This past week, the number one in non-fiction on the NY Times bestseller list was a book entitled Marley and Me, written about a man’s adventures with his dog. According to the Times, evidently this caused both authorial consternation and a sudden spurt in sales for a different book with the same title – this Marley and Me written about another man’s experiences with Bob Marley.
Oh ho, thought I: more than two can play.
[Another installment in the ongoing true life adventures of Periphery Man, who has had myriad peculiar encounters with celebrities, while not being a celebrity himself.]
Back in 1973, my first solo residence in New York City was a dream come true: an empty loft space on Greene Street that contained in its entirety one rickety four-poster bed, a hot plate and a minimal bathroom, with crumbling brick walls, exposed wiring everywhere, the obligatory cockroaches, and… oh yeah—a professional 16-track recording studio downstairs that I had free rein to run around in.
Soho in those days had one or two decent restaurants and maybe half a dozen galleries; there were no boutiques selling shoes at $1,000 a buckle. Blue Rock was one of the first downtown recording spaces, and it was owned by a congenial, bushy mustachioed guy named Joe Schick, who was a friend of my manager, Gary Legon. Maybe he owed Gary a favor, maybe he liked the idea of me keeping an eye on the place, or maybe he was just a saint: I paid no rent, and on nights when no one was booked to record there, I could play with the toys to my heart’s content. Avant garde jazzists like Don Cherry and Carla Bley were among the downtowners recording at Blue Rock; Dylan and Leon Russell cut Watching the River Flow there. I occasionally sat in to watch sessions, but seeing other people at work was just a casual perk; my favorite thing in life at the time was to go downstairs after midnight, fiddle with the colored lights until I had just the right atmospheric combo of blue, purple and red and make my own music. I couldn’t operate the recording equipment, but who cared? There was a Steinway grand piano, an old tack upright, a Fender Rhodes electric piano and a Hammond B-3 organ at my disposal. I was a keyboardist Adam in Eden.
Thank you, manager Gary – who also had excellent musical taste. That winter he turned me on to a first album, just being released in the States, by a group from Jamaica called the Wailers. America didn’t know much Jamaican music in those days beyond My Boy Lollipop, though the recent success of The Harder They Come had created a buzz and the beginnings of a reggae cult. In case you didn’t catch the double-meaning significance of its title, the album Catch A Fire was shaped like a giant cigarette lighter; you lifted the top off to reveal the LP within, and I don’t think I was alone in lighting up something illegal to have a listen.
Stoned or straight, what you heard was revelatory. My friends and I became instant Wailers fans. We’d nearly played out the grooves of Kinky Reggae and the rest when we got the word: the Wailers were coming—to New York City, to Max’s Kansas City, of all places, to begin their first American tour. Max’s was then at its hotpoint peak, home to regulars Warhol and Lou Reed, a nexus of hip culture collision on Union Square. Because another friend of Gary’s, a harmonica-playing aspiring cineaste named Lee Jaffe, had fallen into the job of organizing the Wailers tour for Island Records, we were there for that first show. It was a hot ticket, not due to the presence of this then-unknown reggae band on the bill, but because the headliner for that weekend, receiving a major record company push for his first release and being hyped by the media as yet another “New Dylan,” was some kid from New Jersey named Springsteen.
That I walked out on young Bruce’s first number, bored, because I was still too revved and reeling from the Wailers set, should give you an idea of what an amazing show it was. Think of it: right off the plane from the streets of Kingston, ready to kick butt in white New York, one of the best rhythm sections in the history of rock’n’roll fronted by a visionary singer-songwriter just coming into his creative peak. With the stench of Jamaican homegrown thickening the room, Max's was literally and figuratively smoking that night. For a couple of hours it was musically heavier in there than it was inside any other club in the city, and by the end of the weekend you’d have to be craned in through the chimney to see this show.
But that first night there weren't many people on the island of Manhattan who knew the Wailers’ music. That I was one of them was the reason I was awakened by a phonecall towards two in the morning, having already crashed in my bed over Blue Rock. It was Lee, the harmonica-playing Island Records acquaintance calling from around the corner. He was with the lead singer from the Wailers, and the guy wanted to jam. Could they come over?
I put on some clothes and a few minutes later walked downstairs to let in Lee and Bob Marley. He was as wired as I was sleepy, guitar case in hand, vibrating with herbal energy. There wasn’t a lot of talking. We headed right into the studio proper, and by the time we got Bob plugged into an amp, he had a lit joint in his lips. Though he hadn’t bothered to mess with the colored lights, evidently Bob Marley’s idea of how to unwind after midnight was pretty close to mine.
What did we play? No particular reggae song and all reggae songs. Basically all Bob did was strum the classic upbeat-on-the-two-and-four guitar strum that was and is the universal reggae standard—relentlessly, I might add. I remember his dark and lanky form crouched over the stool a few feet away from my piano bench, his chin jutting forward, bobbing with the beat as he played through a familiar chord progression with little variation, over and over, while Lee played harmonica and I—an out-of-his-league white boy from Long Island—tried to hold my own.
Given that there were probably not that many keyboard players in the neighborhood, or even in the country, just then, who were as familiar with Stir It Up and Concrete Jungle as I happened to be, I’ll say I adequately rose to the occasion. Though I’d grown up a world apart from Trenchtown, I at least knew how to comp some basic reggae keyboard figures. I was no Peter Tosh, obviously, but in those wee small hours, it made little difference.
We were jammin’.
We played for all of an hour or so before the energy ebbed. Then Bob Marley packed up his guitar and departed with Lee into the night. It wasn’t the foundation of any great collaboration or friendship. I doubt Marley ever thought back on it afterwards, and it was such an ephemeral moment in my life that sometimes I’ve wondered if I merely dreamed it.
Years later, after the international fame, the death and the religious lionization of Marley the legend, when I’ve told this story to certain musicians, I’ve had to face some outraged incredulity. That’s it? What about his reactions to the Max’s gig, to being in New York? What words of Rasta wisdom did he impart? What were his political views? Or at least, on a pragmatic musical level: what fingerings did he use on the guitar frets? Isn’t there something—anything—to be shared about the experience that would add to the Bob Marley legacy?
And while I can kick myself now for not having thought to bring my Walkman recorder downstairs and flip it on, owning a tape of our little session would seem besides the point. The way I see it, on one eventful night in Bob Marley’s life, near the beginning of his odyssey into popular myth, he probably didn’t know quite what to do with himself. A stranger in a strange land, too excited to sleep, not yet played out, he found a place where he could come in from the cold and burn off some of that excess energy. And Periphery Man was there to help him do just that.