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Marley's message The strains of 'Exodus' still being felt 30 years down the road

"In the '60s, we believed in a myth -- that music had the power to change people's lives. Today, people believe in a myth -- that music is just entertainment."

Writer Stanley Booth noted this in his afterword to the stunning tome "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones." As he does throughout the book, Booth here points to an ideological conundrum.

Maybe, as it turns out, love isn't all you need. But we certainly need more than we've been getting, on balance, since the '60s collapsed in a big fiery heap. Maybe everyone was too "loose" back then to ever really get anything substantial done. But they were on to something, weren't they?

So here, near the end of this year marking anniversaries of storied albums, comes the 30th anniversary of another biggie. The biggest of the biggies, if we're to take Time magazine's word for it. That periodical christened Bob Marley & the Wailers' "Exodus" the greatest album of the 20th century, believe it or not. This might be hyperbole. But a little hyperbole can, on occasion, shed more than a little light.

In this instance, that light shines directly into the intellectual/cultural/spiritual chasm Booth notes in his afterword. The question has to be: "What is popular music for?"

If its intent is merely to entertain, why do so many of the finest artists in the history of recorded sound insist on performing as if only the music might save their souls? If it can truly change lives, then why do so many who hear it remain disturbingly unchanged?

These may not have been the questions in Marley's mind when he made "Exodus." Certainly, he was more concerned with speaking to his people and their oppressors, and sending out a message that the fatherland lay just beyond Babylon's final rise. When we hear "Exodus" today, however, these overarching questions have to be dealt with. Heck, even Time knew "Exodus" was an incredibly powerful, subversive, alive artifact. The album has outlived Marley. Surely, it's going to outlive his children's children's children, too.

Why? What significance can Marley have when he has become a commodity, a poster marketed to budding teen hippies, a brand name silk-screened onto tapestries draped across college dorm walls, to signify that said dorm room's occupant is "cool", and perhaps not averse to passing the peace pipe? You can even buy Bob Marley incense sticks, for goodness sake. Surely, the jig is up.

"Exodus," however, cuts through crass marketing with one elegant down-sweep of Marley's right hand, as he heralds the album-opening "Natural Mystic" in a state of iconic reggae grace. "This could be the first trumpet/might as well be the last/many more will have to suffer, many more will have to die/Don't ask me why," the eerily beautiful voice intones, before offering a balm -- "There's a natural mystic blowing through the air/If you listen carefully now, you will hear." So this is a biblical haiku, a call to -- what? Arms? Ears? Souls?

The thing is, "Exodus" does not sit nicely in the corner, even after all this time. No matter how you package it, this is a radical record, and its core can be found in the three songs that together tie up what was initially thought of as "side one": "Guiltiness," "The Heathen" and "Exodus." Naysayers will find a strain of '60s-style idealism in these sentiments, but Marley never suggested love would conquer all. He's a militant man, if need be. These are the field hollers of slaves writ large, and they trade in fire and brimstone, not stoned platitudes and wishful thinking.

"Woe to the downpresser/They'll eat the bread of sorrow," sings Marley during "Guiltiness," and his voice aches with the knowledge that it might be a long, long time before this happens, echoing Martin Luther King. Later, "The Heathen" insists that "As a man sow, shall he reap/And I know that talk is cheap/But the hotter the battle/A' the sweeter Jah victory/With de heathen back dey 'pon the wall." Actually, the heathen's back wasn't " 'pon de wall" at all, and Marley knew it. He wasn't stuffing daisies into the barrels of "the downpresser's" guns. He was telling his listeners to be patient, to wait. It's coming.

The title song clears up just what's coming: a journey to a new promised land, which Marley believed was in Africa -- Ethiopia, to be exact. "We're leaving Babylon/We're going to our fatherland/Exodus -- movement of Jah people." Marley never got there.

There's more than powerful lyrics at the heart of the album's magic, of course. Marley remains reggae's greatest songwriter, the Wailers its finest band. There are easy-going love songs on "Exodus," too. But they do nothing to dampen the troubled and troubling flame at the record's core.

I suppose the record is "entertaining," if you consider anguished cries for deliverance entertaining. Often, the battles Marley depicts in song are considered specific, non-universal ones -- things that happened to other people.

But the greatest lyric on "Exodus" may be this one: "When the rain falls/It don't fall on one man's house."

e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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