I rarely post here more than once per day, but having shared one of my periodic lists of things with which I am well pleased this morning, I now find myself feeling a bit less than pleased to learn that Neville O’Riley Livingston, better known and loved as Bunny Wailer, has flown on to his great reward today.
Bunny was the last surviving member of the Wailers, and the only one of the original three who was granted the gift of a reasonably full life; Bob Marley was taken from us in 1981 by cancer, and Peter Tosh was gunned down in 1987 during a botched robbery. Those early and tragic deaths likely contributed to the Marley and Tosh legends, though they were both already heroic while they walked among us, with Marley standing as the great ambassador for Jamaican music to secular audiences in Europe and the Americas, and Tosh signed to the Rolling Stones’ boutique label, where he played a key role in the cross-pollination of rock and reggae, and also shone as a vibrant prophet to and celebrant of the global membership of the African diaspora.
Bunny and Marley had known each other since their early chilhoods, and were essentially step-brothers for some years, as Bunny’s father and Bob’s mother lived together and bore a baby sister to them both. The pair formed a group called The Wailing Wailers around 1963 with another friend from their Trenchtown neighborhood, Winston Hubert McIntosh, better known as Peter Tosh. The trio, with various other supporting players and singers (and without Marley for much of 1966, when he moved to Delaware, seeking work), had significant chart success in Jamaica, working in sequence with the greatest of the island’s legendary producers: Leslie Kong, Coxsone Dodd, and Lee “Scratch” Perry. The Wailers were eventually signed and marketed to a global audiences on Chris Blackwell’s Island Records label; Bunny, Tosh and Marley recorded two studio albums together on Island, the classics Catch A Fire and Burnin’, both released in 1973.
Tosh and Bunny then departed the group soon after Burnin’ was issued, when it became clear that Blackwell saw the Wailers as little more than a backing band for Marley, and when the group’s international touring schedule and demands became incompatible with Bunny’s spiritual beliefs and practices. His first solo album, Blackheart Man (1976), is one of the finest reggae records ever released, and the early singles he issued on his own Solomonic Label are also crucial, killer jams (though harder to find, alas). He continued to record and perform until 2018, when a stroke took his beautiful, heart-lifting voice from him. For most of his post-Wailers career, his work was entirely based in and focused on Jamaica, and he stood as a brilliant creative, cultural and spiritual leader on his home island. Role models matter, and I respect his deep sense of place, and his commitment to that place’s people, and culture, and future.
From a global commercial standpoint, Bob Marley was clearly the most successful and well-known Wailer, with Peter Tosh standing in a solid second place position, and Bunny mostly being played in the media like the forgotten third wheel, even for all the years that he was the only one of the trio still living and working. In my own household, though, the order of listening precedence is reversed: we spin Bunny the most, by a long shot, Tosh less, but still regularly, and Marley very, very rarely, if ever. While it’s not Bob’s fault, the ubiquity of his 1984 Legend compilation is such that it’s really hard for me to listen to any of those songs anymore, nor the post-Bunny-and-Tosh albums that whelped them, having heard his music beaten to death for so many years by crappy bar bands and overly-earnest acoustic guitar slingers, on commercial radio, on television commercials, in movies, and anywhere else where a company or corporation or performer wants to communicate multi-cultural cache in the laziest and most obvious fashion possible.
I’m sure Bunny Wailer was not saint in his personal life (who of us are, really, when all’s said and done?), but he certainly hewed to his faith more deeply than many other artists who use public statements of belief as commercial springboards, then abandon them when they become inconvenient. I always admire folks who make life decisions based on their deeply-held principles, and not on commercial expediency. While Bunny may not have been as prolific or as pointedly political a songwriter as his fellow Wailers, his best works are sublime in their messages, in their arrangements, and (most of all) in the pure, sweet, heart-tugging magic of his beautiful, wonderful voice.
Plus, in his latter days, he looked like this:
He had royal style and bearing and presence, befitting his well-deserved stature as cultural royalty on and beyond his home island. The music he helped pioneer has long since become a global phenomenon, influencing countless scenes and styles and genres, but few of his followers were as worthy of adulation as he was, and even fewer created art that will influence current and future generations as deeply as his did, even if most of us didn’t know it at the time, or attributed it to others.
A terrible loss, at bottom line. He was only 73 years old, too young to be taken away, all things considered. I close with one of my favorites of his many great songs, something of a signature tune for him, culled from that first 1976 solo album (though he had originally recorded it much earlier with the Wailers). The lyrics seem most fitting today, so I re-print them in case you care to sing along. As you should. As I am.
There’s a land that I have heard about
So far across the sea
To have you all, my dreamland
Would be like heaven to me
We’ll get our breakfast from the tree
We’ll get our honey from the bees
We’ll take a ride on the waterfalls
And all the glories, we’ll have them all
And we’ll live together on that dreamland
And have so much fun
Oh, what a time that will be
Oh yes, we’ll wait, wait, wait and see
We’ll count the stars up in the sky . . .
. . . And surely we’ll never die