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Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley by…
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Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley

by Timothy White

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I’m a fan, so I enjoyed Catch A Fire, but it’s possible a reader with no interest in Bob Marley or reggae music could still find this book fascinating. The story begins not with Marley’s birth in 1945, but in 1892 with the birth of Tafari, grand nephew to the then-sitting Ethiopian Empress. Only just barely connected enough to the throne to merit the title of "Ras" (prince), he became Ras Tafari, and if you recognize the word Rastafarian in that name, it’s no mistake. The entire first chapter follows his extremely unlikely path to the throne, as natural death, mental illness, palace intrigues, and murder remove obstacles in his way. By 1930 he was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia (Ethiopia being an empire binding together heterogeneous kingdoms, fiefdoms, and semi-nomadic rural tribes people, is how I understand that).

What’s that got to do with anything?

Well, over in Jamaica, a lot of political and social changes were going on, particularly in the Afro-Jamaican population in the first half of the twentieth century. During the 1920’s, the Holy Piby began to supplant the mainstream traditional Bible in Christian worship. The Holy Piby, as near as I understand it, mirrors much of the Bible, but also draws from apocryphal texts, early Coptic mysticism and an Egyptian Freemasonic sect called the "Brotherhood of the Blind" to place much stronger emphasis on the significance of ancient Ethiopia as a holy place, favored in God’s eyes and second only to Israel. Popularity of the Holy Piby played into the "back-to-Africa" movements which also swept the Caribbean during the mid 20th century. Catch A Fire describes at least one attempted mass migration of Afro-Caribbeans back to Africa, although it sounds like the expense, logistics, and documentary requirements (as well as World War II) prevented the migrations from taking place.

When Ras Tafari was crowned, it was a big deal amongst the Caribbean-African empowerment movement. To better understand why, you need to appreciate that even though they call themselves Christian and follow the Holy Piby, Rastafarians also practice a lot of folk beliefs from the Atan and Arawak cultures native to Jamaica (pre-European influence) as well as other beliefs including numerology and astrology. Mixing all these together, Ras Tafari’s crowning was a big deal because of the astrological circumstances of his birth and crowning, as well as his alleged pedigree: he is supposedly a direct descendent from the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. His coronation was to signal the start of an age when dignity and power would be restored to Africa and its Diaspora. (END NOTE 1) Recognizing this, a whole mythology began to grow around the young Ras... stories about how he could speak with animals at a young age, how he knew things it would be impossible for a mortal man to know, etc. With so much hopefulness for the future, and dignity for its followers, it's easy to understand why Rastafarianism caught on. And although the movement was rooted in African pride, it preached brotherly love for the entire human family, as well as nonviolence and social justice. Thus, one of the recurring themes among Rastas is that the current era of corruption and oppression embodied in the image of Babylon (END NOTE 2) is being ushered out. When Mussolini’s forces invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it had prophetic significance to Rastas and some Christian sects, and Ethiopia encouraged -without much success- Jamaicans to come join the fight for the Ras.

Let’s leave that bit for now. Timothy White next gives a brief history of Caribbean music in the mid-20th century. Calypso was the prevailing style (think of Harry Belefonte's Banana Boat Song and Day-O) but Jamaica, as a British holding, was also exposed to the Big Band sound and old standards (Sinatra being favorite) broadcast for the Anglo-Jamaican upper class on local radio. Weather permitting, some of the more powerful radio stations in the Southern U.S. were also heard, which played Mississippi blues, Dixieland, early rock like Chuck Berry, and R&B... all of which found warm reception on the island. It seems even certain riffs, phrases and other musical fragments can be traced from American blues to evolving Afro-Caribbean popular music, calypso, Cuban jazz and a homegrown calypso/R&B fusion known as "blue beat" (later called "ska"), popularized by the Jamaican guitar player Sam Cooke. When Jamaicans occasionally did seasonal work on nearby Caribbean islands, they also brought local French-creole and Spanish-creole folksongs back to Jamaica with them. By the late 50’s/early 60’s a new sort of sound was taking shape with enough distinctive characteristics to be called its own genre, which we now know as Reggae.

All this groundwork is meant to provide the context of what sort of environment Bob Marley was born into, both culturally and musically.

