Thursday, February 06, 2014

Bob Marley Live: Worth A Punch In The Head

Bob Marley, Live in 1980
On the occasion of Bob Marley's 69th birthday, here's the tale of that time I saw him in concert. 

One of the most remarkable - and memorable - concerts I've seen was Bob Marley & The Wailers at Madison Square Garden. It was September 19th, 1980, the first of his last two dates in NYC - although we didn't know that then. He was trying to get more recognition from the black American audience and so was appearing with Kurtis Blow and The Commodores. I went with three of my partners in crime, John, Mike and Mike's older brother, Stephen. The cavernous Garden was packed and Kurtis Blow looked very small from our seats. This may have been his first appearance in an arena but he did fine, although the crowd was somewhat indifferent. We dug hearing The Breaks blasting through the huge place. When he was done, we headed right down to the floor and found a spot to stand just about a yard from the barrier to the press and VIP section. We were as close as we could get to the stage.

The lights went down and ten musicians and singers took the stage and immediately started playing a loose jam. I was ecstatic from the first note. We worshiped many of these musicians, especially bass player Aston "Family Man" Barrett and his brother, drummer Carlton "Carly" Barrett, and to hear them live was a revelation. A bass player myself, it was hard to take my eyes off of Family Man's nimble fingers. As the groove reached its peak, Bob bounded on stage to a deafening roar. The band shifted into Natural Mystic and all of us who were standing in the front began to move in unison to the hypnotic rhythm. To the right were three young girls who mirrored the moves and sang along with the I-Threes, the backing singers who included Rita Marley, Bob's wife. Their crisp, bright singing was a highlight among many highlights. Early in the set, Bob sang Forever Loving Jah, one of my favorite songs from his last album, Uprising - I later learned it was the only time he ever sang it live. There was not a flawed moment in the set, but it was too short, ending after about an hour. Because The Commodores were up next, there was no encore. We were walking on air, however, as we headed for one of the exit tunnels while waiting for Lionel Richie, etc. to take the stage.

We really only wanted to hear The Commodores do one song. They killed with Brick House, which included a long, funky bass solo. When Once, Twice, Three Times A Lady started up, we turned to leave and found ourselves surrounded. It was a bunch of big dudes and they were asking for money. We were getting mugged right in MSG! Somehow I became the focus of their attentions and three of them were staring at me. I think I must have refused to give them anything because next thing I knew I was getting punched in the head. That triggered us to push through all of them and run down to the next tunnel. There we found a security guard and breathlessly told him that I had been attacked and thugs were roaming the halls of MSG. Then things got really weird. The security guard pulled out a pen knife and began menacing us with it, joking about how we were scared. After struggling to process exactly what was happening, we did the only sane thing: we turned and hightailed it out of there. As we fled into the bustling NYC night, The Commodores continued their smooth songs of love.

It was a wild night, but in the end all that mattered was that we had seen one of the most astonishing performers of all time. Bob Marley had stood only yards away from us and sang some of his greatest songs. Even before I realized that I had seen one of his last concerts (he would only perform twice more), I would have gladly taken another punch in the head for an opportunity to see him on stage again.

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Bob Marley

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