An oral history that presents a well-rounded portrait of the music legend, allowing for multiple, sometimes-conflicting, points of view.
Robert Nesta Marley (1945-1981) left a legacy of beautiful music, helping to push reggae from its Jamaican roots out into the world at large. Mindful of the many books about Marley already available, reggae historian Steffens (The Family Acid, 2015, etc.) worked to make a complete narrative covering the musician’s entire life and filling in the cracks left by previous books. The author goes into great detail about Marley’s early recordings, the inner workings of the Wailers, and the cancer that eventually took Marley’s life. Steffens has interviewed dozens of major and minor players in Marley’s life, including Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, Island Records’ Chris Blackwell, Marley’s mother, Cedella Booker, and various friends, musicians, and associates. There is a fullness to the collective weight of all these observations that is well-suited to the oral history format. What emerges is a not a clear picture of Marley the man but rather a true sense of how complicated his life was. His legend and impact, his work ethic, his abilities as a musician and leader—these are beyond question—but there are a lot of contrasting voices. On the question of who wrote “I Shot the Sheriff,” for example, Marley’s then-girlfriend Esther Anderson and his friend Lee Jaffe both think the story starts with them. There are disagreements over how people met, who paid royalty payments, who deserves credit for music and lyrics, etc. Steffens inserts himself as a voice like any of the others, offering structure and sometimes serving as a referee. If someone has told what has proven to be a lie, the author steps in and clarifies. But mostly, he lets his subjects speak for themselves.
The author’s approach allows him to tell more of the story, and even without presenting Marley’s voice directly, this is an illuminating portrait of an extraordinary life.