AN EMAIL TO JOSHUA MARIE WILKINSON
My Dear JMW:
My buddy Steve Ramsay had recently been up to some innovative shit in humanities computing—so innovative Stanley Fish attacked him in the NY Times (look it up)—then he got burnt from such rigors and decided to become a sound artist, and he did. One day he called me and said he had access to a huge database of the acoustic conditions of various rooms from all over the world—that’s to say, a digital reading of the ambient acoustics of a given interesting room—and would I write a piece to fit one of these rooms, perhaps as a template for a more ambitious, grant-funded project in which we’d solicit various poets to write about various locations they couldn’t physically get to, then record them reading the commissioned piece and mix the recording to the conditions of the location they were writing about? I said, fuck, yeah. He told me he had the settings for Bob Marley’s bathroom, and I said, say no more. I was ready to write the story of that room, but it took about a month of sessions before I got at Steve with a fully written text. I recorded the text as flat as possible, and sent it to Steve to perform his audio voodoo upon. I received, at length, the following email:
AN EMAIL TO GARRETT CAPLES
Well, I think the piece is finally done (and should be coming to you through sendspace). Here’s some language for how I would describe what I did. As always, feel free to add, change, delete, etc.
This recording of Garrett Caples’s “Inventory of the Contents of Bob Marley’s Bathroom” tries to recreate (using software) the acoustic conditions of the upstairs bathroom at Basing Street Studios in London where Bob Marley lived for a time in the late ’70s.
The most important of these technical interventions is the use of “impulse responses” from the actual bathroom itself. This allowed us to create a more–or–less perfect impression of the reverberation of the room. We also made liberal use of emulations of period hardware, including a Helios 69 equalizer, a British-style gate (noise reducer), a UA 1176 limiting amplifier, and two widely–used reel–to–reel tape machines: a Studer A800 multichannel recorder and an Ampex ATR–102 mastering machine. The last two are in lieu of the actual tape equipment used on Marley’s later albums, which are fragile and only rarely emulated in software. However, we have set the equipment to approximate the settings that would have been used for reggae albums during the period.
The result is something between a contemporary performance and a period performance—a prose poem placed into a sonic past.
A RETURN TO AN EMAIL TO JOSHUA MARIE WILKINSON
Steve’s exposition is all well and good, except that I’d misinterpreted his reference to the acoustic conditions of Bob Marley’s bathroom to mean the bathroom at the house at 56 Hope Road, Kingston, Jamaica, which is the house Island Records founder Chris Blackwell bequeathed to his signées The Wailers in the early seventies, so I wrote my description as though a docent at the present museum of Bob Marley located at that addresss. Thus we have a description of Bob Marley’s Kingston, JA bathroom as though recorded in Bob Marley’s London, UK bathroom, somewhat defeating the purpose of the whole thought experiment. And yet, from a Bourgesian perspective, is it not exactly right that the digital falsification of authentic sonic conditions should be given the lie through a completely human misinterpretation? I dunno, J, bottom line is I thought you might get a kick of this in a postmodernist sort of way. Anyway, text appears below and audio file is coming your way via sendspace, so please consider it all a submission to thevolta.
Much love, g!
INVENTORY OF THE CONTENTS OF BOB MARLEY’S BATHROOM
The bathroom at 56 Hope Road has been preserved largely as Bob Marley left it before his untimely death in 1981. You will notice there are no razor blades to be found. In this Grace Tomato Ketchup promotional ashtray on the back of the toilet tank you will find the roach of the last joint Bob Marley smoked in his native Jamaica before he flew to Germany for the alternative cancer therapy that proved tragically ineffective. Next to this is a lion–themed cigarette lighter given to him by a female fan after a show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco during his penultimate American tour. Next to that is an incense burner made in China but purchased in São Paulo, Brazil in 1978 on the day Bob Marley met his football idol, Pelé. It’s a long thin wooden boat curved at one end where it holds a burnt stick of sandalwood incense used to disguise the odor from the last bowel movement Bob Marley ever enjoyed in Jamaica. It is said he would strip entirely naked before relieving himself.
