A Day Late, But Still: Redemption Singing


Lots of people die young, as the news daily tells us (and as many here, myself included, grasp from deep personal knowledge.)

The deaths of strangers don’t strike home in the same way as those of people close to us, of course.  There’s a kind of disembodied quality to any sorrow, a regret at the abstraction of lost years, lost human experience.  But I feel a barb that lodges within a particular vein of sadness — or perhaps better, regret — when a musician’s voice goes dumb too soon.

The reason is pretty obvious.  Mark Knopfler (happily very much still with us) nailed it, I think (about 8:50 in): “…songs are milestones for people in their lives; they use them. They use them to live with.”

I’ve been moved by lots of songs, singers, players.  But I can think of few — none really — who combined the power of music itself with the rush that came with utter, marvelous strangeness that I encountered late in high school when first heard this.

That was (I think — it’s been a while) Bob Marley’s first big hit to chart beyond Jamaica.  I know that it is almost a cliche now — and there are other songs in his catalogue that probably move me more.  But try to imagine hearing that for the first time after a steady diet of (often great) straight rock and roll.  Skull shrapnel ain’t in it; it truly blew one’s mind.

Marley’s suffered a fairly common post-mortem fate for iconic figures:  he’s been mythologized out of recognition.  Gone is the radical, redemptive, political, demanding man who explained why he made it on stage for a concert in support of Michael Manley two days after being shot, saying, “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”  Now, too often, Marley has become an almost generic figure of benevolence, which is too bad, because I don’t believe he ever lost the sense that there is something of a Manichaean struggle to be waged against those who (still) act to make this world worse.

But this is certain: Marley broke through any niche ceiling to become the first (that I can think of) truly global musical voice to come from what used to be called the Third World.  For that alone, he has had more to do in shaping the landmarks of people’s lives, to give them songs — and a sense of the world within those songs — that we use to live our lives.  Forty years or so on from his breakout, we’ve grown so much richer in our musical lives, sounds from anywhere weaving through our culture, our headphones, one pair of ears at a time.  I won’t go so far as to say that Bob Marley makes Barack Obama possible — but the demographic shift that so troubles the latter-day Republican Party is not simply political.  It’s incomprehensible, I think, to many who came of age in the last twenty or thirty years to know how transformative it was to hear other voices — and not simply as a novelty, or some in-group marker of cool found in a few basements in college towns.  Marley was HUGE from the 70s, and stayed so after his death.

Now his music is the stuff of the shrinking pool of oldies radio — except of course, that his influence and that of his 60s and 70s reggae comrades shoots through our current soundscape.

But even so — it’s hard not to wonder what he could have sung and said if he had managed to beat the cancer that got him in 1981, when he was all of thirty six years old.

Bob Marley would have been sixty eight yesterday.

Bonus full concert (complete w. a fifteen minute bonus opening by Dick Gregory that truly captures some of the deep strangeness of the late 1970s. Trust me; it was far wierder than I can hold in mind most times. This concert, btw, at Harvard Stadium (!) occurred while I was still in college — which means that I could have been there. That’s a regret I’ve nurtured since the day-of):

Image: Bob Marley in concert in Zurich, May 30, 1980

64 replies
  1. 1
    TrabbsBoy says:

    That was cool, Tom. Marley is actually played pretty often on this alt rock/douchebag commercial radio station that’s the best we have in the Toronto radio desert. It’s probably because heh heh weed, but whatever gets him spread to the next generation.

  2. 2
    Alexandra says:

    Beautiful post. Thanks for the read.

  3. 3
    jayboat says:

    Bob will ALWAYS rock my world.

    Thanks for the post, Tom.

  4. 4
    c u n d gulag says:

    And this year, it’ll be 26 years since the great Peter Tosh was killed at his home in a robbery.

  5. 5
    Jewish Steel says:

    I remember reading that Bob kept lived in compound with his band and regulated their lives, including diet and exercise, paramilitary style. This is something I recount with relish to my own band, staring fixedly in their eyes. Having a common fear (me) builds esprit de corps.

  6. 6
    Alex says:

    Think of the effect Bob Marley has had on music. I would argue he’s a top 5. Now imagine if he were still making music now/hadn’t been cut down so young. It blows my mind. RIP Bob.

