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January 30, 2018

Author Roger Steffens on So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley

roger steffans

The definitive oral history of one of the 20th century’s most important artists

“If Bob Marley is Jesus in these times, Roger Steffens is Peter.”

Ask reggae fans if they would buy a ticket to a panel discussion on Bob Marley by the key people in his life and career — from family to bandmates to mistresses — moderated by the leading reggae historian and archivist, and the answer is obvious. So Many Things To Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley published in mid-July by W. W. Norton & Company by Roger Steffens, offers this experience in book form. Introduction is by Linton Kwesi Johnson.

It is the definitive oral history of one of the twentieth century’s most important artists and activists. It’s also extremely readable, lively and full of fresh material.

While investigating and chronicling the life of Bob Marley, Steffens discovered all sorts of new revelations: How the Wailers got their name; the inside story of the discovery of Marley’s melanoma in 1977 told by his personal doctor and his companion Cindy Breakspeare, and the various courses of treatment that were undertaken; the truth about Bob’s boundless generosity from the man who had to cosign his checks to the friends who watched the lines of supplicants stretch, at times, for blocks; the secret to Bob’s energetic stage performances, which nearly killed a bandmate backstage at the Apollo, and the Mob’s control over Bob’s shows at the end of his career.

Why another Marley book? The answer is in the title: there really is so much to say—about Marley’s songs, his musical influences, his spirituality, his politics and his place in history. The New York Times called Marley the most influential musical artist of the second half of the twentieth century, Time declared Exodus the best album of the century, and Legend is the longest-charting album in the history of Billboard’s catalog album chart.

Roger Steffens grooved to the early Alan Freed movies as a teenager growing up in the suburbs of New York City, before beginning his radio career on WVOX in Westchester County, N.Y. in 1961. Steffens is one of the world’s leading reggae historians and a former co-host of the award-winning radio program Reggae Beat.

His one-man show Life of Bob Marley has been presented at the Smithsonian and the EMP Museum, among other venues. For many years he has continued to present his Life of Bob Marley video/lecture all over the world, including Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the UK.

Roger Steffens lives in Los Angeles, California.

The Echo Park-based Steffens is the curator of the world’s largest collection of Wailers memorabilia and recordings.

In 2012 he served as Music Consultant for Marley, Kevin MacDonald’s documentary motion picture on Bob Marley & the Wailers.

Livicated, a documentary about his life’s work and Reggae Archives, will soon be making the rounds of film festivals

Roger Steffens Interview

Q. What was the formal genesis of this book? You’ve been absorbed by reggae since 1973 and written Marley related book things before.

A: Since 1979 I had been conducting various reggae interviews, many solely regarding Marley, with people from all different parts of his life. They appeared in print, on radio and TV, and in my first Marley book, Bob Marley: Spirit Dancer, done with the brilliant photographer Bruce Talamon and released by Norton in 1995. After 23 years of listening to fascinating, and often myth-deflating testimonies, I realized that a book of raw transcripts could be a powerful and necessary resource for future biographers. After all, Bob is the most important musical artist of the 20th century, who I’m certain will be studied for hundreds of years to come (if Trump hasn’t killed us all before that). So I sold the idea to my editor at Norton, Jim Mairs, in 2002 and signed a contract.

Q: The process behind the endeavor.

A: There were several interviews that had not been transcribed, so that is what I began to do. I realized there were some gaps in the material and also solicited new interviews. Chief among them were interrogations that took place in 2003 at WBAI, the Pacifica station in New York City, arranged by my award-winning friends The Midnight Ravers and Terry Wilson. The subjects included a childhood friend of Bob’s in Trench Town named Segree Wesley. For twenty-odd years I had been attempting to speak with the two women who were in the first lineup of the Wailers: Cherry Green and Beverley Kelso. Cherry flew up from her home in Florida and Beverley came down from the Bronx for hours of revelatory raps. Cherry died not long after, so thank Jah their stories were cemented for history.

Someday, of course, I hope that all the raw materials will be emplaced in a Reggae Museum for researchers to dip into. But for now, this is as close as I can come to summing up 44 years of research, 38 years of interviews and 15 years of writing.

Q: In 1973 Bob Marley and the Wailers were one thing. What is his current legacy?