Hanging on a rack below the window is a large olive green terry cloth towel with a surprisingly high thread count that Bob Marley appropriated from a hotel in Zurich, Switzerland and dried off with after his last Jamaican shower. Inside the clawfoot bathtub originally installed by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell before gifting the house to Bob Marley, you will find a nineteenth-century Japanese lacquered breakfast tray lent to him by Keith Richards sometime in the mid-’70s and covered with hundreds of hemp seeds, which he was accustomed to feed to the birds on his doorstep as alluded to in the song “Three Little Birds.” Hanging from the showerhead is a small wicker shelf holding a bottle of Natty Professor, a dreadlock treatment of unknown active ingredients purchased by Bob Marley in Roxbury, Massachusetts before his appearance at the Amandla Festival in Boston in July 1979. In the soapdish hanging from a wire frame over the side of the tub, a small red bar of Lifebuoy soap has gradually grown desiccated with the passage of 30-odd years. The tiles on the wall next to the tub are blue and white, with intermittent nautical motifs (a starfish, an anchor, etc.). A flimsy plastic shower curtain of indeterminate shade hangs from a rod moldering.
On the sill of the window between toilet and tub, a variety of objects resides, including an ashtray made from an abalone shell, which contains three more roaches from an indeterminate date, along with a wooden toothpick, smeared with hemp resin and used to unclog a small meerschaum pipe with a bowl carved into a lion’s head, which Bob Marley purchased in Soho, London in 1968. The bowl is scorched with burnt resin and has turned almost translucent amber, while the amberoid stem is cracked from an incident in 1973, when Bob Marley dropped the pipe and Peter Tosh stepped on it. Next to the pipe is a thick beeswax candle given Bob Marley by a local beekeeper in exchange for a copy of Uprising and melted directly onto the sill. Next to the candle is a leather wristband with “B*O*B**M*A*R*L*E*Y” stamped on it, which Bob Marley purchased at the Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, Maryland during the period in 1966 when he lived with his mother in Wilmington, Delaware. Next to that is the gold inlaid onyx ring that Bob Marley wears on the cover of Legend and rather remarkably hasn’t been stolen or sold.
The basin housed by the vanity in Bob Marley’s bathroom is salmon pink, matching the toilet though notably clashing with the white enamel tub and the blue and white nautically themed tiles. The basin itself is scalloped while the two old-fashioned taps run hot and cold water separately. The plug for the drain has long since gone missing. To the right of the basin within reach of the toilet is a small stack of water-damaged magazines, including the January 1981 issue of Rolling Stone with a clothed Yoko Ono and naked John Lennon on the cover, reporting on the ex-Beatle’s assassination the month before. On top of the stack of magazines is a slim, chipboard-bound 1928 edition of Minutes of Proceedings of the Meeting Held at the Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London, S.W., England by Marcus Garvey, which Bob Marley purchased at Moe’s Books in Berkeley, California in 1975. To the left of the basin is an impromptu altar established by Bob Marley in September 1974, consisting of three white wax candles against which is propped a postcard of Hailie Selassie, covered in wax dripped from the candles. In front of this altar is an open pack of medium-gauge Black Diamond guitar strings missing the b-string because the b-string most frequently broke on Bob Marley’s sunburst Fender Stratocaster due to a minor flaw in the bridge.
The vanity contains two drawers. In the left drawer are a pair of dirty football cleats, a crumpled 1974 FIFA World Cup wall calendar, an eight-track cartridge of Bunny Wailer’s 1976 debut solo album Blackheart Man, a Gibson medium tortoise–shell guitar pick, a heavy black guitar pick of questionable origin with a marijuana leaf depicted on one side, a stretchy rainbow fabric capo, and a heavily creased blue airmail letter from Eric Clapton written in 1974 but not read by Bob Marley until 1975, due to the pressures of touring. The right-hand drawer, closest to the toilet, contains an assortment of feminine hygiene products, including several loose Tampax tampons, a half-full box of Kotex beltless sanitary napkins, and one gigantic Modess pad attached to an elasticized belt, these having been installed in 1977 by 1976 Miss World and subsequent Bob Marley mistress Cindy Breakspeare. It is said that Bob Marley never once opened this drawer.
The mirror over the vanity in Bob Marley’s bathroom depicts a variety of ghostly scenarios behind the viewer’s back. I remember gazing there and seeing Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, and Peter Tosh standing in the tub rehearsing the vocal arrangement of “Hammer,” despite the fact they last recorded the song in 1968, at least three years before even meeting Chris Blackwell, let alone assuming ownership of his house at 56 Hope Road. This is to say, don’t look in the bathroom mirror if you can help it. The wastebasket in Bob Marley’s bathroom contains a single bandage from Bob Marley’s gangrenous toe. The bandage lies there, ostentatious, flaunting ill-health the way relics of Catholic martyrs might ooze from below an altar cloth. “Are you ready to partake?” they might ask. “Are you ready to die for a belief?” The mirror replies, “I am.”
INVENTORY OF THE CONTENTS OF BOB MARLEY’S BATHROOM