from Africa, brought to America,”
Marley sings, not making even a passing reference to Native Americans in the
entire song. In fact, it was the western American tribes, frequent opponents of
the black troops of the post Civil War army (one of American racial history’s
cute little ironies) who gave the Buffalo Soldiers their famous nickname, one
of many signs of the mutual respect between the two groups. Marley may have
been a hero to Native Americans, but that song, thematically at least, has
nothing to do with it. It’s a surprising error from a writer who otherwise shows
a great respect for, and fair knowledge of, African, Afro-Caribbean and African
American people and cultures. (Maybe Salewicz should add “Glory” to his Netflix


Overall, however, Salewicz’ book is smoothly paced
and dense with facts and anecdotes; other than not filling in the blanks about
Marley’s mother’s finances and his father’s abandonment, it leaves few loose
ends. It’s rich in background detail about the history of post World War II
Jamaican pop music and the ties between it, Jamaican politics and the island’s
gangsters, offering an interesting and informative take on third world culture.
Salewicz, as a Brit, is of course able to separate himself from an American
point of view but he still seems pretty objective in general. One illustration
of that is when Salewicz addresses slavery in American and the Caribbean. He reminds apologists for American slavery who
take such pleasure in claiming that it was Africans who sold other Africans
into slavery that before Europeans made slave hunting such an irresistibly
profitable blood enterprise, it was criminals and prisoners of war who were
turned over to European slavers by tribal leaders trying to establish and
maintain stability. This was the same measure taken by British magistrates who deported
similar undesirables to Britain’s
colonies, particularly America
and Australia;
e.g., Europeans routinely banished other Europeans to a fate as unknown as the
fate of those unwanted, luckless Africans.


On its own Bob
Marley: The Untold Story
is a topnotch biography of one of the world’s
greatest and most influential popular music and cultural icons. Paired with
Timothy White’s excellent Marley bio Catch
A Fire
, it provides readers with as complete and edifying a picture of Bob
Marley as is ever likely to be drawn.           



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