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Bob Marley’s last ride

It’s 40 years this week since Jamaica came to a halt for the funeral of its most famous son. What follows is an expanded version of the reports I wrote on that extraordinary day for The Times and the French magazine Rock & Folk.

They buried Bob Marley on 21 May 1981 at Nine Mile, the Jamaican hamlet where, 36 years earlier, he had been born. His heavy bronze coffin was carried to the top of the highest hill in the village and placed in a temporary mausoleum which had been painted in the colours of red, green and gold. Alongside Marley’s embalmed corpse, the casket contained his red Gibson Les Paul guitar, a Bible opened at Psalm 23, and a stalk of ganja placed there by his widow, Rita, at the end of the formal funeral ceremony.

In London 10 days earlier, a few hours after his death was announced, I’d gone to the Island studios in an old church on Basing Street in Notting Hill. I knew the members of Aswad were scheduled to be there, cutting tracks for a new album in the very basement room where Bob had finished off Catch A Fire, his breakthrough album, in 1972. But it was late, and the musicians had gone home after watching the tributes hastily assembled by the British television networks. The only people left in the building were the caretaker and a member of Aswad’s road crew, both Jamaicans.

“A sad day,” I said to them, unable to think of anything more profound or perceptive.

They raised their eyes, and the roadie paused in the middle of rolling a spliff.

“Jah give,” he said, “and Jah take away.”

And that was the mood in Kingston the following week, when Marley’s body arrived on a flight from Miami. There was no reason to grieve, the Rastas told anyone who asked. Death meant nothing. And Bob hadn’t really gone. He was still among us.

——–ooo0ooo——–

Since Jamaica was at that time almost certainly the only country in the world whose prime minister had once tried his hand at the production of pop records, it was perhaps not surprising that the announcement of the country’s national budget was postponed by several days in order to accommodate what amounted to a state funeral. It was necessary to send out invitations, to construct the mausoleum, and to organise the security at the National Arena, where the main ceremony would be held. And the prime minister, Edward Seaga, had to prepare the euology he would deliver during the service.

On the day before the funeral, the coffin was placed in the National Arena, a large gymnasium-like building. The lid was opened and members of the public were allowed to file past, taking a last look and delivering their final homage. Marley’s head was once more covered with dreadlocks; but this was a wig to cover his bald skull, his own locks having been lost during his treatment for cancer in hospitals in New York, Miami and Mexico, and finally in the Bavarian clinic of Dr Josef Issels.

In Jamaica, everyone claimed to have been Bob’s personal friend and everyone wanted to pay their last respects. The cab driver who picked me up at Norman Manley Airport knew immediately why I was there. When I asked him if he’d known Bob, he replied: “Sure I knew him. He smoked the ‘erb of life.” And he passed his spliff over his shoulder to his friend sitting in the back seat, a policeman.

In a single day, an estimated 100,000 people queued up to pass before Marley’s coffin, some of them returning two or three times. Many couldn’t get in and at times, when the crowd threatened to become unruly, the police used tear gas to thin them out.

The day of the funeral began with a service for family and close friends at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity on Maxfield Street, presided over by His Eminence Abouna Yesehaq, Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Western Hemisphere, who had baptised Marley into membership of his church in New York the previous November. This was just after his triumphal concerts at Madison Square Garden, when his cancer had already been diagnosed. Bob’s baptismal name was Berhane Selassie — “Light of the Trinity”.

At the end of the hour-long service the coffin was transported to the National Arena, where 6,000 members of the congregation were assembled under the eyes of television cameras and reporters from around the world. Above the entrance to the hall, a huge banner proclaimed: “Funeral Service of the Honourable Robert Nesta Marley, OM”. The Order of Merit had been conferred on him by Seaga a few weeks before his death.

The casket was carried into the hall on the shoulders of a score of white-jacketed guards of the Jamaican Defence Force. Inside as well as out, a public address system blasted out Bob’s records, while in the surrounding avenues the hawkers of badges and posters worked the large crowd who had arrived without invitations and were prepared to listen to the ceremony over the loudspeakers.

“Babylon system is a vampire,” Bob’s voice wailed above the heads of the young soldiers who had rested their rifles against the temporary barriers. The coffin was deposited on a table in the middle of the broad stage and covered with two flags, the green, gold and black of Jamaica and the green, gold and red of Ethiopia. The stage decor was the work of Neville Garrick, the graphic designer who had become the art director of Tuff Gong, Marley’s record label, and the creator of all the Wailers’ sleeve art from Rastaman Vibration to Uprising. The rows of temporary seating on the arena floor were reserved for invited guests, but the balconies were open to the public and filled up quickly. Among the spectators were many small figures in the neat uniforms of Jamaican schoolchildren, given the day off from their lessons. On the floor, the rows were marked with signs: Family, Government, Press, Twelve Tribes of Israel, Musicians.