  7. 7
    EdTheRed says:

    I didn’t even realize that yesterday was his birthday when I spent the evening watching the “Marley” documentary (streams free via Amazon prime)…great film – if you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

  8. 8
    Dan in Pittsburgh says:

    I had the great privilege of seeing Marley perform twice; the first at the Cleveland Agora, with about 800 people on a hot and smoky August night and the second at Cleveland’s 3,000-seat Music Hall. I had the added thrill of meeting him backstage at the second of those, and he was gracious and charming (I worked at the legendary WMMS radio at the time and presented him with one of our station table lighters). Marley’s impact was extraordinary in the 70’s and the reverberations continue to this day.

  9. 9
    Jewish Steel says:

    @Alex: One thing I particularly admire about reggae, Jamaican music in general, is how much less it is tied to the cult of youth than our own home-grown rock n roll.

    There is something faintly ridiculous about 50, 60 year old rockers. Not so with reggae. Very easy to imagine a 70yo Bob Marley delivering it.

  10. 10
    The Dangerman says:

    Completely OT, especially in a Bob Marley thread, but if I was driving a light duty, dark pickup truck in SoCal today, I’d consider parking it. Cops have already shot up two pickups in Torrance as they are on hair trigger alerts in their manhunt.

    Wild day in SoCal.

  11. 11

    I watched the biography Marley recently, it was great. It inspired me to dig deeper into his catalog than I had; he has to be one of the most – if not THE most- repackaged musical artist ever. There are dozens of “Best of” packages.

    He certainly was a flawed person, but who isn’t?

    Dying at 36 – it just sends chills through me to consider what he achieved in that short time.

    Also, the movie showed the shack that he spent his early life in. “One room” is being generous.

  12. 12
    miserybob says:

    Thanks – googling around lead me to this bit, Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer doing ‘Redemption Song’.


    The Clash was a band that blew my mind as an early teen.

    ‘I’m So Bored With the USA’ might be one of the most influential songs of my childhood, off one of the greatest punk albums of all time.


    Joe Strummer was another that died far too soon.

  13. 13

    @Jewish Steel:

    Great point. The latest Jimmy Cliff album (produced by Tim Armstrong) is simply wonderful.

  14. 14
    Raven says:

    When I first went to Negril Reggae hadn’t reached the states, there was no jerked chicken, no “all inclusive” on the beach. Nothing but a few places with rooms to rent up on “red ground”, T-Water and the Yacht Club and the sacrament.

  15. 15
    WereBear says:

    @EdTheRed: I’ll be looking for that.


  16. 16
    The Moar You Know says:

    @Jewish Steel: Ahhhh, the Beefheart approach. I approve.

  17. 17
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Raven: Two possible responses:

    1: “Hey, Old Guy!”


    2: “Jealous!”

  18. 18
    The Moar You Know says:

    if I was driving a light duty, dark pickup truck in SoCal today, I’d consider parking it. Cops have already shot up two pickups in Torrance as they are on hair trigger alerts in their manhunt.

    Wild day in SoCal.

    @The Dangerman: Seconded. We’ve got kind of a really bad thing going on here with some of the most hair-trigger, heavy-handed abusive cops in the world as the targets, for a change. They are scared absolutely shitless and if you live down here, you need to be really fucking careful of the police today. And yeah, if you’re driving a dark-colored pickup truck, drive something else or stay home.

  19. 19
    Raven says:

    @Tom Levenson: We had quite a pipeline of folks going down there from Champaign-Urbana. Here’s a little vid about Chef Ra, he introduced many of us to Bob.

    not work friendly

  20. 20
    The Dangerman says:

    @The Moar You Know:

    They are scared absolutely shitless and if you live down here, you need to be really fucking careful of the police today.

    The two shot up vehicles in Torrance contained, respectively, two Asian women delivering papers and a younger caucasian man…

    …so, absolutely, if a SoCal Cop looks at you the wrong way today, follow their instructions without question. I’m SoCal born and raised (and happen to be in the Riverside area this morning) and I’ve never seen anything like it.

  21. 21
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    the Conster says:

    I saw him twice – the first time at the old Music Inn in Lenox, MA – the opening act got stuck on the NY Thruway and so Bob agreed to play their time and his – probably 4+ hours. It was like Jamaica that day, around 95 degrees and 99% humidity. Someone mercifully recorded it and with the awesomeness that is the internet, here it is.

    The second time was shortly before he died, at the Hynes Auditorium in Boston. He went to New York afterward, and then word came of his sickness. I felt like I’d borne witness to a prophet, and I had, so I got that going for me.

