When Bob Marley and the band arrived in Toronto, the entire Island Records of Canada staff -- all 3 of us -- headed on over to Convocation Hall for some meeting and greeting, and for me to pick up the audio tapes. These live concert recordings were of the first 5 dates on the tour and had been smuggled into Canada by the band. Now I had to smuggle them back into the United States.
The dressing room at Convocation Hall was about 15'x15'. When we arrived we could barely see across the room due to all the ganja smoke. Marley and the band had a lot of friends in Toronto's Jamaican community and they had already delivered the sacramental herb. My first shock was that Bob Marley was no taller than I am. I had only seen pictures and videos of him on stage and he seemed like a giant. Yet, he must have clocked in at 5'7", or so, because we were standing there looking eye to eye. And that's when the spliff came around to us.
Did I say spliff? This was an uber-spliff. This was the spliff to end all spliffs. Imagine something the size and basic shape of a baseball bat, with the fat end -- the business end -- -- the burning end!!! -- as big around as a softball. It tapered to a point and the whole thing was wrapped in a newspaper.
IT WAS THE HARSHEST THING I EVER INHALED IN MY ENTIRE LIFE!!!
I started coughing -- no, choking -- and Bob Marley thought it was the funniest thing he'd ever seen in his entire life. My second shock about Bob Marley: He giggled like a little girl. A happy, infectious, crowd-affecting laugh that had me laughing, even as the tears streamed down my cheeks. He put his arm around my shoulders and rocked at the waist with laughter. So did I. I took a 2nd haul, which was more successful than the first, passed it back to Marley, and then we got on to business.
The tour manager handed me my charges: Five, two inch, 24-track audio tapes in cardboard boxes, making it a loose stack almost a foot high. Today this could be put on a thumb drive. Back then this was the only available storage device. My mission: take these tapes, fly them to New York City on my lap, and put them directly into the hands of Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. The tapes are to never leave my sight. The tapes are not to be x-rayed. I am to give them to no one other than Chris Blackwell. Most importantly: When crossing the border I must never admit that the tapes contain live concert recordings. No one knew what the duty on such a thing might be and no one wanted to admit these tapes never should have been smuggled into Canada in the first place.
I never like to leave a smoke-filled room, especially one with Bob Marley in it, but there was only so much time to make my flight to New York. I grabbed the awkward pile of tapes and took them my car, one of a series a of Volkswagon Beetles I owned in the day, with the most amazing sound system in it for the day. It was like sitting in a set of headphones. I slipped in the cassette Bob Marley and the Wailers "Live! and cranked it up as loud as I could stand. If I was going to miss the concert at least I could have a concert in the car.
Crank it up!!!
The papers were all 8.5 x 11 photocopied sheets, with all the recording info for each track written in hand. I realized 2 things immediately: 1). There were no other copies of these documents, I had the originals; 2). How can I say I don't know what's on these tapes if what's on these tapes is written on pieces of paper and stored right with the tapes? I opened all the boxes, took out all the paper, folded them up and put them in my pocket, and waited for the next shuttle bus.
Pearson Airport was a lot smaller in those days. Then, as now, travelers pass through U.S. Customs at the Toronto airport. Before you are funneled to your gate, you must satisfy the U.S. Border Patrol in Toronto. Once you pass that checkpoint, you are technically in the U.S. I managed to satisfy the officer on identity and citizenship, but, as you have probably guessed already, got tripped up on the tapes, which I refused to allow them to x-ray. This is an approximation of how that went.
"You're more than welcome to examine them, but my instructions are they cannot be x-rayed because that would destroy what's on the tapes."
He examines them and satisfies himself that the tapes are just tapes, but he's never seen 2-inch audio tape before, so he's a bit confused.
"What's on the tapes?"
"I don't know. I'm merely a messenger."
Now he's really confused.
"Hang on a second."
He brings another U.S. Customs guy who is higher up the food chain to look at the tapes.
"What's on the tapes?"
"I don't know. I'm just a messenger."
"Hang on a second."
They both go off to have a private discussion in a room with a window that I can look into. I see them drag a few more Custom agents into the room. A huge discussion ensues and I'm starting to wonder if I need to proclaim my 'Merkin citizenship to get into 'Merka with these tapes.
