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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Marley Natural: Commodify my soul Jah Jah – THIS IS NOT A TEST #11 (transcript)

Published March 7, 2015

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I’ve been boxing up books around here lately. We’re donating about a third of our books to a place here in Los Angeles that uses them to benefit local communities. They also benefit the bookstore that runs the charity, but I’m okay with that. So a few hundred books in seven big, heavy boxes are stacked up by the front door waiting to be picked up. That still leaves us with two and a half big bookcases full of books, so we haven’t forsaken ink on paper. But more and more these days if I can buy a book in electronic form I do it. I know the experience isn’t the same, but it’s always been more about the words for me anyway, so the way I get those words isn’t as important. And the books just sit there on my devices waiting to be read, they don’t take up all the space I’m trying to live in.

The real reason for all the reorganization is so I have more room for records, so it isn’t like I’m simplifying much by losing a third of the books. I don’t know how I keep accumulating more records when I don’t really care for much modern music, but every year I find myself with a couple hundred more and there’s nowhere to put the things. Well, there will be now. After I spend the whole weekend getting things together. I suppose there are worse ways to spend a weekend. Like moving websites, which I’m also in the process of doing – for the third time in three years. But you don’t want to hear about that.

There’s a thing here in Los Angeles, I don’t know if it goes on in other parts of the country, but here it started back in 2010 as something called Live Talks LA, and what it is, in a nutshell, is famous people interviewing other famous people. There are scientists too, and writers, but mainly it’s famous people, and there’s no big presentation, they just sit in chairs and one interviews the other.

Speaking tours are kind of an old timey concept. Authors and explorers used to pay the bills by going on speaking tours in the pre-radio days, but radio and then television quickly made the speaking tour a relic of the past. Why go out on the road when you can sit with Johnny Carson for 15 minutes and talk to millions of people?

It seems like an odd tradition to resurrect, but it’s definitely back, in a slightly different, non-touring form anyway. Carol and I have gone to a few of these things, and they’re usually a little awkward, because apparently being a good interviewer is an actual skill. And of course every one we’ve seen was coincidental to the publication of a new book – Tina Fey being interviewed by Steve Martin, Lena Dunham interviewed by Miranda July – which partly explains why the format is being resurrected.

I bring this up because last night we went to see Kim Gordon from sonic youth interviewed by Aimee Mann. I thought there was some potential there, two musicians talking about things, but it was kind of a bust. I love Aimee Mann, but she’s not a great interviewer. Not that I expected her to be, based on the persona she puts across in her music and on stage. But the thing being promoted last night was Kim Gordon’s book, and it was pretty clear that she didn’t want to be there. If Aimee Mann is not the best interviewer, Kim Gordon is a much worse interviewee.

Sonic Youth was considered a punk band by a lot of people, I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I did expect some kind of punk vibe to the evening. I didn’t get that, I just got Gordon half answering questions or not answering them at all. Which made things harder on Mann, but somehow they got through an hour of it, as well as some terrible audience questions at the end. I’ll put a link to the Live Talks page on the site so you can go see it for yourself. Though it might be a week or two before the video is posted.

I don’t know what to attribute Kim Gordon’s lack of enthusiasm to, I don’t know enough about her, I haven’t read her book yet. But it could have been a general punk rock aversion to selling herself, and if that’s what it is, I get it and good for her. I talked a little bit about selling out in the Oscar episode here, about why it isn’t an outmoded concept, and how you can’t really be independent or stand for anything if you’re little more than a corporate shill. That was a pretty common sentiment in the rock and roll world back in the 60s and for most of the 70s.

But of course it isn’t the 60s anymore, and in the 70s the Rolling Stones started the rush to commercialization when a perfume company sponsored one of their tours and stuck their logo in the arenas and advertisements and on the tour program. That was a shocking thing to me at the time, it seemed so out of place and wrong, and especially for the Rolling Stones who had kind of an against the grain reputation. But once I saw the perfume sponsorship I thought, “Well, I guess that was all a load of bullshit, those guys don’t stand for anything.”