Robert (Bob) Nesta Marley was born in 1945, the son of a down-on-his-luck Anglo-Jamaican ship’s Captain, and the daughter (Ciddy) of an Afro-Jamaican tennant farmer. The couple seperated only weeks after marriage, and Bob spent his childhood divided between the grinding rural poverty of Ciddy’s family, and the slightly more comfortable but more socially hostile environment of his father’s residence in Kingston. Without a doubt, a powerful early musical influence on Marley was the music at Ciddy’s church- which in typical rural island fashion was nominally Pentecostal but heavily infused with elements of island folklore (to include séances!), Roman Catholicism, and even Hinduism (a large East Indian population worked the nearby bauxite mines). Services lasted most of the day Sundays, and incorporated liberal amounts of music from the various traditions. Worship also dwelt heavily on secular issues of social justice, which obviously figured into Marley’s worldview later in life. His rural cousins may have been blind to their economic disadvantage, but not so for Bob, whose travels between his parents’ homes were a forced lesson comparing urban and rural life, and the bus rides his travels necessitated took him past the opulent estates of the island’s famed "Twenty Families"- an oligarchy of Old Money dynasties which dominated the Jamaican economy and owned a large fraction of the real estate.(END NOTE 3)

In Bob’s teen years, his father disgraced the family by taking a second wife without divorcing Ciddy. She sued for bigamy, but realized no financial gain from this. She and Bob moved to the Kingston slums known as Trenchtown, whose name and image are recurring themes in Marley’s lyrics. (END NOTE 4) At the end of public schooling, Ciddy arranged through friends for Bob to get a welding apprenticeship, and he probably would have gone down that path, but for a very unlikely series of events in which he was "discovered" in 1961 by a Chinese-Jamaican record store owner (Leslie Kong) looking to produce local music. The middle portion of the book documents Bob's early career. He formed The Wailers (also variously called "The Teenagers" and "Pipe’s Schoolboys") with cousin Bunny Marley and friend Peter Tosh (McIntosh). Joe Higgs, an older Kingston singer who had been commercially successful in the 50’s, became their mentor. The Wailers become popular at dance halls and bars, and with Higgs’ guidance and Kong’s backing, they started making hits.

White lovingly details some of their shenanigans around this time- the styles The Wailers followed; their juvenile early lyrics about dancing, girls and fighting. There’s nothing about The Wailers’ early career to suggest this little Kingston band would ever find international popularity, but sundry circumstances conspired to smooth a path for them to the international market: the Jamaican novelty song "My Boy Lollipop" (performed by Millie Small) become a fleeting hit in England in 1964; around the same time Carol Crawford, an Anglo-Jamaican model became the first Jamaican to win the Miss World title. Later in the year, Ian Fleming’s Dr.No, set in Jamaica and largely filmed on location around Kingston, became a global boxoffice draw. On the heels of this, a Jamaican delegation of ska performers became a televised sensation at the Pan American Exhibition in New York. For several weeks following the Exhibition, ska acts were booked on American Bandstand, to enthusiastic acclaim, and famed American dance instructor Arthur Miller devised dance steps to go with the music. Also in 1964, Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto broke into American markets with several successful Samba hits; the best-remembered probably being The Girl From Ipanema.

Either the book or I may be overstating all these tropical pop-culture tie-ins from the 1960’s, but when you start listing them out, as the book does, it does seem like a trend.. enough anyhow that record producer Chris Blackwell, founder of the Island Records label, started contemplating international promotion of Jamaican talent. Blackwell is an interesting character in his own right: heir to the Appleton rum fortune, he spent his formative years in Kingston- not on the polo circuit, but down by the docks and on the beaches with the Rastas, smoking the spice and learning their music. Predictably, he wasn’t entirely embraced as a true islander by the Rastas, but his habits- especially a fondness for ganja- were deemed a bit too "native" for the Anglo Elite, and he certainly was a curiosity to his greater extended family back in England. In short, he didn't fit in anywhere. For reasons unclear, he decided to go into the music biz, founding the Island Records label, which had some great early successes with bands like King Crimson, Jethro Tull and The Allan Parsons Project. Naturally, Blackwell was familiar with Marley’s work, so when a chance meeting occurred in 1972 between the two, Blackwell already knew he wanted to make a record with Bob. For his part, Marley was hard up for cash, and agreed. Thus the legendary Catch A Fire (an expression roughly equivalent to "Catch Hell") was produced, which was Marley’s breakout disc. It took off in American markets after a favorable review in Rolling Stone magazine, and got a lot of play in urban stations, who likened it to some of Stevie Wonder’s rhythm-heavy tracks, whose lyrics also contained social commentary on ethnic strife and economic class disparities.

Bob Marley and the Wailers followed up the album by touring as an opening act for Sly & the Family Stone along with another unknown named Bruce Springsteen. In another year, Eric Clapton was covering I Shot the Sheriff, and artists as diverse as Paul McCartney, the Commodores, Paul Simon, Mick Jagger, and the Jackson Five were looking to collaborate or perform with him.

