Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
There’s a new Bob Marley documentary premiering this week. It’s called Marley, and on Friday, April 20th, you can watch it pretty much everywhere. It’ll be in theaters, video-on-demand, and even streaming on your Facebook page. The only way to avoid it is by actively asking NOT to see it. Bob Marley is the Farmville of 2012.
I wish I could say I was excited about Marley. I love documentaries, and I love Bob Marley. But I’ve watched too many documentaries about the artists I love, and I always find my attention wandering. Their lives and creative struggles might be fascinating, but it rarely has anything to do with my experiences or feelings about their music. Sometimes it even gets in the way. It’s disconcerting to know that Joe Strummer didn’t have me in mind when he wrote “Train in Vain,” or that Bruce Springsteen intended “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to be about the disillusioned working class in New Jersey and not being in high school during the 1980s in the south suburbs of Chicago.
I’m working on my own Bob Marley documentary, which is less about Bob Marley than my personal history with his music. Which is probably why it won’t ever be made. But if it somehow attracts investors eager to throw their money away, and a director who shares my vision of “only the Bob Marley stories that involve Eric Spitznagel,” and a studio willing to distribute the movie to me and a small circle of friends and family who know me intimately, then I suppose it couldn’t hurt to have a rough outline and some script notes ready for that big pitch meeting. That sounds reasonable, right? Cause you never know.
So here’s what I’ve come up with:
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The first act is going to be all about my introduction to Bob Marley, which didn’t happen until relatively late in life, when I was already in my late teens and thought Billy Joel was the epitome of rock rebellion. Ironically, the first time I heard Marley’s name was from a friend’s racist mom. Growing up in a suburb was like getting a tutorial in remedial racism. Many of our neighbors only moved to the ‘burbs because it was “safer” (i.e. there weren’t as many black people), but with safety came mediocrity, and that pissed them off. They had a chip on their collective shoulders because the black people had access to all the culture and the best drugs, and they were stuck with strip malls and whippets.
When I got my driver’s license, I decided that my first big trip would be up to Chicago. But my best friend’s mother announced that doing so would be tantamount to suicide. The city was teeming with dark-skinned criminals, she said, just waiting for their chance to lure some innocent white kid into an alley. She told me elaborate stories about black gangs — always the Bloods or the Crips, though I think she was just repeating names she’s heard on 60 Minutes — who would initiate new members by forcing them to fillet their victims. Not just murder them, mind you. Fillet them. Like a fish. I could imagine the horror of being shot or stabbed, but skinned alive? My brain couldn’t process it.
“It’s true,” my friend’s mom lectured us. “It’s all that African voodoo they’re teaching at inner-city schools. They pump them full of Bob Marley reggie music and it makes them crazy. They hear that ‘Electric Avenue’ song and they just want to kill white people.”
“But then the Black Crowes, a group of white guys trying to play like black musicians, covered ‘Time Will Tell’ and ruined it for me. Their version is great, and I actually preferred it to Marley’s. And that just made me feel like an asshole.”
Even with my limited musical knowledge, I knew she didn’t mean Eddy Grant. The “Electronic Avenue” video might’ve inspired a seizure, but definitely not racial violence. But I couldn’t vouch for Bob Marley, whose videos weren’t on heavy rotation on MTV and was therefore a mystery to me. If this Marley guy was making songs powerful enough to turn otherwise rational black people into murderous zombies, it must be fucking awesome. I needed to hear reggie music immediately!
And then we cut away to a record store guy, barely able to suppress his snorts of derision. “Reggie music? You mean Reggae, moron.”
I don’t know how this scene should be shot, but it needs to somehow capture my deflated pride and shame and deep, kneecap-shattering humiliation. My first trip to a real city, and I was reminded instantly that I was just a naïve small town fool who knew nothing about the world.
Sometimes record store guys can be bigger assholes than racist suburban moms.
* * *
My college romance with Marley has more than enough melodrama to carry its own documentary. There’s freshmen year when I owned Legend, which is unoriginal but compulsory for the majority of caucasian college students, like having a John Belushi poster on your dorm wall or suddenly being really into hacky sack. And then, somewhere around my sophomore year, there’s the crushing realization that owning Legend makes you a cliché, and you’re just one of those frat douchebags who only knows “Stir It Up.” So I bought all of Marley’s albums — Exodus, Catch a Fire, Kaya, Natty Dread — and then, like a frat douchebag pretending to be a hipster, I just skipped ahead to the songs I already knew from Legend.
But there’s a plot twist! Because I was usually stoned while listening to Marley, I didn’t always have the motivation or physical strength to hit the skip button, and out of sheer laziness I became exposed to his entire oeuvre. I ended up developing a fondness for the deep cuts, and soon favored them to the more recognizable songs that my stoner friends enjoyed. They would call out for “Buffalo Soldier” or “Is This Love” and I’d ignore them and go straight to “Who the Cap Fit” or “Smile Jamaica.”
I had become a frat douchebag pretending to be a hipster with illusions of Rastafarian street cred. My favorite Marley song was “Time Will Tell.” I especially identified with the lyrics “Jah would never give the power to a baldhead/ Run come crucify the Dread.” I’d nod along like I knew exactly what Bob meant. Yeah, those fucking baldheads, always fucking our shit up. Fuck them! Jah knows what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.
But then the Black Crowes, a group of white guys trying to play like black musicians, covered “Time Will Tell” and ruined it for me. Their version is great, and I actually preferred it to Marley’s. And that just made me feel like an asshole. I was a frat douchebag pretending to be a hipster with illusions of Rastafarian street cred who realized he was just another frat douchebag. I’d come full circle.
I left college the way I entered it, with a copy of Legend and a deep-rooted terror that everybody knew I was a fraud.