All this time the clock is doing its thing: Tick, tock, boys! Let's get it on. I've got a flight to catch. All the time they're quite pleasant and I'm quite pleasant, but I'm starting to get insistent that I have to get to New York City by a certain time. I know there is only a 2-hour window before Chris Blackwell has to fly to London with the tapes. If I miss that connection I might have to fly to London to deliver the tapes and I didn't pack for that. For that matter, I didn't pack for New York City. All I was carrying were the tapes.
Meanwhile, I missed my flight while these custom agents were arguing amongst themselves. It turned out that what was causing the delay is that they had to charge me duty on the audio tape. However, there were no references to 2-inch tape in the Big Book of Import Duties. They couldn't let me into the States before I paid duty on the tape, but they didn't know what to charge me.
Remember when everyone didn't carry a phone in their pocket? The next argument I had with them was that I had to use their phone to call the office to get further instructions now that they caused me to miss my plane.
"You can't use the phone while you're here."
I argued that it was their dithering that made me miss my flight. I'm just a courier. I not only need further instructions, but needed someone from the office to rebook my flight if they still wanted me to effect delivery. That was a 15 minute argument that I finally won, as I got louder and louder. Eventually I got Kathy Hahn on the phone in the middle of what was a very hectic day for her. She said she'd take care of it. However, she needed a number where she could call me back.
"What's the number here?"
"You can't have people calling you here!"
However, they said I could use the phone as much as I needed while they sorted out their problem. I had just successfully turned the U.S. Customs' telephone into my personal office. I made several more quick calls and then waited for about 15 minutes more minutes before one of the geniuses at U.S. Customs had a breakthrough of his own. Since the book gave them the duty for a cassette tape, which is an eighth of an inch, why not multiply that by 16 to get the duty for a 2 inch tape? We all celebrated that an answer to our conundrum presented itself. Now came a new conundrum.
"How long is the tape?"
"How the hell am I supposed to know? And, we're not laying it out on the ground to measure it."
"Is it 50 feet?"
"Yeah, sure, okay, let's say it's 50 feet."
They took out a calculator and starting hitting the buttons. "Fifty feet, times an eighth inch, times 16 equals . . . "
I can't remember the exact price of the duty, but let's pretend it was $34.72. I had $35.00 in my pocket, just enough to pay the duty, but not enough left over for anything else. I paid the duty and called the office. Kathy had managed to book me on another plane to New York. However, what would have been a conversation with Chris Blackwell lasting an hour and a half, would be reduced to a half hour.
My new flight was delayed 15 minutes getting off the ground and I started wondering whether I would end up in London before my next sleep. Toronto to NYC is a mere puddle-jump and no sooner than you get to cruising altitude than it's time to start your descent. I glanced at my watch and realized it was going to be touch and go. Blackwell's flight to London was imminent and I am already several hours late. Will he even be at the gate to meet me?
The first and only time I was ever in Chris Blackwell's presence.
I had the company credit card. I could go have a bacchanalian night in New York City on the company's dime. However, I just happened to look up at the departure board and saw that there was a flight back to Toronto leaving almost immediately. If I made that flight, it might not be a total loss; I might be able to catch some of the 2nd Marley concert after all. Amazingly there were still seats on that plane. I paid for the tickets with the Island Records credit card and boarded almost immediately. The flight got off the ground on time and there were no other delays. For the first time all day things are going smoothly.
We landed at Pearson Airport. where I caught shuttle bus back to the parking lot, jumped into my car, and cranked up the music. Then I raced down the 427 to the QEW, shot across to the Gardiner and then over to Spadina, screamed north, dodging streetcars and pedestrians in Chinatown, and over to the U of T campus. I drove right up onto the sidewalk to the side door of Convocation Hall.
I no sooner pulled up to the building than the doors opened and the audience rushed out, trapping me and my car for the next 20 minutes while a cop argued I couldn't park there. I missed both Bob Marley concerts. What's worse, I spent less time with Chris Blackwell than I had Bob Marley and I only spent 5 minutes with Marley.
And, that kiddies, is the story of the day I met Bob Marley. Island Records was very gracious and paid to have me go see Bob Marley and the Wailers in concert at Detroit's Masonic Temple. I also hooked a vacation in Detroit, my home town, visiting family and friends before I went back to Toronto.