Review – Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley in Jamaica and Beyond
There must be hundreds of books on Bob Marley. It would be impossible to list all those I have read or even simply looked through and, as one familiar with the story from the beginning, it is hard for me not to view most of them as merely repetitive attempted tributes. Some are just plain rip-offs of the Marley legend, in the certain knowledge that there is a great deal of money to be made from the hundreds of products capitalizing on the Marley name.
But once in a while a Marley book comes along that sheds much new light on the subject and manages to convey something of the reality of the reggae psalmist. Soul Rebel: an Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley is one such book and though the word ‘book’ conjures up expectations of word-filled pages, this book’s pages are instead covered with never-before-seen photographs of the reggae legend that takes us back to a time in Marley’s history when he was about to enter life’s superstar spotlight.
Photojournalist David Burnett interned at TIME Magazine and covered the Vietnam War for two years. Returning to TIME, he first photographed Marley in 1976 on an assignment to cover an interview by David Devoss. Only one photo was used in the story, but Burnett’s photos of Marley taken that day impressed Island Records enough to invite him to accompany Marley and the Wailers on part of their Exodus Tour of Europe in 1977. His photos from that trip were published in Rolling Stone magazine.
The photos in ‘Soul Rebel’ are from these two meetings with Marley, while the text consists of Burnett’s own report of both occasions that give interesting insights into these two important times in the singer’s life. A foreword by noted reggae writer Chris Salewicz and an introduction by Chris Murray, director of the Govinda Gallery where the original photographs are on display, constitute the only words. The other 140 pages of this lush, large coffee table book tell their story in beautifully photographed windows into Marley’s life and the reggae 70s that were bursting onto the world. Burnett’s Jamaica journey begins in Ocho Rios, when he met a young Burning spear, producer Jack Ruby, Earl ‘Chinna’ Smith and Sly & Robbie, and continues later in Kingston meeting an equally young Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Toots Hibbert and Peter Tosh. (The Tosh photos, by the way, are iconic and will surely surface soon as new posters of the Reggae Rebel.)
But concentrating on images of Marley, Burnett’s book reveals a young Bob Marley; his locks barely shoulder length, photographed inside the house and in the yard of 56 Hope Road. Marley’s eyes transfix the viewer in many photos – large, full-face close-ups of a serious man showing both pain and determination that seem to come from the depths of his soul. Transfixed as the photographer is with Marley’s eyes, it is no wonder that the four-page fold-out centerfold prize of the book is simply, and only, the man’s eyes.
Burnett found Marley “extraordinary”. He writes: “Here’s a person who can actually put into words and with a really interesting phraseology, thoughts that are way beyond what I was thinking about. Here’s just a kid from Trench Town who started playing the guitar and who knew he had a mission.”
The photos taken at 56 Hope Road include several that have not been seen before bob, lighting and smoking his famous spliffs, as well as some of Bob posing with his favourite guitar in the yard of the old house.
For me, some of the most interesting, and certainly most poignant, photographs are those taken on the European ‘Exodus’ tour, where for the first time we see the icon wearing sandals with the big toe of his right foot bandaged. Marley poses for the camera with the cancerous toe pointing forward, while in other photos one can’t help seeing the white bandaged foot as he plays football with the band during rehearsal breaks for the night’s concert. It is sad to see the happiness on his face as he plays his favourite game, as with hindsight we know that this wound would lead to his death.
Other interesting insights come from photos of Marley and the group in the tour bus that will provide new photographic icons for Marley fans, especially a sequence of Marley sleeping on the bus, while the Exodus Tour performance photos are a print slide show of another great Marley concert. Gorgeously printed and presented, the hardcover book’s dust jacket features a black and white photo of Marley leaning on his guitar, while removing the dust jacket reveals a full colour wraparound photo of the singer in performance.
This is one Marley tribute book I am glad to own because it offers new glimpses, not previously revealed, of the genesis of the global reggae movement. The young music people in my life who have looked through the book say the photos of Marley while he was still virtually unknown, display a confidence and sense of purpose that have infused them with new insights and inspiration for their own careers. That’s how powerful these photos are.
Submitted by A.S., Miami, FL