My Travels with Bob Marley – Roger Steffens

 

Photo credit: Roger Steffens

By Roger Steffens

California was a very special place for Bob, especially the south, whose climate and flora Marley felt were similar to Jamaica. I was lucky enough to catch a half-dozen of Bob’s California shows from ‘75-’79. Back in ‘75 Bob had a series of sold-out dates in San Francisco’s tiny Boarding House club, and so great was the demand that promoter Bill Graham, on just a few days notice, booked the giant Oakland Paramount for a show that was almost completely sold out on word of mouth.

It was my initial exposure to a man whose music I had become enamored with two years earlier. I had yet to see even a video of him, and didn’t know what to expect. As a rock fan since its birth in the early ‘50s I had seen most of the ‘50s and ‘60s legends live, from Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Jackie Wilson, to Janis Joplin. But no artist had ever captured me quite as strongly as Bob did that night in Oakland, windmilling his Medusa-like locks as he spun in trance-like possession, then standing stock still and mesmerizing the audience, eyes squeezed shut in ecstatic concentration as he channeled his Creator into our slack-jawed midst.

I sat next to Moe, a well known Berkeley bookstore owner, who had been told by one of his employees not to miss this unprecedented spectacle. “What the hell’s he saying,” Moe kept asking me, and I translated as best I could. It really didn’t matter then if you knew what his words were, he could have been chanting in Swahili for all the audience cared, so powerful was his presence that night.

I met him for the first time, backstage July of 1978 at the Santa Cruz Civic when he returned to California in support of his new “Kaya” LP. My wife Mary and I were among the first in the auditorium. The soundboard was right in the middle of the floor, and there was a tall man I didn’t recognize, standing by it, curling his nascent dreads around his fingertips. I figured he had to be with the band, so I approached and asked him if they were going to play “Waiting in Vain” that evening. “Why?” he asked. “Well,” I said with excitement, “that’s my very favorite Wailers’ song, especially that incredible lead guitar solo that Junior Marvin plays in the middle of it.” “You want to meet Bob?” the dread asked. Without hesitation, of course, we both blurted “Yes!” and he began leading us backstage. “What’s your names?” he asked us. I told him and asked his. “I’m Junior Marvin,” he laughed. Boy, I thought, did we say the right thing to the right guy at the right time!

I had a poster with me for the Greek Theater show coming up that Friday in Berkeley, and Junior said, “Why don’t you ask Bob to sign it.” “Uh, yeah, sure!” I stammered. Junior graciously introduced us. He signed the poster for me, as did each of the other band members in their turn, and we left to find seats, speechless and freaked to the max. I still have the poster, and since then, 38 people of major import in his life have signed it for me too; it’s perhaps the most precious piece in what has become a massive archive of Bob Marley material, collected from all over the world. And every time I look at it I think of that night.

We drove down to L.A. the following weekend to catch Bob at the Starlight Amphitheater in Burbank. Later we learned that backstage that night stars like Mick Jagger and Diana Ross were milling about, trying to wangle an invitation to come on stage with Bob, but he was having none of that. So imagine our surprise when, as Bob began to sing his final encore of “Get Up Stand Up”, Peter Tosh appeared, just at the part of the song where he came in on the record.

As he reached for the microphone, Bob suddenly caught sight of him, and he broke out into the most massive grin I’ve ever seen, Grand Canyon-wide with delighted surprise. Peter never missed a beat, and the two hugged each other and acted as if they’d never been separated. It was the only time they would ever appear together outside of Jamaica after the breakup of the group.

At the end of 1979, my new partner Hank Holmes and I had just begun our “Reggae Beat” show on KCRW, the National Public Radio station in Santa Monica, and Bob Marley was our first guest. On the air a mere six weeks, we were the only show in L.A., and so Bob’s publicists asked if Hank and I would like to go “on the road with Bob” during the next two weeks. I was beside myself with excitement.

I arranged for a private screening of Jeff Walker’s film of the historic “Smile Jamaica” concert, and an unreleased documentary that Walker had made of the assassination attempt on Bob’s life the weekend of 3-5 December 1976. Walker had been Bob’s publicist at Island Records at the time, and Bob had yet to see any of the footage. The company said they did not want any of the footage to be released because it was “too political.”

Fascinated, I sat in a bungalow at the Sunset Marquis in Hollywood and watched Bob watch himself, first in the hospital having his wounds bandaged, then in his hideout in the hills, then speeding down in the police chief’s car to perform “one song” at the Smile Jamaica Concert, whose audience had grown to 80,000 people before his arrival. Bob ended up doing almost 90 minutes of the most stunning, triple-meaning music you’ve ever heard. As he watched, the only emotion I saw him display, though, was when he viewed footage of Family Man Barrett, his bass player, filmed the day after the shooting. “Fams” was shown putting his fingers into the bullet holes just inches from where he had been sitting, when Bob suddenly laughed really loudly. The room went chillingly silent. To this day I don’t know what he found funny.

The next night, Randy Torno and Jim Lewis, makers of the film that came to be known as “Heartland Reggae,” brought their raw footage of the One Love Peace Concert to show Bob again, the first time he had seen this equally historic event with the climactic moment, when Bob invited Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, sworn political enemies.

A couple of days later Bob played what would prove to be his final show in L.A., a benefit for the Sugar Ray Robinson Foundation at the Roxy.

We were invited along for the sound check, and Hank and I and our wives sat virtually alone in the club for three hours, while Bob played all the instruments, and Fams went up into the little sound booth just above the stage, and balanced everything. I was impressed by some new tune that he was working on, something about “redemption songs” which he sang over and over and over again that day. Think of it: five months into a world tour, assuredly a superstar by this time, Bob still managed the soundcheck almost all by himself, painstakingly assuring that everything would be perfect for this important Hollywood audience of music business heavies. It would be the last time I ever saw him.

But those memories are as strong as yesterday for me, as I imagine they are for most everyone in California who saw him. As he predicted, “the music will just get bigger and bigger.” He could just as surely be speaking of himself, for almost no artist had sold so many records after his passing than Bob Marley, the shimmering spirit dancer who knew his time on earth was limited, and made the perfect most of it.

This article was published in the Made in Jamaica Catalogue Gold Edition: Celebrating Jamaica’s 50th.  See and download this and other editions at moonstoneblue.com/publications.