Photographers swiftly surrounded the seats reserved for the family as Cedella Booker, Bob’s mother, took her place, followed by his widow and some of his children, including his sons Ziggy, Stevie, Robert Jr and Julian, and his daughters Cedella and Stephanie. Applause saluted the dignified entry of Michael Manley, the former prime minister, whose pro-Cuba policies had provoked the disastrous enmity of the United States and the International Monetary Fund, and who had been deposed by Seaga at a general election six months earlier. The warmth of the welcome indicated that the Rastafarians, in particular, still saw Manley as the friend of the poor and the oppressed, and the contrast was obvious with the polite but tepid reception accorded to Seaga, who hurried to his seat practically engulfed by a crowd of uniformed guards.

Rumours of the presence of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack turned out to be false. But the governor-general of Jamaica, Sir Florizel Glasspole, ON, GCMG, CD, the Queen of England’s representative, arrived from his official residence, the palatial King’s House, to provide an appropriate symbol of the island’s colonial history, a living reminder of the origins of most of those present, whose ancestors had been brought from Africa four centuries earlier to form the world’s only entirely slavery-based economy.

The formal guard of the Ethiopian Church, elderly men and women in white robes striped with the Rasta colours, took their places around the coffin. The stage was soon filled with the elders of the church, in robes of varied and vivid design. On the right of the platform a riser had been prepared for the church choir and for the United Africa Band, a group comprised of several percussionists, a bass guitarist and an organist, directed by Brother Cedric Brooks, the saxophonist more often found at the head of the band of Count Ossie, known as the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. On the left, another riser was covered with amplifiers, keyboards and the drums, all stencilled with the legend “Bob Marley and the Wailers”.

A voice came over the PA. “Brothers and sisters, this is a funeral service for Bob Marley. Please don’t forget that. The selling of all merchandise must stop now.” In the row in front of me, the producer Harry J, accompanied by his protegée, the singer Sheila Hilton, was in the middle of a conversation with a neighbouring Rasta wearing a red, green and gold tam o’shanter. “There has to be revolution to get a solution,” the Rasta said. Harry J, immaculate in his glossy silk suit, didn’t seem to be in agreement. (I had last seen Harry J outside his studio nine years earlier, during the Catch A Fire sessions, when he had taken a silver Smith & Wesson revolver out of the glove compartment of his Oldsmobile and tucked it into his shoulder holster before heading inside. I wondered if he was wearing it to the funeral, but didn’t ask.)

A little while after the scheduled hour of 11 o’clock, the service began with a hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past”, led by Cedric Brooks and accompanied by his drummers. As the old Anglican melody died away, His Eminence Abouna Yesehaq, standing beneath a parasol held by an acolyte, read passages from the Anaphora of St John, Son of Thunder and from the Anaphora of St Mary in Geez and Amharic, the ancient tongues of Ethiopia. “Jah!” came the answering salutation from some members of the audience, clad in the raiment of the Twelve Tribes. “Rastafari!”

The Governor General stepped forward to read the first lesson, taken from the First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verses 20-38: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” The congregation sang another hymn, coincidentally a favourite of the late Elvis Presley: “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee / How great Thou art, how great Thou art.” Michael Manley, in his guise as Leader of the Opposition, read from St Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians, chapter three, verses 7-13: “Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith / For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord.”

Next, to the delight of the Rastafarians on the floor and in the balcony, it was the turn of Allan “Skill” Cole, Jamaica’s finest footballer and one of the dead man’s closest friends. His appearance barely tolerated by the elders of the Ethiopian Church, Cole had been scheduled to read from Psalm 68, which bears the subtitle “To the chief Musician, a Psalm or Song of David.” Instead, ignoring the text prepared for him by the elders, he announced that he intended to deliver passages from Corinthians and Isaiah particularly dear to Rasta hearts. Mutterings and shufflings among the church dignitaries on the platform were countered by the sounds of delighted approval from those clad, like Cole, in the robes of the Twelve Tribes. Their mood turned to riotous glee as the footballer refused to heed furious requests to leave the platform, instead continuing with his reading and finishing off by returning to his seat in triumph.

