Song: Johnny Was
Band: Bob Marley and The Wailers
Johnny Was comes from 1976’s Rastaman Vibration, the eighth album from Bob Marley and The Wailers and a landmark success in terms of popularizing reggae music across the West. The song is steeped in the tragic randomness of life and death in 1970s Kingston Jamaica’s Trenchtown neighbourhood, yet in a larger sense it alludes to the twinned cycles of poverty and violence. Yet at its heart, it encompasses a duality. On the one hand it tells the bitter tale of a woman whose son has died from the cruel trajectory of a stray bullet. On the other hand there is a gentle summation of a life lived, loved, then lost - as expressed in the mesmerizing refrain; Marley’s voice sweetly rises and falls in a lilting succession of notes as he testifies about how Johnny was a good, good man.
On the face of it, the two sides ought not to be reconcilable, but the song feels like it’s all of a piece. In its sheer brevity, the title sums up the tale’s essence.
Posted by Max MacDonald