Anew book from celebrated rock photographer Kate Simon shares photographs of Bob Marley and the stories behind the images
Celebrated rock photographer Kate Simon has photographed some of the biggest names in music in a career lasting five decades. But it’s her time with reggae’s greatest pioneer, the iconic Bob Marley that had the most profound and lasting impact on her career.
Her book Rebel Music: Bob Marley and Roots Reggae, first released by Genesis Publications in 2004 as a collector’s edition and widely hailed as the definitive Bob Marley tome, has recently been published as a hardback bookstore edition featuring additional text and images drawn from thousands of negatives to mark the 50th anniversary of Marley’s first Island Records release, Catch a Fire.
Accompanying the photographs are the stories behind the images from Simon herself and first-hand contributions from a cast of 24 contributors including Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, Lenny Kravitz, Keith Richards (Rolling Stones), Paul Simonon (The Clash), Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen.
The book covers the period from Marley and The Wailers’ landmark gigs at The Lyceum in July 1975 to his funeral in Jamaica six short years later, taking in the 1977 European tour to promote the album Exodus and the momentous One Love peace concert in Jamaica in April 1978 which brought political leaders together. Her photographs place readers in the midst of the action at stage side alongside more intimate shots in dressing rooms and on tour buses, as well as capturing the burgeoning, vibrant reggae scene in Jamaica and its many characters.
That time formed a crucial part of Simon’s development as a human being and as a photographer. She writes: “Certain people, certain times take some of your soul, stay in your soul, are forever part of your soul, and nourish your soul. As a photographer, these subjects encouraged me to grow. They showed me to myself.
“The confidence I gained photographing them was a real part of my growth as a photographer. I was responsible for all the technical stuff myself, whether I was in Jamaica or on the road with The Wailers. This was a real gift.”
A labour of love
Speaking to Reader’s Digest from her studio in New York, she explains her motivation for the book: “It's not just any old photo book because I have nothing else to do.
“It's something I have put every bit of my soul, my will, my work and my intelligence into, because of what Bob means to me, and how his music has inspired and helped me and how I liked all of the Wailers so much. These people were just so special to me, every person in this book. So, it was critical to my life to put this out.”
Our conversation begins with the Lyceum shows which proved a turning point in Marley’s career and made him a household name in the UK, although he’d been recording with the Wailers in Jamaica since 1963. A devoted audience crowded around the stage, their fists raised, offering Simon striking compositional opportunities. The shows produced the audio for the Live! Album later that year and the definitive rendition of No Woman No Cry.
In the book, Simon describes her reaction: “Needless to say, I was floored. It was shocking. The beauty of his voice, the brilliance of his band; the hypnotic power of the music. For me, it was a calling to reggae. I wasn’t prepared for it.”
Reflecting on that moment, Simon adds: “I still feel that way. You know, I was already a seasoned photographer. I was young, but I'd been on the road with everyone you could imagine from that time, Queen, Led Zepplin, The Who and Rod Stewart.
“Then to see Bob Marley and The Wailers. I had no idea this person's music would mean so much to me. It continues to be my favourite music. I just thought I’ve got to stay. I was moved to stay taking his photograph from those shows.”
Simon’s cover photograph for Marley’s 1978 album Kaya has become so iconic, it has taken on a life of its own. As she notes in the book, his face is so open, his smile so big, his gaze so sharp, the photograph almost seems to give off light. Yet as she says later, he often seemed to have a kind of melancholy about him. He was serious and pensive.
By the time the photograph was taken, Jamaica was suddenly on the rock ‘n’ roll map and Kingston’s Sheraton Hotel was playing host to photographers and journalists from all over the world. The photograph selected for the cover of Kaya though emerged in unusual circumstances.
“I was racing Chris Blackwell in the pool at the Sheraton,” Simon recalls. “Chris was a really great swimmer. I was a competitive swimmer too, so I thought I had a chance. But Chris won, and I couldn't believe it because he gave me a really big head start. But it turns out Chris Blackwell taught waterskiing when he was young. He was a really good swimmer. He just he just kicked it and he beat me.
“So, I got out of the pool. And Bob was watching this swim meet. That's when I took two and a half rolls of black and white and a roll of colour.
“There's something with that picture. It’s become so popular. It’s the most bootlegged picture I've ever had. I see it all over the world on people on T-shirts and stuff. He looks really happy.”
Jamaica in the mid-Seventies was such a fertile time for music. The reggae scene’s many characters presented Simon with a fascinating choice of subject matter. She spent time on the island to shoot Bunny Wailer for his album Blackheart Man and as she observes wryly: “If you couldn’t find a great photograph down there in 1976 you were blind. God forbid, but it’s true.”
Almost 50 years on, she says: “It was like being in some kind of dream. It was just so fruitful. It was such a great opportunity for a young photographer, because I was going into this Caribbean culture I was unfamiliar with. I had never seen beautiful turquoise water before. I saw it for the first time in Ocho Rios.
“Then the people there, you were spoilt for choice. You had Burning Spear, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, The Gladiators, The Heptones, The Twinkle Brothers, Inner Circle, Jacob Miller, Trinity, Leroy Smart, The I-Threes and Althea & Donna, U-Roy, I-Roy, Big Youth. It was just this whole music community.
