Interview #1: Roger Steffens
by Larson Sutton
If Bob Marley is reggae’s prophet, Roger Steffens is the one chiseling prophesies into stone. As witness and participant, journalist and fan, teacher and student, Steffens, 70, has immersed himself in the world of reggae for the past 40 years. His personal collection-turned-archive contains tens of thousands of pieces from all over the globe, and is now seeking a new home. We caught up with Steffens following his show-opening appearances on the Wailers Band’s month-long Survival Revival tour. Here is part one of a two-part interview:
Tell me about your recent experience on the Survival Revival Tour as you opened for the Wailers Band with a presentation of your own regarding Bob’s Survival record.
They were playing the entire Survival album with the exception of “Babylon System.” They did a beautiful job on it. The lead singer Danglin has a terrific voice and a really nice, amiable stage presence. He energized audiences wherever we were. I didn’t see him fail to connect anywhere on this tour. But, it’s not Bob, and it’s a thankless task to try and stand in Bob’s shoes. You’ve got Family Man, you had Keith Sterling on keyboards from the Soul Syndicate and Peter Tosh’s Final Word, Sound, and Power band, who added a lot of credibility to the band. It was a good group. A lot of young people were at the shows which made me very happy. I would always ask at the beginning of my opening set, ‘How many of you came to reggae because of Bob Marley?’ It was a minimum of 80% every night. We’re not going to have Bob on stage. So this is one way of touching that vibration for people, most of whom were born after Bob passed.
What did discover or re-discover about Bob or the album from preparing and/or delivering this presentation?
I spent a month researching what I was going to do, what I was going to say, because I had to get it down to a fine, Haiku-like presentation. Family Man wanted me to show pictures that I shot backstage on the original Survival tour, talk about what it was like to be on the road then, and then set up the album. Do a track-by-track on the album so that people knew what to listen for, what certain lines meant. I was incredibly moved by Kwame Dawes’ essays in Bob Marley Lyrical Genius, and I relied on his book a lot for what I told people. I always wondered what ‘one, one coco fill a basket’ means. Basically, as Kwame said, it’s a call for patience. It’s not a coconut and it’s not cocaine, as some people think. It’s a coco plum, which is a big fruit in Jamaica, and one is enough to fill any entire basket. So, have patience. Fill whatever you can. It’s like what the Bible says. My father used to quote, ‘Sufficient onto each day is the evil thereof.’ You’re never given more than you can handle at a certain time. It was those little nuances in the lyrics I had never really studied deeply before that I was able to discover and share with people. The most common response I got from people was that they will never hear the Survival album the same way again. That made me feel good.
What do you think of the Wailers initial decision to carry on after Bob’s passing, and what do you think of the various bands now, including The Wailers Band, The Original Wailers, and Junior Marvin?
I think it’s terrific that for many years following Bob the Wailers band stayed together. The tour they did in ’84, the Legend tour, with the visuals and the I-Three was a fabulous tour. They could’ve gone on that way every two or three years and do a tour like that, but there are tremendous differences among them. There was a major effort two or three years ago, as you know, to reunite the core band. Al copywrited the name The Original Wailers for them, and then at the last minute according to Al, Tyrone and Family Man dropped out of the arrangement. So, he and Junior toured awhile as The Original Wailers. I told him he left out a word- least. Because I mean, really, Junior was like the last one in and Al came (a little before). The original Wailers were Bunny, Bob, and Peter. Let’s face it. They are trying to carry on Bob’s work and I admire that and approve it. They are all friends of mine. I don’t get involved in any of the internal dissentions. They are all welcome here anytime they want to come. I’m in contact with most of them.
What do you think the possibility is of seeing the half-dozen or so musicians still living that played with Bob reuniting?
Tyrone got so embittered that he didn’t even want to hear the word Marley after a while. Seeco is very old and not very well. But you could still perhaps get Tyrone, Wya, Seeco, Al, Family Man, and Junior out on the road as the Wailers and draw huge audiences, but I don’t think that will ever be.
Bunny Wailer has been in the news recently, criticizing Snoop Lion’s conversion to reggae and offering a lawsuit claim against Adidas for 100 million dollars. What are your thoughts of Bunny?
