By, Dr. Jonathan C. Smith (Rachel’s Dad)
The story of this concert is more than the story of this concert; it is the story of a passing moment and fleeting convergences. And I’m sure this is how it all went down.
In early September 1980, my parents dropped me, my suitcase, my le sportsac full of books—including the blank book with the comic book character Ziggy, a rainbow, and the phrase “fleeting thoughts” on the cover—, and my box of Newports and flight drink money off at O’Hare International Airport so that I could get back to Princeton early enough for RA Orientation and begin my senior year of college. After I landed at Philly International, I took a cab to the Broad Street station and caught a commuter train I intended to debark at Trenton. That day, I missed my Trenton stop that day because I ended up riding with Fae Robinson, a leggy, beautiful black woman nearly twice my age who lived then in Chester, Pennsylvania. On the platform waiting for that Trenton train, she approached me and struck up a conversation. That fact alone so intrigued and charmed me that from Philly to well past New Brunswick, where she was headed, we talked before I realized I missed my stop. At some point before Philly we exchanged contact information and I got off the train and figured out how to get to Princeton.
Because RAs were just about the only students on campus, I could not unpack that dreamlike encounter with my best friend Randy. He was still in Miami. So, I unloaded that earful of a day on to my most unlikely BFF from the previous year: Toni Cooper. Toni Cooper, to my mind, was one of the hot girls and cool kids with whom I never felt like I could fit in or keep up with. She smoked Newports before I did. She sounded more world wise and mature when it came to vodka, which I could barely keep down. She was a tough east coast kid from Englewood, NJ who had a car on campus. And she was the first person who talked to me about reading a Toni Morrison novel. In many ways, and because I am a dense man, I realize only now how much Toni was Fae at twenty. We had only become BFFs because we were both RAs and were in the same core group. Among our small core group of six RAs, Toni and I were the only black ones, so over the course of the year of RA meetings, she and I slowly and surely became fast friends. In fact, the best way I can think to describe our relationship was that we were girlfriends. We shared relationship gossip and complaints. She let me drive her car. And the single most unforgettable thing we did together happened in the third weekend September in 1980.
I am sure it was her idea to go to the concert at Madison Square Garden. It could not have been mine because I grew up under J.C. and Willie Mae Smith, for whom there was much church going and absolutely no concert going. Period. In fact, the only live concerts I had seen before that weekend in 1980 had both been on Princeton’s campus. In April of 1978, I sat in the bleachers of Dillon Gym and listened to Roberta Flack work both her solo magic and her duet magic, but, and unfortunately, without Donny Hathaway. In 1979, I was spellbound by Gil-Scott Heron when he performed in Alexander Hall for, what must have surprised him, a predominantly black audience of Princeton students. The tickets for both those concerts had to be priced ridiculously low for me to buy them, so, no way, given both my economic condition and my cultural conditioning would it have ever crossed my mind to pay what I must have believed to be an outrageous price for concert tickets in NYC. So, on that last Friday before the onset of autumn, and in a season where I felt something like the possibility of independent, adult, manhood coming on, my friend Toni and I drove from Princeton to Englewood.
We weren’t there long before we drove into Manhattan and went, somewhat dangerously, into Manhattan looking for campus parties at Columbia before looking for clubs even more uptown in Harlem. And like too many nights from that era, I do not remember how we made it home, but only that sometime in the early hours of Saturday morning, we made it back to Englewood safely. And there we slept and recuperated well into the afternoon when we began our ritual preparations for the evening. It was a Marley concert after all. And it was my first trip to Madison Square Garden, at that.
I mean, that’s exactly and only who we wanted to see that weekend. We were in no rush to see Kurtis Blow perform “The Breaks” or “Christmas Rappin’” in September. And by then the Commodores funkiest releases were well in their rear view mirror and “Still” was cluing us in to the country and pop crossover possibilities that lay ahead not for the band but for its de facto frontman Lionel Richie. Before and after then between Kurtis Blow and the Commodores, I have purchased maybe two singles combined. “Christmas Rappin'” because I needed it for a family Christmas video and “Jesus Is Love” because I had to learn to play it for some choir or church program. Marley albums, on the other hand? I purchased Exodus during my first year at Princeton because I had to catch up with all my more informed and sophisticated friends for whom reggae meant more than Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie on Reggae Woman.” On a limited music budget, Marley’s Burnin’ and Survival were in my small collectioin before the fall of 1980.
Being exactly who we were—young, black, smart, privileged, political, partying, Princetonians—meant that we wanted nothing but Marley, the Wailers and the I-Threes. We arrived feeling so…well…right for a Marley concert that missing Kurtis Blow felt more like perfection than a mishap; more like missing a novelty act than missing the beginning of a culture and a music that has now firmly mapped itself onto world music at nearly every possible point. And the air in the Garden was exactly what you would imagine and expect at a Robert Nesta Marley event. No one in the Garden could abstain that night as every intake of breath reminded you that although this was a concert, this, more importantly, was a sacred occasion on which we were privileged to hear the voice of Jah/heaven sing and speak wisdom and hope to our ears. And, so we waited for the man himself to find his way to the stage.
I had never on a living soul seen locks so long thick and authoritative. When he appeared and greeted us with a “Greetings in the name of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie, Jah Rastafari, who liveth and reigneth I’n’I itinually ever fearful, ever sure. They say experience teacheth wisdom, but there’s a Natural Mystic blowing through the air!” and the band broke into “Natural Mystic,” every right thing became somehow immensely more so. And there I sat glued and transfixed in my seat; exactly unlike what I would have done in my traditional church upbringing. Instead of a rhythm that pulled me to my feet, Marley and the Wailers held me down physically while raising me up to the high church of the evening and that moment when the band punches out those opening chord hits of “War” and Bob yells out “Until the philosophy…” Even now I still feel the head bob and the pull of the kind of religious cultural nationalism that brims in many of Marley’s compositions. More than and beyond that, though, it is the pull of an even larger struggle in which the aim is for a global (“war in the east, war in the west, war up north, and war down south”) triumph “of good over evil of good over evil of good over evil.” And I could not dance. Not through “No More Trouble.” Not through “I Shot the Sherriff,” not even “Jammin’” and “Exodus.” Maybe I was on my feet for “Could You Be Loved?” encore, but now, really, I don’t know. And there we stood or sat as all the rastas, and all the sensible people who knew a headliner when they saw one, left.
I know that after that solid, transfiguring Marley hour, nothing was so unmemorable as the Commodore set, for which we stayed. Less, perhaps, because we wanted to see them than because we could not move. I do not, and do not care to remember, the setlist for their headlining performance. I remember only that the grand piano was white. And that after the regular earthy Marley and the Wailers, everything about the slick, white-light bathed, erstwhile funky Motown group no longer felt like my music. After that evening, Marley performed in concert only once more; three days later at the Stanley Theatre in Pittsburgh.
Before that school year ended, Reagan was elected President and shot by John Hinckley. I bought the Uprising album shortly after the concert and played “Redemption Song” over and over and over like nothing else musically mattered. Then, in what I believed the most ironically depressing turn, Bob Marley died. Simply, got sick and died. I felt that like a blow to the chest. I’ve seen live music and done concerts since then, but never again at the Garden. And never again for a giant on the verge of leaving us.