“So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley” by Roger Steffens
This book puts the human behind the icon, the stories behind the songs.
It is written by Roger Steffens, a kind of polymath with an interesting life: a Vietnam war veteran that became an author, actor, editor, lecturer, photographer, reggae music producer, reggae radio host, and the founder of Reggae Archives, the world’s largest collection of Bob Marley material and other reggae memorabilia. On top of this, Steffens had actually toured with Bob Marley and the Wailers in the 1970s and was closely acquainted with them.
Unlike the other 500+ books on Marley, this book is written not from the vantage point of the reggae legend, but it is a book about his life’s story in a 360 degree angle as told by the people around him. More precisely, it is the culmination of the interviews (a.k.a. “oral history”) conducted in the span of 4 decades with 75 of the people closest with Marley and those who have crossed paths with him, including family, friends, neighbours, musicians, business managers, photographers, filmmakers, and journalists.
The book tells the tale of Jamaica in the turbulent political years in late 1960s and 1970s that became the environmental context for the birth of the reggae music. It tells the story of the pre-recording early days of the Wailers, the backstage reality of the Studio One, the JAD period, the complicated world of music business, song royalties, confrontation with producer Lee Perry, what happened in Gabon, the breakup of the group in 1973, Marley’s encounter with Johnny Nash and Nash’s big influence on Marley’s music. It is about the events that inspired the making of the songs, like how “get up, stand up” was written during their tour in Haiti after he was deeply moved by the poverty there, or how “I shot the sheriff” is actually about birth control.
The book also covers his personal life. Marley’s upbringing in the slums of Trench Town, that time he lived in Delaware and London, his volatile relationship with Rita Marley and Cindy Breakspeare, his visit to Ethiopia, his exile from Kingston in 1966 and 1967, his diet and exercise, his love of football, the ego, his near psychic ability, his 19 children from multiple mothers, marijuana, lots of marijuana, the Rastafari religion, the story behind their unique dreadlock hair style, more marijuana, when he met with emperor Haile Selassie II, and how he didn’t really care about money and gave a lot of them away to others throughout his lifetime.
The many interviews in the book also reminisce about the iconic moments in Marley’s life, such as that time when they were the opening act for the Commodores at Maddison Square Garden but “stole” the show, the mysterious assassination attempt on him in 1976 (and who really did it), the tense events leading to the One Love peace concert, his ability to unite two party fractions in Jamaica during a bloody battle, his moment in the independence celebration of Zimbabwe, his last months living on Earth before his death on 11 May 1981 at the age of 36 due to skin cancer, and his funeral where literally half of the entire population of Jamaica came to pay their last respect.
That’s how much Marley was loved and respected. That’s how big his personality was. And that’s how impactful he was in the global scenery. And this very enjoyable read can capture all of the essence and moments perfectly, to show the Robert Nesta Marley from Trench Town behind the legend of Bob Marley.