From here, the book reads like any episode of VH1’s "Behind the Music" series. Fame led to (more) drugs, marital infidelities, tension within the group, artistic disagreements among artists, producers, distributors, etc. The most interesting part of all this to me is that when fame started to get crazy, and temptations of wealth and status were most powerful, that seemed to be the time when Bob Marley took the most interest in the themes of social justice, class struggle, and racial strife. It’s true that these ideas weren’t completely unknown to him; Martin Luther King’s 1964 goodwill tour to Jamaica made a powerful impression on Bob, as it did much of the normally-apolitical Jamaican underclass, who nevertheless followed the American civil liberties movement with interest. Marley’s transformation really started in force when his wife Rita, a one-time Sunday school teacher, converted to Rastafarianism just about the time Catch A Fire was released. Because of this spousal tie-in, I can’t help but think of Marley as a bit of a Constantine figure for the Rastafarians. Honestly, who of us in the developed world would know anything about this Island religion if it hadn’t been for Marley? If you follow his discography and the lyrics that go with it, there is a steady move towards Rastafarian ideals, culminating (my opinion) with the 1979 album Survival, which is my favorite of his.

The story gets interesting when one of Leslie Kong’s early partners, Edward Seaga -a one-time Harvard anthropologist later known to have ties to the CIA- became active in Jamaican politics. In fact, he was a bit of a populist firebrand. His political career starts with the eve of Jamaican independence from Great Britain, on August 5, 1962. After 1972, Seaga and his opponents both vie for Marley’s favor, seeing him as a cultural superstar with unopposable influence with the Jamaican poor. For as much as Marley tries to stay out of partisan politics, he can’t control how his words in interviews and songs are misinterpreted. In 1976, Bob agrees to do a concert in Kingston, but he is unaware the concert is partly a political event funded by Seaga's opposition. His agreement to perform is widely publicised, and is taken as a political stance against Seaga. On December 3rd, 1976 there is an attempt on Bob’s life, which also results in a non-critical head injury for Rita, and spinal surgery for his bass player. Marley goes ahead with the concert, but makes clear to the crowd that he is nonpartisan, further amplifying his stature as a national hero.

A lot more happens, but I’ve spoken enough already. Bob Marley died of widely metastatic melanoma on May 11, 1981, and I personally believe the tragedy of his unfulfilled potential is as great in the social sphere as it was in music. I guess this is the personal part of the review. For some reason, I feel like I should leave a note here about why I read this book, and why I like Bob Marley so much. I mean, why does a rasta reggae singer from the 1970’s have so much appeal with this white-bread middle class American guy in 2012? His songs have been with me for quite a while, and through a quirk of fate, I came to know his music just about the same time I was forming a lot of other ideas about how things work in the world, and these two things complement each other. One of my professional mentors was (is) a big Marley fan, and that’s was what really made me first take notice of reggae. I vividly recall us sitting out on his patio late one summer night, playing cards and half-drunk, with Survival playing in the background:

♫♫ So much trouble in the world… ♫♫

You said it, Bob. You said it.

And then songs like Top Rankin’
[LYRICS:
They don't want to see us unite:
All they want us to do is keep on fussing and fighting.
They don't want to see us live together:
All they want us to do is keep on killing one another.

Top rankin', top rankin':
Are you skankin' (skankin', skankin')?
Are you skankin' (skankin', skankin')?
Wo-ho, top rankin' (top rankin'), 'Ow, did you mean what you say now?
Are you - 'ow are you (rankin', rankin') -
Are ya - Lord, Lord, Lord! (skankin', skankin')?

They say the blood runs;
And it runs through our line,
And our hearts, heart of hearts divine, eh!
And John saw them comin', ooh! - a-with the truth
From an ancient time.
[ Lyrics from: http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/b/bob_marley/top_rankin.html ]
The brotherly love (brotherly love), the sisterly love (sisterly love)
I feel this morning; I feel this morning:
Brotherly love (brotherly love), the sisterly love (sisterly love)
I feel this morning, this morning. Hey!

They don't want us to unite:
All they want us to do is keep on fussing and fighting.
They don't want to see us live together;
All they want us to do is keep on killing one another.

Top rankin' (top rankin')!
Did ya mean what you say now (top rankin')?
Are you skankin' (skankin', skankin')? (END NOTE 5)
Are you skankin' (skankin', skankin')?
Top rankin' (top ranking),
Did you (top rankin') mean what you say (top rankin')?
Are you (rankin', rankin)?
Are you (skankin', skankin')?
Top rankin' (top rankin');
Top rankin' (top rankin');
Are you (skankin', skankin')?
'Ow are you (skankin', skankin')? /fadeout/
]

Or Babylon System
[LYRICS:

We refused to be;
what you wanted us to be;
We are what we are:
That's the way (way) it's going to be. You don't know!
You can't educate I
For no equal opportunity:
(Talkin' 'bout my freedom) Talkin' 'bout my freedom,
People freedom (freedom) and liberty!
Yeah, we've been trodding on the winepress much too long:
Rebel, rebel!
Yes, we've been trodding on the winepress much too long:
Rebel, rebel!

