Bob Marley vs Peter Tosh: Last Tuesday, the world marked the 40th anniversary in the grave of foremost Jamaican music legend, Robert Nesta Marley, popularly known as Bob Marley. He had died of melanoma cancer on May 11, 1981 at the University of Miami Hospital And Clinics, UHealth Tower, Miami, Florida, United States.
Born to a British World War soldier, Novan and mother, Cedella Booker, on February 6, 1945 at his maternal grandfather’s farm in Nine Mile, Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica, his death at the age of 36, placed side by side his global fame while alive and even much more in death, has buoyed that cliché that life is not how long but how well.
Tomes of works have been done on his magnificent stardom and impact on the transformation of the raw Jamaican Ska chant into a global musical brand that it would be a rehash doing that here. A major intellectual engagement however has been the argument: who is the greatest between him and his friend, brother and later sworn enemy, Peter McIntosh, popularly known as Peter Tosh?
In terms of global acceptance, exposure and spread, there is no doubt that Marley is and was the toast of the world. While Tosh was still peaking in his native Jamaica, Marley had received a head start, principally from the early exposure given him by Christ Blackwell, the British owner of the international record label, Island Records.
Blackwell’s choice of Marley among the trio of Bob, Peter and a recently deceased colleague of theirs, Neville O’Rilley, popularly known as Bunny Livingstone, has been put to racism and marketing strategy. While the trio, in 1962, decided to form a band which they named The Wailers, Peter was said to have taught the duo how to play the guitar.
In their a little more than a decade of being together, The Wailers became a huge commercial success. The New York Times referred to them as “the most popular and admired of all reggae groups” and the band sold more than 250 million albums worldwide. They however all went their ways in 1974, partly due to Blackwell’s preference for a mulatto Bob who would appeal to the western market, ahead of the two other weed-smoking, outlaw-looking musical urchins. Peter and Bunny had been shocked when, at their maiden UK tour organised by Blackwell, they had been confronted by the advertisement of their band as Bob Marley and The Wailers, as against their erstwhile The Wailers. Peter was to later lament that he “taught him how to play guitar and now they say he’s king of reggae.”
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Peter was everything that Bob was and even more. For years, many people did not identify the raw talent and artistic bravura combined in the works of the 6.4 feet dreadlocked singer. This was due to his perceived arrogance and diffidence.
For instance, immediately Bob died, Tosh had shocked the world in an interview where he claimed that Bob had peaked while he was decorating the stage. The truth is, Tosh was too assertive, too hot to handle and never hid his disdain for what he called Babylonian lifestyle of hedonism. Tosh believed in marrying words with action.
Towards the latter part of his life, he cut a queer image of a revolutionary ready to carry arms. With his imposing height as he adorned a black beret, with a guitar that had the shape of an M16 assault rifle, Tosh didn’t mince words in projecting the narrative that he was a musical militant. He told those who underrated him that he was “like you are steppin’ razor” and asked, “don’t you watch my size” as “I am dangerous!” In comparison to others, Tosh said “I’m the Toughest,” an apparent reference to the trained karate belt holder that he was. He was once asked by an interviewer why he never smiled and he said that since he sang revolutionary song which was not love song, nor a tea party, he saw no reason to smile.
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While they were both very spiritual, Peter was more. He was a strict Rastafarian, obeying its injunctions of not mixing with menstruating women, observing its strict dietary prescriptions and believed in doing good to his fellow man. Apart from pursuing a path of goodness to his fellow man, his lyrics are laced with biblical quotations. Of the three original Wailers, though he didn’t have much education, he was the most cerebral. He could chant endlessly, quoting biblical verses with baffling mastery.
The Mystic Man was perhaps the avenue Tosh used to showcase his spirituality the most. He had proclaimed his mysticism in that he doesn’t “drink no champagne…I don’t sniff them cocaine (as it) choke(s) brain… I don’t take morphine (dangerous)…I don’t take no heroin… I man don’t eat up your fried chicken…I man don’t eat up them frankfurters…I man don’t eat down the hamburger…I man don’t drink pink, blue, yellow, green soda” and the reason, he said, was because he was “a man of the past, living in the present and walking in the future.”
