There’s a new Bob Marley documentary premiering this week. It’s called Marley, and on Friday, April 20th, you can watch it pretty much everywhere. It’ll be in theaters, video-on-demand, and even streaming on your Facebook page. The only way to avoid it is by actively asking NOT to see it. Bob Marley is the Farmville of 2012.
I wish I could say I was excited about Marley. I love documentaries, and I love Bob Marley. But I’ve watched too many documentaries about the artists I love, and I always find my attention wandering. Their lives and creative struggles might be fascinating, but it rarely has anything to do with my experiences or feelings about their music. Sometimes it even gets in the way. It’s disconcerting to know that Joe Strummer didn’t have me in mind when he wrote “Train in Vain,” or that Bruce Springsteen intended “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to be about the disillusioned working class in New Jersey and not being in high school during the 1980s in the south suburbs of Chicago.
I’m working on my own Bob Marley documentary, which is less about Bob Marley than my personal history with his music. Which is probably why it won’t ever be made. But if it somehow attracts investors eager to throw their money away, and a director who shares my vision of “only the Bob Marley stories that involve Eric Spitznagel,” and a studio willing to distribute the movie to me and a small circle of friends and family who know me intimately, then I suppose it couldn’t hurt to have a rough outline and some script notes ready for that big pitch meeting. That sounds reasonable, right? Cause you never know.
So here’s what I’ve come up with:
* * *
The first act is going to be all about my introduction to Bob Marley, which didn’t happen until relatively late in life, when I was already in my late teens and thought Billy Joel was the epitome of rock rebellion. Ironically, the first time I heard Marley’s name was from a friend’s racist mom. Growing up in a suburb was like getting a tutorial in remedial racism. Many of our neighbors only moved to the ‘burbs because it was “safer” (i.e. there weren’t as many black people), but with safety came mediocrity, and that pissed them off. They had a chip on their collective shoulders because the black people had access to all the culture and the best drugs, and they were stuck with strip malls and whippets.
When I got my driver’s license, I decided that my first big trip would be up to Chicago. But my best friend’s mother announced that doing so would be tantamount to suicide. The city was teeming with dark-skinned criminals, she said, just waiting for their chance to lure some innocent white kid into an alley. She told me elaborate stories about black gangs — always the Bloods or the Crips, though I think she was just repeating names she’s heard on 60 Minutes — who would initiate new members by forcing them to fillet their victims. Not just murder them, mind you. Fillet them. Like a fish. I could imagine the horror of being shot or stabbed, but skinned alive? My brain couldn’t process it.
“It’s true,” my friend’s mom lectured us. “It’s all that African voodoo they’re teaching at inner-city schools. They pump them full of Bob Marley reggie music and it makes them crazy. They hear that ‘Electric Avenue’ song and they just want to kill white people.”
Even with my limited musical knowledge, I knew she didn’t mean Eddy Grant. The “Electronic Avenue” video might’ve inspired a seizure, but definitely not racial violence. But I couldn’t vouch for Bob Marley, whose videos weren’t on heavy rotation on MTV and was therefore a mystery to me. If this Marley guy was making songs powerful enough to turn otherwise rational black people into murderous zombies, it must be fucking awesome. I needed to hear reggie music immediately!
And then we cut away to a record store guy, barely able to suppress his snorts of derision. “Reggie music? You mean Reggae, moron.”
I don’t know how this scene should be shot, but it needs to somehow capture my deflated pride and shame and deep, kneecap-shattering humiliation. My first trip to a real city, and I was reminded instantly that I was just a naïve small town fool who knew nothing about the world.
Sometimes record store guys can be bigger assholes than racist suburban moms.
* * *
My college romance with Marley has more than enough melodrama to carry its own documentary. There’s freshmen year when I owned Legend, which is unoriginal but compulsory for the majority of caucasian college students, like having a John Belushi poster on your dorm wall or suddenly being really into hacky sack. And then, somewhere around my sophomore year, there’s the crushing realization that owning Legend makes you a cliché, and you’re just one of those frat douchebags who only knows “Stir It Up.” So I bought all of Marley’s albums — Exodus, Catch a Fire, Kaya, Natty Dread — and then, like a frat douchebag pretending to be a hipster, I just skipped ahead to the songs I already knew from Legend.
But there’s a plot twist! Because I was usually stoned while listening to Marley, I didn’t always have the motivation or physical strength to hit the skip button, and out of sheer laziness I became exposed to his entire oeuvre. I ended up developing a fondness for the deep cuts, and soon favored them to the more recognizable songs that my stoner friends enjoyed. They would call out for “Buffalo Soldier” or “Is This Love” and I’d ignore them and go straight to “Who the Cap Fit” or “Smile Jamaica.”
I had become a frat douchebag pretending to be a hipster with illusions of Rastafarian street cred. My favorite Marley song was “Time Will Tell.” I especially identified with the lyrics “Jah would never give the power to a baldhead/ Run come crucify the Dread.” I’d nod along like I knew exactly what Bob meant. Yeah, those fucking baldheads, always fucking our shit up. Fuck them! Jah knows what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.
