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Bob Marley: doing Delaware proud

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If you know Bob Marley only through the greatest hits album Legend and your college roommate’s poster of him smoking a spliff the size of a toddler, see the documentary Marley now. It makes a convincing case for him being one of the great musical talents of the 20th century – he wrote a whole lot of songs that sound nothing like “Three Little Birds” – while revealing a life that makes Roman Polanski’s seem downright bourgeois by comparison. Among the things you many not have known:

-His mother was a Jamaican teenager and his father a British “captain” (apparently he was not actually a captain, but enjoyed being referred to that way) a minimum of three decades her senior who quickly vanished from both their lives and then died.

-While being black in Jamaica invariably meant living in poverty, Bob’s childhood was particularly rough, as he grew up in the country without electricity. (Former band mate Bunny Wailer relates a story about how at night there was the moon, the stars, occasional fireflies, and total darkness.) Additionally, being half-white, Bob was shunned by many blacks, including members of his own family.

-He started his songwriting and recording career at 16.

-One of the key breaks for Marley achieving British and then international stardom was his public relationship with a Miss World, a romance slightly complicated by the fact he was already married to one of his backup singers.

-After being diagnosed with cancer, he sought treatment in Germany, with the result that most of the final months of the life of the man synonymous with Jamaican sunshine were spent in the midst of an unusually intense Bavarian winter.

-He lived in Delaware.

That’s right, Delaware. Needless to say, that last one knocked me on my ass. Delaware? The state that’s home to DuPont and Bill Thompson? (Bill’s a Drama Desk-nominated actor and obsessive Yankee fan with whom I did some shows; he left Delaware long ago and shows no signs of returning.) Bob Marley spending time outside of Jamaica makes sense — after gunmen repeatedly shot him and his wife, he moved to London for a time — but in Delaware? The state that was the first to ratify the Constitution and has been in a downward spiral ever since?

It’s like finding out that Toshiro Mifune had an uncle in Nebraska or Catherine Deneuve spent a year abroad in Cleveland.

Yet Marley did live there and how he arrived is an even weirder story than I’d hoped. Despite the fact he and the Wailers were an immediate sensation in Jamaica, regularly releasing top ten singles, Bob and his band mates Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh received so little money that finally Bob decided, “I can’t take this: I’m going to earn some real dough by driving a forklift in Delaware!”

To recap: cranking out top ten singles he wrote and performed in Jamaica < forklift operator in Delaware.

And so he joined his mother (who had already emigrated) and spent his time in Delaware working, playing his guitar in the basement, and growing impressive amounts of ganja in the backyard. (This last item is reported in the documentary admiringly by a fellow Jamaican transplant, who notes that in a time when a SWAT team would go after a high school kid with a doobie it was extraordinary he could get away with it, particularly considering he looked like frickin’ Bob Marley so it’s not as if the cops weren’t already keeping an eye on him.)

In time, Bob realized music was what mattered most to him, so he returned to Jamaica and recording, only this time setting up his own record company, with the result he could earn enough to get by until the Wailers were picked up by Island Records and eventually found global superstardom. He was just 36 when he passed, but before he died he forever changed the Jamaican record biz, proved there was a worldwide market for reggae, and left behind a number of songs so profound they remain moving even when performed by douchebags on the subway platform… and most importantly, he became the biggest star Delaware ever has or ever shall produce.

At least until Eddie Van Halen’s Wilmington-born ex-wife Valerie Bertinelli experiences an unexpected surge in popularity.

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2 Responses to “Bob Marley: doing Delaware proud”

  1. Sean, good, VERY good post … thanks fo sharing. And THANKS for the heads-up on the film … not much chance of it coming to theatres in Midland, but I’m going to look for it on-demand, as soon as I finish the post.

    If you should ever make it to Jamaica, I STRONGLY recommend you take the excursion aboard an old school bus, from the port cities of that country up into the mountains, on impossibly small roads to the town of 9 Mile and Marley’s home, which is now a museum/shrine to the man, his life and his music. WHAT A BLAST!

  2. Thanks, Jeff! Actually been to Jamaica twice–once at a very nice resort for a press event (which was great, except for how isolated we were; closest we came to island culture was the ENTIRE GIFT SHOP devoted to Marley) and once on a cruise with my family, when we found a cabbie to drive us around the island for hours. Definitely have to see his home next visit.

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