ROUTES AND BRANCHES
Roger Steffens aka Ras RoJah
Just how much unreleased Bob Marley is there in the vaults? This is a question that has been asked at least since the day Bob passed on May 11, 1981, more than fourteen years ago. The answer is shrouded in mystery, partially because the material has been dispersed (in fact, stolen in some cases) so widely. But enough is known about some of the material to make solid suggestions for several more legitimate and deeply satisfying albums of unheard Marley gems. Estimates range from Wailers keyboardist Tyrone Downie's conservative "three albums," to lead guitarist Junior Marvin's provocative supposition that "there are at least thirty albums of material that could be released."
The raw tapes are widely scattered. Certainly, there are many tracks still remaining in Island's vaults in London, not just alternate versions, but whole songs that the public is unaware of. Others, perhaps two hundred hours or more, are in the possession of Bob's wife, Rita Marley, and kept in a special refrigerated vault at her home in the hills above Kingston. Still more exist in cassette form - composing tapes created on the spur of the moment in hotel rooms, on buses, in the Tuff Gong yard, in the bedrooms of Bob's lady friends, and other more unlikely locales. Bob's mother told me that during the week following Bob's death, his house "was looted by his so-called friends," and many of his private tapes were expropriated by people who just walked through the house and took everything they could get their hands on.
The "rehearsal" tapes are of supreme importance because of two facts. First, much of the posthumous album Confrontation was created from such tapes. For example "Mix Up Mix Up" was originally a 24 minute studio jam that was skillfully edited, then overdubbed in 1983 by members of the Wailers and the I Three, to come up with a wonderful "new" composition. A similar transformation could take place on many of the songs known to exist in incomplete form. Second, there are several cassettes of private acoustic sessions that Bob's fans would welcome with open arms. The precedents have already been set, first with Heartbeat's box set One Love: The Wailers At Studio One, on which a rehearsal session for Coxson Dodd of the song "Wages of Love" is included. On the million-selling Island retrospective box set Songs of Freedom there is a section that many fans point to as the high point of the entire four-CD collection - the acoustic medley from a hotel room in Sweden, featuring Bob and Johnny Nash (barely audible in the background). Let's begin with material similar to the latter, private recordings made by Bob in his bedroom at his mother's house on Vista Lane in Miami, sometime between October 1977 and early 1980. The history of these tapes is bittersweet. After Mrs. Booker's home was looted by Bob's "friends," the only thing Mrs. B. discovered remaining were two ten-inch reels in unmarked boxes, kept in her bedroom. The tapes had not been wound properly, and when we opened the boxes on the eighth anniversary of Bob's death, May 11, 1989, we found that the containers were filled with rust-like particles, emulsion that had rotted off the improperly stored tapes. Our initial fear was that if we tried to play them, the tapes would be destroyed forever in the process. With the help of a professional engineer, and a sympathetic public radio station - "Reggae Beat East's Steve Radzi's ironically named WDNA in the suburbs of Miami - we were able to retrieve the sounds on the two hours of damaged tapes. The quality ranged from excellent to execrable. For the latter, we had to use all kinds of filters and equalizers just to get something barely recognizable, and it is doubtful if current technology could clean it up to releasable form.
However, enough of the material is up to snuff to do a terrific album of acoustic Bob featuring the following tracks on the bedroom tapes.
One must think of these tapes as Bob's daily diary, the spontaneous musing on what is transpiring at that very moment all around the reggae master. The bulk of the lyrics are downbeat, concerning incarceration, wardens, priests attending executions, despair, betrayal, hangmen, disrespect, vexation, extortion, Klansmen, segregation and false prophets - certainly not the typical positive and constructive homilies of much of Bob's released music. My own guess is that these songs come from the period immediately after the assassination attempt on Bob's life, during the time he was in exile, late 77-early 78. Desi Smith, Bob's factotum at the time, confirmed in an interview that "We and Dem" (the only fragment in the whole two hours that we could recognize) was begun in 1977 in Miami, although not released until 1980 on Uprising. Perhaps we shall never know the exact dates of recording.
Regardless, Jailbreaker, our guessed-at title for the song, opens the bedroom tapes. It is about twenty-minutes long, and some passages consist merely of humming or unintelligible syllables. The song opens with one of the greatest couplets Bob ever wrote.
the jury found I guilty
and I found them guilty too
cuz I'm a jailbreaker
a hot stepper
well, I'm livin' in injustice...
Heard it on the radio
I was armed and dangerous
but in my heart I know
I'm full of love
I'm a jailbreaker
a hot stepper...
got to watch the city
said the watchman watch in vain
and while they was sleeping
slip through the gate again
yeah, I'm a jailbreaker
yeah they came and they frame I
for things I never do
and the jury found I guilty
but I found them guilty too...
said we're victim of circumstances
and we don't stand a chance
but the good have to endure the struggle
look and never take a chance...
how could you put me
behind bars with your lies
you want to ruin my freedom
in this type of institution
two sticks of dynamite
could cause a night excuse...
yes they came and they took I
to the gallows to hang I
this old priest came up to I and said
oh, the good got to suffer for the bad...
no don't you hang him down
he's not the one who shot up a town
no you can't hang that one
he's not the one who mosh up your town...
as I walk through the dark shadows of the ghetto
say we yearn for the sunshine of freedom...
make us lie down in the prison cells of injustice...
they say I'm armed and dangerous
well, all I've discovered I've got my heart
Babylon get nervous
them know we got to tear it apart
dem grow up in the ghetto
never know what happiness is
first tried to make it on the street
and look at what it come to - this...