The biggest disappointment in my reggae history is Bunny Wailer’s degeneration. He hasn’t done anything of significance since Liberation in 1987. If he put one-tenth of the energy into making good music that he has put into trying to reach 13-year-old dancehall kids or suing this person or that person he’d be still revered as a major artist. They call him Funny Failure in Jamaica. That’s his name on the street. It’s heartbreaking because he was one of the greatest exemplars of true roots music ever. Blackheart Man is still in everybody’s Top Ten All-Time records in Jamaica. I don’t know what happened to Bunny. Something went very, very wrong. He has taken so much money in advances from gigs that he never, ever showed up for, and never paid the advances back, which hurts other major artists. Why should I send an advance to Toots Hibbert or Culture or Israel Vibration because ‘these’ guys don’t show up for the gigs. He’s hurt the music by his actions a great deal. For my own part I’m very upset because I spent ten years of my life for free working on his autobiography with him, with my partner Leroy Jodie Pierson. We have 1,800 pages of transcripts. That book will never see the light of day.
Is it possible the music let down Bunny?
How do you mean?
From my experience talking with Bunny, and his intended 50th anniversary tour celebrating the music of the Wailers recorded prior to the Island albums, these are my words, but I think the many years of feeling under-recognized for his incredible contributions have taken a toll.
I think he and Peter had a tremendous jealousy of Bob’s success. Peter more than Bunny, at least initially. The music that they made for Coxsone, and during the Rocksteady period and early reggae period and for Johnny Nash and Danny Sims at JAD Records, is different from the Island period. It has moments of eternal beauty but it also sounds more dated, with the exception of the Lee Perry period, than anything he did for Island Records.
A stereotype of the reggae audience persists in America, that of pot-smoking youth looking to party to the point of caricature, and often dismisses or ignores the spirituality and social awareness inherent in much of the music. How much of a problem is this for reggae music?
If those elements that you describe bring people into the music it’s still positive because some percentage of those people will really start listening. Bob’s answer to your question, when he was asked what does dance to Jah music mean? Is that just for jollification? Bob says, ‘No. You must dance to music that elevates you. That makes you think. That puts you on a higher plane. Dance, but dance to Jah music.’ Listen to what you are dancing to, listen to what the lyrics are saying.
Do you think people today really listen?
Some people do. Not enough. Bob said, ‘Me throw me corn. Me no call no fowl.’ I put the message out there. I’m not responsible for who does and doesn’t listen to it.
What do most Americans not understand about reggae music?
It is the soundtrack of the movement of Jah people. It exists not only for jollification but for ‘headucation,’ as Bob put it. It is a method of raising consciousness. It’s not merely for entertainment. It has a much higher purpose. It salves the wounds. It eases the suffering. It teaches you how to meditate. Bob says reggae is the music that teaches you to be yourself. To which I add, you might as well be yourself because everybody else is taken.
America’s strongest contributions to reggae at the moment come in the form of some younger bands that appeal to a mostly white, college audience; bands like SOJA and Rebelution.
I think you need to add Groundation to that, too. A very important band, especially in Europe. They are hugely popular in Europe.
Europe embraces reggae more. Why is that?
Europe has always been more intellectual about music. Look at all the jazz musicians in the ‘50s that had to go to Europe in order to survive. We learned about blues from the British musicians.
Our own music.
Yeah, our own music. I’m grateful for Japan which has a very deep understanding of the music and makes their own. Today the most vital artists internationally are not from Jamaica anymore. The ones who are really causing a storm- Gentleman in Germany, Alborosie from Italy- I saw some great French reggae bands at the Reggae Sun Ska two years ago that just ignited the crowds. Reggae is the chosen rhythm of resistance in cultures around the world. They keep the basic heartbeat rhythms, but adapt it to their own kinds of music, as I’m sure Bob would have when he moved to Africa in the ‘80s had he lived. He would have added some Afro-beat elements to it. He was fooling around with bossa-nova. I have a bossa-nova Bob in one of the bedroom tapes I found at Bob Marley’s mother’s house. Reggae is capacious music. It has the essential heartbeat that can be used as the basis for all kinds of overlays and it works.
What do you think of SOJA, Rebelution, and Groundation, what they are doing?
