Editor's Note: from time to time I'm going to post an excerpt of the new anthology book I'm editing called THERE, I SAID IT: Bob Dylan Is Overrated (And A Few Other Carefully Considered Objections To The Greatest Musicians Of All Time).
In the two-birds-with-one-stone department, I'm thrilled not only to present one of the best essays from the upcoming THERE, I SAID IT, but to happily promote another project by this essay's author, the brilliant filmmaker Alex Buono, one of my oldest and greatest friends. (Close readers of this blog may remember Alex as the charitable lad who gave me my big break by introducing me to the director of Green Street Hooligans, a film that Alex would go on to shoot and co-produce.)
Alex has worked in Saturday Night Live's film unit for almost two decades, helping to create some of the show's best bits in recent memory.
And currently, Alex is the co-director one of the funniest shows on television, the Emmy-nominated Documentary Now! on IFC, starring Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. Season two-slash-51 is airing right now. You should without delay binge deeply on this show, if you haven't already.
That's a lot of well-deserved preamble. I am now pleased to present to you Alex's thoughts on Bob Marley. The editor does not always share the author's opinion on the artist in question, but he sure as hell does this time.
In 1991, I left the grungy Pacific Northwest for the palm tree-lined fantasy world of La-La land as I started my freshman year at the University of Southern California. My entire wardrobe at the time consisted of variations on plaid flannel and puffy vests. But I was determined to shed my dull, suburban high school persona, and immediately adopt a new SoCal identity.
By sheer luck, my dorm-mate happened to be the most cliché (and therefore perfect) model for me: a tow-headed surfer kid from San Juan Capistrano. His name was Rick.
Rick was instantly the coolest guy I had ever met. He had long, sun-bleached hair, drove a rag-top Jeep CJ-7, and spoke in that unmistakable SoCal cadence. He was basically a real-life Jeff Spicoli. Best of all, Rick had great taste in music, rescuing me from the depressing angst of Vedder and Cobain, with the warm, island stylings of that guru of broheim-osity: Bob Marley.
By winter break I had grown out my hair and traded my REI for tie-dye. I was a hacky-sack-playing, puka-shell-wearing, drum-circler, in perpetual need of a shower, like so many other white suburban kids on campus.
And Bob Marley was our official soundtrack. It mattered little that none of us had any idea what a “buffalo soldier” was, nor a clue about the first tenet of Rastafarianism, nor any inkling of life in Trenchtown. “Bob Marley” was an instant lifestyle prescription: a counter-culture icon who was just non-threatening enough to embrace without actually embracing anything political. I could just chill out to the hypnotic reggae beat, adopt the faintest Cali-Jamaican accent, and pretend that I knew how to surf.
After Christmas break, I was stunned to discover that Rick was not returning to USC. In truth, I learned that Rick had dropped out after the first month of classes, ergo, had been basically free-loading in my dorm room for the entire fall semester.
I tried to keep the incense burning in Rick’s absence. But nothing seemed the same. Least of all, Bob Marley. As the reggae-spell lifted, I looked in the mirror and thought, “Who the hell am I trying to be?” Even worse: “What the hell am I listening to??”
Bear in mind: this is the same year that Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind launched the grunge explosion. Next to those fiery voices, Bob Marley might as well have been Mr. Rogers. That soft reggae beat, that smiling benevolent face, forever draped by a sun-flared cannabis-haze…and those polite, radio-friendly lyrics, that even my grandmother could hum along to:
“Rise up this morning / Smile at the rising sun / Three little birds / Pitch by my doorstep...”
What kind of soundtrack for youth in revolt was this?!
It’s almost twenty years later, and while I recognize Bob Marley’s place in music history, I still don’t get it. Are these songs of political defiance? Or should I be drinking a margarita? The answer seems to be: both! He is the music world’s version of cinema’s embarrassing “magical black man” archetype – that safe, stock black character who comes to the aid of the white protagonist with sage wisdom and mystical powers: a malleable symbol wrapped in nursery rhymes. In short, he is the Morgan Freeman of music – right down to Mr. Freeman’s Sesame Street roots.
Maybe the real Bob Marley deserved better than this. Maybe he was unfairly co-opted into becoming a commercialized pop-reggae sensation by Chris Blackwell, the British record producer and founder of Island Records. Blackwell had been searching for a cipher with the right image to fuse the Jamaican sound with the rebellious impulse of British rock music. Bob Marley had the right look at the right time.
In the end, maybe Bob would have preferred his musical legacy to echo his charged opinions about political strife in Jamaica, or the injustice of South African apartheid, or even his deep embrace of the Rastafari movement. Instead, we’re left with the “House of Marley” line of audio accessories, including the “We Be Jammin’ Bluetooth Audio Speaker” and the “Get Up Stand Up Digital Audio System.” Head on over to www.drinkmarley.com for a case of “Marley Mellow Mood” decaffeinated ice teas! Or try www.marleynaturalshop.com for a full line of Marley body lotions along with a $40 “Positive Vibrations” aromatherapy candle. You get the picture.
And that’s my beef with “Bob Marley”: he’s a phony. There, I said it. Bob the Man may have been an inspiring, deep-thinking human being. But Bob the Musical Legend is about as authentic as a Red Stripe beer commercial. He’s a tourism ad for a Caribbean cruise, and the official mascot of ten thousand frat guys from the Midwest doing beer-bongs in Bob Marley-branded rasta-caps.
The irony is, after spending two decades avoiding the type of event that might have Bob Marley on the playlist (usually right after Jimmy Buffet or Garth Brooks – don’t get me started on those guys), Bob Marley’s music made a grand re-entrance into my life, this time in a vastly more appropriate, if no less ear-wormingly vexing way: it was by far the best music to help rock my newborn baby to sleep.