The following article originally appeared in the February 2002 issue of HIGH TIMES Magazine
Marley knew the drill – in Jamaica, at the height of his success, when music and politics were still one, before the fog of censorship rolled into the island, old wounds were opened by a wave of destabilization politics. Stories appeared in the local, regional and international press downsizing the achievements of the quasi-socialist Jamaican government under Prime Minister Michael Manley.
In the late 1970s, the island was flooded with cheap guns, heroin, cocaine, right-wing propaganda, death squad rule and, as Grenada’s Prime Minister Maurice Bishop described it three years later, the CIA’s “pernicious attempts [to] wreck the economy.”
“Destabilization,” Bishop told the emergent New Jewel Party, “is the name given the most recently developed method of controlling and exploiting the lives and resources of a country and its people by a bigger and more powerful country through bullying, intimidation and violence.”
In response to the fascistic machinations of the CIA, Marley wove his lyrics into a revolutionary crucifix to ward off the cloak-and-dagger “vampires” descending upon the island. June 1976: Then-Governor-General Florizel Glasspole placed Jamaica under martial law to stanch the bloody pre-election violence. Prime Minister Manley’s People’s National Party asked the Wailers to play at the Smile Jamaica concert in December. Despite the rising political mayhem, Marley agreed to perform.
In late November, a death squad slipped beneath the gates of Marley’s home on Hope Road in Kingston. As biographer Timothy White tells it, at about 9 PM, “the torpor of the quiet tropical night was interrupted by a queer noise that was not quite like a firecracker.” Marley was in the kitchen at the rear of the house eating a grapefruit when he heard the bursts of automatic gunfire. Don Taylor, Marley’s manager, had been talking to the musician when the bullets ripped through the back of his legs. The men were “peppering the house with a barrage of rifle and pistol fire, shattering windows and splintering plaster and woodwork on the first floor.” Rita Marley, trying to escape with her children and a reporter from the Jamaica Daily News, was shot by one of the men in the front yard. The bullet caught her in the head, lifting her off her feet as it burrowed between scalp and skull.
Meanwhile, a man with an automatic rifle had burst through the back door off the pantry, pushing past a fleeing Seeco Patterson, the Wailers’ percussionist, to aim beyond Don Taylor at Bob Marley. The gunman got off eight shots. One bullet struck a counter, another buried itself in the ceiling, and five tore into Taylor. He fell but remained conscious, with four bullets in his legs and one buried at the base of his spine. The last shot creased Marley’s breast below his heart and drilled deep into his arm.
The survival of the reggae singer and his entire entourage appeared to be the work of Rasta. “The firepower these guys apparently brought with them was immense,” Wailers publicist Jeff Walker recalls. “There were bullet holes everywhere. In the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room, floors, ceilings, doorways and outside.”
There has since been widespread belief that the CIA arranged the hit on Hope Road. Neville Garrick, a Marley insider and former art director of the Jamaican Daily News, had film of “suspicious characters” lurking near the house before the assassination attempt. The day of the shooting he had snapped some photos of Marley standing beside a Volkswagen in a pool of mango-tree shade. The strangers in the background made Marley nervous; he told Garrick that they appeared to be “scouting” the property. In the prints, however, their features were too blurred by shadow to make out. After the concert, Garrick took the photographs and prints to Nassau. Sadly, while the Wailers and crew prepared to board a flight to London, he discovered that the film had been stolen.
Many of the CIA’s files on Bob Marley remain classified to the present day. However, on December 5, 1976, a week after the assault on Hope Road, the Wailers appeared at the Smile Jamaica fest, despite their wounds, to perform one long, defiant anthem of rage directed at the CIA – “War” – suggesting the Wailers’ own attitude toward the “Vampires” from Langley:
Until the ignoble and unhappy regimes
That now hold our brothers
In Angola, in Mozambique,
In subhuman bondage
Have been toppled,
Everywhere is war…
Only a handful of Marley’s most trusted comrades knew of the band’s whereabouts before the festival. Yet a member of the film crew, or so he claimed – reportedly, he didn’t have a camera – managed to talk his way past machete-bearing Rastas to enter the Hope Road encampment: one Carl Colby, son of the late CIA director William Colby.
While the band prepared for the concert, a gift was delivered, according to a witness at the enclave – a pair of boots for Bob Marley. Former Los Angeles cinematographer Lee Lew-Lee [his camera work can be seen in the Oscar-winning documentary The Panama Deception] was close friends with members of the Wailers, and he believes that Marley’s cancer can be traced to the boots: “He put his foot in and said, ‘Ow!’ A friend got in there… he said, ‘let’s [get] in the boot, and he pulled a length of copper wire out – it was embedded in the boot.”
Had the wire been treated chemically with a carcinogenic toxin? The appearance of Colby at Marley’s compound was certainly provocative. [And so was Colby’s subsequent part in the fall of another black cultural icon, O.J. Simpson, nearly 20 years later. At Simpson’s preliminary hearing in 1995, Colby – who resided next door to Nicole Simpson on Gretna Green Way in Brentwood, a mile from her residence on Bundy – and his wife both took the stand to testify for the prosecution that Nicole’s ex-husband had badgered and threatened her. Colby’s testimony was instrumental in the formal charge of murder filed against Simpson and the nationally televised fiasco known as the “Trial of the Century.”]
Seventeen years after the Hope Road assault, Don Taylor published a memoir, Marley and Me, in which he alleges that a “senior CIA agent” had been planted among the crew as part of the plan to “assassinate” Marley. It’s possible that this lapse in security allowed Colby entrance to the compound. It’s clear that the CIA wanted Marley out of the picture. After the assassination attempt, a rumor circulated that the CIA was going to finish Marley off. The source of the rumor was the agency itself. The Wailers had set out on a world tour, and CIA agents informed Marley that should he return to Jamaica before the election, he would be murdered.
Taylor and others close to Marley suspect that it was more than a threat. Lew-Lee recalls: “I didn’t think so at the time, but I’ve always had my suspicions because Marley later broke his toe playing soccer, and when the bone wouldn’t mend the doctors found that the toe had cancer. The cancer metastasized throughout his body, but [Marley] believed he could fight this thing.”
British researcher Michael Conally observes: “They certainly had reasons for wanting to. For one, Marley’s highly charged message music made him an important figure that the rest of the world was beginning to notice. It was an influence that was hard to ignore, least of all because everywhere you went you saw middle- and upper-class white people sprouting dreadlocks, smoking spliffs and adopting the Rastafarian lifestyle. This sort of thing didn’t sit well with traditionalists and authoritarian types.”