Graded on a Curve:
Bob Marley
and the Wailers,
Natural Mystic: The
Legend Lives On

Is not liking reggae a full-blown mental disorder? A symptom of hopeless whiteness? Or just a sign that one has closed one’s heart to the message of Jah?

I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve never liked reggae, and I’ve spent my entire adult life looking for a cure. I didn’t like the reggae booming out of the rooms in my college dormitory; I didn’t like the reggae being played every day I spent on the beach at Cancun during my first honeymoon.

It was too laid back for this terminally uptight caucasian; I don’t do relaxation, and subliminal grooves like “Jamming” gave me a discernible facial twitch. I wasn’t down with reggae when I was smoking as much ganja as a Rastafarian, and things didn’t get any better when I stopped because the shit was making me as crazy as your average baldhead.

Rock ’n’ roll I get, but where’s the rock ’n’ roll in “Trenchtown Rock”? How Bob Marley and the Wailers could address a subject like burning and looting and sound so relaxed while doing so left me befuddled. Marley’s uncanny knack for wedding militant lyrics to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” riddims made no sense to me, just as his chill delivery and occasional “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” lyrics offended the pessimist and anti-escapist inside of me.

But I’m nothing if not tenacious, and I meant to “get” reggae if it killed me. What I needed was a way in, and I finally found it in the form of 1995 Bob Marley compilation Natural Mystic: The Legend Lives On, which my girlfriend, god bless her, lent me. It’s not the best Marley compilation out there, but it worked its magic on me. I listened to it in my car for a solid week, and finally, after a long life of uneasy skanking, things began to jump out at me.

Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t break out in dreadlocks, or sprout a pair of tricolor reggae harem pants. But this addendum to the 1984 compilation Legend won me over on a couple of levels; first, by focusing on Marley the revolutionary prophet, and second by fronting a couple of songs that hit much harder than the Marley faves I’ve been fleeing my entire life.

I got my first intimation of a change in the air on “Easy Lion Zion,” which wasn’t released until 1992’s posthumous Songs of Freedom. Not only does it kick like a mule and come at you full-tilt boogie thanks to a driving (and surprisingly commercial) horn section, it put forth a Marley on the run who sounds like a Marley on the run. “I Shot the Sheriff” never did much for me; Marley protests his innocence, sure, but he doesn’t exactly sound like a defiant man who is eager to go down shooting. Here he’s iron like a lion in Zion, and sounds ready to make a stand.

I then fell under the spell of the big-bottomed title track, on which Bob hears the first (and perhaps last) trumpet of doom and sings, “Many more will have to suffer/Many more will have to die/Don’t ask me why/Things are not the way they used to be.” There’s no escaping reality, he sings, but that’s exactly what he does on ganja anthem “Easy Skanking.” The easy rhythm and laid-back vocals (to say nothing of the soothingly smooth backing vocals) make perfect sense in this context, and as for Bob, he makes like a real Doobie Brother. “Excuse me while I light my spliff” is every as every good a takeaway line as “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” and drifting away from reality never sounded so good.

An extended version of “Crazy Baldhead” won me over with its crazy ululations, crazy sound effects, and Bob’s crazy scat singing; Bob is in earnest when he says he wants to chase the baldheaded exploiters out of Jamaica, but he’s not above having some fun while he’s doing it. “War” also caught my ear; once again the bottom is big, the bass sounds like it’s coming out of a ghetto cruiser, and Bob channels a speech delivered to the United Nations by Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie. He couldn’t be any clearer on the subject; everywhere is war, and so it will be until all Africans are free. As for Marley, he’s confident his people will triumph in the war of good over evil.

And so it goes on this compilation, which mostly covers later ground–the take of “Trenchtown Rock” on 1975’s Live! is the earliest of these tunes, the pair of previously unreleased songs from 1992’s Songs of Freedom the latest. “Trenchtown Rock” may not rock but it sure is exultant–a buoyant Marley hits the crowd with music, and even a nonbeliever like me finally gave in to its charms. As for Marley’s cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Keep on Moving,” it’s a triumph of faith over doubt and features some incredible and propulsive drum work.

“Sun Is Shining” is a bright slice of rasta funk and boasts some great guitar work; “One Drop” is rasta soul at its finest. Jah will never let you down, people, and neither will the great backing vocalists who give this baby such a wonderful feel. “Roots, Rock, Reggae” is the kind of song I used to run away from; now I find its lurching riddim and slinky bass line beguiling, and I love the way sax and guitar jump out at you from here and there. And Marley rides atop it all with the voice of a prophet. Meanwhile, “Pimper’s Paradise” is reggae new wave served up with a heady dollop of soul; the rhythm work is as precise as a clock, but this clock has heart.

As for LP closer “Time Will Tell,” it’s perhaps the loveliest Marley tune I’ve ever heard. The melody is seductive and delicate, but Marley himself is troubled, fatalistic even. He opens by singing “Jah would never give the power to a bald head/Run come crucify the Dread,” then sings “Time alone–oh, time will tell/Think you are in Heaven but you living in Hell.” And repeats the line again and again. He’s as dire as early Dylan on this one, but this baby is Dylan in reverse; I hear echoes of “Quinn the Eskimo,” but the sunny Dylan of “Quinn the Eskimo” was as upbeat as Marley is down in the mouth.

I don’t know why I chose Bob Marley; there’s a whole world of great reggae music out there to explore. I suppose I did so because Marley exemplifies reggae for people like me; it’s his music I heard in my college dorm and on that beach in Cancan, after all.

That said, I’m glad he’ll be my jumping-off point for further forays into reggae music. Marley was compassionate, angry, prophetic, exultant, downcast, and romantic by turns, and fearlessly assumed the mantle of spokesman for Africans–and humanists–everywhere.

Sure, he had some “Don’t worry about a thing/Cuz every little thing is going to be alright” in him. But he never let his easy skanking ways stop him from looking ugly reality in the face. He was a warrior for Jah, iron like a lion in Zion, and never gave up in the fight against Babylon.

Reggae will most likely never been a mainstay of my musical diet. But thanks to Marley and Natural Mystic: The Legend Lives On, I look forward to hearing more of the stuff.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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