“It was an amazing song,” Roger Steffens recalls today. “There are only a few occasions in life where you experience a moment where everything changes. That moment in 1969 was it for me, and nothing’s been the same ever since.”
Talk about an understatement. Steffens, now 57, is widely heralded as an international ambassador of reggae music. If you’re a knowledgeable fan of the genre, you probably know of his work. He’s a radio veteran, having spent years on the air at Santa Monica, Calif.’s KCRW-FM as host of The Reggae Beat, and he’s hosted the nationally syndicated radio show Planet Reggae. He’s written on the subject for publications such as Rolling Stoneand Spin and he is the founding editor of the international reggae and world-music magazine The Beat. And he’s an author too: Steffens is co-writing Bunny Wailer’s forthcoming memoir, and his 1994 book Spirit Dancer, produced with photojournalist Bruce Talamon, is a loving tribute to reggae’s most enduring star, Bob Marley.
Marley is both the means by which Steffens has achieved his greatest notoriety and, it appears, his greatest passion. And the late musician is the reason the man affectionately referred to in reggae circles as “Ras RoJah” is coming to Towson. To celebrate what would have been Marley’s 55th birthday on Feb. 6, Steffens’ multimedia presentation,The Life of Bob Marley, will be shown at the Recher Theatre on Feb. 10. The program, which will include a performance by Baltimore reggae band Stryker’s Posse, has as its centerpiece never-before-seen or -heard artifacts—videos, home movies, photographs, music—from Steffens’ personal archives, arguably the largest Marley-memorabilia collection in the world.
One senses that Steffens feels a great responsibility to Marley, a man he knew and still respects. “Bob was a great musician—that goes without saying,” he says. “But he was much more. He was a messenger for his Rastafarian faith. He spoke out against intolerance and for justice. He put a spotlight on the sufferings of black people in Jamaica and in Africa. And he was really a natural mystic—that’s mystic, not mystique. His spirituality was evident through his music and his life; it touched people everywhere. My job is to protect that and him, and to invoke his spirit. The way I feel about Marley . . . it’s almost tribal. I feel him palpably.”
Steffens met Marley for the first time in 1978, and his still-fresh remembrance of that auspicious day is recorded on the JAD Records Reggae Supersite (www. hermosarecords.com/marley/marleyindex.html): “My wife Mary and I had been living that summer in Big Sur, and when we heard Bob was coming [to California], we bought tickets to both his scheduled shows. We were among the first in the auditorium early that evening.
“The soundboard was right in the middle of the floor, and there was a tall man I didn’t recognize, standing by it, curling his nascent dreads around his fingertips. I figured he had to be with the band, so I approached and asked him if they were going to play ‘Waiting in Vain’ that evening. ‘Why?’ he asked. ‘Well,’ I said with excitement, ‘That’s my very favorite Wailers’ song, especially that incredible lead guitar solo that Junior Marvin plays in the middle of it.’ ‘You want to meet Bob,’ the dread said, catching us completely off-guard. Without hesitation, of course, we both blurted ‘Yes!’ and he began leading us backstage down a long corridor. ‘What’s your names?’ he asked us. I told him and asked his. ‘I’m Junior Marvin,’ he laughed. Boy, I thought, did we say the right thing to the right guy at the right time.“
The meeting itself was a bit strange, Steffens recalls: “There were four cafeteria tables placed at double-arms length to create one big table. The Wailers were sitting around it, far away from each other, and no one was saying anything. There were piles of herb in front of them—I could tell Bob was really well-red, if you catch my meaning. He signed a poster for me—I still have it and treasure it.”
Before long, devoted radio fan Steffens put two of his dreams together. In 1979, he became co-host (with partner Hank Holmes) of The Reggae Beat, a reggae-music show on KCRW. Soon thereafter, the program was the public-radio station’s top fund-raising draw. Steffens hosted the show for its first seven years. (The Reggae Beat ultimately lasted for 15.) The show’s first featured guest was none other than Bob Marley.
