I & I: The Natural Mystics by Colin Grant

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I & I: The Natural Mystics by Colin Grant

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: An account of Bob Marley and the Wailers, with particular emphasis on the lives of Marley, Tosh and Livingston, set against the background of Jamaican culture, politics and faith, from their beginnings to global acceptance and eventual decline.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 305 Date: January 2012
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978099526728

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Just mention the word reggae, and the name that nearly always springs to mind is that of Bob Marley and the Wailers. The music has always been very much a product of the Jamaican culture, nurtured in years of turbulent history. In this book Colin Grant, born in Britain of Jamaican parents, goes back deep into its roots, and in the process examines the childhood lives of the Wailers’ three main personalities, namely Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Neville Livingston, better known as Bunny Wailer, to provide an account of the group – but much more than that.

It seems rather ironic that the often joyful, celebratory feeling of such a musical genre should be so tainted with violence. The point is made that homicide in Jamaica was rare in 1948, while sixty years later the island has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Several leading Jamaican musicians and people associated with the business, including one of the leading Wailers themselves, have met violent ends. Violence, the drug culture and the Rastafarian faith were very much part of the world in which all three were born and raised, during the last days of the British Empire when the island was finding its own identity, and there were musicians and entrepreneurs ready to be part of the process.

First it was Trench Town – then the world. After Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff took their music to Britain at the end of the 1960s and were rewarded with international success, it was the turn of the Wailers, who made their way to London and were fortunate enough to come to the notice of American singer and fervent admirer Johnny Nash, who was the first non-Jamaican to record reggae and have a hit with a Marley song. Even more fortuitous was their linking up with Chris Blackwell, whom Grant interviewed for the book and quotes at length. Blackwell, the partly Jamaican, Harrow-educated founder of Island Records, fervently believed in the group when nobody else in Britain would take a punt on them, signed them up and gradually helped them to gain the hearts and minds of an initially indifferent media and public.

As is so often the way, the group members reacted very differently to success, with Marley the most eager to embrace stardom and all that went with it. He was the front man and focus of the act, while the others, always more militant at heart and loath to see their music watered down as they saw it in the interests of mass acceptance, soon became resentful and they gradually drifted apart. Maybe it was as well for their reputation that Marley, who left his native land after being shot and wounded in 1976 in a political campaign, was not long for this world; he contracted cancer and died in 1981. Tosh was murdered six years later by thieves who broke into his home demanding money, leaving Wailer as the only survivor and standard bearer to carry their music forward into a new age.

The book gives an atmospheric picture of the life in their native land which they left behind for a while, to come and tour England in the spring of 1973. We have a vivid portrait of a country which was cold and unforgiving, or a locked-up nation, a grey fortress of stone. The author might have added that life in the cold country was however undoubtedly a good deal safer than it was at home. I felt that more could have been said on the period when they broke through to mass British acceptance in the summer of 1975, when critics were falling over themselves to praise the group. But by the time we reach this stage, the narrative seems to become somewhat rushed. In particular there is hardly any analysis of or attention to the individual songs. No Woman No Cry, a live recording of which was released as a single and really stands out as one of the most important tracks of the decade, gets barely a passing mention, while there is some discussion about I Shot The Sheriff as a lyric about birth control, but no mention of the fact that Eric Clapton’s successful recording of same in 1974 (No. 1 in America and top ten across much of Europe) probably did more to spread the word about Marley and boost his royalties than all the group’s live work in England the previous year had ever managed to do.

Nevertheless the author deals perceptively with what might be called the era of decline and fall - Marley’s unexpected illness and death, Tosh’s brief success as a solo artist on the Rolling Stones’ record label amid accusations of selling-out by having a hit with an old Motown song by the Temptations and his violent death in 1987, and finally (or in this case, the episode which actually starts the book), then Bunny Wailer’s appearance on stage at a 1990 concert in Kingston at which he was jeered and bottled off stage by the crowd. As Grant comments, it gave reggae music a spectacular fall and astonishingly brutal postscript.

It’s a slightly disjointed book, and as an account of the group it does have its flaws. But it does give a good picture not only of the group and its three main personalities, as well as of the Jamaican heritage and culture from which they emerged.

Our thanks to Vintage Books for sending Bookbag a review copy.

For another account of growing up in Jamaica and Britain, may we recommend Pilgrim State by Jacqueline Walker, or for a musical genre which was indebted to reggae, Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling by Marcus Gray

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