Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Feature - Lee 'Scratch' Perry

An old feature, from May 2009, which originally ran in The Drum Media (Sydney).  On re-reading a bit of my older work recently, I decided to repost this one, as I remembered how entertaining the interview, and the subsequent writing, was.

Lee 'Scratch' Perry

In Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s universe, no one can hear you scream.  Whether it’s with laughter at some of his more outrageous claims, or with frustration at not being able to understand his thick Jamaican accent is debateable – either way, Lee ‘Scratch’ is in control, and you are merely there to entertain him. 

For this is a man who, arguably, invented reggae, and who, definitely, invented dub, so basically, in a world where Perry regards himself as god, you are the uninvited guest, so you’re best to just buy the ticket and take the ride. 

It’s one o’clock in the morning when I put through the call.  I get his wife on the phone, who gives me another number to ring.  I call this number and get an automated message bank – in Swiss, for this is where Perry resides these days, in Switzerland.  I call his wife back.  She laughs, and hollers through the house for Perry to turn his phone on.  “Try again,” she says patiently – she’s obviously been through this before.

The reason I’m making this call, is to talk to Perry about his impending trip to Australia, a whistlestop tour incorporating only the one show at the Opera House, a show which holds much significance for the now 73-year-old iconic musical figure.  The reason I’m calling him at one o’clock in the morning, is because it’s four-thirty in the afternoon in Switzerland, and of course, Perry doesn’t get out of bed until at least four.  My nicotine stained fingers grip the phone tighter to stop the caffeine wobbles as I wait, and then he picks up.  “What can I do for you?” he intones after I identify myself a couple of times, and so we begin.

Some background: Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, born Rainford Hugh Perry, and also known as The Upsetter and Pipecock Jaxxon, basically, with his track, People Funny Boy in 1968, invented a sound and style that was later to be called reggae.  A number of years later, due to his incredible production techniques and wont to fuck with mixing boards, he created dub music, and the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1973, after heading a number of labels and releasing music all over the shop, Perry decided he wanted more control, and so in the backyard of his house in Kendal, Jamaica, he built a studio he called the Black Ark.  It was in this literal shack, that Jamaican music was exported to the world, Perry producing the likes of Bob Marley, Junior Byles and Max Romeo within its fibro walls.  Eventually, as Perry’s condition deteriorated, so too did the Ark, and it burned to the ground in the early ‘80s – some claiming it was faulty wiring, Perry himself claiming he did it, “In a fit of rage”, to cleanse the place of, “Bad spirits”, that had begun to inhabit it towards the end.  Yes, the man is an eccentric, which is indeed one reason why we love him.

And so to this Australian tour and the reason it’s so significant for Perry.  In short, on the Opera House Stage as part of the Luminous festival, Perry is recreating the Black Ark, and he and English producer Adrian Sherwood, will be performing in it as if it were 1975 and Jamaican music was at its zenith, surrounded on all sides by fibro walls, the pulsing riddims holding them up and making them shake – this promises to be an experience.  “Yes man, it’ll be Opera Dub you know,” Perry tells me before breaking off to cackle maniacally, as he does many times throughout the interview.  “You will hear something from the Ark of the Covenant… it’s righteous, it’s perfection, it’s perfection… it was perfection, so why should I let it die?  It’ll live, live on stage.”  I remark at this point, that it sounds like this’ll be somewhat of a religious experience for Perry.

“It is, it is a religious experience,” Perry says quite seriously, before that cackle comes rattling down the line once more.  I can’t help but think I’m being taken for a ride here, but hey, it’s an entertaining one, so I press on – I’m keen to know how Perry feels about recreating this period of time, particularly given how badly it ended in the early ‘80s.  “Well, it’s reality, it’s not a joke… the Ark of the Covenant is over your head,” Perry explains, before going on to say something about negativity which I think is him saying it was indeed a negative time, but we can’t live in the past because the Ark of the Covenant is above our heads and this is why it will live on.  As I said, this is a thick Jamaican accent over an international phone line, so please, bare with us.

As for the involvement of English producer Adrian Sherwood, well, therein lies another story.  After the death of the original Black Ark, Perry wandered into the proverbial musical wilderness, his mental condition deteriorating with his music, before, in the early ‘90s, he hooked up with Sherwood and Neil Fraser (aka Mad Professor), and his career began to catch its footing once more.  “Yeah, he treated me like an artist,” Perry explains of Sherwood.  “He does have a knowledge of my music and he does love my music… he knows that I make music to make people happy… he has come to the realisation that it is not a joke, that it is reality.” 

And there’s that cackle again, which I feel in this instance, shows Perry’s delight at working with Sherwood once more, particularly in this setting, which can only mean good things for fans of Perry’s work, and indeed, the staged recreation of the Black Ark Studio, the scene of so much work which has since influenced so many artists.

Perry and Sherwood will front a five-piece dub band on the Opera House stage, and as Perry tells me with yet another laugh, this particular version of the Black Ark will not be burnt come the end of the set.  “No, it certainly won’t end like that,” he cackles. 

So this is where Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is at right now, and looking back at what this character has done, it’s a place he’s pretty happy with.  “I have to thank my teacher, God,” Perry tells me in summation.  “I have to thank him for making me perfect, so I could create this music.” Once again, Perry’s maniacal cackle rolls down the line, and it’s at this point I realise, that my universe will never be the same now that I’ve set foot in Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s, and that’s something that’s fine with me.

Samuel J. Fell

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