It was the summer of 1991 when I began to realize that an important part of the Bob Marley story had not been told. My brother Scott and I were on a road trip from Connecticut to Vermont. We drove the whole way listening to his Bob Marley tapes, picking apart the lyrics, decoding the Jamaican patois and biblical imagery. The Talkin’ Blues album, featuring live recordings from the Wailers’ first US tour in 1973, previously unreleased material, and Marley interview excerpts, had been released earlier in the year and was the subject of intense discussion. I was six years older than Scott and a Senior in college, so he looked up to me and my knowledge. Yet in many ways, I looked up to him – his confidence, his ability to relate to people from all walks of life and make them laugh, his sense of style, his taste in music. He had inspired a multitude at his school to listen to Bob Marley. We did so much on that trip. I taught him how to drive stick. We hiked, jet skied, and composed a humorous song about our Grandpa Andy, a local icon who worked at North Haven High School where Scott was on the wrestling and soccer teams, and about to begin his Junior year. Back in our hometown a couple of weeks later, Scott was a passenger in another teenager’s car when he was senselessly killed in an alcohol-related crash on August 4th.
Losing my brother tore a hole in the soul of my family and me. We each responded in different ways. Faith was shaken, faith was strengthened, but there was one uniting chord that brought us together: My brother’s effect on those around him only intensified. He left us his love of life, nature, and the music of Bob Marley. We rallied to the refrain of Marley’s “One Love,” and were comforted by the message that Marley said came from “Three Little Birds”: somehow, things would turn out alright (“One Love” and “Three Little Birds,” released on the Exodus album).
“I’ll only be able to listen to Bob Marley from now on, for therapeutic reasons,” I told a newspaper reporter. Reading this statement more than twenty years later, I cannot believe how prescient it was. When grief hits, the mind is numb, and you go through life unaware of what you are doing. You find yourself spilling your soul to the waitress there to serve you because you must eat, not because you are hungry. You don’t remember what you said, only that you said it. And so it was with what I told this reporter. If it weren’t printed in the newspaper, preserved with all the other artifacts of this tragedy, I never would have known the ephemeral words that spilled out in my grief like tears. Two decades and three vehicles later, Marley’s Songs of Freedom box set has never left my car stereo. I had responded to grief by entering the classroom of Bob Marley.
I recall the dizzying state I was in, with chaos all around me. I felt like I was in the center of a maelstrom, and yet, I somehow learned to experience peace in the eye of the storm. I learned that I could actually thrive on chaos, entering it head on, carving out my space, remaining, watching and listening. And gently wafting through this cacophony all these years has been the sweet sound of reggae music, my perpetual companion, the music of Bob Marley. Parts of songs would come to mind at just the right times of my life. During a troubling time when it seemed that so much was working against me, I heard Marley’s exhortation to “stand firm” (cf. Eph 6:11, 13-14) while offering prayers of thanksgiving and praise to God (“So Much Things to Say,” released on the Exodus album). Heeding his advice, I countered adversity and struggle with unceasing prayer, and became, like Marley, a survivor.
Marley’s words came with the authority of one who withstood tremendous hardship through constant prayer and love of God. He was a true soul survivor – of abandonment by his father, the poverty and violence of Jamaica’s Trench Town ghetto, and a politically-motivated assassination attempt on his life. Marley named his band the Wailers because “we all started out crying” (McCann, 12). Everyone is a Wailer. Like the great saints, Marley reflected on the spiritual yearnings and common struggles of humanity. His answer to the human condition was, like that of Saint Paul (1 Thess 5:17), to pray unceasingly. What’s more, Marley’s music came not just with the authority of his personal experience; it came with the authority of Scripture. However, this important aspect of Marley’s life and music has not been the subject of serious analysis . . . until now.
Ian McCann, Bob Marley in His Own Words (New York: Omnibus Press, 1993).