Posted tagged ‘Bob Marley’

Redemption Singing…

February 7, 2013


Lots of people die young, as the news daily tells us (and as many here, myself included, know from deep personal experience.)

The deaths of strangers don’t strike home in the same way as those of people close to us, of course.  There’s a kind of disembodied quality to any sorrow, a regret at the abstraction of lost years, lost human experience.  But I feel a barb that lodges within a particular vein of sadness — or perhaps better, regret — when a musician’s voice goes dumb too soon.

The reason is pretty obvious.  Mark Knopfler (happily very much still with us) nailed it, I think (about 8:50 in): “…songs are milestones for people in their lives; they use them. They use them to live with.”

I’ve been moved by lots of songs, singers, players.  But I can think of few — none really — who combined the power of music itself with the rush that came with utter, marvelous strangeness that I encountered late in high school when first heard this.

That was (I think — it’s been a while) Bob Marley’s first big hit to chart beyond Jamaica.  I know that it is almost a cliche now — and there are other songs in his catalogue that probably move me more.  But try to imagine hearing that for the first time after a steady diet of (often great) straight rock and roll.  Skull shrapnel ain’t in it; it truly blew one’s mind.

Marley’s suffered a fairly common post-mortem fate for iconic figures:  he’s been mythologized out of recognition.  Gone is the radical, redemptive, political, demanding man who explained why he made it on stage for a concert in support of Michael Manley two days after being shot, saying, “The people who are trying to make this world worse aren’t taking a day off. How can I?”  Now, too often, Marley has become an almost generic figure of benevolence, which is too bad, because I don’t believe he ever lost the sense that there is something of a Manichaean struggle to be waged against those who (still) act to make this world worse.

But this is certain: Marley broke through any niche ceiling to become the first (that I can think of) truly global musical voice to come from what used to be called the Third World.  For that alone, he has had more to do in shaping the landmarks of people’s lives, to give them songs — and a sense of the world within those songs — that we use to live our lives.  Forty years or so on from his breakout, we’ve grown so much richer in our musical lives, sounds from anywhere weaving through our culture, our headphones, one pair of ears at a time.  I won’t go so far as to say that Bob Marley makes Barack Obama possible — but the demographic shift that so troubles the latter-day Republican Party is not simply political.  It’s incomprehensible, I think, to many who came of age in the last twenty or thirty years to know how transformative it was to hear other voices — and not simply as a novelty, or some in-group marker of cool found in a few basements in college towns.  Marley was HUGE from the 70s, and stayed so after his death.

Now his music is the stuff of the shrinking pool of oldies radio — except of course, that his influence and that of his 60s and 70s reggae comrades shoots through our current musical culture.

But even so — it’s hard not to wonder what he could have sung and said if he had managed to beat the cancer that got him in 1981, when he was all of thirty six years old.

Bob Marley would have been sixty eight yesterday.

Bonus full concert (complete w. a fifteen minute bonus opening by Dick Gregory that truly captures some of the deep strangeness of the late 1970s. Trust me; it was far wierder than I can hold in mind most times. This concert, btw, at Harvard Stadium (!) occurred while I was still in college — which means that I could have been there. That’s a regret I’ve nurtured since the day-of):

Image: Bob Marley in concert in Zurich, May 30, 1980

Pure Family Happiness: I Should Age So Well/Happy Birthday, Bob Seidman/Sunday Night Tuneful Optimism Before Reality Comes Crashing In: Marley-Hopper-Marley Edition

March 1, 2010

We celebrated my father-in-law’s 90th birthday this weekend.  (The actual day was last Wednesday.)

Bob was born in February 24, 1920, just three and a half months before my own father was. There were odd near-intersections that followed that coincidence of birth years:  they were classmates — but did not know each other — at Harvard, class of ’41.  Still, they must have passed close by — both men counted among their acquaintences/friends the historian of technology/American Studies Leo Marx, for example.

They both had plans after graduation — my dad signed up for graduate school in Chinese history, which he ultimately completed, to good effect, (and yes, I’m inordinately proud of him, and have not begun to pay the full measure of my filial duties to him, but that’s for another time), and as for Bob…

…Well Bob was and is much smarter than your average bear.  (See this if you aren’t old enough to catch the reference.)

He planned to become a teacher, and in October, 1941 enrolled at the Graduate Teachers College of Winnetka, Illinois (as he wrote later to his kids, a school “known to a very select few as “the Harvard of Winnetka, Illinois”).  But he grasped the reality beyond the ocean barriers that muffled American senses of urgency, and so, just before heading west, he took the examination for an officer’s commission in the Coast Guard (then a unit in the Navy)

Why did he do this?  Especially given his politics, which were and are on the left, and as anti-war in a general sense as  you can get?  Because, he told his daughter, my wife, once, it was already obvious to him that someone had to be prepared to kill Germans.

