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How Bob Marley Was Given Up To Die

Alex Constantine - June 1, 2013


nMay 31, 2013

“Reggae music will get bigger and bigger and bigger till it reaches the right people!" - Bob Marley

Robert Nesta Marley, the Jamaican reggae hero who was extensively quoted at the just concluded African Union Jubilee Summit meeting in Addis Ababa died a slow and excruciating death this month 32 years ago.

One could say he was neglected, forgotten and taken for granted by those whom he trusted - the ivy who insulated him and mindlessly sucked out his musical success.

Details pieced together from writings on Bob as well as the recent Kevin MacDonald’s “Marley” documentary reveal a painful story of a man who was left to waste away his musical genius and succumb to an early death.

On May 13, 1977, bob had badly injured his big toe while playing football against French journalists in Paris. He went on with his performances. In fact, it is a few weeks after the injury that he performed at the now famous London “live” gig at the Rainbow Theatre.

The wound deteriorated and got uglier by the day as he continued to perform and play football even after cancerous cells had been detected in it. At the instigation of the Rastas around him, he rejected amputation of the toe and opted for a lesser aggressive surgery and moved on with his life.

In “Marley”, Wailer’s lead guitarist Junior Marvin claims Bob got bad advise from people around him. Some told him he wouldn’t be able to dance on performances if he agreed to cut the toe.

In the same documentary, his long time producer and the man who introduced him to the European market - Chris Blackwell - confesses that he’d forgotten about Marley’s health problems by the time the singer collapsed almost five years later at Central Park on September 21, 1981.

“I knew he had problems with his toe but I'd forgotten about it. If he was going to regular clinics, he would probably be around today,” Blackwell says in award-winning documentary.

The night before, as Timothy White recalls in Catch a Fire, Bob had woken up dazed and had trouble remembering the now famous show he held at Madison Square Garden with the American The Commodores.

When he collapsed and with foam frothing in his mouth, the Rastas around him, as one of the tour members recalled, simply lifted him up, made some incantations in patois and took him back to his hotel.

They didn’t even bother to tell Rita, his wife, who was also in the tour. The same Rastas made a decision to continue the tour with the sickly man. They dragged him to Pittsburg for another show where he ended up sitting on a stool and playing redemption song as the other band members watched in unmistakable fright.

Before that, Rita had tried to stop the tour after noticing that Bob looked ancient and drawn. White reports that when Rita suggested to Bob that they cancel the tour, he said: “Dem seh nuh,” meaning Bob’s road manager Allan Skill Cole, Danny Sims and the booking agency.

“It makes nuh sense ta stop da tour. If dey stop da tour, Bob is gwan die anyway,” White reports Cole as telling Rita directly. Eventually the tour was cancelled and Bob admitted at Manhattan Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre for radium treatment.

The hospital detected cancer tissues in his liver, lungs, brains and were spreading to other vital organs. Perturbed by media reports about his hospitalisation, he left the centre and headed to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami. He did not last long there too. He left for another cancer clinic in Mexico.

Seeing the end was nigh, Rita secretly arranged to have her husband baptised in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on November 4, 1980. He took the name Berhane Selassie. Shortly thereafter and on recommendation of a Jamaican doctor Carl Fraser, Bob went to seek help in Germany.

He was taken to Dr Josef Issels whom the Rastas suspected had been a Nazi doctor. White reports that Bob was first elated when he turned up at Issels Ringberg Clinic in Bavaria.

“His deep depression returned with full force, however, when he entered the elegant, well appointed reception hall and saw the large, gruesome crucifix hanging in the alcove above the main staircase,” he says.

Writing about his last interview with Bob, Kris Needs said when Bob started his chemo, “he looked like a lost cause. He was deteriorating so quickly.”

Bob appeared to have known he was a lost cause. When Issel’s invited Daily Mail to his clinic to check on his patient, Bob is said to have said: “I was given up by the doctors to die. Now I know I can live. I have proved it.”

It was here in Bavaria that his locks, his identity as he called them, were cut and not at the chemo sessions in the US. In “Marley”, Ciddy Breakspeare, Bob’s girlfriend, attests that they decided to cut them because they were heavy and were weighing him down.

“I remember it was us the women, all of us. We gathered together, lit candles. We were reading from the book of Job and we just cut. That was quite a night,” she recalled the anguish of shaven Marley.

The weather in German was foul and snowy. A bald-head Bob who in “Time will tell” had sang that Jah will never give power to a bald-head had to wear a woolen cap. His friend and art director for the Wailers, Neville Garrick, says they also had to wear dark glasses because it was so white:

“The lake was frozen three feet deep you could drive a car over it. I said this is a fridge where they keep people alive. No, Rottach-Egern I will never forget that.”

Dr Issels is said to have placed Marley on his unorthodox treatment which entailed exercise, vaccines, injections, vitamins and trace minerals among others. Some writers have said that Issels tortured Marley too. He plunged long needles through his stomach through to spine as part of the treatment.

Writing in the Covert War Against Rock, Alex Constantine says the torture continued until Marley foundered on the brink of death. He quotes Bob’s mother Cedella Booker testifying to this horror.

“I myself witnessed Issels rough treatment of Nesta [Marley]. One time I went with Nesta to the clinic, and we settled down in a treatment room. Issels came in and announced to Nesta, 'I'm going to give you a needle.'

"Standing over Marley on the examination table, Issels plunged the needle straight into Nesta’s navel right down to the syringe. [Marley] grunted and winced. He could only lie there helplessly, writhing on the table, trying his best to hide his pain. Jesus Christ, I heard myself mumbling. Issels yanked out the needle and strolled casually out of the room. Marley was left groaning with pain. I went and stood at his side and held his hand.”

He says that with every visit, Bob’s mother found him smaller, frailer, thinner.

“As the months of dying dragged past, the suffering was etched all over his face. He would fall into fits of shaking, when he would lose all control and shiver from head to toe like a coconut leaf in a breeze. His eyes would turn in his head, rolling in their sockets until even the white jelly was quivering.”

He says starvation made it worse. He quotes the mother as saying that for a whole week, he would be allowed no food apart from what he got intravenously. He was wasting to a skeleton. He would weigh 82 pounds on the day of his death.

It is said the starvation left Marley with knotted intestines and he had to be operated on to free them up and clear the obstruction: “Every day would be a knife that death stabbed and twisted anew in an already open, bleeding wound.”

The Rastas kept visiting him and cheering him up. In “Marley”, Neville remembers his last visit to Bavaria when he found Bob with a stroke on his left side and frustrated because he couldn’t finger the guitar.

“When I left him I thought he'd turn better. He was trying tell me that he was going to beat this t’ing, you know, al beat dis t’ing,” Garrick says.

Issel’s eventually gave his patient a notice of death; that there was nothing more he could do for him. Diane Jobson, Bob’s lawyer, says in Marley that Issels said if they had to leave his clinic, they had to do so within 48 hours.

"We decided to rent a plane. Bob wan know if it’s a Concord and I said, no Concord,” Jobson laughingly attests to Bob’s sense of humour at his dying time.

He was flown to Miami where most of his children had been gathered. His eldest daughter Cedella attests that his father looked “so tiny” in the Kevin Macdonald film.

He died a few days later on May 11, 1981.


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