Gather ’round, kids. I’m going to tell you about the time I saw a legend, a natural mystic, in the flesh. In the three decades since his passing, Bob Marley has not only become the most internationally popular black musician of all time, but more a symbol of freedom, enlightenment and love than mortal man. But on May 6, 1979, he was right there in front of me, on the stage, his eyes closed and those words flowing from his soul. “One good thing about music,” sang this Dylan/Lennon in dreadlocks, “when it hits, you feel no pain.”
The best way I can describe Marley in concert is that he had a supernatural presence that made him seem more a religious icon than popular musician. He positively glowed, as if encased in a full-body halo. When he did an exaggerated running-man move during “Lively Up Yourself” it looked like he was flying. Every reach of his hand had a higher purpose, every melody resonated with a unifying and galvanizing message.
I knew within five minutes that I’d never see a better concert than Bob Marley and the Wailers at the Waikiki Shell. When the I-Threes (backup singers Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffiths), so regal in their multicolored headwraps, came out with an opening song, I got chills. Then Marley emerged and all heaven broke loose.
Best day of my life? The day my kid was born. No contest. Most completely blissful day of my life? That would be the concert of May 6, 1979. No contest.
As so often is the case when an artist’s career is ended in its prime, Marley became a bigger star in death than he was in life, with his “Legend” greatest hits collection topping the Billboard catalog albums chart almost every week since its 1984 release. His image is everywhere, from T-shirts and tapestries in head shops to scrawlings on the walls in African tenements. Even more importantly, his ideological fire burns in albums such as 1977’s “Exodus,” which Time magazine called the album of the century in 1999, and in the equality-of-the-heart anthem “One Love.”
Seeing Marley (who played Austin only once, at the Municipal Auditorium on July 27, 1978), didn’t make me appreciate his albums more. It had the opposite affect. They just couldn’t measure up; nothing could.
Some folks have bought completely into the Marley mystique, growing dreadlocks and even exploring Rastafarianism, a religion that considers smoking herb a sacrament and regards former Ethiopian king Haile Selassie as the messiah. But for me, it was all about those two hours in Honolulu. I’ve never been to Austin’s Bob Marley Fest because what would be the point?
Like a bowler who remembers what he had for breakfast the morning of his 300 game, I can recall every little detail about that perfect day.
The cloudless sky was beyond blue, like God’s Aqua Velva. The nonstop conga drumming at Kapiolani Park, which always sounded so unmusical, like tennis shoes in the dryer, had been stilled that afternoon. We laid down on the grass while a horrid local bar band opened and it felt like silence.
We were freshly in love, the first time for me, which might have had something to do with how magical the concert was. Donna was wearing one of those caps associated with old-time race car drivers — a risky choice for date five — but it worked. Isn’t love the best? We were destined to be together the rest of our lives.
I usually leave out the corny romance angle when I’m telling people about what it was like to see Bob Marley two years before he died at age 36. Folks don’t care about my love life. They want to know what Marley played and what he said and how the Wailers’ sound seemed to come in big, glorious waves. Why didn’t I marry that girl?!
Now, I’m not one to hold court at a bar, or really anywhere, but it’s happened time and time over the years. A Bob Marley song will come on the jukebox and I’ll say something like, “best concert I ever saw” and the next thing you know I’m Garrison Keillor with a semicircle of listeners. The story has almost become an act, so practiced are the descriptions, the dramatic pauses, the last bit about laying on the sand of Waikiki Beach after the show and just knowing that it’ll never get better.
People want to hear about what it was like to see Bob Marley in concert because if they’re younger than 40, they didn’t have the chance. Marley has become one of the most mystical figures in pop culture, rivaling Elvis Presley. He’s a legend not only of the poor in Africa, but the Hacky Sack-playing “trustafarians” who use Marley’s music as a way to justify smoking pot and twisting their hair all day.
Marley is really the Muhammad Ali of music — so universally beloved for all the right reasons. Imagine if Ali had died after winning the Foreman fight, the “Rumble in the Jungle”: That’s the iconic status that Marley has achieved.
Unlike Ali, however, Marley never really connected with the majority of American blacks, who just didn’t buy into the reggae lifestyle as readily as white college kids did. That pained Marley until the very end.
But he was onto something major just before he died. The last song he recorded for his final studio album, “Redemption Song” was Marley’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” as much a departure from “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Rastaman Vibrations” as Sam Cooke’s civil rights ballad was from “Cupid” and “You Send Me.” It’s the song Bono from U2 says he plays for every world leader he meets.
