Money is like water in the sea,’ Bob Marley insisted earnestly on that late 1976 afternoon as our conversation by the Sheraton pool in Kingston turned to business and politics. ‘People work for money, den dem don’t want to split it. It’s that kind of attitude,’ he continued scornfully. ‘So much guys have so much – too much – while so many have nothing at all. We don’t feel like that is right, because it don’t take a guy a hundred million dollars to keep him satisfied. Everybody have to live. Michael Manley say ‘im wan’ help poor people… They feel something good is gonna happen,’ he said reflectively, then continued: ‘We need a change from what it was. It couldn’t get worse than that.’ Sounding more sure, he concluded fiercely, almost defiantly, ‘You have to share. I don’t care if it sounds political or whatever it is, but people have to share.’
Bob’s last comment might sound odd: why should the outspoken revolutionary poet be so concerned about anyone’s political misinterpretation? But we were speaking just days before the free Smile Jamaica concert he was due to play for the people, and large crowds are always volatile. Bob was conscious of the heightened tension that always surrounded the build-up to a Jamaican election. His generous humanist statement could be labeled as socialism. People might say he was definitively backing Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP), with its affiliation to Castro and Russia, and rejecting the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), headed by Edward Seaga, dubbed in widespread graffiti as ‘CIA-ga’ because of the American secret service’s overt support of his team. That could mean trouble.
Times had changed since Bob and his wife Rita had backed Manley in the 1972 election. The island seemed to be full of guns. People were more desperate and violent, and Bob was a far more public figure. Now he had to screen every word and be extra-careful not to be misunderstood.
For an effectively fatherless mixed-race child of the rural areas and stifling ghettoes to be receiving more acclaim than any Jamaican ever was a wake-up call that a new society had actually arrived. Bob’s international success made him a symbol of a troubled island’s hopes. He now found himself in the unenviable position of being the prize of a tug-of-war between the island’s two political parties. As the material for his album Exodus began to brew in 1976, the island was convulsed with lethal political agitation, and Bob’s star status did not confer immunity – rather, it was the reverse. ‘People see him as a big man now, gone international,’ as his boyhood friend Mikey Smith explains. ‘Everyone want Bob Marley deh ‘pon their team.’
Less than two decades after Jamaican independence, the system left behind by the British had frayed, and the infrastructure was crumbling. I remember arriving in Jamaica from Los Angeles once, having been shopping earlier that day, and how obscene it was to compare LA supermarkets’ towering stacks of produce with the island supermarkets, with shelves so empty they seemed to sell air. There was music, style and creativity in abundance, but shortages of everything else from rice to rolling papers. Driving anywhere was an adventure, as the ancient taxis seemed to be held together with rubber bands and hope, and the roads all over the island had potholes like craters. Power cuts were as regular as police roadblocks.
Deadly tribal wars, the seeds of which had been planted centuries before, were being fought between the opposing JLP and PNP areas. Families turned against one another from block to block. People risked death to cross Kingston’s disputed areas, such as the one between Fifth and Seventh Streets, or the several desolate areas where soldiers camped out and extracted rough justice from any passer-by.
Bob had his own way of dealing with it. During another conversation, when he paused from taking energetic puffs on a communal ‘chalice’ and passed it on, I asked if he was bothered much by the police. ‘I hardly ever on the streets to get stopped. I is a man who don’t really travel up and down too much,’ he replied laconically. Effectively, the stress on the streets was keeping Bob at home, just like his bred’ren in the ghetto.
When his plan for a free concert became known, he was approached separately by the JLP and the PNP, both eager for his support, but he chose to do a non-aligned event, albeit inevitably with government approval. ‘Michael [Manley] jumped on it with full endorsement,’ says Wailers’ art director Neville Garrick. ‘He said, “All you guys have to do is rehearse.”‘ At first Manley proposed that the show be held on the lawns at Jamaica House, the Prime Minister’s official residence. ‘No, mek it somewhere central that don’t have no political affiliation,’ Bob insisted.
Finally, the show was billed as a collaboration between the Wailers and the government’s cultural office. So Bob was righteously angered when it was sprung on him that the election date had been brought forward to coincide with the Smile Jamaica show. Despite his best intentions, the Wailers’s noble offering to the people had effectively been co-opted by Manley’s PNP. The populist project now appeared to be little more than a promotional gig in the very territorial spirit Bob was trying to discourage. It was a cynical move on the PNP’s part, which took a lot of the joy out of the idea. The lightly sardonic voice of Bob’s lawyer, Diane Jobson, drops uncannily into Bob’s rasping snarl as she recalls how he said, ‘Diane, dem want to use me to draw crowd fe dem politricks.’
