© 2010 dwoz
Bob Marley is not a big man. It is difficult to imagine how someone who is so much larger than life, who is almost a giant, can fit into such a diminutive frame.
Moments like this don’t usually happen to normal people.
Somehow, I find myself standing on the stage of the Hynes in Boston, a large barn of a convention hall on Beacon Street, where later on tonight Bob Marley will be playing, and I will be the Freelance Assistant Stage Manager.
I am someone who has neither use for nor interest in celebrity and I especially feel that celebrity deserves nothing from me. But where there’s a rule there are exceptions. There are precious few artists who can name an album “Legend” and escape scathing critique: Bob Marley is one of those.
The hall is empty, but it will soon be bustling with Teamsters and road crew, assembling and flying the stuff and machinery of a first-line concert stage, state of the art on this mid-September day in 1980. I have no idea how I managed to get here, certainly not due to my impeccable skills. In truth, a Freelance Assistant Stage Manager is hardly more than a runner…a tea boy. But I am presented to hall management, promoters, and tour personnel as a “go to” person for information and decisions. I have somehow stumbled into a Burmese tiger trap of enhanced cache, if only until I manage to ruin or break something. My boss believes in delegation, (and in watching the playoffs in the front office.) This really should be little more than babysitting the convergence of three highly experienced and competent crews.
The date is significant. It has been announced in the press that Marley has cancer, and that he is circling the drain. He made a decision to honor already-booked dates, and so it was known that if not his very last concert ever, this would certainly be the last time he would ever grace a stage in the northeast. In no uncertain terms, this was understood to be a farewell tour.
True to form, there is actually very little in the way of “being needed” that I have to do. For hours my only job is walking around with a clipboard. The clipboard is superfluous…it’s merely a prop. It saves me from having to pull out my all-areas access pass when I go back and forth to the loo, past the rent-a-cops who are tasked with stopping the growing field of non-authorized wanderers. It feels good to be authorized, even though there’s very little actual authority involved.
The stage takes shape, the instruments are being unpacked, and actual musicians are starting to wander in and see to their kit. Being a musician, I wander among them, perhaps unilaterally feeling camaraderie. Different worlds…these dreadlocked island men, and me, a skinny white kid from New Hampshire, probably one of the whitest states in the union. But of any cohort you can name, musicians have probably gone as far as any in conquering the racial issues that still underlie our society these days. Stages are equalizing places and the standards assessed for your right to stand on one are much more stringent than mere skin color. I am standing next to Robbie Shakespeare, who’s bass probably more than any other was responsible for defining an entire musical genre
I sense a smile pointing in my general direction. It is coming from one of the I-threes. Actually, not one of the I-threes, but from one of the I-threes-in-waiting, a young, jet-black girl of heart-stopping beauty and carriage who will be singing along with the I-threes on stage tonight. I suppose then that she was an I-four. Traditionally, I am painfully unaware when females telegraph their interest in me. My younger sister will tell me many years from now that I had a legion of high school girls who clamored for friendship with her, in order to get closer to me, which I was completely oblivious to at the time. This affliction will stay with me most of my life.
The beautiful backup singer is obliged to actually walk over to me and make first contact. She is my age, freshly minted into her very early twenties, and is in another strange town in another strange region of a very big and wonderful world, of which she’s already seen more than I’ll likely see in my lifetime. And all she needs is a bit of sweet talk, a bit of a smile, a compassionate human to connect with. I am mesmerized, her easy laugh and radiant smile, her deep chocolate face. We somehow share a warmth, of cast-about travelers who find themselves washed onto the same shore.
She is called away.
I am trying to make myself useful. A Freelance Assistant Stage Manager is really not a stage hand with portfolio; I’m more of a floater, an “at large” asset. I step into the spot where Bob Marley will stand later tonight, where he will project his presence and gift and message out into the packed hall. I speak into his microphone, watching the house mix position as I do, so that the sound man can ensure that he has the correct mic, the correct line, the correct patch. I must bend down to the microphone, which points to my neck.
And then, he is there. I turn around, to find myself separated from Marley by a mere couple feet. Close enough to simply touch him. He is closely attended by his wife Rita and another man, an assistant who helps controls access. Not security, but something akin to it. The woman and man form a sort of frame around Marley.
Bob himself is gliding, floating. He has no function here, he does not need to fuss cables, he does not need to discuss set lists, nor review the break after the chorus before the second verse. His role is to merely be here. He will only perform the most perfunctory of sound check activity. His guitar is tuned and ready, his monitors are prepared by others who know what he requires, and his band is his family.
We stand there together, we two, in this little clear space down-stage center, a sort of dais. Immediately, two different entourages of concert promoter functionaries descend on our little dais, and so starts the ever-repeated dance, wherein the star is beholden to give of himself to the applicants, to put his signature to a bauble, to accept a business card with a gracious gesture, to allow a touch. A laying on of hands.
Gently, the gracious Rita and the assistant signal that the audience is complete and make closure movements. Marley’s family is very protective of him these days, he does not have a surplus of physical strength. We are still separated in space by no more than an exhale, and he turns to me, looks me directly in the eye, saying nothing.