  23. 23
    Raven says:

    he Violence of action will be HIGH. I am the reason TAC alert was established. I will bring unconventional and asymmetrical warfare to those in LAPD uniform whether on or off duty. ISR is my strength and your weakness. You will now live the life of the prey. Your RD’s and homes away from work will be my AO and battle space. I will utilize every tool within INT collections that I learned from NMITC in Dam Neck. You have misjudged a sleeping giant. There is no conventional threat assessment for me. JAM, New Ba’ath party, 1920 rev BGE, ACM, AAF, AQAP, AQIM and AQIZ have nothing on me. Do not deploy airships or gunships. SA-7 Manpads will be waiting. As you know I also own Barrett .50′s so your APC are defunct and futile.

  24. 24
    Yutsano says:

    @Tom Levenson: Cancer sucks.

  25. 25
  26. 26
    Raven says:

    @the Conster: Sweet. I saw the Allman’s on Boston Common in 71 and was able to find a recording of that show.

  27. 27
    The Dangerman says:


    Wha is Dam Neck you ask?

    We trained this fucker for War and, now, he’s snapped. One has to wonder about PTSD, etc.; we’ll be dealing with this “residue” from War for decades (hell, the Dude in Alabama was a Nam vet).

  28. 28
    Jewish Steel says:

    @Raven: Whoa!

    This is where the little paper clip in Microsoft Word pipes up and says, “It looks like you’re writing a manifesto. Shall I alert the FBI?”

  29. 29
    Ben Franklin says:

    Marley, is of course, legendary. Glad you mentioned Mark Knopfler. His Celtic/Rock fusion is, IMO, even more challenging than Jazz/rock. I saw him last fall, but have one complaint;

    He didn’t do Sultans of Swing, but I understand he may tire of it.

  30. 30
    Raven says:

    @The Dangerman: The dude in Alabama was an aircraft tech the Navy and probably floated into Yankee Station to pick up his VSM.

  31. 31
  32. 32
    the Conster says:


    Sunset Series. Went to a few – I recall they were about $2.50, and it was started because of the riots after MLK by Kevin White. 1971? I just had a FB convo with a high school friend who posted a ticket stub from one of those concerts from Aug. 1972, and I guessed that it might have been the Allmans, but it was 1971? August, right? One of my girlfriends went, but I’m not sure I really knew their music yet.

  33. 33
    WereBear says:

    Forgive me for bringing this up at every opportunity, but I’ll be doing my best to counter some bad science:

    Breaking down the Bogus Catbird Study

  34. 34
    Raven says:

    @the Conster: Yep. I thumbed from Illinois to NYC, saw them at the Manhattan Center then on up to Beantown.
    Here’s the CD link.

    “The ABB truly reached their first big peak in 1971, and this single-disc CD showcases the music they presented on the stage each night they went out. Along with some cool samplings of their stage banter are amazing versions of “You Don’t Love Me,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and a riveting and unusual “Whipping Post” that ends the show. Get your copy of this outstanding performance and enjoy it time and time again”

  35. 35
    Ed in NJ says:

    Grew up listening to Bob Marley. Listened to Johnny Was many times after the Newtown massacre. Seemed appropriate. Tears every time.

    Can a woman tender care
    Cease towards the child she bear?

  36. 36
    Raven says:

    @the Conster: I always tell people it was free but at $2.50! I went from there on a week long hike in The White’s up off the Kangamangus Highway.

  37. 37
    the Conster says:


    It’s funny what and how you remember something. My friend Amy was walking past my house when I had just stepped outside, and it was shortly before my 16th birthday and I was feeling down because there were apparently no plans anyone was making for me to have a surprise party, or a party at all, and she told me she was going to see the Almond Brothers and she was excited, because her birthday was three days before mine. Sad face, and even though I didn’t know the Allman Brothers was what she was talking about, at least she had a birthday plan!

  38. 38
    Face says:

    @The Moar You Know: I was just about to post this, then saw it’s been scooped.

    So cops in LA are just shooting up blue trucks and asking who’s inside later? Fo’ rizzle? Is this America or a third-world country? This is too unbelieveable.

  39. 39
    Raven says:

    @the Conster: Yea, I knew who they were but my trip was just a road trip. Chick I knew was at a summer program at Harvard so I crashed on her floor. Almost died on Mt Washington when a updraft hit me on a ridge. I remember meeting a guy in a cave that had just quit working in a mental hospital and he was Randall P McMurphy incarnate.

  40. 40
    Paul in KY says:

    @The Dangerman: If I saw someone out there driving a blue Nissan Titan pickup, I think I would run the other way.

  41. 41
    Paul in KY says:

    @zombie rotten mcdonald: You probably already know all these bands/acts, but here is a list of some kickass reggae performers:

    Burning Spear
    Black Uhuru
    Steel Pulse
    Toots & Maytals
    The Itals
    Hortense Ellis
    Queen Ifrica

  42. 42
    Roy G. says:

    @c u n d gulag: Word. Tosh was the Malcolm X to Marley’s MLK. Everybody should check out the doc flick Stepping Razor.

