Today is the birthday of Bob Marley, probably the best-known reggae artist ever. When I think of Marley’s music, I tend to think of the early Eighties in Philly where I hung out with people who were very much into him, so much so that his music just seemed to be part of the air they were breathing. And his influence is everywhere if you think of all the artists who tried their hands at reggae somewhere between 1976—when Marley broke into the mainstream as Rolling Stone’s Band of the Year—and 1984, when music became increasingly corporate. If you don’t know what I’m saying on that score just contrast Michael “Pepsi Challenge” Jackson, the darling of the Eighties, with Marley, who died too early in 1981.
I first became aware of Marley somewhere in the Seventies, probably around 1974 when Eric Clapton had a hit with Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff.” Sometimes a DJ would play Marley’s version—far superior—instead. In any case, Clapton’s version may have brought attention to reggae but not, in my view, in a good way. It had barely hit and already it was being “bland-ished” by the likes of Clapton, who around this time had given up his “Slowhand” moniker in favor of “Slowdoze.”
Today’s song is one I first heard in the year of who knows when. The song dates from 1974, the album Natty Dread, with the live version from 1975 perhaps better-known. I chose a video of Marley performing it from 1980 because that’s when the song became not simply a background tune but one I can associate with “a scene” I was part of: a group of performance poets who used to meet weekly and read to one another and whoever else showed up above a bar on Fairmount Street called London’s.
|me and Jerry, 1981|
The lyrics are a retrospect—“I remember when we used to sit / In the government yard in Trenchtown / Oba, observing the hypocrites.” Nice way to give us quickly a sense of “us and them” and “now/then.” And the song’s lines “Good friends we have had, oh good friends we've lost along the way” I would like to dedicate to my friend Jerome Robinson who was gunned down by some asshole muthafucka 11 years ago on February 4th. Jerry was one of the originals on the London’s scene and everybody’s brother. A painter, a poet, a father, a lover, a friend, a warm and lovely man. It’s not possible for me to listen to Marley and not think of him and those days.
Marley, at the time I most associate with him, was already not long for this world, though you’d never know it from the performance, but the fact adds poignancy to his “but while I’m gone / Everything gonna be alright.” The thing about reggae that made it work, to me, was how timeless it seemed. Not in some grand classical way, but in the way of something that—like folk music I guess—is always there. Maybe it’s just another way of singing the blues, but it feels so full of movement and joy in that movement: “My feet is my only carriage / So I’ve got push on through.”
As to the title: “No woman, no cry” says “no, woman, don’t cry”—it’s a consoling gesture, but I was always willing to hear it as a way of saying “got no woman, no problem”—as someone in so many blues songs who realizes that he’s better off without the woman he should be bluesing about; but it could also be suggesting that without a woman, one has nothing to cry about. Not that women bring suffering into the world but that the suffering of a woman is what really hurts a man because, otherwise, what would? Children, sure, but the way to children, for a man, is a woman, so there is that “women and children” thing that’s sort of inescapable (if you’re a man). Of course this is all very patriarchal, but so is the consoling gesture—I’ll wipe away your tears, baby, and make you feel better. If you take that away, well, most guys would have nothing to sing about.
Oh, little sister, don't shed no tears
No woman, no cry
No woman, no cry
At least Marley backs that up with a rhythm and a music that helps make his case.