Christopher John Farley on Bob Marley

Years ago, I read a great novel by Christopher John Farley called My Favorite War. I lost track of him after that, but I’ve recently learned that he became the pop music critic at Time and, from there, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, and that he’s got a biography of Bob Marley pubbing this week called Before the Legend, which he agreed to tell us abouut.

christopher-farley.jpgWriting a novel requires you to look inside yourself. Writing a biography requires you to seek out others and convince them to look inside themselves, and Before the Legend presented the most difficult task I’ve ever faced as a writer.

Truth can be stranger, and harder, than fiction. Discovering just who Bob Marley really was required more than three years of research, investigation and writing. Degas once said, “One has to commit a painting the way one commits a crime.” Biography is the same way. Committing a biography is pressure-filled work, full of stealth and danger.

My biography had more than its share.

Jamaica is a place that values education highly—and yet I found Jamaican libraries had little in the way of archival information on Marley, perhaps its greatest son. Marley grew up in Trench Town, a place that has been subject to gang violence. Locals warned me against going to certain areas there. But I went anyway, to seek out Marley’s old friends and acquaintances.

There are a number of other books on the reggae star. But much of what had been written about Marley in the past turned out to be wrong. In some cases, even Marley’s own family members didn’t have the accurate stories. I had to seek out old documents—wedding certificates, military service records and the like—to establish the facts of the Marley family history and separate it from mere family legend.

Then there was the issue of trust. I was born in Kingston, Jamaica. But I grew up in Brockport, New York. I don’t have a Jamaican accent and I can’t fake one.

Many of Marley’s former musical associates felt cheated by the music business. Many are living in modest circumstances even though the music they helped to make generated millions of dollars, most of it for foreigners. With my American accent, I had to convince folks who had been ripped off time and again to talk to me—for no pay and nothing but the promise that I would try to tell their history the right way.

The hardest—and most interesting—thing for any biographer, I think, is finding out that one’s subject is not who he appears to be. I found out many surprising things about Marley—about what he did to achieve stardom, about who his father really was. In the end, though, I’m happy to report, every obstacle I faced, every surprise I encountered, only made me want to find out more.

When that happens, you know that your subject is worth the trouble, and that the book you’re writing is worth all the effort.

30 April 2006 | guest authors |