  43. 43

    @Paul in KY: @Paul in KY:

    I saw Steel Pulse a few years back.

  44. 44
    Cassidy says:

    @Raven: Damn. Shit just got real.

  45. 45
    Paul in KY says:

    @zombie rotten mcdonald: Cool. I saw Black Uhuru at Bonnaroo in 2011. Would love to see Steel Pulse at a festival this year.

    Here’s another couple bands: The Ethiopians & The Heptones

    Rastafari & allmighty Jah!

  46. 46
    Ben Franklin says:


    I don’t think so. Mostly his new cd ‘Privateers’.

  47. 47
    Ben Franklin says:

    Something amiss with WP. Doesn’t hold your id. Recent comments show old comments.

    Marley thread shows three comments.

  48. 48
    eemom says:

    @Ben Franklin:

    And it’s still showing last night’s post when I click on balloon-juice.com.

    Whole place is FUBARing before our very eyes.

    Maybe someone should e-mail Cole.

  49. 49
    ruemara says:

    @Raven: thanks for the translation. Still kinda scary.

    And thanks, Tom, for possibly one of the best posts I’ve seen on Marley.

  50. 50
    Seanly says:

    I remember when my aunt (only about 12 yrs older than me), played this music called reggae for us at the Christmas gathering. She was home from college so this would’ve been sometime in the late 70’s. Some Jimmy Cliff & Bob Marley. Good times.

    Thanks for such a good post on yet another gloomy day.

  51. 51
    wrb says:

    thank you

  52. 52
    pseudonymous in nc says:

    There’s long been a discussion of what might have happened to Jamaican musical culture had Marley still been around for at least some of the past 32 years — in particular, relating to the rise of ragga in the late 80s, and some of the fairly reactionary stereotypes of dancehall.

  53. 53
    PLH ~ NYC says:

    Thanks for reminding everyone that he was a revolutionary. And BTW, in NYC, at least, he is not limited to oldies. Most kids of the generation who grew up with Marley know his music pretty well. Both because of parental influence and because we have DFH teachers here. I don’t think Marley has been relegated to the dustbin of history yet. And kids here also know about Diz, Bird, Trane and Robert Johnson.

  54. 54
    Cliff in NH says:

    I can’t believe no one has mentioned mixcloud yet, there is Tons of fantastic concerts from bob that you can stream, like 6 more went up just in the last few daze

    Start Here: http://www.mixcloud.com/dubwisegaragecollection/

  55. 55
    Cliff in NH says:

    @the Conster:
    Music Hall
    and here it Streams:


  56. 56
    Cliff in NH says:

    @the Conster:
    and here it streams:


    Bob Marley And The Wailers – J.B. Hayes Hall, Boston 1980-09-16 Full Show 24bit transfer by Dubwise

  57. 57
    Lee Hartmann says:

    Tom – I like Marley but, as a WASP/old guy I really dig Knopfler. thanks much for the link – I saw him and his band two months ago with Dylan, which was a lifetime experience for me.

  58. 58
    Helen Bedd says:

    @Dan in Pittsburgh:

    I saw both those shows as well [plus a less successful Music Hall show with a smaller audience] but we’re misremembering the Agora show [which was in June.]

    My memory is that the club didn’t sell out [about 2/3s full] and half the audience was Jamaican…We white folks from the ‘burbs had no idea there WERE Jamaicans living in Cleveland.

    Either way, that was a great show. My friend Debbie [also from ‘MMS] said at the end “There probably isn’t a dry seat in the house.”

    A member of The Numbers Band, who opened, told me that before the Wailers went on they were rolling spliffs using pages torn out of the phone book as paper.

    Marley was, without hesitation, the most charismatic musician i ever saw.

  59. 59
  60. 60
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    Part of the issue with the site is that they are going to a pay model. Email jcole@balloon-juice.com if you want to keep it free.

  61. 61
    Suezboo says:

    Factoid of Interest : Bob Marley and band played at Zimbabwe Independence Day celebrations in 1980 when they inaugurated Mugabe.
    South African government shocked ! to the core.(er.. this was in The Bad Old Days)

  62. 62
  63. 63
    ryan says:

    Noticing that tcd did a test, I thought I’d do one, too. This is the newest post I can see.

  64. 64
    Yolo says:

    This is the newest post I can see, and we’re two days later now.

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