Bob had encouraged his Hope Road home in Kingston to become a ‘safe house,’ a neutral zone, in which youths caught up in the turmoil of the warring political factions could hang out and reason away from the old violent mindset. At a certain point, Bob’s utopian vision of the yard as sanctuary was bound to collide with street conflicts. He was in a delicate position, and to add to the irony, the enemies Bob was trying to reconcile were often relations, old neighbours and schoolmates.
I had been invited to stay at Hope Road, and around 5.30 one morning I woke, restless, and looked out of my bedroom window. Bob was standing in the otherwise quiet yard under the big mango tree, talking angrily to two men whom I couldn’t see clearly. There was something ominous in their exchange. Even at a distance, Bob’s body language was different from anything I’d seen before tense and taut, he was brusquely intent on making his point. It was unsettling – and clearly a very private moment. I turned away and went back to bed. But sleep wasn’t easy. For me, this brief and somehow troubling glimpse suggested a new side to this complex man, the rough one that gave him the name Tuff Gong.
Among those who’ve reasoned about Bob’s Exodus , it’s usually held that the album is wholly a product of the traumatic event that was about to take place. But in reality, Bob already sensed that he was living in a time where imminent horror coloured everyday beauty. Proof positive: relaxing in the rehearsal room late one night, I heard music floating up from below, so I drifted down the stairs that ran outside the building. The moonlit yard under the mango tree was crowded with around 15 people sitting on the ground, the downtown kids who found refuge there and the Dreads who made it home. Tucked under the veranda of the lit tle house was a bedroom with nothing but some hooks on the wall, a chair, and Bob, in dusty sandals and shorts, sitting on the edge of a narrow iron bed. It was just the kind of scenario that comes to mind when Bob lilts through the lines, ‘We’ll share the shelter/Of my single bed’ on ‘Is This Love’. Bob was playing his guitar, trying on chords for size.
A young girl sat at the other end of the bed, her eyes fixed on Bob. He sang to her and to all of us as he strummed wrath and reality on his 12-string acoustic. His picking provided rhythm and hints of harmony as he sang, ‘Guiltiness, rest on their conscience, oh yeah…’
Everyone there was absorbed by the unaffected anger that stalked his crisp delivery. The words hit home to anyone who’d ever been aware of injustice in their lives – which meant everyone present, and many who would eventually hear the song in its majestic cut on the Exodus album.
For many around town, 3 December 1976 was proving a difficult day, anyway. Bob’s label boss Chris Blackwell was on his way to Hope Road when he stopped off at Lee Perry’s Black Ark to check out some new tracks. Sitting in the small, womb-like control room, covered with red, green, and black fake fur and stills from kung-fu flicks and westerns of the spaghetti and Hollywood varieties, Blackwell was entranced by the neon towers and canyons of Perry’s spacey new track, ‘Dreadlocks in Moonlight’, topped with the producer’s own warbling vocals. ‘Me waan the Gong to voice dis ya one,’ explained Scratch. Blackwell said: ‘No. You can’t improve on your own version. This is great. Make me a tape to carry.’
So he sat down to watch Scratch work. No one mixed like Scratch. The skinny little man in a peak cap, undershirt and shorts danced with the four-track Teac machine from which he coaxed such shattering sounds. Darting in toward the knobs and faders, he’d flick them as if flame flashed from his fingertips, then twirl and pirouette, dipping back just in time to catch the beat. Blackwell was unsurprised when technical hitches made the promised few minutes stretch into over an hour. He resigned himself to being late for the Wailers’ rehearsal.
For Neville Garrick, the day was also not going as planned. Heading for rehearsal, he was stopped by a policeman and arrested for weed. Neville was already somewhat edgy, still shaken by the reaction he’d got when handing out his newly designed stickers for the Smile Jamaica concert to some Dread friends. One man retorted: ‘Me no put no political label deh pon my vehicle, Rasta.’ Garrick was confused, thinking everyone should know that Bob was performing an apolitical event. But then he looked at his own design again, and realised that the rising sun he’d drawn to symbolise the dawning of a new, more loving island
bore a close resemblance to the PNP logo.
