It’s come to my attention that today’s the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Bob Marley, who I believe was brought down by a cancer that spread from his toe. Bob Marley’s music blaring on stoned college kids’ boom boxes was enough to put me off reggae for years; their freedom from “mental slavery” epitomized to me how bogus most claims to freedom are. I also never liked all the cheap “oneness” – one love, one heart, etc. (U2 is guilty of this air-conditioned, bland, nicey-nice, vague emphasis on oneness, too.) In fact, oneness strikes me as a great enemy of music. While it’s true that good music has the power to unite, the music that appeals to me has a pluralistic quality. Jazz embraces maximum individuality in order to achieve its unities; and even in the wildest swing dances, every dancer is unique. At most rock concerts on the other hand, everybody sways or chops hands as one, individuality is swallowed up by the mass, and the singer usually emphasizes this by holding out the microphone to let the crowd sing in one big voice. Anyway, Bob Marley’s reggae – basically Legend – seemed to embody everything I’ve always disliked about that phony oneness crap; and I hastily generalized his example to all reggae.
I eventually discovered Jimmy Cliff, whom I adore, and came to like some reggae. Then I discovered some of the early Bob Marley recordings, the ones he made with the eccentric lunatic genius Lee “Scratch” Perry, and came to see why he’s been so inspiring. The guy can sing; and he has a knack for channeling American music, particularly soul music, through island rhythms. You can clearly see that in a song like “Try Me,” which must have been inspired by James Brown’s “Try Me.”
Though it’s mostly those early cuts that stand out, some of his later stuff still has a touch of his magic, particularly the sexy tunes about love.
Still, no Jimmy Cliff.