rooms of their Los Angeles house filled by her husband’s reggae
Steffens started his collection in 1973 inspired by a secondhand copy of
the Bob Marley album Catch a Fire. Listening to the opening track, he
experienced “the epiphany of my life”.
“I was 31,” says Steffens, who is in Sydney to present Catch a Fire, a
two-hour film and video biography of Marley. “I’d grown up on
rock’n’roll. I’d seen Buddy Holly in person. But I had never heard
anything like that.”
Steffens’s archive is massive. There are 12,000 records and CDs, 10,000
posters and flyers and 12,000 hours of taped demos, interviews,
rehearsals and live shows. Boxes of clippings sit alongside 670
T-shirts and artefacts such as the cymbal Marley’s drummer Carlton
“Carly” Barrett used to record No Woman, No Cry.
Steffens, who has named his eldest son Devon Marley, listens to reggae
daily and declares Marley – who died of cancer in 1981 at the age of 36
– a more important figure than Presley, Lennon or Dylan. Is he
obsessed? “In the best way,” says Steffens, 61, a writer, broadcaster
and actor, who had small roles in Forrest Gump and Wag the Dog. “I’m
not the kind of fan who stalks someone, but most of my non-working
hours are devoted to learning everything I can about the culture.”
He recently sold his archive to the Chinese-Jamaican billionaire Michael
Lee-Chin. Lee-Chin is donating it to the Jamaican Government, who will
use it to found the National Museum of Jamaican Music.
Steffens will serve as the museum’s curator emeritus. He won’t say how
much he was paid except it was “commensurate with 31 years’ work”. He
says the museum reflects an important shift in the way Jamaica’s
establishment regards the island’s best-known musical export. “They’ve
looked down their nose at reggae for so long,” he says. “To them it was
dirty little rastas smoking dope in the ghetto.”
Steffens met Marley twice. In 1979 he was presenting a reggae radio show
and was invited to join Marley on tour for two weeks.
“He was the most disciplined person I’ve ever known,” says Steffens.
“The most generous. Completely unlike a superstar and without
pretension. He gave away almost all his money. He wasn’t a saint, but
so much of what he did in his life was saintly.”
One area in which he wasn’t a candidate for canonisation was marital
fidelity. In No Woman, No Cry, a biography by his wife Rita and about to
be published locally by Pan Macmillan, Marley is depicted as a man worn
out by endless one-night stands. Steffens springs to his hero’s
defence. “She [Rita] didn’t write about any of the things she was doing
to push Bob out of her life.”
He argues that Marley, the first reggae superstar, was subject to more
temptation than most men. “If you were in Paris one night and had
Princess Caroline, Bianca Jagger and the daughter of the Libyan oil
minister trying to take you home, would you say ‘no, I need my sleep?’
One of the most exciting additions to the archive was found in 1988.
Steffens visited the Miami home of the singer’s mother, Cedella Booker,
and was shown two badly damaged tape reels. The tapes contained
snatches of 13 Marley songs, probably recorded in 1977. One of them was
a demo of We and Dem, a song which appeared on his last studio album,
Uprising, and some believe is about the cancer cells that would kill
“It was just Bob singing in his room with his guitar,” says Steffens.
“When I heard it, I broke down weeping.”