But then the Black Crowes, a group of white guys trying to play like black musicians, covered “Time Will Tell” and ruined it for me. Their version is great, and I actually preferred it to Marley’s. And that just made me feel like an asshole. I was a frat douchebag pretending to be a hipster with illusions of Rastafarian street cred who realized he was just another frat douchebag. I’d come full circle.
I left college the way I entered it, with a copy of Legend and a deep-rooted terror that everybody knew I was a fraud.
* * *
There was a guy in my home town in northern Michigan — let’s call him “Todd” — whose wife left him for Ziggy Marley’s drummer. That could a movie all it’s own, right?
It gets worse. Not only did Todd lose his wife to Ziggy Marley’s drummer, he paid the guy to do it.
Todd was (and possibly still is) a businessman and restauranteur. He bought a tavern in our home town, one that’d been around for decades, after the original owner had a stroke and decided to retire. During the bar’s long history, it’d hosted dozens of musical acts you’ve never heard of, like local blues duo Mozart and Ace. But Todd had big ambitions. He thought he could put the tavern on the map. Somehow, nobody really knows how he pulled it off, he booked Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers to play at the bar during a summer weekend.
I was in my mid-20s when it happened, and only heard about the show second-hand. Even at the time, it seemed like a terrible idea. A town with a population of less than 300, most of whom are farmers who know all the lyrics to Hee Haw songs, doesn’t need live music from the spawn of reggae royalty. And for the love of Jah, if you’re going to pay a dude named Ziggy to entertain drunk rednecks at your saloon, get some college kids to work the bar so you can keep an eye on your wife and make sure she isn’t giving head to a dreadlocked drummer in the walk-in freezer. That’s just common sense.
The scandal was huge news for a few years. Todd divorced his wife and closed the bar, and as far as I know that’s the last anybody heard from him. I’m not sure what he’s doing with his life these days, or even if he still lives in town, but he definitely needs to be a big part of this documentary. I never talked to him and got the whole story, but I imagine that not long after he learned that his wife cheated on him, he sunk into a spiral of depression and heavy drinking. Every time I visit my parents, I expect to see his car parked in some dark lot, Todd sitting alone inside, staring at the streetlights and taking long gulps from a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag, angrily muttering the lyrics to “Tomorrow People.”
If Todd’s not available, maybe we just hire an actor to play out that scenario. Who cares if it’s 100% true, it’s great cinema.
* * *
We need to include something about that time I almost visited Jamaica while on a Caribbean cruise.
This was during my late 30s, so it probably belongs somewhere around the end of the second act. Our ship arrived at the Ochos Rios port at dawn, and I was one of the first passengers outside, dressed in my finest tie-dye. But Jamaica wasn’t what I imagined from a youth smoking skunk-weed and listening to Legend. It was fucking scary. I didn’t make it six yards before I was surrounded by a mob of taxi drivers, shouting promises of low fares and cheap access to “the stuff that’ll make you smile.”
As I got deeper into the fray, they got increasingly threatening. I was cornered by a thin, foul-smelling man named Donovan, who offered to take me to “The Happy Place” for just $3. His taxi was a beaten-up van with the windows blacked out; the kind of vehicle preferred by serial killers and pedophiles. My desire for potent marijuana was cancelled out by my desire not to have my corpse discovered in an abandoned warehouse.
“Thanks, but I’m good,” I said, backing away like he’d just pulled out a weapon.
“You like Bob Marley?” he hissed. “All white people like Bob Marley. I take you to a place, you understand what ‘Redemption Song’ all about.”
“That’s not necessary,” I said, my voice raising a few octaves in panic.
“I find you the best ganja, you feel like Bob Marley. Don’t you want to feel like Bob Marley?”
“Not today no, thanks.”
I retreated back to the ship, repeating the same excuse used by every other easily-intimidated passenger: “It’s too rainy.” Instead, I sat at the pool bar and drank $10 rum runners and listened to a white guy in a Hawaiian shirt play “Three Little Birds” on a steel drum.
* * *
The doc’s third act practically writes itself. That racist suburban mom who first warned me about Bob Marley? She recently friend-requested me on Facebook. I haven’t responded yet, but I kinda want to say yes, just to see if time and age has softened her edges. Also, I’m curious if she’s going to watch the Facebook stream of the Marley documentary. And if she does, maybe she’ll watch it with me. That would be so meta-meta-something. A documentary whose pivotal scene features a racist woman in her 70s who once believed Bob Marley was brainwashing black kids into butchering white kids watching a documentary about Bob Marley — how does that not get an Oscar nom? I wonder how long she’d last before saying something horrible? “I ain’t no racist or nuthin’, but like I always said, you just can’t trust a negro with a knife.” Maybe the movie would effect her on a profound level and she’d have a moral metamorphosis. First it’d be “Hey, that’s not the ‘Electric Avenue’ guy.” And then “You know what? This music ain’t so bad. Maybe I’ve been wrong about Bob Marley. And if I was wrong about Bob Marley, maybe I’ve been wrong about a lot of things.”
And then, in the documentary’s epilogue, I’ll buy her a copy of Legend. Actually, no, probably just that Black Crowes cover of “Time Will Tell.” You can’t change the world overnight.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MTVHive.com.)