Lee "Scratch" Perry
at House of Blues, February 23
By Joshua Green
There's a tacit understanding among hard-core reggae fans that when a critic refers to a performer as "the next Bob Marley" he's either ignorant, lazy, or both. Lately a similar disdain has developed for writers who deify Lee "Scratch" Perry without regard to the horrific quality of his recent recordings and performances.
Perry's importance in musical history is indisputable. One of reggae's most skilled producers and talent scouts in the 60s and 70s, he shaped some of Marley and the Wailers' best music and ushered lesser talents like Max Romeo and Junior Byles to stardom. He revolutionized the art of dub and prompted a seismic shift in the way reggae was made. But Perry's as well-known for being a nut as anything else. He decorated the gates to his Black Ark studio with old electric toasters; he hollowed out a portion of the floor to make a duck pond, then put a drum riser on a bridge above it. In 1980, shortly after he was seen walking through Kingston backward, striking the ground with a hammer, the studio mysteriously burned down. At the time he blamed it on faulty wiring; he was held on arson charges for three days before being released for lack of evidence. But he's claimed in subsequent interviews, including one I conducted in 1997, that he was indeed the culprit.
As dub has resurfaced as an important influence on avant-garde pop music, Perry's career--and his crazy history--have reemerged with it. He's been lionized by the Beastie Boys, who lent him a load of new credibility with a feature in their Grand Royal magazine and a cameo on Hello Nasty, and by the mainstream press, who dutifully pushed him into the spotlight following the high-profile release of his Arkology box set two years ago.
Arkology was a solid but unremarkable collection of Perry's dub work from the late 70s. It demonstrated his genius as a knob twiddler but showcased little of his singing, a distinction that would soon become noteworthy. Reviewers for the glossies fell all over themselves praising him: "In the '90s, his legend looms larger than ever," trumpeted Details. "No matter where you stand, Perry's certain to launch your notions of songs and production (not to mention sanity) into outer space," burbled Spin. These vague superlatives led to the popular misconception that Perry, who was returning to the stage after a 16-year absence, was an act not to be missed. He wasn't. As Stephen Davis and Peter Simon had already noted in Reggae International, Perry's previous American tour, in 1981, was "the worst in reggae history"; there was no reason to think this one would be any better.
You see, over the years Perry has switched his focus from producing to singing--the least of his musical skills. England's Mad Professor has produced most of his studio work, like the 1995 Experryments at the Grass Roots of Dub and the recent Fire in Dub, and released them on his Ariwa label. Though they've got Perry's name on the front, both these albums serve mainly as a showcase for Mad Professor's not insubstantial producing talents. Perry is just another instrument in the mix; snippets of his strange chants are incorporated into heavily psychedelic dub. But on the straightforward reggae album that came out as a companion to Fire in Dub, called Dub Fire, Perry's voice is fully exposed in all its faltering weakness.
This isn't too surprising if you're familiar with Perry's early career. He's always fought to sing more, and for a long time no one would let him, not just because his scratchy croak is an acquired taste but also because of the same erratic behavior that endears him to critics in retrospect. He was spurned in the 50s by Duke Reid and later by his boss and mentor Coxsone Dodd. Though he managed a few ska hits under Dodd--including "Chicken Scratch," from which his nickname is derived--Perry eventually quit, claiming the legendary Studio One producer thought "that I didn't have a good voice to sing." Now his handlers are either too greedy or too nice to tell him the same.
Perry felt undercompensated and misunderstood throughout his early career, which made him difficult to work with on one level. But at other times he was just plain quarrelsome. Members of the Clash hired him to produce an album, but found him so impossible that they left after completing only one track, "Complete Control," which was released as a single in 1977 and added to the U.S. version of The Clash in 1979. Dodd and Perry's subsequent collaborator Joe Gibbs became the targets of scathing musical diatribes, including "People Funny Boy," a knock on Gibbs, and "The Upsetter," a signature swipe at Dodd. Ironically, "People Funny Boy" became a success more for Perry's innovative use of African rhythms than for his vocals--even the liner notes to Arkology say as much.
By 1975, Perry had all but given up singing; he claimed in an interview at the time that he preferred to make instrumentals like the spaghetti western theme "Return of Django" and the dubbed-out, jaggedy "Medical Operation." But last Tuesday at House of Blues, two decades and one media honeymoon later, Perry was back in front of the mike. Decked out in a spangled hat and high-tops, he seemed intent on creating a spectacle. In this regard, the show was a success. He brought a gym bag full of props--candles, bottles, joints, and a bicycle horn--and alternately declared himself Peter Pan, Jesus Christ, Marco Polo, and an extraterrestrial. He shrieked, duckwalked, skipped, and stomped through a sluggish set that relied heavily on covers.
To suggest that Perry was singing badly presumes that the strange noises emanating from his throat were an attempt at song. I don't think they were. When he wasn't making funny nonverbal sounds, he opted for a combination of chanting and muttering that occasionally rhymed but didn't follow any sort of linear pattern. This rendered the set list virtually irrelevant. Technically, he did songs by singers he'd produced--Marley's "Crazy Baldheads," Romeo's "War in a Babylon," Junior Byles's "Place Called Africa," and his own old hits "Doctor Dick" and "Roast Fish & Corn Bread." But he didn't get far beyond the first verse of any of these before launching into a garbled diatribe, obviously testing the patience of his stoic backing band, the Robotiks. The show was mixed by Mad Professor, who added regular blasts of echo and reverb. But he either had far fewer weapons at his disposal than he does in the studio or he chose not to use them.
While the crowd was initially charmed by Perry's sprightly stage presence, even those keeping pace with his massive marijuana consumption looked bored and confused an hour into the show. When during one rant Perry declared that Michael Jackson was a fake, I heard grumbles to the effect that the gloved one had company. This is Perry's third tour since Arkology's release, and despite little improvement in his performances, he's still trotted out as a mystic and a legend. But in truth he's more like a sad, shabby reggae mascot. His singing belongs in the same category as Jewel's poetry and rappers who act--it's a curiosity to be experienced at your own risk.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lee Perry photo by Marty Perez.