Bob Marley: A Biography, and: Bob Marley (review)
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Reviewed by
David V. Moskowitz. 2007. Bob Marley: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 124 pp. ISBN: 978-0-313-33879-3.
Garry Steckles. 2008. Bob Marley. Oxford, England: Macmillan Caribbean. 267 pp. ISBN: 978-1-4050-8143-6.

Since Bob Marley’s tragic death in May 1981 from cancer, a number of books have been written about the “King of Reggae.” With colorful titles such as Catch A Fire: The Life of Bob Marley and Bob Marley: Spirit Dancer, Marley has arguably been overrepresented as a biographical subject. Music critics, reggae experts, family members, exband members, and even the Wailers’ former manager, Don Taylor, have all gotten into the act. In fact, there have been so many biographies written about Marley that one would think that he was the only reggae artist worth writing about. If you are looking for new insights into Marley, the various incarnations of the Wailers, or reggae in general, you probably won’t find it in either of these two volumes. But that would be missing the point.

The purpose of these new biographies is not to add new insights into Marley’s life or his music legacy, but to reach new audiences that might find Marley’s ascendency from the rural poverty of Nine Mile, Jamaica, to his role as global ambassador of reggae and par excellent messenger of the Rastafarian movement to be both instructive and inspirational. Greenwood Press, which published Moskowitz’s Bob Marley: A Biography, notes that Moskowitz’s book is part of a biographical series “tailored for high school students who need challenging yet accessible biographies.” Steckles’ volume is part of Caribbean Lives, a series devoted to publishing “short, readable biographies that reveals the wealth of talent and individuality to have emerged from the region.” Both books serve their target audiences effectively. I would also recommend both volumes to new devotees of Marley and his music.

Starting with Marley’s birth to Cedella Malcolm, a Black Jamaican teenager, and Norval Marley, a middle-age White Jamaican, Moskowitz traces Marley’s short, but incredibly eventful, life. However, Marley’s life cannot be characterized as a seamless, upward trajectory from humble beginnings to wealthy, reggae star; there were too many stops and starts along the way, too many heartbreaks and disappointments, and too little time to fully achieve ambitious goals. To this end, Bob Marley: A [End Page 285] Biography does an excellent job navigating this biographical minefield. At the conclusion of the book, Moskowitz discusses Marley’s musical legacy, legal controversies, and provides short, but illuminating, minibiographies on Marley’s large family (Rita Marley and twelve children). While the book does tend to drag in the middle, especially when the author lists Marley’s numerous world tours during the mid-to-late 1970s, the book’s accessible writing style, organizational structure, colorful examples, and the author’s own passion about the subject will certainly keep the young reader’s interest. At the same time, Moskowitz should be commended for avoiding the trap of glorifying or sensationalizing reggae’s best-known artist.

Small and compact, Steckles’ Bob Marley packs a powerful punch. At least a third longer than Moskowitz’s book, Steckles provides an even more in-depth coverage of Marley’s life. The book begins with a series of quotations from a wide variety of admirers (including reggae expert Roger Steffens, Carlos Santana, and former Miss World, Cindy Break-speare who gave birth to Damian Marley), which should dissuade readers from assuming that Marley was simply a reggae musician. Following the same chronological pattern as Bob Marley: A Biography, Steckles expertly narrates Marley’s early hardships and his later musical success. Bob Marley even sheds new light on Charles Comer’s role in shaping Marley’s international profile and popularity (Comer was Marley’s publicist during the 1970s). After describing Marley’s sad and depressing decline and death, the author concludes by discussing the reggae star’s continuing popularity, and the unfortunate legal chaos that included Rita Marley and members of the Wailers (he even included excerpts from court documents). The writing is smart and engaging. The examples and narratives are expertly drawn from a variety of...