Over at the villa of Dermot Hussey, the island’s most noted reggae broadcaster, the Wailers’ keyboard player, Tyrone Downey, was lying on the floor trying to relax from the stress that had been going down at Hope Road. Sensitive and imaginative, Downey had been the baby of the Wailers, a protege of Family Man, who had first used him on sessions when Downey was 12. He’d been nicknamed ‘Jumpy’ when he first went on the road because of his wariness. Now Downey was legitimately nervous. Ever since the change of the election date that had so alarmed Bob, men had been bearing down on Hope Road, dropping heavy warnings to the singer. ‘Me hope you know what you a do, Dread,’ they would say, looking grim.
Hussey offered to drop off Downey and his girlfriend at Hope Road for the rehearsal on his way to do Progressions , his 8pm radio show. ‘I’ll be back,’ Hussey announced as he pulled away from Hope Road. He was in the habit of stopping by number 56 when Bob was readying for a tour, and as the rehearsals went on from nine at night until two in the morning, Hussey had no intention of missing out on that night’s session, bad vibes or not.
He didn’t know about the two plainclothes cops who had been stationed outside the house during rehearsals, due to the gravity of the political situation, and thus didn’t notice their absence.
Diane Jobson had arrived at Hope Road in good spirits, bearing especially sweet grapefruit and some herb from Bob’s favourite grower. But soon a profound nausea she’d never experienced before washed over her. ‘Is you hold de nice spliff, Diane?’ Bob called out. Chuckling, she handed over some luscious buds and went to relax and play with some of the yard children in Neville Garrick’s little house in the compound.
In the newly built narrow galley kitchen by the rehearsal room, breezy and bright with a door at each end, Gilly the cook’s blender was whirring as he sliced and diced fruit with quick precision. He could hear the Wailers’ rehearsal perfectly. They had already polished ‘Baby We’ve Got a Date’, ‘Trench Town Rock’, ‘Midnight Ravers’, and ‘Rastaman Chant’. Gilly remembers that Bob called a break, saying: ‘Fams, you tek over rehearsin’ the horns.’ So Family Man Barrett led David Madden and the Zap Pow Horns into ‘Rastaman Vibration’. Now that the Smile Jamaica show was almost upon them, everyone was looking forward to it, despite the tension in the town. Bob was light-hearted, joking around with Fams and Carly Barrett, who was sitting on a stool. Juggling the fat grapefruit Diane had brought, he asked Garrick to drive Judy Mowatt of his backing group, the I-Threes, to her Bull Bay home, a couple of hours away. She had had bad dreams the previous night and was still shaken. Garrick protested not only did he want to see the rest of the rehearsal, but the best herbsman on the island was due to pass through with his wares. It was getting dangerously near Christmas, when good weed is hard to come by, and Garrick planned to lay in a store. ‘Neville, you gwan like you love herb more than the rest of we,’ teased Bob. ‘Don’t worry, we gwan hold some for you.’
Thus reassured, and seeing fatigue in Judy’s kindly eyes, Garrick took the keys to Bob’s new silver BMW and they set off. Now, this was a famous set of wheels, chosen because the initials suggested Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Bob didn’t let many people drive it. Everyone started moving. Rita Marley headed to her Volkswagen. Bob’s friend and neighbour Nancy Burke was asked by Seeco, the Wailers’ percussionist, to move her car so the girls could leave.
Burke was feeling buoyant that night she’d just got back from chaperoning Bob’s sometime girlfriend Cindy Breakspeare as she won the Miss World contest in London. It was a great coup. In fact, even entering the contest had been daring of Breakspeare though Jamaican Miss World entrants had traditionally supplied wives for many local politicians, including Edward Seaga, Michael Manley’s socialist Jamaica had dropped its Miss World membership, along with Cuba. Because of the tension in town, guards had lately been posted at the entry to Hope Road’s circular drive, but no one was there and the gate was closed. Still, even that inconvenience couldn’t dent Burke’s good mood.
She was dragged away from the kitchen by a little girl, one of Breakspeare’s protegees, to join Diane Jobson and the other kids in Neville’s cottage. Out on the road, Garrick, Mowatt, and the Hope Road doorman, a Trench Town youth named Sticko, were already way off in the distance. Before steering her car through the gateposts, Rita paused to let another vehicle drive in – then screamed and jammed on the brakes as pain seared her scalp.
The other car’s unseen passenger had shot her through her window and scorched on into the yard.