The Archbishop recovered himself in time to read the Beatitudes — “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” — and to lead the Lord’s Prayer before Edward Seaga, once a producer of ska records, made his appearance at the lectern to deliver his eulogy, which was memorable only for his closing benediction: “May his soul rest,” said the man in the business suit, “in the arms of Jah Rastafari.” Even the Twelve Tribes, otherwise opposed to Seaga’s worldview in every particular, could scarce forbear to cheer this unusually explicit acknowledgement of their existence within Jamaican society.

When the time came for the Archbishop to deliver his address, he took the opportunity to take his revenge on the seditious “Skill” Cole in the form of a direct message to the Rastas in the hall. Why advocate repatriation to Africa, he said, when it would profit them more to seek a better life in Jamaica? “Jah!” they shouted in defiant response to his words. “Rastafari!”

The most extraordinary moment of the ceremony, the most beautiful and the most African, came when the Wailers mounted the stage. The members of the Marley’s old band took over as Junior Murvin directed the guitarist Al Anderson, the bass and drums duo of Aston “Family Man” Barrett and his brother Carlie, and Alvin “Seeco” Patterson, the veteran percussionist. Ibo, Third World’s keyboards player, took the place of Tyrone Downie, who had arrived that morning wearing the robes of the Twelve Tribes but had been mysteriously denied entrance to the Arena. The I-Threes (Rita Marley, Judy Mowatt and Marcia Griffith) sang “Rastaman Chant” to a ponderous and mournful rhythm, before the Wailers struck up “Natural Mystic”.

It was during this song, while the crowd was getting to its feet and moving towards the edge of the stage to join what had suddenly been transformed from a solemn obsequy to a celebration of the dead man’s spirit, that Ziggy and Stevie Marley could be seen, dancing among the musicians. Respectively aged eight and six, identically dressed in maroon suits and white shoes, they performed joyous imitations of their late father’s skanking stage dance, and the resemblance was such that the crowd gasped at the sight. When the mixing engineer superimposed a recording of Bob’s voice above the band’s heavyweight dub rhythm, accompanied by waves of cheering from a concert audience, the effect was hallucinatory.

It was Cedella Booker, Bob’s mother, who closed the performance. Accompanied by two other women singers, she delivered “Amen” — a song first recorded by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, whose music had inspired the Wailers’ earliest efforts — in a powerful gospel voice, the crowd swaying to the rhythm. When she finished, the musicians put down their instruments, lifted the coffin on to their shoulders and carried it from the stage, followed by the family and other mourners through the hall and out into the roadway where, after the crowd had been moved aside, it was placed in a flatbed hearse, ready to begin the 50-mile journey back to where Bob Marley’s life had begun.

——–ooo0ooo——–

As the cortège left Kingston, it passed in front of the house at 56 Hope Road, which Chris Blackwell had given to Marley to be the Wailers’ hometown headquarters. Inside the house, a wall still bore the holes from the bullets that had narrowly failed to kill Bob during what appeared to be a politically motivated attack by a gunman in 1976, while Jamaica was under martial law.

Then the hearse passed the Alpha Catholic Boys’ School on South Camp Road, where many of Jamaica’s finest musicians — Don Drummond, Joe Harriott, Tommy McCook, Vin Gordon, Rico Rodriguez — had learned to play, under the direction of Ruben Delgado, an inspiring teacher. The current generation of pupils now stood outside to sing “No Woman, No Cry” as the procession headed towards Marcus Garvey Drive and out of the city on the road to Spanish Town.

Crossing the parish of St Catherine to the town of Bog Walk, where the road splits right towards Port Maria and left to Ocho Rios, the cars turned north-west through Linstead and Moneague, with the 1,000ft peak of Mount Friendship to the east, taking the left fork past Claremont into the parish of St Ann, skirting the northern foothills of the Dry Harbour Mountains and on through Brown’s Town. As they approached each settlement, the passengers could see that people had come out of their houses and schools and farms and workshops to stand by the roadside. Near Cotton Piece the open-backed hearse broke down and the coffin had to be put into a replacement van. Finally, in mid-afternoon, the dead man and his mourners arrived at Nine Mile, a hamlet set at the end of a single-track road among gentle, verdant red-clay hills.

A helicopter buzzed overhead, carrying a film crew, their cameras trained on slopes covered with white-robed figures. Rastas from all over the island had set off early to be in place when the procession arrived. Policeman cradling machine-guns were prepared for trouble yet, despite the crush as the coffin was removed from the hearse and carried up to the small temporary mausoleum, disorder was minimal.