A: Today Marley is regarded as an icon, a symbol of many things. He is certainly an herbal icon. Through his revolutionary words he is a political figure. He’s also a fashion figure – dreads, formerly despised, feared and shocking – are now ubiquitous, co-opted from Rasta livity into mainstream acceptance. Next to Haile Selassie he is probably the best known symbol of the Rasta philosophy and its primary prophet. The head of Amnesty International said everywhere he goes in the world today, Bob Marley is the symbol of freedom. He remains reggae’s biggest seller and one of the heaviest-earning dead celebs. Seven of his kids record and most have won Grammys; now their own children are recording.

bob marley book

Q: What is the Bob Marley demographic?

A: I’ve been doing a multi-media show called The Life of Bob Marley since 1984 around the world. I find my audiences cover a full range of ages. Certainly college-age folks are enormous Marley fans. But middle and geezer-aged people, many of whom were alive during the Golden Age of Reggae (1966-1981) are still deeply interested in him as well. Wherever there is suffering, there will be Bob Marley songs of solace. Wherever people extoll the healing virtues of love, they will sing Bob’s songs. And wherever people are in revolt, crying out for justice, they will use Bob’s anthems as their inspiration.

Q: What keeps amazing you about Bob Marley?

A: How he always seem current. Look at all the commercializations of him today. He’s the name of a key brand of marijuana – perhaps a dream come true for him. The New Yorker reviewed So Much Things to Say and mentioned some of the other things on which you will find Marley’s image currently: “There are T-shirts, hats, posters, tapestries, skateboard decks, headphones, speakers, turntables, bags, watches, pipes, lighters, ashtrays, key chains, backpacks, scented candles, room mist, soap, hand cream, lip balm, body wash, coffee, dietary-supplement drinks, and cannabis (whole flower, as well as oil) that bear some official relationship with the Marley estate. There are also lava lamps, iPhone cases, mouse pads, and fragrances that do not.”

Q: What is it like constantly re-visiting the life and work of Bob Marley?

A: I hear something new almost every time. And now that the Estate is going through the vaults and coming up with things like the new alternate mixes – and vocals – of Exodus, there are things that even I haven’t heard in 44 years of digging. Plus there are murmurings of the lost Danny Sims’ sessions finally surfacing, songs reputedly by Bob with titles like “Don’t Draft Me.”

Q: Is it a mission or destiny?

A: It must have been destiny because I never in a million years would have imagined doing any of this. The Reggae Archives, I now realize, began in June of 1973 when I read an amazing article in Rolling Stone by Michael Thomas, and saw the word “reggae” for the first time. I put that story in a manila folder and that became the first object in a collection that now fills seven rooms, floor-to-ceiling, of our home in L.A. We’ve had to move twice to house the archives. One thing led to another: a radio show, a tv show, a magazine, founding the Reggae Grammy committee and running that for 27 years; touring the world telling the story of Bob from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the Outback in Australia; writing and co-writing seven books about Bob and reggae history.

Q: Do you do it for the planet? Do you do it for Jamaica?

A: Yes, I do it for Jamaica mainly, and to educate Americans. But Jamaica doesn’t really overstand how far and wide its culture has reached, and the bulk of my collecting for at least the past 20 years has been on the internationalization of the music. For example, there are now over 30,000 posters and fliers from all over the world, that help document Jah Music’s spread.

Q: Why didn’t radio stations in the U.S. in the seventies really extend to the music of Marley and other reggae artists?

A: Very few reggae artists were on American labels, or had American distribution. Even fewer toured. The labels were looking for big-money acts. The language was difficult to interpret, so were the music’s themes. American acts were imploring their audiences to “Get down! Get down!” whilst reggae’s proponents were urging their listeners to “Get up! Stand up! Stand up for your rights.” Reggae was pot; American disco and rock was cocaine. It’s always about money.

Q: I want you to comment on Bunny Wailer and especially Peter Tosh.

A: Peter and Bob had a post-Wailers contentious relationship and during the last two years of Bob’s life Peter never even picked up the phone to ask after Bob’s health. His only comment after Bob passed away: Now it gives the rest of us a chance to break through.

Bunny loved Bob. They were raised as brothers from the time Bunny was 8 and Bob was 11. Bob’s mother moved in with Bunny’s father, so no one knows Bob’s story like Bunny does. Many of his most important insights are found in my book, and will shock a lot of people who think they know everything there is to know about the Wailers.