In November 1979, Marley’s label, Island Records, asked Steffens to go on the road with the Wailers. “It was like being a fly on the wall for two weeks,” he recalls. “It was a sad time too—Bob was sick, you could really see the effects of his cancer then. He was physically ill and was obviously husbanding his talent. But I got to see his amazing performance of “Redemption Song” at the Roxy [in Los Angeles]. I could see close-up the true extent of his spiritual nature, and that he was a very disciplined person. And I saw that in many ways, he was still the kid from Trench Town, from one little impoverished neighborhood in Kingston.”
In May 1981, Marley succumbed to cancer. Afterward, a war of sorts began: between family members, friends, and hangers-on angling for a piece of the meaty Marley pie; between warring record companies, each with rights to Marley material of different eras; between musicians—some deserving, some not—looking for never-given credit and never-paid royalties. In all of the battles, Steffens seems to be one of the few left unscathed. His policy, he says, is to remain as neutral as possible: “The priority here is Bob’s message and his music. Whatever’s going on, we have to keep the flame burning.”
With that mission in mind, Steffens founded The Beat in 1984. The magazine, originally named The Reggae Beat, has grown from a mimeographed one-page newsletter that publicized the namesake radio show’s playlist to a glossy-covered international publication that reports on reggae and other forms of world music. Also in 1984, Steffens and partner Bob Wisdom amassed items from Steffens’ Marley archive and presented them at the American Film Institute’s national Video Festival in Hollywood. “There was great buzz,” Steffens says, “so we started booking the show at colleges and nightclubs.”
Given the fact that Bob Marley has seemingly been more prolific—and profitable—in death than in life, some might see Steffens’ work as yet another way to exhume the musician’s remains for personal gain. While he notes that many have indeed trod that path—in particular, he decries the constant rereleases of old Marley recordings by record companies that have yet to pay or give due credit to the musicians involved—Steffens’ reputation in the reggae field remains unsullied. While he receives payment for his lectures and multimedia presentations, his real career is in acting and voice-over work. (His credits include the films Wag the Dog, Ghosts of Mississippi, and Forrest Gump.) He says his work for The Beat is entirely volunteer, as it is for all of the magazine’s contributors. And he freely shares artifacts from his Marley collection via the JAD Records Reggae Supersite and other Web sites. If you ask him if he’s willing to sell any of his items, he’ll turn you down, kindly but flatly.
Nancy Lewis, president of Baltimore-based Entertainment Works, a publicity and management firm specializing in reggae music, and a friend of Steffens, sings his praises. “Roger’s a true gentleman; his honesty and sincerity stand out as a shining example of a ‘good guy’ in an industry (the music business) that has a reputation for being filled with sharks and con men.” Lewis, while visiting Steffens at home in Los Angeles, had the rare treat of seeing his Marley archives in person. “It was incredible! It’s a series of rooms, each chock-full of photos, buttons, posters, and vinyl here, there, and everywhere. It was overwhelming. It’s like when you go to an art museum and just go, ‘So much! So much!’ “
Steffens promises that all-new rarities will be on display at his presentation at the Recher. “I don’t even have to go searching for much—people seek me out with things,” he says. “Someone recently brought me some old Marley music including a horns version of ‘Pass It On’ that is just breathtaking. I don’t understand it myself—a four-hour avalanche of Marley music I’d never heard. It’s astonishing how generous people are.”
One can only surmise that Steffens devotes so much of this time and energy to all things Marley—dispelling the myths, protecting the artist’s reputation, and keeping the roots-reggae fire burning bright—for love.
“These days, reggae’s an influence, not a real force. [Much of modern reggae] sucks—there’s no morality, it’s nonsense,” he says. “What I do is about making sure the best doesn’t disappear.”
Roger Steffens brings The Life of Bob Marley to the Recher Theatre on Feb. 10. Stryker’s Posse opens the show; Wailers guitarist Junior Marvin will be a special guest. For tickets, call ProTix at (410) 481-6500 or surf to www.protix.com.