[9 August 2004]
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner . . . Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
—Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol
There is no peace for performers who die untimely deaths. They carry the chains they forge in life, an endless stream of remastered CDs, box sets, DVDs, and T-shirts trailing behind them as they shuffle through the afterlife.
OK, that’s maybe a bit cynical on my part, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t true. Name a dead musician—oops, sorry, Fallen Legend—and I’ll show you capitalism in action. If the music labels and artists’ estates could pry the gold fillings out of the corpses, I wouldn’t put it past them. Tupac, Jerry, Elvis, Kurt, Marvin, Jimi . . . some worse than others, but each and every one with a postmortem empire of such massive proportion as to dwarf all but the most popular living acts. It’s the rare artist who can manage to preserve a quiet dignity in passing. Say what you will about Yoko Ono, at least she has blessedly limited John’s posthumous releases to the occasional well timed remaster and a single box of cherry-picked rarities. The Notorious B.I.G. lucked out in this respect simply because he just wasn’t very prolific.
Bob Marley, however, was very prolific. Furthermore, he was also singularly important and influential in a way that maybe only a handful of pop acts have ever been, or will ever be. As such, the demand for Marley’s music has never dimmed. His Legend anthology remains the best-selling reggae album of all time. It’s been re-released and repackaged numerous times since its initial 1984 release, and this edition is just one of three versions of the anthology currently in print in the United States.
Of course, you can decry the appearance of exploitation all you want, but at the end of the day there’s only one way to judge a package like this: is it worth it? Was there a compelling reason for this set to be released again? I have to say, after spending a few days in quiet deliberation, that the answer is a resounding yes.
This set contains three discs: two CDs and a bonus DVD. The two CDs present the Legend anthology in exactly the same shape as 2002’s Legend: Deluxe Edition. If you have that version, then you know that the songs themselves couldn’t sound better, as crisp and clear as the day they were recorded. The first disc contains two additional tracks that were not included on the original 1984 release, “Easy Skanking” and “Punky Reggae Party”. The second disc is composed of the 1984/85 extended remixes released by Island exclusively on the 12” format in conjunction with Legend’s original release.
Of course, there’s a reason why this anthology has seen so many incarnations. Whereas most artists of Marley’s stature and popularity—and most artists of a lesser pedigree as well—go through multiple anthologies in the course of a career, Marley has only ever needed the one. The reason is simple, as even a casual reggae devotee would tell you: why mess with perfection? They got it right the first time.
The ‘80s remixes, far from a mere curiosity, are actually quite good. With a couple of exceptions where the remixers replaced the Wailer’s light dub with an 80s new wave beat of questionable quality, the mixes merely elongate and amplify the grooves that were so very vital to the band’s appeal. Whereas remixes are often seen by an artist’s aficionados as superfluous or even deleterious, the release of these mixes on disc had been greatly anticipated by Marley fans. While they are not, perhaps, absolutely essential to a layman’s understanding of the group, they are wonderful additions to any Marley collection.
But the real draw here, the only reason this collection exists, is the bonus DVD. I must question the wisdom of releasing this disc in a set with a CD collection that most of the hardcore Marley fans already have. I have a bad feeling that there are a few diehards who have already purchased the ‘02 Deluxe Edition, and who will make this purchase simply for the DVD. That’s unfortunate, simply because I don’t see any reason this DVD couldn’t be released separately. The rather callow marketing decisions that surround this release are the only thing stopping me from giving it my wholehearted support.
But with that said, the DVD is pretty damn cool. The centerpiece is the 1991 documentary Time Will Tell, which uses Marley’s own words and music to tell the story of his life. If you are not already roughly familiar with the events in his career, you might be slightly confused in places, because there is no narration, just Marley’s own voice as excerpted from interviews. But the documentary does a wonderful job of illuminating the texture and breadth of Marley’s eclectic life, from the slums of Jamaica to the shores of Africa, and all over the world as he performed for adoring crowds on every continent. The film is packed with concert footage, which the DVD compilers have also graciously included as bonus material in their uncut entirety. In addition to the documentary, there are thirteen additional tracks, mostly performance footage, but also the few early music videos that Marley shot.
All things said, this is perhaps as complete a picture of Marley as a Caribbean dilettante as one could hope for. If you already have Legend in any of its incarnations, you won’t find anything new here, but if you don’t, there can be no denying that it’s a wonderful package.
Marley’s music speaks for itself. Whether or not his songs are repackaged and exploited by the multinational music corporations, it is impossible to completely obscure the fact that this music is the music of oppression and revolution. Even his most tender love songs are tinged with sadness and are never free of political heft. I sometimes fear that music such as this can lose its context for American listeners, many of whom, it must be said, admire Marley and his cohorts more for their herbally-enhanced Rastafarian lifestyle than for their revolutionary creed.
In the history and politics of Jamaica, Bob Marley was a figure of almost unimaginable primacy. Although Americans may regard him simply as a musician of considerable talent and influence, in his homeland he is regarded as a political savior on par with JFK, Martin Luthor King, and Malcom X all rolled into one. There are still those who refuse to believe that something as mundane as a mere cancer could have felled their hero, who believe to this day that he was killed because of the things he said and the unbelievably popular way in which he said them. Bob Marley was a revolutionary, a man of the people in a country steeped in poverty and pulled by class division. Bob Marley was a man of furious passion, and this must never be forgotten.