Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Impecunious: No Woman, No Cry

Bob Marley & The Wailers: No Woman, No Cry

After I was chosen to become the program director of WPRB, my friend Eric Klein, the outgoing station manager, and I spent some time discussing my future tenure. I valued Eric’s advice, and generally considered him a smart guy with good musical taste. To this day, though, I remember one thing he said to me, which was, I have to say, profoundly wrong. He warned me against playing too much reggae.

It was extremely unlikely that as PD, I was going to change the sound of the station’s rock programming, which was filled with an interesting combination of new wave/punk music, prog rock and classic rock, with the occasional folk, blues and jazz interlude, into a full-on reggae station. And at the time, bands like the Clash and Police were experimenting with reggae influences in their music. So, I pretty much ignored Eric, and WPRB continued to flourish, in its own college radio way.

I can’t say that I was ever a huge reggae fan anyway. I mean, like most people of my generation, I was issued a copy of Legend, Bob Marley’s greatest hits collection, and I was aware of a few of his other songs, as well as a selection of Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff tunes. And as my musical education continued over time, I learned about other reggae artists, but I can’t say that I ever sat down and decided to listen to reggae. That all being said, I have always loved the live version of “No Woman, No Cry” that appears on Legend (originally from the Live! album). You can hear the way that Marley commands the stage and the confidence in his voice, and I suspect that it was no coincidence that the song was recorded not too long after Tosh and Bunny Wailer left the Wailers and Marley became the acknowledged star.

The song is a message from a man to the woman he is (temporarily) leaving, assuring her that even though they are poor, and live in the ghetto, things will still be fine. What is remarkable about the song is the singer’s fond memories of sitting in “a government yard in Trenchtown” (a poor housing project), around a fire, sharing cornmeal porridge. The sense of community triumphing over need is palpable, and you can understand why he can insist that she not cry, because their friends will make sure that “everything’s gonna be alright.” In retrospect, though, you wonder how good those old days really were, or if Marley was engaging in a little selective nostalgic amnesia. (And Marley did write the song, even if it was credited to Vincent Ford, a friend of Marley’s, so that the royalties would allow Ford to operate a soup kitchen in Trenchtown.)

Musically, the live version is slower and more languorous that the studio version from the Natty Dread album, which was a hit itself.  The slower tempo (and fewer electronic clicks, chirps and noises) makes the live version stronger and more powerful than the original. As did the stellar guitar work from Al Anderson, a New York native who grew up in New Jersey, attended the Berklee School at the same time as Pat Metheny and Al DiMeola, and reportedly was in early versions of Aerosmith, before turning his attentions to reggae.

There is, also, an even lesser known, older demo version of the song, featuring Marley on vocals, Tosh on piano, and some uncredited background singers. Usually referred to as the “gospel” version, this stripped down version is also powerful.

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