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Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of music legend Bob Marley. The Jamaican reggae star died young in 1981, at just 36 from cancer, leaving behind a legacy that reaches across all musical genres, ages and around the world.
Earlier today I spoke to David Burnett, a photojournalist who was sent to Jamaica in 1976 by Time magazine to profile Marley, helping to introduce him to an American audience. A year later, Rolling Stone sent Burnett to cover Marley's "Exodus" tour, covering everything from concerts to quiet down time.
A transcript is after the jump.
JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I'm Jeffrey Brown. Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of music legend Bob Marley. The Jamaican reggae star died young in 1981. He was just 36. He died from cancer, and he left behind a legacy that reaches across musical genres, ages and around the world. Joining me today on the phone is David Burnett. He's a photojournalist who was sent to Jamaica in 1976 by Time magazine to profile Marley and helped to introduce him to an American audience. A year later, Rolling Stones sent Burnett to cover Marley's "Exodus" tour, covering everything from concerts to quiet down time. His portfolio, "Soul Rebel: An Intimate Portrait of Bob Marley," is collected into a book and published in 2009. Welcome to you.
DAVID BURNETT: Thanks. It's a pleasure to be here.
JEFFREY BROWN: I understand that when you first got this assignment to go down there you didn't know who Bob Marley was?
DAVID BURNETT: I have a 25-year-old daughter, and of course she's always giving me that, Oh dad, how can you not know something? But in fact in 1976 the whole world of reggae was pretty unknown to a North American audience. You had to have either spent time in London or in Jamaica to understand what reggae was about. And it's true, I spent the first few days -- we were in Ocho Rios with some people from the music business and a couple of other bands, and the interesting thing was all along the way everybody that we ran into would say, Well, when are you going to see Bob? As if that was the one thing that you had to do on a trip like this.
JEFFREY BROWN: What was your first impression when you did see Bob?
DAVID BURNETT: We met him at Tuff Gong, which was his home and what's become the Marley Museum in Kingston. And when you compare the '70s with now, we had, I think, one person from Island Records kind of came along with the writer and I, and he was there really just to make sure that we got delivered to the right house. There was no team of publicists and anything that happens these days in the world of show business or music. You've got all these hangers-on that are trying to prevent anything real from happening.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, yes, I'm familiar with that.
DAVID BURNETT: Bob just kind of invited us to come in, and I was with the writer Dave DeVoss, and we spent a couple of hours just hanging out and talking. And David did his interview, and again, I was pretty lucky because this was one of those things where the interview time can be really rich mining for a photographer, because it gives the subject time to be thinking about other things other than, Gee, when is this photographer going to be finished shooting my picture? And so when you get really into the discussion about politics and music and all the things that Marley and his music came to stand for, it gave me the time to kind of hop around the room and make some pretty good pictures. And he could not have been any easier to work with or more welcoming. It was just -- he was just very cool. A year later, as you mentioned, when I caught up with him on the "Exodus" tour, I had a copy of one of the French magazines with me that had also run some of the photos. And I showed him some of the stuff and he remembered it, and at that moment he kind put it all together and like, I was cool.
JEFFREY BROWN: This, as you say, came from a very distinctive scene and situation in Jamaica. As you said, you met other musicians along the way, but tell us about the time and place, where he was living and kind of creating this music?
DAVID BURNETT: His compound was, as I recall, it was some kind of post-colonial housing, some nice, big, airy rooms with windows and a lot of breezes and fans and very simple, though. Unadorned. It was not so much a showplace or a showcase as it was just a very comfy place to be. I think that to me really kind of reflected what he was about. He was somebody who had very strong opinions, but he was pretty cool about them. I never saw him get angry or anything. It was just a very cool discussion, and we went through politics and talking about the injustice of what was going on then in Jamaican politics and how music related to that. A couple of years ago I actually got back in touch with Dave DeVoss, the writer, and I said, You don't by any chance happen to have that audio cassette from our interview with Bob Marley, do you? And he just kind of laughed and he said, You know, I probably did another 20 or 30 interviews. And those days that's what everybody did. You had your one cassette. Nobody archived their cassettes. And I just feel bad, because I know that to be able to just sort of sit down and play that couple of hours back would be wonderful, and it would be a whole other side of Bob that people I'm sure would have enjoyed hearing.
JEFFREY BROWN: What comes through in the music, looking at politics, looking at life, looking at injustices, as you say, that was real?
DAVID BURNETT: Absolutely. Yeah, and his growing up years were not easy. I think he had really been there. He was one of these guys who in his own experience, he wasn't writing about something that he didn't know about. And I think the way he wrote and presented his music was very indicative of how he felt. You know, I'll be just walking down a sidewalk just about anywhere and for me it's the No. 1 song on the iTunes in my brain is "No Woman No Cry." If there's any void that just starts to play. For me that's the one song of his that is the most touching and real...if you listen to the narrative you just kind of feel like you're there on a cold morning with the steam rising up. I remember like everybody else when we got the news that he passed away. And he and I are about the same age. He was about a year older than I was, and I just felt like this is way, way too early, way too young.
JEFFREY BROWN: Spending that time and being the fly on the wall, especially when you see him in concert, did you develop a theory on why he stood out, or why even now so many years later --
DAVID BURNETT: I would leave that maybe to the anthropologists, but there's no doubt that there is attraction to his music and the poetry of his music that is just indescribable. One of the really wonderful things was two years ago when "Soul Rebel" first came out, we had an exhibition of photographs in Washington, D.C., at the Govinda Gallery. I spent maybe four Saturdays there, just kind of being there while I watched the people come in to see the photographs. And it was this amazing mixture of people, kind of my age in their 50s and maybe early 60s, and they would be there with their teenage kids because they really wanted their kids to know who Bob Marley was. And some of these folks had actually been to a Marley concert or two when they were younger. And then at the same time coming in, you would have 14-year-old kids dragging their parents in because they wanted their parents to know who Bob Marley was. And so it just was astonishing and wonderful at the same, just to see the breadth of the attraction to the music and to the message, and it just cut across every set of lines -- age, sex, economic background. People love the music and they really relate to him.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, photojournalist David Burnett on his experience with Bob Marley, who died 30 years ago today. Thanks so much for talking to us.
DAVID BURNETT: Surely. Thank you very much.
JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us once again on Art Beat. I'm Jeffrey Brown.
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