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The Diamond
Bob Marley and the Wailers - Legend

the Diamond is an apt name for albums certified for 10 million + sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. The hardest substance on earth: insoluble, impervious to penetration, secure in itself. "The formation of natural diamond requires very specific conditions," Wikipedia says. The aim of this feature is to define what made Cracked Rear View, Come On Over, Boston and The Lion King soundtrack not just sales benchmarks of their respective artists' careers, but inexplicable loci at which shrewd marketing and the inscrutability of mass market taste met to produce high-quality entertainment no one breathing could escape. This column will also study why artistic peaks like Rumours, Born in the U.S.A., Thriller, Can't Slow Down, and Hysteria deserved their sales. Each entry in this series will pose the question: why should we separate art from commerce?

Everyone knows the stereotype of the college-age, white, male Bob Marley fan—or thinks they do. The Onion ran a story titled "Bob Marley Rises From Grave to Free Frat Boys From Bonds of Oppression" in October 2005, featuring a quote from a student: "The only thing that would be better is if Jim Morrison himself rose from the grave to jam with Bob." Five months later, Slate posted a piece called "Free Bob Marley! He's been hijacked by stoned suburban teenagers," which was, paradoxically, sillier than the Onion piece. The author, Field Maloney, attacked Marley's fans and his later music, in particular the compilation Legend, by calling it "a defanged and overproduced selection of Marley's music," as if the production had occurred while putting the collection together instead of beforehand.

Still, Maloney might have had a point about the fans. Or did he? The truth is, I've never really been in a position to know. I never attended college. I knew plenty of people who did, and I heard (and made) lots of jokes about trustafarians and dorm-dwellers with Marley posters. Then, last spring, I saw the musician and critic Greg Tate speak at a panel about hip-hop and politics. He talked about a parlor game with some friends in which they'd tried to determine who the most famous black man in the world was. The answer they'd decided upon Bob Marley. I thought, That makes perfect sense, in large part because he's dead, and his image can therefore mean anything the people gazing upon it want it to. And who gazes upon Bob Marley's visage like a stoned college student?

So for the Experience Music Project's 2007 Pop Conference, I decided to ask some college students with Bob Marley posters precisely what they were staring at. This wasn't as easy as I'd imagined. It turns out that lots of people think they know student Bob Marley poster-owners, but either actually don't or only know them through other friends. Of the 24 students who owned Marley posters that returned my questionnaire, most of them were solicited by entering the words "Bob Marley college" into the MySpace search engine, sending mail, and hoping for responses. In other words, I had to spam the paper into existence.

I also spoke with a couple in Brooklyn who sell posters for a living: Marisa Bergquist and Ricky Walsh, both in their mid-20s, travel a couple times a year, for six to 11 weeks at a time, by car to college campuses for Beyond the Wall, a poster website. Bergquist estimates that of the nearly 800 images she sells, eight are of Bob Marley. Along with the Beatles and the movie Scarface, the couple says Marley images are the most consistently successful they sell.

There's some precedence for this. Chris Blackwell, the head of Marley's record label, Island, had been successful at selling Marley to a white, collegiate rock crowd starting with 1972's Catch a Fire. Live!!, recorded in 1975 in London and released the following year, revved Marley's crossover into the big time, thanks to its hit version of "No Woman No Cry." It also contained a free Marley poster, like the albums of Marley's mid-'70s peers Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. And like Zep and Floyd, the Marley poster would become a multigenerational hand-me-down, even after Live!! was overtaken as the Marley soundtrack du jour by Legend, which was released in 1984 and has never stopped selling.

Marley has been compiled as much as any artist you can name. Much of this is circumstantial. The Wailers made an enormous amount of music before his Island deal, and copyright being almost nonexistent in Jamaica, plenty of companies have repackaged his late '60s work, particularly Trojan, which is notorious for wrapping old things in an endless array of new boxes. But Island (and its various post-merger corporate overseers) hasn't exactly been shy about rejiggering his work from 1972 on. Legend engendered its own sequel, the mid-'90s Natural Mystic: The Legend Lives On. The early-'90s box set, Songs of Freedom, was such a cult item that it began trading in triple digits on eBay once out of print; it has since been restored to catalogue, a rarity among deluxe boxes. And 2005's Gold essentially swallows Legend and Natural Mystic in one two-CD set.

Among the 24 students I polled, only 16 chose a favorite Marley album when asked to do so. (Two asked, "Can I pick more than one?" and then chose a pair of songs, without naming an album.) Six chose studio albums: Kaya, Catch a Fire (two mentions), Exodus (two mentions), and Rastaman Vibration. The other 10 chose compilations. One voter named One Love at Studio One, a collection of early-'60s work; two each named Legend, Gold, and Songs of Freedom. The winner, with three votes, was Natural Mystic, surprisingly enough—or maybe not. After all, even college students with Bob Marley posters know enough to be wary of cliché.

Still, no one really doubts Legend's primacy in the posthumous Marley canon. Its one-stop-shop convenience—all the Island hits, just as you remember them—and generous playing time (around 53 minutes) made it a bargain in the vinyl era. And its sonic easiness (Scott Woods and Phil Dellio in I Wanna Be Sedated: Pop Music in the Seventies noted that Marley sounded like he was listening to the Doobies as much as smoking them) make for a smart entry point into what especially in the CD era can be a dauntingly large catalogue (thanks to all those Trojan-etc. repackages). And it contains plenty of songs the students chose. The winners here were "Redemption Song," with five mentions; "Buffalo Soldier," four; "Satisfy My Soul," "Concrete Jungle," and "One Love," two each. Only one person mentioned "No Woman No Cry," once the symbol of cheesy Marley ubiquity. You could call that progress, even if nothing else is.

This essay, in a slightly different version, was presented at the 2007 EMP Pop Conference in Seattle.

By: Michaelangelo Matos
Published on: 2007-05-22
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