Stirring It Up

At Christmas, a friend gave me a DVD collection of clips from the venerable old British music show The Old Grey Whistle Test. Some of the most “whoops-I-crapped-my-pants” moments on the set were provided by Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Curtis Mayfield and Edgar Winter. But the catalyst for the sweetest sofa soilage was a vintage '73 clip of the Wailers performing “Stir It Up,” which served to remind me just how rare and precious this group really was.

Notice I said the Wailers, son—not Bob Marley and the Wailers, just the Wailers, dig? The Wailers were a triple-threat genius-hydra fronted by Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, and they percolated to irie heights by the greatest fucking riddim section there ever has been, Aston and Carlton Barrett. The Barretts' sweet-spot precision pulse; Livingston's feathery percussion and island howl of a falsetto; Tosh's ethereal guitarscapes and heating-pad harmonies: all were factors equal to Marley's magnificent singing, songwriting, sexuality and sheer charisma that made the Wailers perhaps the most talented and compelling group of the decade.

Then I get to thinking about how to the average Buttafuoco out there, Marley was not only the Wailers, but also the whole of reggae music itself. Angry little blisters begin to form on my wrists. I pout over the fact that the Wailers as a band are unknown to all but hardcore hackeysack-huskers, and then I consider others, too: I imagine Toots Hibbert's heavy-bag grunt of a voice and can almost smell the briny funk dripping from his gnarled, purple face. I lose sleep over how few truly understand that heaven-sent, angel-voiced Jimmy Cliff is Jamaica's answer to both Smokey Robinson and Bob Dylan. I fondly recall Desmond Dekker, whose retarded, primordial reggae histrionics were an unironic precursor to the comic stylings of Andy Kaufman. All this and more I consider before pondering how one man, Robert Nesta Marley, has come to be the sole personification of an entire genre of music to millions of stupid motherfucking Americans.

But I digress. We are here with you today to discuss, celebrate and champion Bob Marley, in recognition of this weekend's Bob Marley Day festival in Long Beach, featuring a bunch of artists who are not Bob Marley playing Bob Marley music, including Bob Marley's son, the royally entitled Julian Marley.

Now that I've vented, allow me to tell you that, goddamn it, nobody loves Bob Marley more than I do. Really! I just wish reggae cred were spread around a little more fairly, that's all. But Marley emerged from the unimaginable depth of the Wailers and continued to create deep, classic, vital, gorgeous, soul-stirring music for years beyond that departure. That accomplishment puts him on a par with others who went from great groups to great solo careers, such artists as Mayfield, John Lennon, Frank Zappa and Justin Timberlake (just kidding, there!) . . . and well, that says all you really need to know. However, as I'm an elaborator by trade, allow me to elaborate:

While I'll always recommend the original Wailers' Catch a Fire and Burnin' albums as Marley at his absolute best, here are five later tunes I think hold up to just about anything he did in tandem with Tosh and Livingston (lucky Bobbo, the Barretts always hung with him):

“NO WOMAN NO CRY” A soothing, open-sky lullaby for the ages. Marley treads into Jimmy Cliff terrain with a honey-rich pop melody, a vocal so warm you can feel its physical caress and evocative lyrical imagery with the authority to make you nostalgic for neighborhoods you've never even been in. Then comes the final assurance, “Everything's gonna be all right,” which you believe.

“THEM BELLY FULL (BUT WE HUNGRY)” Third World starvation wasn't the commonplace theme it would become in pop music when Marley recorded this in 1974. The stark, simple sentiment “Them belly full but we hungry, a hungry mob is a angry mob” was a primal, tribal scream direct from the alleys of shantytown. The minor-key reggae-funk fusion of the music flawlessly sets the hostile tone, followed by a welcome tension-and-release chuck with Jah music.

“CRAZY BALDHEAD” It would seem that Marley disapproved of white people. The thing is, though, that he wrote such a beautiful, lilting soundtrack against which to kick the crazy baldheads out of town that the blue-eyed devils keep returning for more ass-whuppings just for the chance to hear that song again.

“SO MUCH TROUBLE IN THE WORLD” A paranoid lament, here Marley frets over everything from nukes to space travel, and he does so in a voice so aching with sheer spiritual exhaustion you start to think maybe there's something to all that stuff about him being a holy man.

“COMING IN FROM THE COLD” Maybe the best thing about Marley was his ability to convey palpable sensations of peace, redemption, love and comfort with the same aplomb with which he expressed his profound personal, social and political rage. This tune falls into the former category, a familial welcome home amid the scent of an open fire, fresh-cooked vittles and ganja fumes.

The 23rd annual Bob Marley Day festival, featuring Julian Marley and lots of other reggae stars who aren't related to Bob Marley, including Arrested Development (?!?) at the Long Beach Arena, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach, (310) 515-3322; Sat.-Sun. Doors open at noon. $36-$50. All ages.

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