Q: I’d also like you to comment on former manager Don Taylor. He sure knew how to present his act and create a buzz and demand.

A: Don Taylor, a notorious gambler who was fired during a tour to Gabon in 1980, was a very shrewd man. From the time he began working with Marley in 1975 he under booked him. So when Bob could fill a 5,000 seater, he’d put him in a nightclub. Each year he added ever-bigger venues that were sure to sell out, culminating with the biggest concert of his life, 110,000 people in San Siro soccer stadium in Milan in June of 1980, outdrawing the pope who had appeared there the week before.

Q: Can you discuss the role of artist Neville Garrick in the Bob Marley journey?

A: Neville was the “uptown boy” in Bob’s entourage. His dad was an important Kingston official and he was educated at UCLA by Angela Davis and founded Nommo, the black student newspaper. He designed all of Bob’s album covers from 1976’s Rastaman Vibration forward, designed the banners and lighting for the stage shows, and played percussion in the daylight concerts. He tells his lighting secrets and talks about a manic confrontation with Bill Graham in my book.

Q: Tell me about the photos you’ve acquired

A: If you mean the images that I’ve created myself over a 50 year period, those began shortly before the TET Offensive in Saigon in early ’68 when I bought my first real camera.

Reggaewise, I went to Jamaica for the first time in June of 1976, just as Prime Minister Michael Manley declared a National State of Emergency, mobilized the Army, put tanks on all the island’s crossroads, and threw the opposition in jail with no charges. Shot lots of pictures of bare-empty streets in Kingston under heavy manners. Been back about 30 times and earlier this year the Rock House Hotel in Negril published a collection of 40 years of my Jamaican photography called The Family Acid: Jamaica which is available through www.thefamilyacid.com, which is also the title of my Instagram on which my curator/daughter posts daily shots with interesting stories attached about my counterculture history.

As for acquired ones, I’ve been very fortunate because lots of photographers have donated stunningly beautiful and historically significant photos to the Reggae Archives: Bruce Talamon, Kate Simon; Peter Simon (no relation); Rio Daniels; and dozens of others.

Q: What are some of your favorite Marley tunes?

A: My favorite is “Waiting in Vain,” which Linton Kwesi Johnson, the great Jamaican/British dub poet who wrote the intro to So Much Things to Say, called the greatest love song ever written. I love the doo-wop ballads “Send Me That Love,” “Wisdom” and a later discovery from the Coxson vaults, “I’m Still Wailing.” I really dig the muted version of “Time Will Tell” on the soundtrack of the film Countryman.

Q: Do you have a theory why the live recordings of Bob Marley & the Wailers sound better or more energetic than the original studio recordings?

Were Marley and the Wailers a better live experience? I just spun the Wailers Live at Leeds album and it is knockout. The version of “Kinky Reggae” dwarfs the one on the initial album and is way different than the Lyceum 1975 rendition and a whole other sonic trip from the track on Babylon By Bus.

A: There’s a tremendous difference between interpreting a song in the studio – often alone – and standing in front of 20,000 people. That live energy transforms all performers and pushes them to heights they might otherwise not attain. Bob rehearsed his band so thoroughly – often working a single song day after day – that they could follow his lead with just a tilt of his head of a flick of his finger, and take a three minute record into eight, ten even twenty minute improvisatory performances that often reach magical levels of inspiration. Many consider Bob’s two live albums – at the Lyceum in London in ’75 (Live) and the majestic double album Babylon By Bus in ’78 — as reggae’s finest.

Q: What are some of your favorite Marley live performances.

A: Of course, the first time I saw him at the Oakland Paramount in July of 1975 whirling dervishly like an unstrung puppet. Hanging out at the sound check with him at the Roxy in November of 1979, hearing him sing a new song about redemption that he was working on.

Harvey Kubernik is the author of 12 books, including Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows, and Neil Young, Heart of Gold. In April 2017, Sterling published Kubernik’s 1967 A Complete Rock Music History of the Summer of Love.
Kubernik is a contributor to the just published book Bob Marley and the Wailers The Ultimate Illustrated History written by Richie Unterburger from Voyageur Press.
Harvey Kubernik’s literary music anthology Inside Cave Hollywood: The Harvey Kubernik Music InnerViews and InterViews Collection, Vol. 1 will be published in late 2017, by Cave Hollywood Books.






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