Bob Marley writes a simple song about a simple, universal experience. It’s that time when your lover has left you, and you know deep down that they were right to leave you, but your life feels bleak and empty all the same. Resigned heartbreak. We’ve all been there. Marley wrote a lot of songs about things that were specific to his own milieu, politically charged songs, ideological songs. He covered a lot of ground, more than most songwriters ever do. It’s impossible to quite pinpoint the key to his popularity, what it was that catapulted him out of his relatively obscure genre and into the realm of pop icon. There were a lot of factors at play, bottomless charisma being not least of them. And one of those factors was surely Marley’s ability to deliver both love songs and political anthems with the same sensitivity and conviction.
“You got rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown…”
New York City in the 70’s was a dirthole riddled with filth and crime, making it the perfect place to be strung out and at loose ends. It may have been a miserable place to live, but the people who lived there – and the ones who just visited – were busy mythologizing it as a smoggy Babylon of self-expression and debauchery. So of course, The Rolling Stones, connoisseurs of sewer-rat glamour, gravitated there. Mick Jagger happily hit the cocaine circuit of Studio 54 in the company of celebs like Andy Warhol and David Bowie, while Keith Richards relished the city’s turn-a-blind-eye anonymity as he fought his heroin addiction and the unraveling of his family. The Stones create their own Babylon wherever they go, it’s what they do, but they sucked up the highly specific place energy of 70’s New York and added to the canon of quintessential New York albums.
In 1978 Dire Straits were already embattled keeping blues rock alive. Popular music was becoming more and more fractured, and in many cases moving away from the basics. There were fewer and fewer bands who wanted to master good old fashioned unpretentious blues rock, and this was before everybody started wearing Miami Vice suits. Dire Straits went against the grain with their combination of great musicianship and thoughtful lyrics. They didn’t have a gimmick! They just played really well, and people bought it. And all of their records are still great, because they’re trend-proof and timeless. There’s something to be said for not trying to reinvent the wheel.
Lene Lovich is from Detroit. For whatever reason, the former capital of American manufacture has been a locus for homegrown musical genius – and in this case, homegrown American weirdness. Lovich was also raised and educated in England and has Serbian ancestry, which adds whole new dimensions of weird and helps explain her gypsy-witch aesthetic. Lovich’s aesthetic is one that the pop world never really knew what to do with, though she was nominally packaged with the New Romantics. That was before every niche and subculture became a ‘market quadrant’ to sell to. If Lovich came along today she could reasonably expect to be marketed directly to the Pastel Goth demographic. I still like my unrepentant weirdos without demographic boxes or viral hashtag campaigns; people like Lene Lovich find their audience through alchemy. When you see that face and hear that voice you feel the presence of a kindred spirit. Or you feel very confused and irritated, in which case you know this music is not for you.
What does it mean, in Bob Marley’s book, to be satisfied? He’s probably talking about love and ganja and good times. You know, the basic things. You would expect a political undercurrent or some more spiritual element, but I think it’s really that simple. Of course, that’s more than some people get on a daily basis. We’re all looking for simple things to satisfy our simple needs, and it’s pretty sad that it’s so easy to come up short. On basic human validation and basic creature comforts. So we never really get ahead or achieve anything of note because we’re underserved on every level of the needs pyramid. We live and die with our souls roundly unsatisfied. Who knew that a Bob Marley love song could trigger such existential malaise?
The Clash have remained perennially relevant, and I’m sorry to have to say that. Their ongoing relevance means that the things made angry young people pick up guitars and put safety pins in their faces (and worser things) haven’t changed very much since 1978. The names and details have changed, but inequality, violence, corruption, poverty and oppression remain monolithic. The arguments of the European bourgeoisie about cultural sovereignty, ethnic birthright and economic largesse – a political conversation that was nearly identical a century ago – are trending white-hot again and it’s not encouraging. Maybe someday soon there’ll be a consensus of what constitutes a safe European home, and maybe the answer won’t end up being “Europe for the Europeans.” Maybe then there won’t be a market for punk rock music anymore, just like there’s no longer a market for dead baby portraiture.
Bob Marley offers a plain and pithy truth: you can’t run away from yourself. End of story. That’s a truth that a lot of people are in denial about, and no amount of reggae songs or life experience will convince them to stop trying. If you know what’s good for you, though, take some life lessons from Marley. He has a lot of them to offer, about being a strong and righteous person.