Book Review — Bob Marley And The Golden Age of Reggae

Hrishikesh Varma

Bob Marley and the Golden Age of Reggae 1975-1976: The photographs of Kim Gottlieb-Walker (Commentary by Cameron Crowe, Roger Steffens and Jeff Walker)

I must admit I approached this book with considerable apprehension – the cover photo and the title promised me a journey into reggae culture and Bob Marley that would reveal what reggae was during its peak in the mid-70s. I would have thought that this was a hard task, an impossible task, simply because even though- to mutilate a phrase of Goethe’s- photographs are frozen music, there are some forms of life that cannot be expressed through a single frame. Bob Marley, it seemed to me, was certainly one of those forms of life.

First of all, the enormity of the task should be acknowledged by the reader- one cannot possibly expect to convey the beauty, the impact of a movement on a generation -in this case, reggae and Marley- through a medium that is static. However, this applies only if the photographer is not a skilled one. In this case however, we have more than a skilled photographer. Kim Gottlieb-Walker has successfully done, or come close to doing what is more than an impossble task- to decipher Bob Marley over the course of two years. Two years are hardly enough to showcase the best of one of the great entertainers of the past century, but this is precisely what Gottlieb-Walker has done.

It helps that one of the persons who writes the commentary is Cameron Crowe (The spouse of the photographer- Jeff Walker, and Roger Steffens are the other two). His opening lines in the book capture the feel of the age perfectly: “I was just a kid, but the emotions and the music and the spirit in the air never left me. Its all part of that emotional heartbeat we develop early on, and we either forget it and move on”

I am not of that generation, so I did not expect a photographic record to do much to emotions as regards that generation- but it did. Therein lies the inherent beauty of images – a single image, if well taken, has the power to transport to you to the time and place of the photograph. Gottlieb-Walker does so not merely by the quality of her images- they are top-class no doubt- but by the mood she conveys through them.

When I look at the Carribean of the 1970s (or 1980s) there is only one thing I can think of – besides reggae- and that is cricket. On the cricket field, the great West Indian cricketers exhibited a natural flair- a love, a feel for life (and the game) that has been absent before or since, but which one could sense in this book Marley’s (and  Peter Tosh’s, and Bunny Wailer’s and everyone else’s) gentle, yet arrogant, laughter.

There are numerous brilliant photographs interspersed among the pages of this tome, yet it feels unjust to pick just a few favourites- but this is exactly what I propose to do – with the help of only five photographs.

On page 23 lies the image that first brought a smile to my face- though tinged with a strange sadness- it is a shot of George Harrison with Marley, and they have just been introduced by Jeff Walker. The Silent Beatle meeting someone who in many ways was an antithesis of his- the image screams at you to observe how these two geniuses differed from each other yet entranced millions- and in a way, it seems a complete picture. Harrison plays his part well – silent, brooding, a man with his legend already established. Marley on the other hand, looks delighted to meet a kindred soul, someone who understands the madness, a master who’s been through it all.

After forcefully pushing myself through, I reached page 43 – probably my favourite- and see Marley looking away, his left hand on his hair, the look of a thoughtful visionary on his face.  Underneath, an extract from a 1975 issue of People Magazine reads “We’re not talking about burning or looting material goods and things. We only wanna burn capitalistic illusions”

I was particularly struck by an image from the famous Dream Concert of 1975 (page 85) featuring Marley holding up a large picture of Emperor Haile Selassie, the Rasta God. His eyes are closed, and there is a look of peace on his face- there is an utter lack of emotion that we see in the rest of the photographs- there is just something on his face that can only be called peace. The most famous follower of a failed cult holding up its God at the height of its craze.

A photograph of Bunny Wailer (page 136) says more of the man with its caption than through the image- no disrespect to the photo. Gottlieb-Walker relates to us a tale of how Wailer refused a photographer to take his photo with these words: “I don’t let dead men take my pictcha”.

A few weeks later, the photographer was dead.

All we see of Wailer is his silhouette – and an eye- he is staring into the heavens. One almost gets the feeling that he is reading the stars- such his gaze, such is the man’s body language.

Bob Miller, a close associate of Marley’s, makes an appearance on Page 153, and his presence makes for one of the great shots of this book. He is caught in a half-smile, his eyes betraying his mischievous heart, looking up at the camera. The commentary soberly notes that he was supposed to tour with Marley in Brazil, except for a slight mishap- Miller died of a car accident in 1980.

Yet one has to look beyond all these photos and reach the last three photos- to acknowledge the sober end Marley and the reggae movement met with. They show Marley wearing a beret, and as the caption does not fail to remind us, he resembles Che Guevera in  a way. Che, the other great rebel of the Latin American conscience. Yet, the caption notes, “Bob never shot anybody… not even a sheriff”

I shall close this by borrowing a few lines from the PS which i feel would do more justice to the book than any of my words: “(Marley’s death) unquestionably ended the Golden Age of reggae… [but] the music itself is still vibrant.. and as vibrant and powerful as ever. But the vast array of talent, personalities and great music that defined the brief period covered in this book has never been even remotely equaled”

One cannot help but agree wholeheartedly.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

1 being an eyesore, 2 being passable, 3 being pleasant, 4 being very good and 5 being a sight for sore eyes.

You can buy the book here, at the Titan Books official page.

The author – by lineage of noble affiliation, by qualities quite comprehensively the opposite – blogs here when not busy working or traipsing across to some part of the country to attend, and in many cases win, some quiz. You can find him on twitter as theBFP

Ariel Nieto says:

Bob Marley is greather than Regaee Music!! Thanks for the post