“You were standing here, you I will acknowledge. Take your pound of flesh, like the others” his eyes say, silently.
He is smaller than me. A tiny man. His mane of dreds is the mane of a lion, proud and full of power. His eyes are yellowed, sickly, but lucid. He has light brown skin, of clear tone, with light pocks and sun blemishes here and there. He has very small hands.
I don’t want to go here, but there was something almost Christ-like about him. To say such a thing is an insult to both Christ and Marley, but I’m stuttering trying to find the right way to describe that moment. His cancer is well into the process that would soon culminate in his departure. Every moment was precious. His physical strength was waning, but he still offered himself. “Help yourself to a little piece of it, my young friend.”
I would like to be able to say that I touched Bob Marley, that I have his autograph, or that he learned my name, if only for that fleeting moment. But his eyes were plaintive. There was a cost, and it was not a small cost.
I know it is difficult for people who are not accustomed to celebrity, to understand this point. It’s the relentlessness. Sure, you’re only taking a little bit, just a handful of sand from the tropical, coral beach. But that sand is not infinite. It will run out, and it does run out.
Though Marley has offered me a piece of himself, I am a musician too. I have come up into my own, been taken to school by his recorded legacy, his ‘Legend.’ He has already given me as much as I need from him, I don’t want to take more. Our gaze is still connected, intact. In a split second, he sees in my eyes that I have released him from his duty, and I see in his that he is grateful for that.
Our moment is over. I turn to the Assistant and tell him that I am at his disposal if he should require anything. The dais becomes un-assembled, and our worlds separate again.
Sound check is complete for the musicians, and they start filing out to the bus to spend the next several hours at the hotel. My Nubian beauty finds me again, and invites me to come along, back to her hotel room to keep her company. At that moment I make the first of two profound life choice errors that I would make that night: I decline, with regret. My job is to be here, and if I was to follow her out the door I would let my boss down, abandon my very important Freelance Assistant Stage Manager job and fee of $200. All for what? To spend a couple hours in the company of Bob Marley’s backup singer? Perhaps intimately? To dine and hang with the Wailers? If there is nothing else we young adults can lay claim to, it’s that we have our priorities in line.
If there is a God, and I’m quite sure there is, that God would surely be angry with me for letting an opportunity so obviously heaven-sent slip through my fingers. No– merely missing out on my I-four was not enough punishment. I clearly required an additional helping of hurt. Therefore, my idyllic “not needed” afternoon turned into my pre-show purgatory: Bob Marley was late, the audience was becoming unruly, and I would become stage security. Fill in those gaps.
Bob Marley was not well. He was already walking the fine line of palliative care for his cancer, a slight mis-step an excursion into pain, or to the side of stupor. After one hour and the better part of the second had passed, the guys in the audience front rows start climbing the walls…literally. I have to pull these guys down from the PA speaker stacks. Me, a 135 pound skinny white kid. And there simply aren’t enough Irish cops to go around. To everyone’s credit, there is never a moment of malice or malevolence…it is just an expression of pent-up energy.
Bob arrives. The boiling point is not reached, and the show commences. I don’t know what Marley’s show was like in his heyday, before he was sick, but there is no outward indication that he is off his game.
At last the teamsters have moved the last of the cases to the loading dock, the hall is dark, and it is time for the final sweep. Not with a broom, that’s a Teamster job, but as Freelance Assistant Stage Manager, I have to walk through all access areas of the stage and associated areas to make sure everything’s out, and to make sure there are no smoldering piles of oily rags with a broken shorted out hair dryer on top. The stage is clear. I make my way through the large green room, and through the private dressing rooms. Think what you may about rastas, rock stars and their stereotypes…but the place was left immaculate, with even the tablecloths folded neatly on the caterer’s tables and all ashtrays emptied. It was a bittersweet disappointment to find that there was not even a hint of a splif, baggie, blundt, or anything resembling a scavengeable, salvageable bit of “hospitality” remaining. Tidy, as if they were in their mom’s house. I opened the last door. Marley’s private dressing room, a very large closet, really. The lights are out, and I start to close the door when I notice a midnight-blue pilot light glowing behind the door.
At this juncture, I have reached the SECOND profound life choice error that I would commit that night.
It occurs to me, that I am looking at Bob Marley’s practice guitar amp. It has been inadvertently left behind. It’s not a bargain piece of kit, rather a top of the line Mesa Boogie Amp. Which Bob Marley has played through.
It also occurs to me, that I have merely to shut this door, walk back up to the stage, and wait another ½ hour, and I will be free-and-clear to take this little piece of Bob home with me. I certainly recognize the moral and ethical problem with this, but I close the door.
I take a few steps toward the stairway, and stop. A few moments later, I’m out on the loading dock, amplifier in hand, waving down the semi as it is about to pull away on its way to tomorrow.
Lightning may not strike twice in one spot, but stupidity can and does. All these years later, I can’t help but think that Bob would have forgiven me, after all, for taking that pound of flesh, either in the hotel with his I-four or by keeping his dressing room amplifier.
I’m sure I would have been forgiven.