The Two Bobs — Marley and Dylan
What if Jesus played the electric guitar? In The Second Coming, an irreverent novel written by John Niven, Jesus has just joined Jimi Hendrix in a jam session in Paradise when God announces to his son he is to return back to earth, as things are not going well with the world. This time in New York City, not Jerusalem.
To preach his message of love JC starts a rock’n’roll band. He becomes a celebrity and earns good money thanks to a talent show. As soon as he and his band mates move to Texas to create a community based on alternative cultural values, it becomes evident that John Niven is alluding to what happened in Waco, in 1993, when a sect called the Branch Davidians was practically annihilated by government forces using tanks and CS gas. The deviant leader of the cult was a guitar-playing “Messiah” called Vernon Howell who had taken the name of David Koresh to present himself as the designated leader for a renewal of the Israelite kingdom.
In 1987 playwright Sam Shepard conducted an interview with Bob Dylan who, when asked if there was anybody in his life he wished he had met and hadn’t, immediately replied: Bob Marley. And then added: “We were playin’ in Waco, Texas, one time. And I missed him…I wish I’d met him.” Dylan’s statement contradicts the liner notes of the reggae compilation Is It Rolling Bob?, where author Roger Steffens claims that Dylan and Marley had met at the Roxy club in L.A. in 1976.
Be that as it may, the exchange just goes to show the extent of the mutual respect these two artists had for each other. When Dylan published on the cover of the Saved album the biblical citation “Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah,” Marley was very pleased and said: “I am interested in Bob Dylan. And that is a good verse too, a revelation, a link-up with Rasta, as Haile Selassie is the conquering lion of the house of Judah.”
Approximately one year before Marley had written Redemption Song, whose final verses before the refrain closely resemble a speech once made by Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey, as well as Bob Dylan’s poetic style:
“How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look?
Yes, some say it’s just part of it
We’ve got to fulfill the book”
When in 1997 Dylan came up with the lines “now you can seal up the book and not write anymore” in Trying To Get To Heaven, was he also, among other things, responding to Marley’s plea?
The rise to power of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 created a great deal of interest among African-Americans. In the footnotes of his script Love In Vain, author Alan Greenberg writes that even Robert Johnson, a bluesman who had deeply influenced the young Bob Dylan, used to discuss Ethiopia on several occasions, in particular within a biblical context. Perhaps he had been influenced by the movement of the Black Jews, who considered themselves as members of the ten lost tribes of Israel and had reached many parts of America. They were mainly of West Indian origin.
Sects within the Rastafarian community claim to be the direct and true heirs of ancient Israel, thanks to their African and Solomonic ancestry. Bob Marley legitimized and globalized Tafarianism after embracing the Rasta belief in the divinity of Haile Selassie, a.k.a. Tafari. According to Marley’s creed, the Ethiopian monarchy descended directly from the fruit of the union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Their offspring, a son called Menelik, ruled Ethiopia and triggered the spread of Judaism in the neighboring lands of Egypt, Sahara and West Africa. His descendant Haile Selassie — a very controversial figure in political debate — should therefore be considered as the anointed one, the Messiah Rastafarians had always been waiting for. Black Jamaicans have been living in exile “by the rivers of Babylon” ever since their diaspora from Ethiopia. Their destiny is to reunite with Africa by returning to the promised land.
Bob Marley took his mission as prophetic seer and liberator very seriously. Towards the end of his life he started wearing a mysterious Solomonic ring (see the cover of the famous Legend collection), converted to Christianity and changed his name to Berhane Selassie. He chose to be buried in Ethiopia.
When Bob Dylan converted to Christianity, he sang in Precious Angel the following verses:
“You’re the queen of my flesh, girl, you’re my woman, you’re my delight
You’re the lamp of my soul, girl, and you torch up the night
But there’s violence in the eyes, girl, so let us not be enticed
On the way out of Egypt, through Ethiopia, to the judgment hall of Christ”
Why? Why through Ethiopia? A “Caribbean wind” is definitely blowing through Dylan’s songs.
The album Under The Red Sky contains a song with the same title as that of a novel written by Joseph Heller about King David’s imaginary deathbed memoirs — God Knows. In its second verse Dylan is warning us that “there’s gonna be no more water / But fire next time”, in a similar vein to the Branch Davidian sect in Waco who believed that the approaching end of the world would be consummated in fire.
Fire looms large also in Bob Marley’s apocalyptic visions about modern Babylon. His biography by Timothy White is befittingly called Catch A Fire. The official website bobmarley.com describes him as “a cultural icon who implored his people to know their history coming through the root of King David, through the line of Solomon”. I And I — a rock/reggae ballad composed by Dylan and featuring Jamaica’s prominent rhythm section Sly & Robbie — contains sublime verses about an unidentified woman who “in another lifetime…must have owned the world, or been faithfully wed / To some righteous king who wrote psalms beside moonlit streams.” Is Dylan referring to King David whose skill with stringed instruments and remarkable talent for verse was proverbial?
Not much is known about David Koresh’s message, and it might very well have been a load of mumbo jumbo. As in the case of Dylan and Marley, however, rock music and religion are strictly intertwined. Almost in a symbiotic way. I’m not sure how to approach this topic regarding biblical references, cults and song lyrics. And yet I feel it may help us one day to unravel one of the greatest mysteries in the history of rock’n’roll: the transfiguration of Bob Dylan.