The version on the “Songs of Freedom” double disc comes from Marley’s final concert, Sept. 23, 1980, in Pittsburgh. Just two days earlier, Marley collapsed while jogging in Central Park. Doctors said he had a brain tumor, which caused a stroke. Still, he went onstage one more time, to play “Redemption Song,” which he had just written and recorded for the “Uprising” album, as his epitaph. “Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom,” he sang, with such passion, such vulnerability. ” ‘Cause all I ever had/ Redemption songs.”
Days after that Pittsburgh show, Marley was diagnosed with cancer of the brain, lungs and stomach and started radiation treatment. He spent the last seven months of his life in Germany, treated by a doctor who had had some success with cases believed to be terminal. Marley looked 80 years old, Islands records boss Chris Blackwell said, when he was sent back to Miami to see his family one last time. The day before he died, he told his mother that he was satisfied with his life. “My message has gone over the world, and who don’t hear it, I am sorry for them,” he said. He passed away May 11, 1981.
Some hipsters and musical snobs will tell you that the singer peaked with the early ’70s albums he and the original Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, made with certifiably insane Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. Indeed, “Soul Rebels” and “Soul Revolution” are sonic gems, really the start of reggae music, which slowed down ska. But those are Lee Perry records more than Wailers records.
Marley was destined to be a superstar more than merely a singer. After the first two records on the Island label, Tosh and Livingstone were gone and the Wailers officially became Bob Marley and the Wailers.
That band’s finest moment was “Natty Dread,” the 1974 album that introduced “Lively Up Yourself,” “Rebel Music” and “No Woman, No Cry.” Marley wrote that latter tune, but signed away songwriting credit to Vincent Ford, a friend from Jamaica who ran a soup kitchen. Think of all the people that song has fed. In the fine Marley documentary “Caribbean Nights,” Blackwell estimates that Marley had nearly 4,000 people on his payroll in some fashion or another.
The thing that can be said for Marley is that he never shed the ghetto, never got above his raising. His father was a white man everyone called “the Captain,” who was 50 years old when he married Marley’s mom, then 18. Marley moved to Trenchtown, the infamous Kingston neighborhood at age 13 to make a name in music. He hit the Jamaican charts five years later with the anti-violence ska number “Simmer Down,” by the Wailing Wailers.
Although he had children with three other women, Marley’s soulmate was Rita, his queen. She confronted him about his affairs — hate to reduce his appeal to this, but Bob Marley was the ultimate chick magnet — and he drew a circle on the palm of his hand, according to the new memorabilia-filled book “Marley Legend: An Illustrated Life of Bob Marley” (Chronicle Books, $35). Pointing inside the circle, he said that was where he and Rita and the kids were, and that no one could disturb that inner circle. And she bought it. There’s never been anyone else like Bob Marley, and Rita allowed him the freedom to be who he was.
Me, I blew what I had, but I was young and it was getting boring being with the same person for a couple of years. I met someone at a party, she met someone at the gym and the split was amicable. But she was the one.
We just never could measure up to our fifth date. Bob Marley and the Wailers and the I-Threes laid it all out for us on that perfect day. There is beauty in togetherness. There is a spirit of love out there that asks no questions, knows no fears.
I don’t have much, but I have that day. I remember when my kid was being born and I was supposed to be the photographer, but I was so overwhelmed by what was happening that I put the camera down. I wanted to play it over in my mind, even if maybe through the years the details would shift. I’m absolutely certain that Marley and the Wailers opened with “Rastaman Vibrations” at the Waikiki Shell, but a set list on the internet says it was “Concrete Jungle.”
Sometimes I try to recall what it felt like to fall in love and to see Bob Marley at the same time. But, really, that time has passed. I watch his DVDs and it’s not even close. I think about Donna and I remember how the way she’d always eat standing at the sink bothered me. Wasn’t meant to be, I guess.
I was 24. Now I’m just an old guy in a bar, a coffeehouse, a park somewhere, telling a bunch of kids about a concert I saw 40 years ago.
The sky was just so blue. It was like God’s Aqua Velva.
Marley and the Wailers Setlist 5/6/79
* Concrete Jungle
* Burnin’ And Lootin’
* Them Belly Full
* The Heathen
* Running Away
* Crazy Baldhead
* No More Trouble
* I Shot The Sheriff
* No Woman, No Cry
* Lively Up Yourself
Published in 2006.