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Remembering Bob Marley on His 74th Birthday with His Friend, Filmmaker Don Letts

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Bob Marley would have turned 74 years old on Wednesday, February 6, 2019. To celebrate Marley’s influence, enjoy a chat with Don Letts … 

Don Letts is a Grammy-winning filmmaker, world renowned DJ, and was the yin to Mick Jones’ yang in Jones’ ahead-of-its-time post-Clash outfit Big Audio Dynamite. But back in the wild days of the early era of punk in London, when he was simply trying to make ends meet between gigs spinning white label reggae records to the punk cognoscenti, Letts was also Bob Marley’s weed dealer.

“I’d go by his house on a pretty regular basis,” Letts, who’s will be releasing the latest edition of his excellent Reggae 45 podcast soon, recalled to Rock Cellar. “Let’s just say he needed a constant supply.”

Now, in time for Marley’s 74th birthday, Letts reflects on his friend’s legacy, the state of the world, and what Marley would have made of it.

Rock Cellar: Every time we catch up, to talk about Bob Marley or Joe Strummer or any of your projects, I think we both end up feeling hopeful, but then reality comes crashing down after we get off the phone. Again, now, it seems as though things have gotten worse, rather than better.

Don Letts: I was going to say that it is interesting, how that does seem to happen. But since the last time we spoke, Trump’s been elected, and that seems to have finally gotten people off their asses. They’ve realized, “Hey, I’ve got to get a bit more involved than clicking links on social media,” because you’ve got to be a bit more proactive.

Since Trump’s election, a lot of things polarized. America polarized, the planet, so yeah, where is Bob Marley now when we need him?

And it’s interesting, as well, because the Bob Marley that inspired me, it’s part of him. A very small part of him. Because there’s a lot of people on this planet now and — I think I’ve said this to you before — there’s Bob Marley they recognize — there’s “One Love,” dude — but Bob was a complicated character. He was a double-edged sword.

The other side was the Bob Marley that wrote  “Get Up Stand Up.” And I think for most people on the planet that is the Bob Marley that people identify with. It’s interesting; it’s almost like a brother’s been declawed or de-fanged or something.

The Bob that I knew was inspired by the Black Panthers. That’s another Bob, almost, as they’ve kind of written it out of history. That’s my perspective on it, anyway.

Rock Cellar: I think you’re right, and I think you and I have talked about exactly that before. But the thing about Bob is that he is what you need him to be. In other words, if it’s, you know, white kids at frat parties in Michigan, they are going to hear one thing, and if you’re struggling for freedom in Africa or Iraq or Syria or wherever, there’s this whole other person to admire.

Don Letts: He is multifaceted, because he wasn’t fighting all the time. By his own admission, that duality is what makes him obviously so interesting. That he the “One Love” spiritual dude on one hand and on the other he was a ragamuffin Rude Boy revolutionary, it was that dynamic that made him who he was. Undeniably, it’s become a merchandising thing that it’s become about smoking dope and “One Love,” and the Revolutionary part has taken a backseat.

Rock Cellar: It’s same thing with Joe Strummer, and the same thing with John Lennon. But times do seem to be changing, in the Trump era, and all three of them are being recognized for some of their more revolutionary statements and deeds.

Don Letts: Sure. But generally, in pop culture, it’s like none of those things ever happened.

They’ve become the soundtracks of passive consumerism.

It’s funny, you know, something I’m a product of — music — I grew up with music. It taught you how you could be your own revolution. It sounds corny, but it doesn’t really have the potential to be the cause for social change and personal change. I know that because it fucking changed me. But today, I don’t see that. It might be age, it might be social circumstances, it might be that I’m living in the west, you know, and I don’t want to sound like a pessimist because, I do get to travel around a bit and for a lot of people music isn’t just about selling this shit.

It still has that potential and that power to communicate ideas and inspire all those things that make you and me who we are today.

Rock Cellar: I was just thinking about the first time I ever met you, at a club you were DJing at in the East  Village. This was probably 1981, and I’m thinking about the crowd that was there, and those are all people that we still all know. You know, the Beastie Boys crew, and some of the Clash guys; these were like-minded people and I think like-minded people. We were in our little cocoon, but it grew from that.

Don Letts: I think, obviously, when the world of social media entered the mix, where people feel like they’re partaking by clicking “likes,” it needs to be more. Things are serious now. It needs to be more than that. Obviously, we need people to go proactive again, which is something that people did in the late seventies and through the 80s.

Rock Cellar: That’s what’s interesting to me about Bob, he has a huge huge social media presence.