He was salty as hell — he’d been sailing since more or less the time he could walk, and was an excellent offshore navigator — and he passed, but did not receive word of a commission by December 7.  So he decided to head to the local Navy recruiting office to sign up any way he could.  Facing the crush of eager volunteers, the recruiters told him to check with the Coast Guard to see what was up — and he found that his commission had arrived from DC literally ten minutes earlier.  He was sworn in on the spot, and proceeded to have a real war.

Bob, the gentlest of men as I know him, served on the North Atlantic convey runs — on his first trip to Reykjavik to meet up with his ship, he sailed on a convey that hit a wolf pack, and arrived safely on one of seven vessels of the thirty four that left the US, and he helped shepherd three more convoys through wolf pack attacks on that duty.

Then, in 1944, he took over command of LST 767, which he led through several island invasions in the Pacific, the great typhoon of ’45, the kamikaze threat, and VJ day.  In that duty, he had another near miss with my dad, at the battle of Leyte Gulf — my dad was a Japanese-language officer on Admiral Kincaid’s staff on the flagship; Bob was landing troops on Leyte Island; and, as an added coincidental bonus, the father of one of our closest friends was flying a torpedo bomber of the decks of one off the jeep carriers in the action that saved my dad and Bob from the Japanese battleship task force that aimed to blow the landing group out of the water.

Along the way, Bob saw all he needed of violent death, death by drowning, by exposure, by blunt trauma or overpressure.  He came back from the war with a renewed, or never-flagged urgency for social justice, along with a temporary surcease to any wanderlust.  He married Ann (Wilcox) Seidman, his sweetheart from before the war, started a family, went to law school, and started a conventional law practice in CT, whilst co-founding an unconventional interracial co-housing community on Long Island Sound.

Boredom with the law side of things led to unwary conversation at a cocktail party in the early ’60s, which led to a career first teaching law in Africa sponsored by the Ford Foundation, then, with his economist wife, Ann, an intellectual passion for the use of law as an instrument of development and social change, and finally, the creation of an approach to legal drafting aimed at giving developing nations the tools with which to make laws that could do what those enacting them sought to achieve.

That idea turned into a UN and USAID sponsored third or fourth career travelling the world in partnership with Ann to new and emerging democracies (and anyone else that cared to listen) helping them think about the nuts and bolts of making law.  Their travels ranged across Asia and Africa; Bob only stopped showing up in the Vietnams, Khazakistans, Bhutans and South Africas — and the one Bagdad –of the world in the last three or four years.  (Ann, a mere 84, still takes the show on the road.)  The both of them are teaching BU law students right now and more from around the world via a distance program — when Bob shows up in class on Tuesday, he will be 90 years and 6 days old.

All of which is to say, this is a man who has seen if not the worst we can do to each other, acts much closer to that worst than I have, or hope I ever shall…and has spent many decades of a long life trying to help folks not to repeat the error.  I should do half as well…

Not to mention that he’s been a heck of a father in law, and a proud (if occasionally somewhat stunned) grandfather to the last of his grandchildren, my son, whom Bob first met a few weeks after his 80th birthday.  Not to mention the fact that he has proved extremely tolerant of his mostly land-bound and power-tool impaired son-in-law who, for all his patient attempts to instruct him, still cannot reliably tie a bowline when called upon.

So, happy birthday, Bob Seidman.  You are an emblem and an exemplar.  (And congratulations to you, Ann, without whose intellectual and emotional partnership there is no doubt that Bob could not have come up with a fraction of what he and you have done together.)

And on that note:  I’m not going to start my week thinking how gruesome our politics are, how bankrupt and morally contemptible so many of our GOP-aligned friends have become (and I’m not even going to rehearse the conversations I’ve been having in my head with the too-numerous folks like these, to whom I merely want to echo Army Secretary Joseph N. Welch’s question to Joe McCarthy:  “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”).

Instead, I’m going to think of Bob’s life, his work, still ongoing, the work to be done yet, and the pleasures of family of which I was reminded when I broke bread (actually, boneless leg of lamb stuffed with a ground veal and prune pate) with twenty people, just last night, three generations, starting and ending the evening with champagne, with eighty years of experience separating and joining Bob to my own kid, a grand evening in celebration of a life that evokes all the fabric of astonishing history, but is present, and lived, and in which, right here, a wife and children and spouses, and their children may share and share alike.

So, to that thought I offer this bit of music which, for all its associations of pain and struggle, and wrongs overcome, if not always righted, remains for me as sweet and hopeful as it ever could be.