‘I was there when gun­men tried to kill Bob Mar­ley’

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL -

I t’s 40 years since would-be as­sas­sins tried to kill Bob Mar­ley, the most fa­mous reg­gae artist of all time. Nancy Burke, who was at the singer’s house in Kingston, Ja­maica, as the shoot­ings took place, re­calls what hap­pened.

Dur­ing the 1970s, Mar­ley led the way in the Caribbean is­land, as it be­came the reg­gae cap­i­tal of the world. Burke, who lived next door to him, was the girl­friend of his art de­signer and be­came part of his crowd.

“I love the mu­sic, I love his lyrics, I love the beat, I love the band,” she says. “So it was a great priv­i­lege to be there, back­stage, on the bus, go­ing to shows.”

Mar­ley may have been a po­tent sym­bol of the coun­try’s musical suc­cess, but 1970s Ja­maica was an im­pov­er­ished and divided na­tion, with vi­o­lent gangs fight­ing for con­trol over the poor­est neigh­bour­hoods.

The left-wing Prime Min­is­ter Michael Man­ley was a po­lar­is­ing fig­ure and po­lit­i­cal ten­sions and vi­o­lence were rife, es­pe­cially when there were elec­tions on the hori­zon.

In late 1976, a gen­eral elec­tion was due to be held. Mar­ley had pre­vi­ously backed Man­ley, but this time the singer wanted to dis­tance him­self from the govern­ment.

To try to help calm pas­sions, Mar­ley sug­gested hold­ing a free out­door con­cert in Kingston in De­cem­ber. But when the prime min­is­ter pub­licly en­dorsed the idea, and even moved the date of the vote to co­in­cide with the event, Mar­ley was left look­ing like a govern­ment stooge.

Burke had been away in Lon­don, chap­er­on­ing one of Mar­ley’s girl­friends, Cindy Break­s­peare, at the Miss World con­test. They ar­rived back on the is­land on the af­ter­noon of 3 De­cem­ber 1976. After show­er­ing and chang­ing, Burke went to see Mar­ley at home.

“As I was walk­ing to­wards the house, I just had this very quick mo­ment of dread,” she says. “I just shud­dered.”

She noticed the gate was closed, which was un­usual. But in­side the house, Burke re­calls, ev­ery­one seemed re­laxed. The band was tak­ing a break from re­hearsals.

Some­one asked Burke to move her car to let Mar­ley’s wife, Rita, take her own car out. As the front gates opened for Rita to leave, another car slipped in. Burke was by then in a back room chat­ting with some chil­dren and Mar­ley’s lawyer, Diane Job­son.

“I had just en­tered that room and started talk­ing to them about Miss World when this bar­rage of gun­fire started, re­ally close. I mean, right there,” Burke says.

“You could hear this gun­fire go­ing on and on and all these shots be­ing fired. And it was so shock­ing be­cause we couldn’t see it, but it was just a few feet away.

“I sank to my knees, I just didn’t know what to do. The light was on and we just thought they were go­ing to come in and mow us down. It was scary, very scary. It was just a bed­room so there wasn’t any­where to go. The kids went un­der the bed but I couldn’t.”

Three gun­men, who’d driven in as Rita was leav­ing, had rushed into the house, spray­ing the place with bul­lets. Mar­ley and the mu­si­cians had dived for cover.

The shoot­ers then sped off into the night, not paus­ing to sur­vey the chaos they’d left be­hind.

“The si­lence after seemed like for­ever, which was even more ter­ri­fy­ing,” Burke re­calls.

“The next sound I heard was some­body call­ing out to Diane, say­ing: ‘Diane, Diane, come quick, Bob is shot.’” Burke stayed in the bed­room with the chil­dren un­til the po­lice ar­rived.

“That was the first point I de­cided to step out of this room,” she says.

“While I was do­ing that I saw Bob walk out with the po­lice and he was hold­ing his left arm. It was fan­tas­tic to see him on foot - look­ing re­ally, re­ally an­gry.”

It had been a very lucky es­cape for ev­ery­one. Mar­ley had been hit in the arm and chest. His man­ager, Don Tay­lor, had been hit in the groin. No-one else was se­ri­ously wounded.

Who’d car­ried out the shoot­ing? Who’d sent the gun­men? Why hadn’t they fin­ished off the job? These were all ques­tions that hung in the air. The shoot­ing re­mains shrouded in mys­tery and the gun­men were never found.

“I’ve heard ru­mours that they were taken care of, they’re not alive,” says Burke. “Some­body must know some­thing. But it’s hard to know what the re­al­ity is.”

Two days later, an in­jured Mar­ley turned up to play for more than 80,000 fans at the free open-air con­cert in Kingston. Burke was too scared to go.

“No­body had been caught, no­body knew how or why. It was too fright­en­ing for me. I was too close to it the first time. I couldn’t face that so soon again.”

Mar­ley spent the next two years in self-im­posed ex­ile in Lon­don, then tour­ing, pro­duc­ing some of his best work. In his short life he re­leased 11 al­bums; four of them live.

Burke kept close con­tact with Mar­ley dur­ing the fi­nal years of his life, un­til his death from can­cer in May 1981. He was just 36 years old.

“The last time I saw Bob be­fore he died he had re­moved the locks, he had started to lose weight,” Burke says.

“He was very with­drawn, quite small. He was shrink­ing in front of us.

“When he died we were in New York when we heard. It was def­i­nitely one of the worst mo­ments ever of my life. I still feel its part of my mis­sion to make sure peo­ple won’t for­get about Bob Mar­ley. Which they won’t, he’s done that for him­self.”

Born in 1967, Cedella Mar­ley was the el­dest of Bob Mar­ley’s bi­o­log­i­cal chil­dren. As a fa­ther, she says, he was sur­pris­ingly strict.

Bob Mar­ley died in 1981 from a brain tu­mor, which had formed in the wake of a metas­ta­sized me­lanoma can­cer on his right foot’s big toe.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Saint Lucia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.