Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #16

The Wailers – Burnin’

After my previous encounter with a reggae album, I promised myself I would be better informed about the genre the next time such a record came along. That didn’t happen. So, after multiple plays of “Burnin’”, I finally did it. I listened to albums from Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals, and The Upsetters. And now, having been exposed to a broader selection of what the genre has to offer, I’m still not sure how I feel about reggae. I can, however, say one thing with a fair degree of certainty: I don’t much care for Bob Marley’s form of reggae. (A hush falls over the room.)

Not liking Marley can be a problem if you’re new to the genre, because he towers over it: the top five albums on Acclaimed Music are his. No one else dominates a genre the same way (though Springsteen comes close, with five of the top seven heartland rock records, which isn’t entirely a fair comparison, since it seems to have been invented just to give rock critics a box to contain Bruce). Unless you actively seek it out – at least so far as Canadian mainstream radio goes – you will hear Marley, and then more Marley, and, hey, let’s play some Marley.

There is no shame in that confession. Discernment is a big part of our experience of culture. I keep listening to Marley’s music and I just don’t care. This isn’t the distaste I feel for Jethro Tull, or the deep anxiety caused by most metal, or the loathing of everything related to Ted Nugent. I just don’t see anything to get my blood up about. It is pleasant enough to listen to, but doesn’t engage me – it’s just one song after another that sounds like the last one and the one that comes next. I wish it wasn’t this way – I may be missing out on something marvellous. But, like classical music and a lot of jazz, I am probably without that tiny strand of DNA that gets Marley. Marley sounds the way he sounds, and that’s just how it is. Just because a ton of other people love an artist does not obligate you to do the same. There are lots of celebrated rock/pop artists towards whom I am lukewarm: Dylan, The Who, Joni Mitchell, The Band, The White Stripes, Foo Fighters. I make different choices: give me more Elvis Costello, Fountains of Wayne, Mitski.

What I have learned is that there is a lot of fun music under the reggae banner. It isn’t all the plodding, uninteresting-to-my-ears work of the King. The Upsetters play dub, a reggae subgenre, and it’s playful and goofy and just a delight. Tosh’s record (“Equal Rights”) was very political, but it doesn’t get in the way of some lovely and really interesting beats, and Toots & the Maytals had me bouncing around my house.

As for “Burnin'”, “Get Up, Stand Up” is a justifiable classic, but I much prefer the version from Tosh, who co-wrote the song with Marley. I also prefer Eric Clapton’s (even though he is a racist POS) version of “I Shot the Sheriff”. And the rest is what it is. Like all reggae, it makes me feel like I’m by the pool with a rum cocktail in my hand as I drift off, feeling more relaxed than I have any right to be.

I know there will be more Marley in my future, and I will listen to it multiple times and write about it in this space, God willing. Maybe something will click. Maybe it won’t. But I’ll give it its fair due. Because that’s all any artist has the right to ask of us, and the one thing we should be willing to give them back.