Babylon system is the vampire, yea! (vampire)
Suckin' the children day by day, yeah!
Me say: de Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire,
Suckin' the blood of the sufferers, yea-ea-ea-ea-e-ah!
Building church and university, wo-o-ooh, yeah! -
Deceiving the people continually, yea-ea!
Me say them graduatin' thieves and murderers;
Look out now: they suckin' the blood of the sufferers (sufferers).
Yea-ea-ea! (sufferers)
[ Lyrics from: http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/b/bob_marley/babylon_system.html ]
Tell the children the truth;
Tell the children the truth;
Tell the children the truth right now!
Come on and tell the children the truth;
Tell the children the truth;
Tell the children the truth;
Tell the children the truth;
Come on and tell the children the truth.

'Cause - 'cause we've been trodding on ya winepress much too long:
Rebel, rebel!
And we've been taken for granted much too long:
Rebel, rebel now!

(Trodding on the winepress) Trodding on the winepress (rebel):
Got to rebel, y'all (rebel)!
We've been trodding on the winepress much too long - ye-e-ah! (rebel)
Yea-e-ah! (rebel) Yeah! Yeah!

From the very day we left the shores (trodding on the winepress)
Of our Father's land (rebel),
We've been trampled on (rebel),
Oh now! (we've been oppressed, yeah!) Lord, Lord, go to ...

[*Sleeve notes continue:
Now we know everything we got to rebel
Somebody got to pay for the work
We've done, rebel.]

]

...just resonate with things I believe. Get me drunk enough and I'll still cry to Babylon System.

Even though these songs are written for the disenfranchised poor of the Trenchtown slums, they so clearly apply much more broadly. They espouse a Rasafarian worldview, but also seem almost Biblical in that sense of being history-as-told-by-the-losers. When Marley sang in 1974 about how one day the Third World man would take over, it must have seemed either laughably unlikely, or maybe terrifying to those who took it to mean an overthrow of the middle class by the poor. But from the vantage of 2012, it seems clear that the Elites who run our political and financial systems are turning us, the former middle classes, into the poor, and if things don't turn around, the Third World uprising Marley sang about won't just be in places like Trenchtown, São Paulo, Johannesburg and Mumbai, but also in Buffalo, Detroit, East St. Louis, and East L.A. (and maybe even places you don't expect yet, like Scottsdale, San Jose, and Georgetown). I don’t identify as a Rastafarian, but I do think many of these things Marley sings about will come to pass, and that makes this powerful music. ( )
  BirdBrian | Apr 4, 2013 |
Great read. Fascinating subject. White avoids lionizing him, and instead places him in the broader stream of Jamaican musical culture. A man of his time and place. ( )
  chriszodrow | Jul 8, 2009 |
This is the best biography of Bob Marley out there. ( )
  crmass | Apr 10, 2009 |
Honestly, I couldn't get past page 11. The little that I did read was interesting, but never touched me. ( )
  izze.t | Apr 14, 2008 |
Now that I understand Reggae and Rastafarianism, I like Marley more and the rest of it less. White makes it easy to see the progression from early rock and jazz to Reggae to hip-hop. He also illustrates the unfortunate cultural and political drivers of Jamaican poverty. None of Marley's family or associates really followed his same ideals. Rita suddenly lived a life of excess, and most of his fellow musicians and producers squabbled over his legacy. He's popular worldwide as a symbol of hope but I think his advocates miss the things that could make such hopes fulfilled. Marley linked himself to Ras Tafari Makonnen (later Emperor Haile Selassie I, an alleged descendant of Solomon). ( )
  jpsnow | Mar 31, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0805080864, Paperback)

Bob Marley, reggae superstar and pop culture icon, left an indelible mark on modern music. Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley delves deep into the life of the lionized leader of a musical, spiritual, and political explosion that still reverberates more than a decade after his death. Almost nothing pertaining to the life of Bob Marley is left out; the origins of Rastafarianism (the Ethiopian religion that was the keystone of his life), the roots of the reggae sound, the Jamaican political and social debacle that informed his lyrics--this is a comprehensive account of the life of the artist and the times that produced him.

Catch a Fire is assiduously researched; the details writer Timothy White presents of the King of Reggae's life are cinematic in scope and, at times, cumbersome. White includes much of his primary source material, ranging from full interviews with band members to unearthed CIA documents, and devotes a whole section to describing his exhaustive research process. The final product is rich with elements of spiritual tome, rock biography, and history text; it is a hagiographic epic--the story of a man and his legend. --Brendan J. LaSalle

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:49 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Chronicles the historical, cultural, religious and folkloric milieu that shaped reggae musician Bob Marley's life.

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