Vivien Goldman detects method in the madness of the legendary reggae artist Lee "Scratch" P
On the night Lee "Scratch" Perry performed at the New York venue B B King's last month, the news came through that the 1960s ska master Desmond Dekker had died. It seems that the first wave of Jamaican stars is becoming a rare species, historic monuments worthy of preservation orders.
Yet, although he began working around the time of Jamaican independence (he is 70), few performers can match the charisma of the wry, spry and ageless Scratch. His influence is un- disputed, from the beginnings of his career as a writer and producer at the legendary reggae hothouse Studio One to his 1970s productions at his own studio, the Black Ark, which helped transform Bob Marley and the Wailers from rudeboys to rasta revolutionaries.
Though he now resides in Switzerland, Scratch remains a figurehead for his homeland's cultural heritage. Wreathed in smoke from a stick of incense stuck in his hat, he interrupted his B B King's set to ask for water, with which he promptly sprinkled the audience in an un- expected blessing. All very High Church, and also extremely Jamaican - or perhaps, more accurately, African.
"I remember Scratch coming in to record the Wailers in our studio above my family's record shop, Randy's, in the early 1960s," recalls the Jamaican producer Clive Chin, whose father, Vincent, launched the influential reggae record label VP. "He would come in early and sprinkle white rum in the four corners of the studio for a good session. He wouldn't sing to the musicians to describe the sound he wanted: he would do something outlandish like jump his left knee towards his right ear, to explain how far out he wanted them to push the sound."
Of the many producers I have seen in action, none has touched Scratch for sheer agility. Sound seems to hit him physically. Working at the Black Ark in the 1970s, he would jitterbug with his four-track TEAC recorder. With every dip, twirl and swift flash of a fader, he would send sound soaring in abstract directions, scattering beats and tones like sparkly confetti.
If you make it to his shows at the Jazz Café in London this month, expect a seance, an encounter with a Caribbean shaman. His live performances, however, sometimes fail to match the extravagance of his classic productions. "Scratch built his reputation as a producer, not an artist," says the reggae archivist Carter van Pelt. "But his personality on stage is intriguing for anyone who likes a good laugh, because he's an entertaining guy to watch in action."
Scratch is the archetypical outsider, and some of his more bizarre behaviour has been well documented. On one occasion he declared that the coconut was God. Of course, when he explained the thinking behind this to me in his Kingston yard in the 1970s, he was quite convincing. The coconut does indeed supply many human needs, from the meat to the milk, and, obviously, those versatile hairy husks can be woven for shelter. So if natural functionality is anything to go by, all hail the great coconut.
They have other uses, too. "I remember Scratch busting into the offices of Trojan Records, which owed him royalties at the time. He was with two big bodyguards, shaking a big coconut and shouting, 'I man come fe sabotage!'," recalls Chin, imitating Scratch's unearthly yowl. "The managing director was terrified, and immediately instructed someone to cut a cheque."
Over the years, Scratch's eccentricity has only added to his appeal. He fixes the audience with a slightly distant, transcendent gaze, and free- associates a helter-skelter rush of metaphysics, offering a glimpse into a parallel universe located somewhere nor' by nor'west of his fellow conspiracy theorist David Icke. He is too paranoid to use e-mail, and he once suggested to me that aliens were involved in the destruction of the World Trade Center.
There are those, however, who suspect that there is method in his madness. "He acts mad to keep people at a distance. He doesn't let people get close," says Chin. The guitarist Dave Hahn, of Perry's collaborators Dub is a Weapon, says that "when he's talking about other things, Scratch tends to reach for other states of mind, so to speak. But when we discuss the show, he's a regular musician."
There are many examples of reason being detected within Scratch's surreal rhyme. Viewers of the 1980s pop show The Tube may recall a baffled Jools Holland spotting an electric toaster stuck up a mango tree outside Scratch's bungalow. But Jamaican DJs are known as "toasters", and at that point, Scratch was sick of them. He insisted that they, along with all the dreadlocked Rastas who dominated Jamaican cultural discourse then as now, were holding the world in a "dead lock". Not long afterwards, Scratch manifested his disillusionment by burning down the Black Ark studio in which he'd coaxed thrilling sounds from local vocalists, including the Heptones, Junior Murvin and the Congos.
Since the Black Ark days, Scratch has cut apocalypse-themed albums with some of the more avant-garde producers in reggae, notably Britain's own Adrian Sherwood, Dub Syndicate and the Mad Professor, as well as New York's Bullwackies. Like Woody Allen's joke about the fans who always beg him to go back to "the early, funny ones", many reggae purists miss Scratch's early, rootsy music. They find it jarring to hear his familiar gruff rasp riding techno or garage-style beats. But Hahn defends Scratch's progression. "He tries to stay current. I always like it when musicians don't stand still," he says.
Whatever mutation the elfin Scratch may next spring on us, there will always be a poetic truth to his most startling statements. His wife, Mireille, is white, and he often sings favourably about racial integration. A comment he made on stage in New York might intrigue critics of multiculturalism: "Everyone is black, because everyone's shadow is black."
Lee "Scratch" Perry plays from 15-17 June at the Jazz Café, London NW1 (0870 060 3777)
"The Book of Exodus: the making and meaning of Bob Marley and the Wailers' album of the century" by Vivien Goldman is published by Aurum Press in August
Where to hear the best of Scratch
Return of the Super Ape (1978)
Bob Marley and the Wailers: the early years (1969-73) box set (1993)
Arkology box set (1997)
The Best of the Upsetters: return of Django (2002)