By December 1976 Jamaica’s political violence had escalated almost to the point of civil war. Beirut seemed more curable than Kingston. Throughout his life, Bob Marley had steadfastly refused to get involved in “politricks”, but this time he relented and agreed to headline at the Smile Jamaica concert.
Officially, Smile Jamaica was an attempt by neutral parties to broker a cease-fire between the warring political gangs of downtown Kingston — a feel-good tonic for the beleaguered populace. Let’s take a break from the killing — and smile. It was quite ridiculous; for one thing the timing was completely wrong — nobody felt much like smiling. Worse yet, this was happening just two weeks before a general election. In those days political violence was a daily fact of life, even more so around election time. And now we’re going to smile?
The political stakes in this election were particularly high; Manley was seeking to cement his socialist policies with a second consecutive win — while the CIA was busily destabilizing the country, barely behind the scenes. The influx of guns grew inexorably, and with it the body count. It didn’t take long for the government — i.e. the PNP — to take over the financing and organization of the show. Which automatically gave it a political tinge.
A dangerous tinge. Despite Bob’s public stance that he was doing this for Jamaica and not for the government, the talk was that he had finally thrown in his lot with the PNP. This wasn’t particularly surprising; Rasta and socialism had a natural affinity for each other, and the PNP had been assiduously courting Marley for years.
There were mutterings that Bob was playing with fire, as usual the rumour mill was working overtime. The air was filled with dread; even more than usual. Threats were made. Two nights before the show, Bob and the band were rehearsing at the back of his house and recording studio at 56 Hope Road. As usual this was an open affair with friends, hangers-on and just about anybody strolling in to catch the vibe. Suddenly the sound of gunshots split the night air. Six gunmen had driven in through the open gate, came up to the open window and sprayed the studio with machine gun fire.
Amazingly, no one died that night despite the dozens of bullets fired from virtually point-blank range. Bob got graze to his arm, Rita a graze to the head, guitarist Donald Kinsey a graze to the chest; and no other band member got hit. Sadly, Don Taylor the band’s manager got riddled with five slugs in his back and torso and was pronounced dead at the scene. It was only at the hospital that they realized he was still alive and gave him an emergency life-saving operation. He was lucky to ever walk again, which he never did without a cane.
Jamaica was in shock; if they’d shoot Bob, who wouldn’t they shoot? Kingston was abuzz with rumours, opinions and suss: who did it? No one knew; no one would ever know. There was all sorts of talk; the most obvious being that JLP gangs, chiefly the Shower Posse under top don Claudie Massop, had ordered the hit, angry at Bob’s seeming support for the PNP. But Bob and Claudie were known to be tight, would Claudie kill his key spar? Another story had it that the hit was in retaliation for a horse betting scam gone wrong that had been perpetrated by Bob’s good friend and road manager Allan “Skill” Cole, ex-Jamaica national footballer and general wheeler-dealer. No one knew.
In the intervening two days we didn’t know if the show would go ahead. Bob was holed up and healing, mulling over his options. He, more than the rest of us, was deep in shock. The Sunday morning of the show, I went spearfishing out in Saint Thomas with my friend Maurice Wilson, and when we drove back to Kingston in the early afternoon thousands of people had already converged on National Heroes Park, even though no one knew whether the show would go ahead — with or without Bob.
At the very last minute, Bob decided to do the show and arrived at the Park in a police motorcade to an ecstatic welcome. Since most of the Wailers had fled Jamaica in the preceding 48 hours, Bob played with a pick-up band of whoever was on hand, brandishing his bandaged left arm. Musically it wasn’t one of Bob’s best performances but for high drama and suspense it couldn’t be beat. However this was one historic show I didn’t get to witness, despite my best intentions. Having been up spearfishing since 5:00am, I’d run out of energy. History can wait, I need to sleep!
Immediately after the show Bob and entourage decamped to Nassau, home of Island Records’ recording studio. There they recorded arguably the Wailers’ finest album: “Exodus” (Time magazine’s Album of the Century), full of personal and apocryphal messages of despair — and hope. Bob stayed away from Jamaica for almost two years, returning to headline yet another legendary show: the 1978 Peace Concert.