To Fully Appreciate the Wailers, We Must Fully Appreciate What Formed Them: 'The Natural Mystics'

This biography of a band often feels more like the biography of a nation. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

There’s a case to be made for referring to the Wailers – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer – as the Jamaican Beatles. Like the Fab Four, the Wailers helped revolutionize music in their native land during the ‘60s. And yes, their music would be seen as groundbreaking and life-changing by millions all over the world. And yes, each band’s members would go on to make memorable music as solo performers. One could even extend the analogy to include assassins silencing both bands’ most politically strident voices (Tosh and John Lennon), and the survivors (Wailer and, mostly, Paul McCartney) being seen as standard-bearers of a certain gravitas in their respective genres.

Trying to draw those lines ignores some major differences, though. First, the Beatles made a lot more money in the ‘60s than the Wailers did. Their music, once it entered the mainstream (read: American) pop marketplace, went global immediately, whereas the Wailers’ work from that same period didn’t reach much of the planet until years later (and often through bootleg reissues, at that). We all know who “The Beatles” were, but there’s a difference between “The Wailers”, three ragamuffin strugglers whose union collapsed scant months after they finally achieved some success, and “Bob Marley and the Wailers”, the international juggernaut that for most of its existence included neither Tosh nor Wailer.

If there’s any real parallel between them, it’s that they both turned out to be bands of brothers. Each of them about the same age, they grew up in public during a turbulent time. Their music and lifestyles reflected much of the tenor of the ‘60s, as they sang about everything from love and unity to their countries’ economies to alternative faiths. Key periods of their work were shaped by singular figures they would soon outgrow (Lee “Scratch” Perry and Brian Epstein). In the process of becoming counter-culture icons, they had to work through various personal challenges, and relied on each other to help overcome them. But in the end, both bands grew apart, as the respective brothers’ differing artistic impulses, egos and basic attitudes about life and each other became too much to sustain.

Yet even at all that, the connections don’t completely hold. The Wailers were much more emblematic of Jamaica than the Beatles were of England. They came of age as men and musicians during the first decade of Jamaica’s independence, and their lives and music deeply reflected the new nation’s vestiges of colonial racism, political corruption, chronic poverty, and class conflicts. It’s not all that big a leap to argue that one can’t know how those three ragamuffin strugglers became counter-culture icons without knowing more about Jamaica than sunshine and ganja. That’s the central assertion behind BBC historian Colin Grant’s The Natural Mystics, an illuminating study which often reads more like a biography of a country than of a reggae band.

Grant doesn’t begin his story when the Wailers first recorded, or even when the individual men were born. He traces his history back to 1938, when a series of riots over pay at a major factory ratcheted up the tension between Jamaica’s rich white minority and its poor black majority. Grant goes into detail on characters like Alexander Bustamonte, essentially the island’s first modern civil rights leader, and Norman Manley: attorney, Bustamonte’s cousin, future Prime Minister, and the father of another future Prime Minister. It’s riveting material in his hands, but he disrupts expectations of a chronological narrative flow with his observations of present-day Jamaica.

His account of the statue Negro Aroused is a case in point. An iconic ‘30s emblem of black Jamaica’s nascent pride, it now sits neglected in a sleepy museum. Grant tells of his encounter with it during a trip to Jamaica researching for this book, shifting from scholarly history to first-person reportage without much warning. The toggling between past and present, which happens frequently here, creates a frustrating effect for readers caught in his story; there are moments when you’d wish he’d have saved the tales of his countryside adventures for a travel piece. But the time shifts also lend an extra dimension to the history lesson, by capturing essences of the Jamaican character that aren’t contained in facts and dates.

By the time the chronology advances to the early ‘40s, when Marley, Tosh (nee Peter McIntosh) and Wailer (nee Neville Livingston) were born (Grant doesn’t dispense with their actual birth dates), Grant has established the grinding poverty, racial inequality and misogyny that characterized the Jamaica of their youth. He alludes to their budding musical talent, but spends more time developing the personal dynamics between the youths (Marley and Wailer met when Marley’s mother took a job in the corner shop owned by Wailer’s father, and also did some housekeeping).

Life in Trench Town, the heart of the Kingston ghetto, was hard, but music soon emerged as a safety valve. In the late ‘50s, Jamaican music began to evolve from weak reflections of American jazz and r&b into its own distinctive style. Soon, Kingston’s mobile dj’s (known as “sound systems”) started making their own records, and eventually other local entrepreneurs got into the act. One of them, Chinese grocer Leslie Kong, was the first to record any of our heroes (Marley: “Judge Not,” 1962), although they had already started to hone their musical chops as a trio.

It’s here where Grant’s true interest becomes clearest. Most existing chronicles of the Wailers, including the various Marley-specific biographies, continue from this point forward primarily focused on key milestones in the band’s development: Joe Higgs giving them singing lessons; the beginning of the relationship with producer Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd; their 1963 hit “Simmer Down;” and so on. But Grant instead ventures into a lengthy discussion of the role spirit worship plays in Jamaican folklore, distilling the success of “Simmer Down” into not much more than one sentence. Again and again, Grant’s approach insists that before we can fully appreciate the Wailers, we must fully appreciate the milieu that formed them. At least the lectures don’t all land with a thud, as Grant injects periodic doses of cynicism and understatement into his readings of the past.

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