Nine Mile turned out to be little more than a scattering of shanties, with one or two bars and a small single-storey stone building consecrated, according to a hand-written sign, to the use of the Holy Baptist Church of the Fire of God of the Americas. This was a place where workers in the sugar plantations set in the flatlands towards the sea had been allowed to build their modest homes and cultivate their own subsistence crops. It was here, on 6 February 1945, that Cedella Booker had brought a son into the world and that, only a few paces away from the mausoleum, in a two-room shack measuring about 20ft by 5ft, Bob and Rita Marley had returned for a year or two at the end of the ’60s, and here that they nurtured their own first child.

After a brief ceremony of interment, the convoy departed, followed by the police. Only the Rastas remained, wandering to and fro around the village and across the hills. For the last time, Junior Murvin and Neville Garrick climbed the little mound up to the mausoleum, picking their way through empty Red Stripe cans, the music they had helped to send around the world now throbbing from a dozen portable cassette players.

As the light began to fail, the vendors of ice creams and soft drinks began to pack up. The thump of the helicopter’s rotors receded as it wheeled away and headed south, back to Kingston. The white-robed members of the Twelve Tribes melted into the gathering dusk. Bob had come home.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tina Partridge #

    Ahh Richard. Lump in throat time… xxxx

    May 20, 2021
  2. Fabulous detail Richard.

    May 20, 2021
  3. Amy Louise Smith #

    Dear Richard,

    Thank you for this. It’s a beautiful piece of journalism and one that will be treasured by future generations as an elegant account of a sacred event. I can’t believe you were there. It must have been an impressionable moment in your life. You were there, right? I was born in 78 and, though Australian, was born in California and lived in the US till 81. I like to think I was in Bob’s orbit at some point during that time: an impressionable baby, receptive to his good vibrations. I’ve been listening to Bob every day for two weeks (I’m listening to him now — ‘Johnny Was’, live at Beacon Theatre, 76). He just feels about.

    I first subscribed to your blog after seeing you in a doco. Now not sure whether it was a Bob doco or a motor sports one! I always enjoy reading your posts and have discovered many new artists I’d not previously heard of through them. Thank you for that. Music is such a tonic.

    Bob’s got me covered right now: like being back in the belly.

    Wishing you well, wordsmith.

    Amy Smith

    P.S. I first started typing this as a comment on the blog, but lost it, so thought I’d just reply via email.

    ________________________________

    May 20, 2021
  4. Diana #

    What a terrific piece of writing. Makes the reader feel like she was there.

    May 20, 2021
  5. Peter Brown #

    Remarkably good reporting.

    May 20, 2021
  6. Vicky Germaise #

    Sweeping and cinematic. Thank you, Richard. Your beautiful description made me feel like I was there. Now, I think I’ll listen to Bob’s music all day. Maybe all summer.

    May 20, 2021
  7. Todd Selbert #

    terrific reporting (but surprised augustus pablo not included in mention of alpha boys school).

    May 20, 2021
  8. stewart gunn #

    another fine piece of writing, thanks

    May 20, 2021
  9. Adam Glasser #

    Staggeringly evocative description thanks Richard, deeply moving. I feel as if I had been there or watched a documentary…

    May 21, 2021
  10. Such an immersive and moving piece. Thank you. Forwarded by a friend in the UK and sitting here in Jamaica this morning reading it on the event’s 40th anniversary.

    One detail: Governer General Glasspole would have lived at the sprawling and palatial King’s House (the crown property here -still – set aside for that posting) and not Devon House.

    May 21, 2021
    • Thanks, Rebecca. Glad you liked it. I’ll make the correction. Funnily enough, I remember going to Devon House in the 1980s for some official function or other. Do you happen to know what it was used for then?

      May 21, 2021
      • Rebecca #

        It was built as a private residence but now open to the public and used often (then and still) for “upscale” and often government/ministry-related events – largely because the gardens surrounding the house are very pleasant and can accommodate a good crowd. Now there are a couple of eateries on the grounds and many small shops and, of course, the Devon House ice cream store of much Jamaican renown. Kings House, to the contrary serves to always remind us of Jamaica’s colonial past and is open strictly by invitation.

        May 21, 2021
  11. Rebecca #

    Kings House and the vast and unused surrounding land – as the name infers – remains property of the Crown.

    May 21, 2021
  12. Cynthia #

    Very descriptive and well written!
    Than you for remembering Bro. Bob!

    August 3, 2021

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