Business had taken over, and maximizing profit had become the goal. There have always been some people who have seen rock and roll or pop music as a route to making a lot of money, but part of becoming a successful rock band was always cultivating a rebellious, anti-establishment attitude or persona. So there’s always been that dichotomy at work. But maybe not so much anymore, now that perceptions of what it means to be a rock and roll band have changed, and we’re in a world where every singer or band is expected to be pimping products or on the payroll of some corporation somewhere.

What’s all this got to do with Bob Marley you may reasonably be wondering. Well, the Marley family started aggressively marketing and commodifying Bob Marley in the 90s, a little more than a decade after he died. Some of the products they’ve put Bob’s name on are inoffensive enough – and maybe even relevant to Bob as a musician – some little boom boxes, guitars, things like that. Then there are the typical things – the t-shirts, hats and multitude of wearables of every shape and size that you can now sport with a picture of Bob or a lion of Judah, always with the Ethiopian red gold and green.

They’ve always bothered me, those trinkets. This Let’s make a Marley baby bottle! kind of indiscriminate avalanche of junk. Though admittedly I do sometimes drink Marley coffee. You didn’t know there was such a thing, did you, Marley coffee? Sure, why not. So yes, the mountain of Marley junk bothers me, yet I hand my dough over to them for their coffee. But I’ll tell you man, it’s good coffee. I’ve got to hand it to Rohan Marley who heads up the coffee operation.

But now the Marleys are preparing to put Bob’s name on another product that some see as relevant and others see as horrifying: legal herb. That’s right, the Marley’s are partnering with a Yale MBA and some investment firm to create a company to sell “Marley Natural” herb. On the surface you might say, “well, that makes sense,” considering Bob’s advocacy of herb, and after all, Peter Tosh sang, legalize it and I will advertise it. All of the Rastas – well everyone who uses herb really, everywhere in the world – everyone is in favor of legalization. But I’m not so sure the Rastas wanted herb to be legal so it could become a big business to make the rich richer. And legal herb will eventually be just like any other cash crop. The growers will only see a tiny fraction of what the product sells to a consumer for. It will be just another big business, and that’s certainly not something Bob would have been enthusiastic about.

Not to mention that it trivializes Bob’s relation to herb and turns his image into some spliff smoking good time Charley. If that was part of his personality and persona, and I’m not saying it wasn’t, it was a very tiny part. To Bob Marley, and most Rastas, herb is a sacrament. It’s part of a ritual of giving thanks to their creator, meditation and creation. Bob maintained that “Babylon don’t want you fe smoke herb because if you smoke herb ya can’t be so easily tricked and deceived.” I don’t know about that, but the idea there is they considered it mind and consciousness expansion not just alteration. they call herb “the healing of the nations” – from the bible – naturally – and the tree of life and it’s medicinal leaves that you can read about in revelations. Bob didn’t think of herb as a commodity to be bought and sold like a pack of baseball cards or Marlboros. You can’t sell the healing of the nations, it’s everyones birthright to have it.

So I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that he may be vexed to see his name used to fuel a big business, even if that business is centered around HERB and brings his family wealth. He wasn’t that kind of guy. He didn’t care about money. Now all the children and baby mommas and musicians and record company employees that he supported may not have shared his casual attitude toward money, and certainly after he died – without a will, because Rasta nah deal wit dat – his family became very concerned with money, and who was getting what and where it would all go. But the battles over money are a different subject. What I guess I want to get at here, now is who was Bob Marley? And part of who Bob was was he was a guy who generated a lot of dough but didn’t really care about it, surrounded by regular people who have to care about it if they want to eat.

Well, he cared about it in a certain way. He cared about what he could do with it, and the important things he wanted to do were advance the message of Rastafari and take care of people who needed help. And as soon as he had money to spare he did just that – built the Tuff Gong recording studio and started giving money to half the people in Jamaica. His accountant – yes, Bob had an accountant – estimated that in the last few years of his life, Bob gave away $250,000 every month to normal Jamaicans who would come to his house on Hope road and stand in line to ask for money for shoes for their kids or a little money to start a shop or learn a trade. And he never turned anyone away. To put that in perspective, imagine hanging out in your yard and giving away $700,000 every month to anyone who walked up and asked for some cash. Think about that, and think about what kind of person does that. Certainly not a materialistic one.

