In “So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley” (Norton), the reggae historian and collector Roger Steffens estimates that at least five hundred books have been written about Marley. There are books interpreting his lyrics and collecting his favorite Bible passages, parsing his relationship to the Rastafarian religion and his status as a “postcolonial idol,” reconstructing his childhood in Jamaica and investigating the theory that his death was the result of a C.I.A. assassination effort. His mother and his wife have written memoirs about living with him, as have touring musicians who were only briefly proximate to his genius. He has inspired countless works of fiction and poetry, and his later years provided the basic outline for parts of Marlon James’s prize-winning 2014 novel, “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” Steffens’s “So Much Things to Say” isn’t even the first book about Marley to borrow its title from the 1977 song; Don Taylor, one of his former managers, published a book with the same title, in 1995.
Steffens was introduced to reggae in 1973, after buying a Bob Marley album. In 1976, he made the first of many trips to Kingston, Jamaica, in search of records and lore, and two years later he co-founded “Reggae Beat,” a long-running radio show on Santa Monica’s KCRW. Being an early adopter paid off. Six weeks after the show’s première, Island Records offered him a chance to go on the road with Marley for the “Survival” tour. In 1981, Steffens co-founded a reggae-and-world-music magazine, The Beat, which was published for nearly thirty years; in 1984, he was invited to convene the first Grammy committee for reggae music. Steffens has made a career out of being a completist, amassing one of the most impressive collections of reggae ephemera on the planet, overseeing a comprehensive collection of Marley’s early work (the eleven-disk “The Complete Bob Marley & the Wailers 1967-1972”), and co-writing the exhaustive 2005 “Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Definitive Discography.”
oral history has become the preferred format for revisiting the recent past. It’s designed to provide open-ended, immersive filibusters, balancing projection with hazy memory, marquee voices with obscure bystanders, a charismatic superstar with the accountant who kept the operation afloat. At a time when quick takes abound, the labor-intensive nature of the form, as well as the seeming lack of a writerly voice or perspective, gives the impression of relating everyone’s side. It’s the perfect approach in the age of the data dump, a way of making room for readers to sift through materials, discover their own resonances, and, in the case of “So Much Things to Say,” decide which shady, finger-pointing label boss or business manager to trust.
Steffens generally resists hagiography. Kelso, one of Marley’s lifelong confidantes, suggested that he was occasionally “rough” toward Rita, and that she nearly divorced him. Joe Higgs, the Wailers’ early mentor, contends that Marley’s mother—one of his biggest advocates after his death—was largely absent during his formative years as an artist, and wanted him to become a welder. Steffens also reprints Archbishop Abuna Yesehaq’s oft-repeated but never verified claim to have baptized Marley at the end of his life, which would have been a betrayal of his Rastafarian faith.Steffens closes his book with a chapter of friends and collaborators sharing their favorite Marley tunes. It’s a way of creating a “spiritual foundation,” in the words of the Wailers’ guitarist Junior Marvin, that will last for eternity. At the same time, it enables us to imagine Marley’s career as an arc extending through the eighties, the nineties, and beyond. We believe that he wouldn’t have had to change with the times—that he would have resisted whatever was to come, or seen an alternative to it. This is the most intoxicating part of the Marley myth: the dream that someone had the answers; if only he had survived long enough to save us all.
- The New Yorker