Don Letts: He does?

Rock Cellar: He does. He is the most-liked deceased musician on Facebook. And if you read the posts, it’s not just them selling you something. They’re always reissuing things, of course, but a lot of them are the kind of message we’re talking about. Revolutionary Bob.

"Me no want to talk like a politician; me just want to talk about righteousness… JAH is earth rightful ruler, and Him don't run no wire fence." #bobmarleyquotes #oneworld📷 by Adrian Boot

Posted by Bob Marley on Monday, January 28, 2019

Don Letts: You know, whatever the latest thing is, I’ve said this thing about the Trump era: there seems to have been in the last half of the 20th century — going all the way back to Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan or Gil Scott-Heron — that type of artist seems to have flat-lined. I’m not generalizing. I’m trying to think: Who is the equivalent in the 21st century? I’m hard-pressed to think of anybody. It’s hard. I mean, “there was a bad boy in the 21st century: Justin Bieber.”

That’s what they call bad in the 21st century. I guess.

Rock Cellar: You know, Don, artists are very reluctant to rock the boat. They’re very corporate-minded. They’re very bottom-line minded.

Don Letts: Yeah, I didn’t want to go there, but that’s what’s really happening.

Rock Cellar: This is a different conversation.

Don Letts:  I think we both have to be careful here of not showing our age, because the thing is there are young people out there that are using all this shit to get their ideas across. I think the thing about the future is having new values. You know, if you don’t want to be on TV, then the world is a really exciting place, and I think that if you are traveling and meeting people, there are people out there like that, of course.

The 21st century feels like, to me, it feels like a prison if you’re not willing to fight against it.

It’s very much about the Emperor’s New Clothes, and right now the emperor’s wardrobe is kind of fluff and, in that proverb, I think it was a young person that put their hand up and said, “Hey, you’re naked!” So right now, the young people are putting their hands up, because they want to partake in the game. It’s about aspirations, I guess. The thing about when we were in the anti-establishment thing, most people were getting into the establishment. And therein lies the problem. That’s the problem, really. It’s not the aspirations of the people who are making the music.

Listen, like I said, I’m not writing off everybody. There are people out there that are smarter than the average player, but fucked if they’re going to get their hand up and go, “Hey, you’re naked!”

Who’s going to hire that person or elect that person? Nobody.

Rock Cellar: That’s because the gatekeepers are more powerful than ever. We thought social media was the great leveler, but it turned out it was also a great tool for manipulation.

Don Letts: Yeah, that was a bit of a curveball. It should all work itself out. But technology always evolves quicker than people. Technology isn’t the problem. It’s people.

You can print this, and I’ll say this over and over: Technology is great, people are shit.

There’s a million ways, it’s so quite easily quantifiable, man. You know, like Facebook, in the West, it’s people sharing what they just had for dinner. But Facebook is a vital fucking lifeline, too, totally galvanized people in less developed parts of the world. There’s nothing wrong with these things, it’s how we use them. So remember what I said: Technology is great, people are shit.

Rock Cellar: I think Joe would have stolen that from you. It’s pretty good.

Don Letts: I stand by that, man. I stand by that.

Rock Cellar: Talk to me a little bit about Bob Marley.

Don Letts: I mean, I heard a single and that changed my life. From Catch A Fire forward, I was hooked.

Putting Bob’s life into context, you know, he had a comparatively privileged life in his early days, you know. So putting to rest some of the cliches that one might think about Bob is important, I think. But he put in the hard work. He put in, he didn’t come out of nowhere. This brother had something like 80 or 90 singles released before he did Catch A Fire!

Rock Cellar: 10 years, basically, of grinding hard work.

Don Letts: Yeah. It made me realize another interesting thing about that. You look at the material that they were writing; they were not living in a bubble. Bob was listening to Curtis Mayfield, The Impressions, he’s doing versions of Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat.”

Songs by The Archies! So what’s interesting to me is that these guys were sponges to what was going on in the world, generally. And his early trip to America would have had a lot to do with that as well.

Rock Cellar: We’ve discussed this, how Exodus was basically a disco record, because of what he was absorbing around him.

Don Letts: He was open-minded. Bob was an open-minded dude. He wasn’t trapped by some one-track minded idea of what he was supposed to do, he was open-minded, man. How else would he have written tunes that cost him his purist base, who said, “you can’t do this, you can’t do that”?

Bob wasn’t going to be what anyone else said he was. He wasn’t going to be kept by the laws of any man. And that’s why we’re still talking about him!

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