Portland, 2am. Reggae legend and Rasta elder Bunny Wailer dominates the stage, the gold lion perched on his headdress flashing under the lights. His band, stone-faced as only Jamaican rhythm sections can be, slides continually from dancehall to one drop to ska. Wailer’s a veteran, and his adoring fans are transfixed.
After the show, he slumps on a bench in his shadowy tour bus, muted and wrung-out. The band is still buzzing. As they squeeze past with their bath towels and guitar cases, they’re laughing and joking, but Bunny sits apart, hiding behind insectile sunglasses.
At 69 years of age, 60 of them as a musician, his attention often turns inward. The evening’s work behind him, he doesn’t want to talk about music or the tour (“Yes, it’s going okay.”). Questions about home and food seem to bore him. For a moment there’s silence, but then his toothy, mischievous smile peeks out.
“Let’s talk about the herb.”
And suddenly the light returns. I whip out my notebook, but Bunny quickly waves off questions about new strains, legal developments and his enviable endorsement opportunities. He wants to relax and reason. The smoke curls up, and soon his thoughts are on the past, on a barefoot boyhood during the last days of colonial Jamaica, the beginnings of Rasta and the music that became known as reggae.
Much of Bunny’s introduction to that world came through his ganja-farming father, Taddy.
“In my youth days, when I was growing up, I used to help him wrap. I couldn’t even see him on the other side of the piles of bags. He was the master of high-grade.”
Thaddeus Livingston, aka “Taddy Shot,” was a grocer and rum-seller. “Shot” is short for shotta, which is itself short for “shot caller,” meaning ‘rude boy’ or ‘gangsta.’ But Taddy wasn’t a typical outlaw. Bunny continues:
“He was a man who was really focused on marijuana. That was to make sure we could pay school fees, you know. I had brothers and sisters that had to go to school, and that paid for it. That is how I came up in it. The house I live in right now is my dad’s. And here I am now.”
In an early example of vertical integration, Taddy Shot grew, packaged, delivered and sold to the people of Trench Town, using the money to support his growing family. He also founded a religious community in their home in the village of Nine Mile. Bunny took his first musical steps as a drummer in that congregation.
Taddy Livingston also sired a daughter with Bob Marley’s mother, Cedella, making Bob and Bunny step-brothers. They grew close and discovered their mutual love of music. This boyhood friendship marked a turning point for roots reggae, but back then it was just a garage band minus the garage, rehearsing instead on beaches and in fenced yards, harmonizing to a guitar made from a bamboo stick and a sardine can. No joke.
Bunny’s life was often hard. His father had his own use for bamboo: licking his disobedient son with a switch cut from a nearby stalk. Eventually, Marley taught Wailer to carefully notch the whipping stick with a knife so it broke before the punishment was over.
Taddy’s marijuana trade was prosperous, but risky. Jamaican law put marijuana in the “dangerous drug” category. Stiff fines and jail time were on the menu for people who couldn’t pay off the police stalking the alleys of West Kingston. Taddy never got caught. His son wasn’t so lucky.
In 1967, on the verge of long-sought musical success, Neville O’Reilly Livingston was arrested for marijuana possession and sentenced to fourteen months’ hard labor in Kingston’s infamous General Penitentiary. Many still believe Bunny’s arrest was actually a move against his father, Taddy, who was protected by the police, and therefore untouchable.
Bunny’s time in prison changed him. He faced disappointment and rage, the shadow of betrayal. He came to sympathize with the outcasts and criminals, those he called Blackheart Men. This sense of rage and injustice tempered his young soul, as did his swelling devotion to Rastafari. Bunny Wailer emerged from prison a new man, his own man, out from under his father’s shadow, at the dawn of a new age for Jamaica and its music.