I think they are doing a great job. The Aggrolites are very good, too. There are a lot of good American-based bands that don’t get much exposure. Blue Riddim, back in the early ‘80s, they should have been America’s UB40 if anybody had the brains to sign them to a major label and put a big push behind them. They blew the Jamaicans away at Sunsplash ’82, and certainly would have been capable of blowing away a mass audience in America if they had the proper exposure. Bob was asked in Cleveland in ’79 how he would feel if he came back to Cleveland the next year and the audience was filled with white kids with dreadlocks. Bob said, ‘Great, mon. Me feel great.’
What do you make of hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg’s Rasta re-incarnation as Snoop Lion?
Bullshit. He’s co-opting Rasta to his own failing career. I remember talking to someone in Cleveland who saw him a few weeks after he came out as Snoop Lion. He went to see him because of that and he said the show was so violent and vulgar, just despicable, that he had to walk out after a few numbers. He couldn’t stand being in the same room. Snoop Lion is just misspelling lyin’.
Is Bob Marley reggae?
He’s the absolute essence of reggae. He’s the sine qua non. He’s bigger than Elvis to rock-and-roll. He’s a historic figure. He’s a religious figure. He’s a figure of fashion, like it or not. He is a phenomenal composer. He’s a great singer. He’s a handsome man. He’s got everything all in one person. And, he knew it. He was psychic. The evidence of his psychic powers continues to grow over the years. He told two people in 1969 that he was going to die at 36. That explains the frenzy of the final years of his life, especially after he discovered he had cancer in ’77. He’s the prow of the icebreaker of reggae music around the world. The two most ubiquitous symbols of rebellion in the world today are Che Guevara and Bob Marley, and Bob Marley never killed anyone. He’s much more worthy an object of respect and veneration.
Is his music the purest form of reggae?
It’s a more popular form of reggae. He was able to willingly adapt to a popular music standard without sacrificing the essence of his music. Everything from the pure music of “Rasta man Chant” to “Babylon System” is a tap into the heartbeat of pure roots music. I always say that reggae is the beat of the healthy human heart at rest. That is the secret that lets Bob’s music, and other great reggae music, be heard around the world even among people who can’t understand the lyrics. I dare say with the Beatles, too, I think a lot of people internationally learned to speak English so they could understand the lyrics. Bob’s music is anthems. He gave us anthems to sing for whatever emotional condition we were in at the time. As long as people on this planet are suffering, they are going to sing Bob Marley songs. They will live forever.
Where does Chris Blackwell fit into the music Bob recorded for Island?
Bob produced his own music in the ‘70s. Chris had a light hand in it, if anything. As someone who had worked for him told me, Chris Blackwell is responsible for the state of reggae music in the world, and I don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment, he said. This was someone on the inside who really knew. My reticence with Chris is based on the fact that he never put any money behind any of the other artists that he signed except Bob. He told Steel Pulse that they had no audience in America, and they didn’t really break through here until they left Island and went to Elektra. My first music business job I got drafted into Elektra to promote True Democracy, and the Sunsplash ’81 live double album. Chris did a lot of good for the music. It would not be where it was today without Chris Blackwell. And, he has the best ears in the business. But, he didn’t have a lot of follow-through. When I worked for Island as a national promotions director in ’82 and ’83 I had to almost beg him to promote King Sunny Ade, because I thought he would have great success in America. He dropped him from the label in less than a year. (Ade) was getting phenomenal reviews and selling out the Greek Theatre. I had a stack of tear-sheets in my office at Island Records that were all praising this breakthrough in international music. Chris just dropped him.
What was his explanation?
It was too expensive because he had such a big band.
What do you think?
It’s 30 years later and I still don’t understand. You’re looking for logic where logic doesn’t exist.
If not for Blackwell, where might Marley have gone?
In 1975 when Bob was becoming a solo artist and the original Wailers were no more, he flew out to San Francisco to meet with Jerry Garcia. Garcia had his own record label and he wanted to sign Bob Marley to it. He met with Bill Graham and Jerry and ultimately decided not to because of their name, because Rasta no deal with death. He couldn’t get past the Grateful Dead name. Maybe if they had still been the Warlocks he might have been an artist on a more congenial label. Certainly the reggae and the Dead audience had a whole lot of crossover. Ultimately, we’ll never know. That’s an alternate history that I’d like to write someday.
Some reggae fans raise objections to the Island period as diluted, yet to my ears, the Island output isn’t all that dissimilar to what I’ve heard Bob perform live when he was free from label constraints or commercial concerns.