“This whole culture was so vivid to me. The way they dressed, and the way they moved was all unique, as well. The way they talked was very idiomatic. It was just so inspiring. You couldn't miss because it was just a whole different culture. I've never seen anything like it since. It was a thrill. I went back there and back there.
“That time was really the time to be there. Just so much great music. All the punk people in London were all inspired by this music too, like John Lydon and The Clash, who were friends of mine, so it was all very connected.
“It’s like the beginning of jazz. It's like when Bebop began, it was the beginning of this genre of music. And I got to know these people that were such brilliant musicians. These people were really imbued with incredible musical talent.”
By the time of the 1977 Exodus tour of Europe, Marley was living in London following a terrifying assassination attempt. He had achieved global stardom, and the ears of the world were attuned to Jamaica.
Yet Simon’s images show a man without pretensions, travelling in the same tour bus as his fellow musicians and entourage, never standing apart. A man with an unfailing work ethic. Candid backstage shots contrast with the power and intensity of his live performances.
In the book, Chris Blackwell recalls that Simon had a war correspondent vibe. “She would get right into it. She travelled the whole way on the bus with them, roughed it up with everybody; she was really ready to do that and somehow she had the ability to communicate and to get everybody to relax and take the great pictures she got.”
We see Marley bathed in a shaft of gold light on stage, lost in music, singing with his eyes closed, his fist raised. As observers note in the book, performance was a transcendental experience for him. He was more shaman than showman. In a trance, preaching his message to the congregation.
This though posed certain challenges for a photographer.
Capturing Bob Marley on stage
Says Simon: “He totally lost himself in these performances to the point where his eyes were closed through the whole show. So, I finally asked him, please open your eyes, Bob. You know I'm just saying, you got to open your eyes a little bit more, because I'm having trouble! So, he started opening his eyes a little bit then.
“He was definitely in a reverie. Just the way he moved, the way he sang and his whole presence was just magnetic. Charismatic doesn't really do it justice. All the people that worked with him, were really inspired by him. It was fascinating because he wasn't chatty. We didn't have any small talk. He was really special.
“I think we had a very good chemistry, a very good rapport. It was very effective for photographs. I really knew what I was looking for. I was really serious about it. And he was an incredible subject. So, it was a good meeting of the minds.
“He was extremely photogenic. He really knew how to be photographed. When somebody is like that and so accommodating to a photographer and has so much inherent idea of how to be a good subject, I ask myself, how does this person really know exactly what I want? I don't know the answer. I really don't. But he was a fantastic subject.”
By early 1978, a spontaneous truce had sprung up in western Kingston and Marley was invited to make his return to Jamaica after 14 months to headline the One Love concert for peace.
Rebel Music calls this one of the most visually powerful statements any artist has ever made. The book continues: “The bringing together of the country’s warring political leaders in front of a crowd of 40,000 people was so momentous it would be a significant factor in the UN’s decision to award Marley the peace medal on behalf of 500 million Africans.”
We see Marley lost in thought at soundcheck, his brow furrowed, because of the gravity of the situation.
“There was an intense vibe that wasn't anything like Bob on the European Exodus tour or the Lyceum,” says Simon. “The fact is they were bringing Edward Seaga and Michael Manley together. Bob was doing that. His mission was to show the people that one love could be the way to deal with things and there didn't have to be such disparity. He was committed to that, and he pulled it off. It was dramatic.”
The book closes on a poignant note with Marley’s state funeral following his tragic early death from cancer. Simon captures not only the funeral service itself which was accompanied by a concert at the National Arena, but the extraordinary scenes as his coffin travelled to its burial place in St Ann. The whole island came together in tribute and mourning. A sheer mountainside covered in people.
“I had to rely on my professionalism because I went up on the stage,” says Simon. “Bob's funeral was very majestic, so to speak. I was shooting, and I was right by his casket and my legs started to give way, I swear. It was emotionally difficult.
“But my bigger focus was staying on the job and, and journalistically getting the pictures. There's nothing that would have kept me from Bob's funeral.”
“The whole beauty of the fact the whole island came out in love for Bob. They were six deep on either side of the road from Kingston to St Ann. They were booming his music out of these big speakers, and everyone was in love for Bob, like a New Orleans funeral. It was out of respect for Bob that everyone just showed. So, even though it was really such a great loss, the fact everyone loved him so much, really kind of countered that feeling.”
Marley is an icon for so many, but Simon’s abiding memories are more personal in nature.
“He was just a really lovely guy. He really walked it, like he talked it. He was very inclusive, helpful, validating. He really encouraged me, he helped me. He was very conscious, and very empathetic.
“He was self-possessed and strong. It's an interesting dichotomy, because he sang songs, like Get up, Stand up, but simultaneously, he was singing songs like One Love. He was a seriously intelligent man. Really self-aware and aware of other people. He was really present and conscious.
“We were good friends. We got along really good. It was great to work with somebody like that. I swear to God, it was great. There’s only been a couple other subjects I really liked working with as much as Bob. He was special.”
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