This story appeared in the Post on May 12, 1981, the day after Bob Marley died. It was written by Courtland Milloy.
Bob Marley with his guitar, decorated with a picture of RasTafari at Tuff Gong. (David Burnett) Bob Marley darted onto the stage in a loose-fitting silk skirt that opened like a parachute when he eased himself to his knees. As the crowd roared under a pitch-black Kingston sky, Marley began shaking his head, flogging his shoulders with long, matted hair. Then he bolted to his feet in a howling rendition of the reggae anthem “Stand Up for Your Rights.”
It was an intense, unabashed performance. The throngs that had come to hear him pressed closer to the stage chanting “One love of Jamaica.” That was the designated name of this historic peace concert, but in many ways it symbolized the unified regard for a remarkable man and his music.
Bob Marley, 36, a slight, gentle man, died yesterday of cancer at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami. The last time I saw him was in 1978 shortly after he returned from England. He had gone there two years earlier after being shot in the arm during a political gunfight. At the time he compared Jamaica to a “rotten egg that had broken and couldn’t be put back together again.” He vowed never to return.
Enjoying a visit with friends at his home, “Island House,” on Hope Road in Kingston, Marley told me that he had misspoken and was glad to be back home. He said he looked forward to the two rival political factions in Jamaica making peace. He would bring thousands of concertgoers to their feet when he called then-prime minister Michael Manley and his political rival, Edward Seaga, to the stage to hold hands.
Marley was often referred to as Jamaica’s only living national hero. He was a spiritual force. A man of mixed parentage, he epitomized the very word Jamaica, which means out of many people comes one.
In 1964, along with Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh, Marley helped create reggae out of a combination of ska — a local sound — and calypso. He formed Bob Marley and the Wailers, a group that went on to become internationally renowned.
At home on Hope Road, Marley sat relaxed, propped up against a wall in a straight-blocked chair. The smoke from home-grown ganja wafted through the sunroom. The walls were decorated with posters of Marley and Ethiopian emperor Hailie Selassie, who is revered as God by the Rastafarians. Rastas, who believe they descend from the 12th tribe of Israel, have no fear of death since there is no life in Babylon.
As the sunbeams flickered through the leaves of mango trees outside his window, Marley’s eyelids were half closed, his head tilted. He appeared zonked, stone blind — but far from being out of it, he was meditating.
“All Rastas are at peace, man. I and I [we] work hard at it.” He dumped ash onto the hardwood floor, took a toke of “holy” smoke and held it until his eyes closed all the way. “Peace in Jamaica, man, the Rastas bring peace. I have found peace,” he said.
Those who were familiar enough with Marley to lounge under the mango trees around his house referred to him as Tuff Gong, which is also the name of his recording studio, located on the first floor of the house. Next to it, Marley sold postcards, T-shirts and a magazine, also called Tuff Gong.
This was a name given to him as a street kid in the Kingston ghetto called Trenchtown. The name had its roots in the Rastafarian philosophy to which Marley was exposed at an early age. The name is supposed to connote special abilities and mission in life.
Bob Marley was born Feb. 6, 1945, in northern Jamaica. He and his mother moved to the slums of Kingston when he was 8. As a high school student he studied welding, but quit school at 17 to become a musician. His music was a declaration of the tribulations brought upon the masses by the “system.” His Rastafarianism made him a dedicated herb smoker who believed marijuana cleaned the mind of folly and opened up the “Third Eye.”
Bob Marley was a deeply spiritual man who sometimes operated on a different plane from those he knew. Charismatic and insightful, his music employed simple lyrics to communicate the depth of his emotion. “It takes a revolution to make a solution,” was one of Marley’s best-known lyrics. He also said: “It is better to die fighting for your freedom than be a prisoner all the days of your life.” But before an interview it was not unusual for Marley to fire up a giant spliff — then space out.
During one of these times, he began talking about nature and peace. “Earth creates lightening and thunder. Words, sound and power, man. Heat, air and water. The people should let the power generate them. No gun business can change that.”
Some claimed to understand him. Others tried to put what sounded like mumblings to music. Marley would simply smile and nod out. Sometimes it was explained that he was speaking in tongues taught to him by Leonard Howell — one of the original Rastas. Sometimes he was merely being — as he was affectionately known to friends — the “Gong Gong Gorilla.” But either way, Bob Marley was a guru to fellow Rastas, musicians and fans all over the world. He gave hope to people who had none.