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ROGER STEFFENS discusses his book SO MUCH THINGS TO SAY

So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley (W.W. Norton)

Ask reggae fans if they would buy a ticket to a panel discussion on Bob Marley by the key people in his life and career—from family to bandmates to mistresses— moderated by the leading reggae historian and archivist, and the answer is obvious. So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley, by Roger Steffens, offers this experience in book form. It is the definitive oral history of one of the twentieth century’s most important artists and activists. It’s also extremely readable, lively and full of fresh material.

Why another Marley book? The answer is in the title: there really is so much to say—about Marley’s songs, his musical influences, his spirituality, his politics and his place in history. The New York Times called Marley the most influential musical artist of the second half of the twentieth century, Time declared Exodus the best album of the century, and Legend is the longest-charting album in the history of Billboard’s catalog album chart.

This book fills the need for a panoramic, authoritative oral history of Marley’s life. Steffens weaves together over forty years of interviews with those closest to the reggae king, each of their rich and colorful voices adding a unique—and occasionally conflicting—perspective. There is an old Jamaican folk saying: “there are no facts in Jamaica, only versions.”

So Much Things to Say presents Marley’s life chronologically, beginning in Trenchtown, the poor Kingston ghetto from which the Wailers emerged. According to Bunny Wailer, Marley, rejected by his white father’s family, had it even worse: “His most serious endeavor was just to eat and drink. . . . He didn’t get what any other child got.” Why? Joe Higgs, the Wailers’ mentor, recalls that Marley was neglected and shunned by his black mother and her family: “He was like an outcast in the house. . . . He slept beneath the bottom of the house.”

These firsthand descriptions form an origin myth of Marley’s preternatural, sometimes scary, seriousness and single-mindedness. This trait echoes later in the book, when the legendary Jamaican singer Alton Ellis recalls Bob’s intense personal presence: “He was so powerful spiritually that even big guys stand back. . . . That’s the man I’m telling you about, not the music.”

On to Studio One, where the Wailers started their recording career under controversial producer Coxson Dodd. We hear contradictory accounts of the Wailers’ blockbuster first record, “Simmer Down”—one example of many fascinating dissonances between voices in the book. Dodd may not have treated artists impeccably, but he had what the music business calls “ears.”

“OK, that one,” Bunny Wailer recalls him saying in a pre-session meeting before the Wailers had played a verse of “Simmer Down.”

We meet producer Lee “Scratch” Perry, a sort of shaman of sounds who drew out some of the Wailers’ best tracks. And there’s plenty about Chris Blackwell, the man who signed Bob Marley (and the Wailers, but mostly Bob Marley) and helped him conquer the world. Here Marley’s life beyond the music begins to take center stage, and we learn more about the Wailers’ breakup in 1973, including an interview about the split that Marley wanted destroyed; the assassination attempt on Marley in 1976 and whether the CIA was involved; Marley’s trips to Africa, where he performed at Zimbabwe’s independence celebration; and his fight against cancer. In the final chapter, the panel discussion becomes a moving wake, as Marley’s bandmates muse on his legacy and riff on their favorite songs. Steffens acts as a knowledgeable, patient guide.

In his introduction, scholar and dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson calls this book “a collage of impressions [of Marley] seen through the eyes of others. . . . Some of the testimonies confirm what was already known, some offer different versions.” So Much Things to Say  is a must for Marley enthusiasts and a delight to casual fans, greatly enriching and expanding the Marley legend.

Praise for So Much Things to Say: 

“There has never been and will never be anything quite like this: reggae’s chief eyewitness, dropping testimony on reggae’s chief prophet with truth, blood and fire.”—Marlon James, Man Booker Prize–winning author of A Brief History of Seven Killings

“All true gospels are shaped by the accounts of eye witnesses. Roger Steffens has collected these eyewitness accounts and has given us a book of truths complicated by the bending of memory, motive and mystery. We see Marley again, fleshed out and still rightfully elusive through the eyes of those who were with him, and the effect is a fresh and renewed affirmation of his genius, humanity and mystique. This book is a triumph of the storytelling virtuosity of Jamaican people, and a testament to the care and glorious obsessions of Roger Steffens.”—Kwame Dawes, author of City of Bones: A Testament and Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius

Roger Steffens is one of the world’s leading reggae historians and a former cohost of the award-winning radio program Reggae Beat. His one-man show about Marley’s life has been presented at the Smithsonian and the EMP Museum, among other venues. He lives in Los Angeles, California. 

Photo by Devon Steffens

Event date: 
Saturday, July 15, 2017 - 5:00pm
Event address: 
1818 N Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027
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