In terms of the depth of their songs, Tosh was deeper. He was what could be regarded as a linguistic gymnast and a poet. In his songs, you would encounter raw poetry, with alliterations and virtually all the figures of speech. The word “oppressor” Tosh called “downpressor,” imputing that those who committed such a heinous crime of oppression against blacks should not be dignified with any lifting up. The manager, to him, was the ‘damager’, the judge, a ‘grudge’, the system was ‘shit-stem’ and the Prime Minister, the ‘Crime Minister’ who ‘shits’ (sits) in the ‘House of Represent-a-t’iefs’.” Christopher Columbus was Christopher ‘Combulus’ and Alexander the Great was, “Alexander So Called The Great.” In one of his vinyl he entitled Here comes the judge, just like in Downpressor man, Tosh demonstrated how, on the last day, in the presence of “The Most High Jah,” oppressors of blacks on earth would face the wrath of providence, running to the rocks “but the rocks will be melting.” A great word user that he was, Tosh had told a 40-000-strong audience that he was not a man of peace as “peace” was “the diploma you get in the cemetery” because on the tombstone, it is written, “Rest in Peace!”
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While both ex-friends sang Get up, stand up, a song which the trio of erstwhile Wailers sang individually, they made mockery of Christian and Islamic religion, in both religions’ transference of succor for man to an unseen creator. The song asked man to seek redemption here on earth and proclaim that man was tired of the ism and schism of dying and going to heaven in Jesus name because “the mighty God is a living man,” a reference to Haile Selassie whom Rastafarians worship as God. Tosh’s own version of the song, which though wasn’t as high-tempoed and popular as Bob’s, is however unique for the introduction of a slow tempo into it. Same theme was also in Coming in Hot where Tosh demonstrated the fieriness of his song.
Like the gun guitar image of a tough militant that he created, the lyrics of this song compared the ferociousness of the Tosh brand to a gunshot or explosives.
While Tosh was assassinated on September 11, 1987 after he had just returned to Jamaica from a US business trip and was relaxing by watching a TV satellite show at home with his common law live-in-lover, Marlene Brown, Marley had succumbed to cancer. Gunmen, led by Dennis “Leppo” Lobban, one of Tosh’s ‘boys’ whom he sustained as part of the communal Rastafarian injunction of brotherly co-existence. They had stormed his house at Barbican Road residence, St Andrew, Jamaica at about 7.30pm on this day. Within a twinkle of an eye, the gunmen had put a full stop to his 42-years of existence. At first, talks were rife that Marley’s wife, Rita who controlled his estate, had a hand in Tosh’s murder as the original Wailing Wailers friends of Marley made a legal claim to his multi-million dollar Tuff Gong studio on Hope Street in Kingston. This was exacerbated by interviews granted by the lone survivor of the triumvirate, Bunny who accused Rita of being a Jezebel and that Peter was actually sleeping with her while married to Bob.
While Bob Marley’s adaptation of Emperor Haille Selassie’s speech at the OAU in 1978 into a song he entitled War, attempted to rouse blacks from their mental slavery and dependency on the west, Tosh’s own Arise black man conjured the Socratic credo of “Man, know thyself.” It was one of the strongest messages from any musician wherein Tosh spelt the need for the black race to unite and fight for equal rights. Deploying violent imageries, Tosh also predicted that the end of mental slavery was near and attacked those who didn’t see this, stating that “heaven becomes your grave.”
At personal comparative level, this writer has severally claimed that Tosh was a greater talent than Marley. Though many of their endowments verged in each other, the former was far more endowed than the latter. No one can however dispel the fact that the duo contributed immensely to what is today reggae music, as well as their yeoman roles in the deployment of music as a liberation struggle weapon.