I disagree. I’ve got scores of live shows that I’ve listened to for 40 years. The joy of those tapes is that there are so many unique performances of songs. There is one 22-minute version of “Get Up, Stand Up” with all kinds of alternate lyrics. The show that was released on the deluxe album of Catch a Fire- the Leeds show- that has very different versions of those songs than what you hear on record. I think that he was always in a situation where he had rehearsed his band so thoroughly- he made each member of the band learn everybody else’s instruments- in rehearsal he would shift them. Junior would leave his guitar and go to Carlie’s drums. Things like that. So, they were capable of following Bob wherever he wanted to take them in a live performance.
Was Blackwell the final say in the studio?
It wasn’t coming from Blackwell. It was coming from Bob. I’ve got 28 different versions of “Waiting in Vain.” That’s my favorite song by Bob. Blackwell says he doesn’t think Bob ever really nailed it. There are some exquisitely beautiful versions that at the beginning have Tyrone (Downie) playing piano that just knock me out every time I hear them. He would frame his works in many different ways. There’s a gospel version that’s used in part in the Marley documentary last year, when Bunny and Peter are still playing with Bob, of “No Woman, No Cry” that’s fascinating to listen to. Having heard so many hundreds of alternate versions, I feel that same way about Marley’s released records as I do about the Beatles. When you hear the Beatles anthologies, they always chose the best version of the song to put out. The defining version of the song.
So the songs you hear on the Island albums, the production decisions were ultimately Bob’s?
Legend is one of the best-selling albums ever. Why doesn’t reggae in general succeed more commercially?
Because the American music business doesn’t know how to make money out of it, and they are not necessarily interested in spreading message music. Peter Tosh told me in my last interview with him that it was a paid conspiracy to keep reggae off the radio in America.
He really believed that?
He totally believed it. He saw how his own music was being treated. This was in ’83, when reggae was pretty popular. The saddest thing that happened after Bob passed was the rise of dancehall; music made on computers with no live bands anymore. And the homophobia that leaped into the music. And the misogyny and the praise of gunmen. Today Jamaican music is basically controlled by drug lords and they are not interested in getting a Rastafarian message across. There is still a handful of people making good message music. Fewer and fewer of the classic artists still on the road, but they can’t wipe it out.
Seems hopeless without…
The future of roots music is bleak, then?
Yeah, I think so. I hate to admit it. I’m a realist. I’m a pragmatist. I look at the situation in the world and I see it. The ‘hate’ artists have hurt the roots artists. They all get tainted with the same brush. ‘Oh, he’s Jamaican. He must hate gay people. He must hate women.’ It’s very, very sad to the see the diminishing of the places where roots musicians can actually go out and make a living. It’s the festivals that keep the roots artists alive.
What do you think was the peak moment in reggae’s existence?
That’s an interesting question. One way of looking at it is through the life of Bob Marley who was the ultimate essential figure. And another is through the music as such. Maybe for the music it would be the creation of the Sunsplash shows because that became and international convention for people from all over the world to come and see the best of each year’s artists.
There are two chief concerts in Bob’s life. There is Smile Jamaica (1976) and One Love (1978). One Love is obvious because he united the warring factions, however briefly. To me the most important and most extraordinary moment in 20th century popular music history is the Smile Jamaica concert. There is Bob standing on stage with a bullet in his arm, two nights after the assassins came to kill him and his band. His wife is standing at his side. She’s got a bloody bandage on her head because she’s got a bullet lodged in her skull, and she’s standing there singing back-up to him. He’s on stage surrounded by 200 people putting their bodies on the line in this outdoor concert. If they come to kill Bob, they are going to have to take a lot of other important Jamaican people with them. And he’s defying the gunmen. At the end of it he goes a capella in the middle of “So Jah Seh.” He holds his hand out as if he’s holding that invisible grapefruit that you see in a lot of the pictures. He quiets this pick-up group of maybe 20 different people and in front of 80,000 people he says, ‘If puss and dog get together what’s wrong with you my brothers, why can’t we love one another?’ That haunts me to this day. You can’t compare it to any other moment in pop music history. There just is no comparison. Nothing close.
STAY TUNED FOR THE SECOND PART OF THIS INTERVIEW...