So I guess the question becomes how much money is enough for the Marleys? And maybe more importantly, don’t they give a shit what the person responsible for generating all of the money they enjoy would want? I know they don’t care about that. Why else would Rita Marley not only deny Aston Barrett his due when it comes to the Wailers music, much of which he created and orchestrated, not only deny him that, but bankrupt him in court when he tried to fight for it? Why? The answer appears to be pretty obvious: they seem only to care about increasing their personal wealth. Pure Babylon that.

Stephen Davis, who wrote a biography on Bob, said it pretty well; “Where is the Bob Marley Hospital for the Poor that should be operating in Spanish Town? Where is the Bob Marley Orphanage that should be the pride of St Ann’s Bay? What about the Bob Marley Home for the Aged in Negril, or the Bob Marley Early Childcare Center in Sligoville and Port Antonio? These non-existent institutions don’t exist because the Marley family has other priorities, which seem to be mostly themselves.”

Why do I care what the Marleys do, what’s it to me if they stick Bob’s face on diapers or TV dinners? Well, Bob was an important figure in my life. His music changed my life really, without any exaggeration. Bob and Peter and Bunny were the gateway into everything I ultimately came to love in reggae music, they lead me there. Would I have come to the same place without Bob? I can’t say. All I know is Bob was the pied piper for me. And getting involved in the music uprooted me from my home and took me all over the world. So it would be hard to underestimate its impact on me.

Those of us who like music that isn’t necessarily mainstream often find ourselves up against a brutal reality: we aren’t the only ones who like it. It’s a bit of a dichotomy, because more often than not we spend a lot of time proselytizing for the fringey things that we love, but then we’re somehow caught off guard when “the rest of the world” actually notices. It’s happened to me many times, and it’s probably happened to you too. And you’ve probably also felt a little let down or angry when you started to see a lot of other people glomming on to “your thing.” As irrational as that may be. It just happens.

Then if you see your thing being sold – or being used to sell something – like a Bob Marley Frisbee or the Stooges song Search and Destroy in a Nike ad – it can be jarring. It can be disappointing. I don’t begrudge any living musician the money they get from something like an ad. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s practically expected now. And I like the fact that some of these pioneers who never got paid while they were influencing thousands of people and changing music forever – I like it that they can get paid sometimes.

When we’re passionate about something we become protective of that thing. And if someone is claiming they like it too, we tend to create a kind of litmus test to ultimately prove that they couldn’t possibly like it as much as we do. But it can go beyond what people like or don’t like. When something speaks to you and you immerse yourself in it, you can gain a deep understanding of it and appreciate it on levels that you may not of at first. Then when others come along and pick up on that thing you’re passionate about, they can sometimes pick up on it in a very surfacey way, or only consider one part of it.

That happens when anything becomes popular, because most people aren’t that interested enough or obsessive enough to dig deeper or go beyond the surface. Their appreciation may not be as deep, but really, it’s no less valid. People who read a few Bukowski books and say, “Yeah man, get drunk and fuck a whore! Woo!” Or people who listen to Bob Marley only because he justifies their love of getting really stoned, still like and appreciate those things. They just appreciate them in a different way than we might. But trivializing someone like Marley and what he stood for by marketing his likeness and name on any product you can slap a sticker on to only reinforces those kinds of people’s narrow view. “Bob Marley was a revolutionary? A prophet? I thought he was just the Jammin’ guy and the herb company…”

So yeah, it’s an odd feeling, having those things that you couldn’t pay people to listen to becoming popular and mainstream. The things themselves are still what they were when we fell in love with them, the music is still the same music. I suppose it’s some kind of personality flaw that causes us to hold on to something and jealously protect it. To try to make sure everyone who is consuming it understands it, at least a little. But whether that’s possible or not – it’s usually not, and you just have to let it go. It’s a big broad world and we’re just going to have to get used to more people sharing the bench with us.

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