I'm a jailbreaker
yes I'm a hot stepper
At the very end of the song Bob is heard to say to someone else in the room "Could hear what a gwan jammin' - this is about five hour now." Does this mean Bob has been working on this song during all that time? Or others? If so, are there tapes in someone's possession of the rest of the session?
Next up is a series of fragments that last about ten minutes, short sketches of song ideas, that no doubt reflect the deep uneasiness of his personal crises, as in
PLACE OF PEACE
so far away from where it's happening
you think you found a place of peace
just to find that it's happening everywhere
it's happening here there and everywhere
please don't touch that with the vision
learn to respect every man religion...
let I live a life I love to today...
lift my spliff and take a draw
someone say I'm breakin' the law
they make everything to try and arrest you...
Then comes the key line of the whole two hours, beginning a passage that ends in a doleful manner as he sings of personal betrayal
RECORD A NEW SONG
every night you record a new song
and you sing about your love and your hate
you try to make a break of a new dawn...
if you gonna live by the gun now
surely gonna die by the gun...
have no respect for anyone,
well, it seems like unoo have no manners
to no one
look how unoo a gwan...
you should listen to your vision
if Rasta no build the house
workman work in vain
no matter what you hear them say
Rastafari is our leader
on the bright and morning star
don't you know I'm right
don't you know I'm right
don't you know I'm right
The final word of the next passage is a lengthy, scale-spanning sing-shriek that has a blood-curdling eeriness to it.
let me in, let me out
cuz I can't do without
vexation in me life, oh!
turn 'em in, turn 'em out
do with it, and do without
vexation in your life, yeah
Following that come much of the nascent lyrics for "We And Dem." The second time Bob sings "me nuh know how we and dem a go work it out," his voice is breaking, almost as if he is sobbing as he sings, struggling for control. It is the most heartfelt moment of the whole two hours. Then comes another very long song, much in the mood of "Jailbreaker," about someone whom the pressure has dropped, and who can finally take no more.
JUMP THEM OUT OF BABYLON
jump them jump them
jump them out of Babylon
jump them jump them
jumpt them out of Babylon
some would call me an escaped prisoner
some would say that I'm extortioner
some would say I'm armed and dangerous
but I would say, "Don't get nervous"...
some would say I'm a freedom fighter
some would say I'm an executioner...
some would say I'm a liberator
a me say jump them jump them
don't want to be no prisoner...
an' me say break down the prison walls
oh make me no more prisoner no more...
tell my mama not to make no moise
cuz I'm gonna have to pick a choice
even do seven years in a dumb cell
or jump them and do well
On the second ten-inch reel, there is a great deal of one note doodling, tuning, etc. But a couple of very badly recorded, yet fascinating, tunes are revealed. The first is a bossa nova, which makes one think that it was recorded in early 1980, after Bob and Jacob Miller had returned from a record promotion trip to Brazil. There are at least two guitarists in the room, one of whom lays down a lilting Brazilian bed as Bob sings.
PRAY FOR ME
tell all the weakhearts
stay away from my door
just can't take your evil no more
cup is full and runneth over
far as I can see
shally wally wah
did you say your prayer
shall wally way
pray for me [repeated 4 times]
hey Mr. Klansman get down from the tree
can't stand to see
the suffering of the majority...
The final song that reveals itself is one that Bob's Rasta lawyer, Diane Jobson, says is among her all time favorites of Bob's unreleased masterpieces, a political diatribe against the folly- ticians, whom Bob felt betrayed him at every opportunity. (Remember his famous line "never make a politician grant you a favor/they will always want to control you forever"? This song could easily be a follow-up.)
CAN'T TAKE YOUR SLOGANS NO MORE
can't take your slogans no more [repeated 4 times]
wipe off the paint and the slogans
all over the street
confusin' the people
while the asphalt burns
our tired feet
I see borders and barriers
segregation and riot
sufferation of the majority
will always be with you and me...
can't take your slogans no more...
no more sweet talk from the hypocrites...
no more sweet talk no more fussing
no more sweet talk from the pulpit
Many years ago I told Chris Blackwell of the existence of these tapes and urged him to make safety copies on DAT as soon as possible. It didn't matter, I said, who owned what. But if the tapes were allowed to further decompose, no one would have anything to fight over in the future. To this day, no such digital masters have been struck.
Next time, I shall delineate what I think would be a perfect album of unknown tracks, based on master tapes from Tuff Gong and Lee Perry. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me.
The above is a column that will also appear in issue #6 of the finest Wailers "rootzine" in the world, Distant Drums, published quarterly in England. Island Records/Tuff Gong, which has for years solicited names of those interested in subscribing to a Bob Marley Fan Club Magazine, has now approached the intrepid editors of Distant Drums, and asked that their magazine become that "official" Bob Marley publication. Much Marley merchandise will be available solely through the magazine, including unreleased recordings. Distant Drums can be ordered by writing P.O. Box 23, Wolverhampton, West Midlands, England WV6 OYU. Please tell them that Ras John at "Reggae12.com" sent you.
Marley fans are further advised that copies of the book that this writer, and photographer Bruce Talamon, created - Bob Marley:Spirit Dancer - are still available in bookstores in Europe, Jamaica and the United States in paperback. The limited edition hardcover is sold out, but copies, autographed by both authors, can still be available... contacting Jim Marshall's Reggae Archives, 1501 East Chapman Avenue, Suite 292, Fullerton, California, USA 92631.