When it comes to Bob Marley, Roger Steffens is a superfan. A radio host and an avid collector of reggae records and memorabilia, for many years he has presented, throughout the world, a PowerPoint slide show on Marley’s career and legend. Steffens has known and interviewed many of the major and minor players in Marley’s life, so, in theory at least, he should be a good person to organize an oral history dedicated to his favorite performer.
Unfortunately, his book So Much Things to Say doesn’t live up to its promise. There are often three or four or five speakers on the same page, so that the telling of Marley’s story can feel both cluttered and fragmented. Frequently, one longs for the type of oral histories compiled by Studs Terkel, where speakers are allowed extended passages to explain themselves and their ideas. Steffens indicates that he originally planned that type of collection, but his editor convinced him that the book “would be far more readable if I broke up the voices into topics.”
What we have instead is too many people chiming in on the same subject. Occasionally, multiple perspectives make for a richer exploration of an event: unraveling the circumstances behind the 1976 assassination attempt on Marley, for instance, or the poignant moment when the singer’s friends and fellow musicians learn of his terminal cancer after Marley’s final show in Pittsburgh in 1980. More often, though, we get far more information than we need on relatively trivial subjects. The many pages devoted to when and where, exactly, the Wailers’ early single “Simmer Down” was recorded seem particularly ill spent.
Steffens himself is the oral history’s biggest contributor, providing historical background, transitions from one event to another, and brief biographies of the many contributors who will be obscure to anyone but Marley’s biggest fans. While we hear from a cacophony of voices — the singer’s childhood friends, bandmates, girlfriends, managers, recording engineers, personal assistants, and on and on — So Much Things to Say contains very few quotes from Marley himself, and that’s a shame.
In the end, however, the book does provide a valuable service. All the chatter about the circumstances of Marley’s music-making is likely to send readers back to the glorious music itself, where Bob Marley never, ever disappoints.