I remember clearly the week Bob Marley died. There were a lot of rumors going around about him -- he had cancer; he was getting better; he was dying; he was in hiding. Then he was gone. I wrote a story about Marley for the newspaper where I worked, and spent much of the next few weeks loaning out my albums to people who wanted to understand what the fuss was all about. The fact that Marley had been given a state funeral spoke volumes about what he meant to the people of Jamaica. There, he was already an icon.
Yet I could not have imagine then that Bob Marley would, in the years following his death, be transformed from an unassuming Jamaican musician, (albeit one who drove a BMW, which he said simply stood for "Bob Marley & the Wailers") to a full-fledged cottage industry, complete with trademarked clothing items available on his posthumously created web site.
Since his death, Bob Marley has sold more albums -- millions more -- than he ever did when alive. And it seems to never end, this proliferation of "new" Bob Marley records, death be damned. There have been no less than eight "official" Marley albums released since 1981; dozens more of cheap compilations can also be found in any record store. People can't get enough of the guy. Elvis doesn't still sell records like this, does he?
It's a bit ironic for me to see how popular Bob's become. In the late '70s, when I discovered Marley's music and tried to turn on my college friends onto it, I was met with utter indifference, except from a few progressively open listeners. The rest of my friends just didn't get it -- didn't get the whole island/Rasta/rebel music thing. They couldn't get past the fact Marley and his Rastafarian cohorts considered Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie a deity. Plus there was the fact that Marley and the Wailers seemed perpetually preoccupied with Jah (God), ganja (pot), and political upheaval, hardly the fodder for college party music.
He did have his audience, certainly, but while he was alive, Marley skirted the periphery of superstardom in America. That's how I remember it anyway. It was only after his death, with the release of 1984's Legend compilation -- which sold 10 million copies in the U.S. alone -- that Marley became just that: a full-blown legend. Suddenly, Marley-trademarked merchandise, coffee table books, and documentary films sprang up. Marley, who died at the age of 36, joined the ranks of other young talents who left the planet with their star on the rise. His smiling face suddenly adorned T-shirts, posters, and bumper stickers. He even won a posthumous Grammy Award and a place in the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. Bob Marley a global superstar. A dead global superstar who still put out records. Amazing.
Over the years, Legend's tremendous success spurred on more and more Marley compilations, all with their own thematic spin. There was even an ambient version of Marley tunes, which sounded like Bob-meets-2001 Space Odyssey. Last year's One Love: The Very Best of Bob Marley seemed the biggest stretch of all -- it was virtually the same record as Legend, give or take a track or two. Uh, hello? Running out of ideas, Island marketers?
Now we're getting re-issues of Marley compilations, which must mean the well is running dry (or perhaps not; one shouldn't assume anything when it comes to Bob Marley's post-death career).
Which brings us to the re-release of two Marley Island Records collections, both remastered and reissued with bonus tracks, Natural Mystic and Talkin' Blues. Natural Mystic, originally released in 1995, seemed at the time to be a sort of "Greatest Hits, Vol. 2" continuation of Legend. All the "second-tier" Marley favorites -- many equally as strong as those on the Legend record -- made it onto that one. For the reissued version, the bonus track, "Positive Vibration" -- one of Marley's most upbeat songs ever -- is included. But the addition of that one track makes little difference overall in this record, causing this listener to question its inclusion. It's almost as if Island needed to say something is different this time out, something sounds really different than with the '95 version, but I don't really hear what that is, to be honest. The record sounded good when it came out seven years ago, and it still does. Many of the mostly late '70s tracks like "Crazy Baldhead", "War", and "Africa United" are political in nature, giving Natural Mystic a more strident, urgent tone than Legend, something potential buyers should keep in mind. You won't find any sexy Kaya love songs on Natural Mystic. The closest thing here is a paean to the pleasures of ganja ("Easy Skanking"), of which Marley sounds quite enthused.
Talkin' Blues -- another of newly remastered Marley CD -- was originally issued in early 1991. This record is enjoyable, despite its mish-mashed style. Most, but not all of the songs, the songs featured on the original version were recorded live in 1973 for a San Francisco FM radio station broadcast. The comments Marley makes between the songs -- i.e. the "talkin'" to which the title refers -- were actually made two years later, during a 1975 Jamaican radio interview. (Listener be forewarned: Marley's Jamaican accent is so thick, much of what he says is indecipherable, at least on first listen). Add to this confusion four studio versions of songs completely unrelated to the live radio show. (The new bonus tracks, thankfully, were recorded as part of the radio show, and are welcome additions, especially Stop That Train, featuring an impassioned Peter Tosh on lead vocals, with Marley providing subtle harmonies).
Talkin' Blues -- one of the better posthumous Marley releases -- sounds like Marley and his buddies are jammin' in their living room. Add to that the palpable sense of hunger in these performances -- Marley had just been dumped from the Sly Stone tour, apparently for being too good an opener, and he used the radio appearance for all it was worth. His voice is young and strong, backed by the Wailers and I-Threes, all at the top of their game.
Talkin' Blues will hold special appeal to true Marley aficionados since it combines both music and off-the-cuff conversations that give insight into this spiritual makeup and political beliefs. And while I remain ambivalent about what, for lack of a better term, I'll call "Bob Marley, Inc." -- i.e. the posthumous business that keeps finding new ways to market and sell his name and image -- I have no ambivalence about the man himself and his music. Marley couldn't write a bad song, it seems. His songs resonate; his reedy voice is like no other, and there's something eternally hopeful in that smile. Bob lives, children -- praise Jah.