‘Give me a juice, nah!’ A booming cry in the kitchen made Bob and Gilly look up as Bob’s manager, a swaggering, sharp-witted hustler called Don Taylor, strode in. But Taylor was followed almost immediately by three intruders – gunmen, charging in through the doors at either end of the kitchen. One brandished two automatics like he was Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come . They fired round after round, the sound deafening as the kitchen became a battlefield. The Wailers and their militant Dread posse were caught off guard. Indeed, even though this was the moment Bob had been dreading, when the shock came, he froze. Everything went into slow motion. He felt something push him, and he fell down only later did he realise it was streetwise Don Taylor, raised working the volatile bars and brothels of the Kingston waterfront. The bullet aimed at Bob’s heart instead smashed into his upper arm. Later, Bob was advised that an operation to remove it carried the risk of loss of control of his fingers, so the lead would stay there till he was in his coffin.
The noise of four automatics belching bullets suddenly silenced.
‘I recognise one guy,’ mutters Gilly tersely. He won’t name names. ‘They came in with two guns blazing and I ran out thanks to the power of the Most High.’ With an expertise learnt in his child hood flights from the Trench Town cops, Gilly raced through the yard and over the wall. In the rehearsal room, bullets smashed into Carly’s drum stool, and he fell to the floor. The next shots hit the wall, right where his head had been. Fams was trying to run for it but got caught up in the leads trapped under Carly’s stool. The brothers disentangled themselves and sprinted for the bathroom, where they hid in the bathtub behind the shower curtain, hearts pounding. The Wailers’s newest American guitarist, Donald Kinsey, was so freaked he left the island and the band the next day, never to return.
Tucked away in Neville’s little house, Diane Jobson and Nancy Burke had no idea what was happening. Silently, both women prayed as gunfire spasmed as if it would never stop. Terrified, the children cowered under the bed. When the shooting stopped, all their hearts convulsed. In the silence, unthinkable questions shouted inside their heads. Had anybody – everybody – been killed? And was Brother Bob still alive?
The eerie quiet was broken when Burke heard Seeco’s wrenching shout outside their window. ‘ Blood claat! Is Seaga men! Dem come fe kill Bob!’ That view was endorsed by word in the street, as passers-by said that before the ambulances and police arrived, they saw a car shoot out of the yard. But instead of driving uphill in the direction of University College Hospital, as might have been expected of any improvised transport for the wounded, the car headed downtown, straight toward the notorious Tivoli Gardens – the JLP headquarters, still a virtual no-go zone three decades on.
‘Down in Trench Town, we heard it as a news flash over the radio, and as soon as we hear it, we know what the source was, even if we didn’t know the person till after. We knew what it was about,’ definitively states Bob’s old Trench Town neighbour Michael Smith, of the group Knowledge. ‘All of these things came from the politics, Bob deciding to do the concert for Manley when he had turned down doing a show for the JLP. At that time they had Bob Marley as an international star, and everyone wanted Bob on their side.’
So Bob’s best intentions for a non-political concert had bitterly backfired.
Jobson rushed out into the yard, where Rita was reeling, bleeding from the head. She begged, ‘Diane, take me to the hospital!’ But seeing that Rita was still standing and coherent, Jobson ran past her and into the kitchen. Just minutes before, it had been packed and buzzing. Now she was horrified to find an empty room and see a half-peeled grapefruit lying on the floor in puddles of blood . She breathed again only when she heard Bob call out to her weakly, ‘Is alright, Diane. Me here still.’
Comforting the hysterical children, Nancy Burke watched as Bob walked out in his blood -drenched shirt between two policemen to the waiting car, holding his arm in its reddening bandage. The anguished self-questioning, as so often happens in the unfolding stages of trauma and grief, would soon come. He didn’t look shaken or fearful. The Tuff Gong was angry.
Exodus: the Making and Meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ Album of the Century’ by Vivien Goldman is published by Aurum Press
At the time, some press outlets and news organizations report that Bob Marley has been killed.
December 5, 1976
The Smile Jamaica Concert scheduled for December 5, 1976, 1 and 1/2 days after Marley’s attempted assassination, is still slated to go on:
Jamaica Gleaner December 5, 1976
Marley delivers the performance of a lifetime in the most courageous live performance in the history of popular music. Performing with bullets still lodged in his body, this moment is one of the greatest ever in the annals of popular music. I have written previously about how this event transformed Marley and Jamaica in Smile Jamaica: The Transformation of Bob Marley. This link also contains the live performance recording downloads.
I have included high quality video footage of his performance at Smile Jamaica. You decide for yourself.
Bob Marley at Smile Jamaica
Jamaica Gleaner December 7, 1976
December 5, 1976