Picks and Pans Review: Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom

updated 03/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Adrian Boot and Chris Salewicz

The beguiling lilt of reggae, so lazy and lush, was an ingenious kind of Trojan horse for slipping a message of racial solidarity and universal love past the gates of Babylon, as Bob Marley called any place where corruption and oppression reigned. But for Marley, growing up on the rough streets of Kingston, Jamaica, in the '50s, reggae was the most available means of expression. His genius was to infuse this gentle, insinuating music with moral fervor and a Utopian vision.

Marley's death from a brain tumor in 1981, at age 36, robbed the world of one of its most charismatic performers and ensured his musical legacy an enduring gloss of martyrdom and mystery. Both of these books, published to coincide with Marley's 50th birthday this month, view the musician with affection, but Spirit Dancer (Norton, $35) more so. At its core are the exceptional black and white pictures Talamon, a talented black American photojournalism took of Marley from 1978-80. The broad planes and plunging lines of Marley's face—not to mention his whirling dreadlocks—form a kinetic landscape the camera loves. The text by journalist Steffens and others is serviceable but sodden with statements like Steffens's assertion that Marley "had a sense of melody that is unmatched in the history of modern music." So much for Gershwin, Ellington, even Lennon-McCartney.

Songs of Freedom (Viking Studio, $29.95) is as overstuffed, rough-hewn and heady as the smoke-spewing spliffs Bob and his Wailers used to pass around in celebration of Jah, the Rastafarian name for Jehovah. Visually it's a definitive volume for collectors, including color reproductions of early Marley record labels, family snaps, posters, performance shots and more.

The text reads like notes for a book rather than a finished piece of writing, but one can browse profitably. Marley was so gifted a soccer player that he dreamed of turning pro, and if you could have transcribed his fluid, darting moves with the ball onto staff paper, they would have described a melody that maybe would have been unmatched in the history of modern music.

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