Following the acclaim granted to Ben Myers’ Richard, based on the life of Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards, the fictionalised music novel was given the ultimate literary accolade this week when Jamaican author Marlon James won the Man Booker Prize with A Brief History Of Seven Killings, his take on an assassination attempt made on Bob Marley in December 1976.
James’ novel covers three decades of political upheaval in Jamaica leading up to the shooting, all told through the voices of over 75 characters including CIA agents, ghosts and Keith Richards’ drug dealer. But strip away the fictions and what really happened at Marley’s Hope Road home that December 3?
What happened was, Jamaica’s political tensions exploded, and its greatest cultural export was almost lost in the crossfire. As the mid-’70s progressed, Kingston had increasingly come to resemble a war zone. Supermarkets ran short on stock, power cuts were plentiful, guns flooded the island, no-go areas were patrolled by brutal soldiers operating under their own twisted law. The root of the tension was the approaching election between the CIA-backed Jamaican Labour Party and the People’s National Party, linked to Cuba and Russia. Both aggressively courted Marley’s support for their cause, since he’d become an artistic totem of Jamaica, and as much as Bob tried to remain impartial in his small, open-house Rastafarian collective at Hope Road – a utopian ‘safe house’ for young people caught up in the violent political disputes – he was drawn in by his own cultural gravity.
Marley had organised a non-political free concert called Smile Jamaica to help ease tensions, but the incumbent PNP moved the date of the election to coincide with the concert, effectively turning it into a rally for the government. Bob was furious and danger crowded in upon Hope Road. A plain-clothed police detail was stationed outside the house, and Marley was seen having agitated arguments with people on its lawn. Yet he continued his preparations for the show determined not to be disheartened. On December 3 he arranged a Wailers rehearsal, working on ‘Baby We’ve Got A Date (Rock It Baby)’, ‘Midnight Ravers’, ‘Rastaman Chant’ and ‘Trenchtown Rock’ and arranging a delivery of ‘herb’ ahead of the annual Christmas drought.
Leaving the house in her Volkswagen, Bob’s wife Rita stopped to let another car drive into the compound through the gate which was curiously unmanned. As the other car passed, a gunman shot at her from the passenger seat, the bullet glancing across her scalp leaving her bloody but not seriously harmed. The two assassins were more interested in the house where the Wailers were rehearsing. Following Marley’s unwitting manager Don Taylor into the galley kitchen, they opened fire with two automatic weapons each. The band and family members threw themselves out of the line of fire; some managed to escape the building, other were tangled in leads but scrambled their way to the safety of the bathroom as bullets tore drummer Carly Barrett’s stool apart.
As for Bob, finding himself at the wrong end of the barrel he’d tried so hard to avoid, he couldn’t move. He only avoided the shot aimed dead at his chest because Don Taylor shoved him to the floor; the bullet caught him in the arm where it stayed until his eventual death in 1981, since doctors told Marley that removing it might damage the use of his fingers.
By some miracle the gunmen sped off in the direction of the JLP headquarters in Tivoli Gardens leaving behind no serious casualties. Considering the US secret service’s involvement in the organisation suspected of trying to have Marley killed before he could be seen to publicly condone their political rivals, you might say the sheriff shot him back…