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The Upsetter – Lee Perry remembered on a rare meeting in Kingston

September 2nd, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

(c) Hugh Thomson 1994. The photograph I took of Lee as he sang to me in the burnt out husk of the Black Ark studio.

 

“Who am I? I’m the Mystic Warrior. Because I am what I am, and I am he that I am.  I am a technological man, I am not a reggae star, I am a technological star.  I am [with an intense look past my shoulder] the Upsetter”.

 

When Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry granted me a rare interview on his first visit to Kingston in years, I always knew it would throw up surprises. Here, after all, was a man who had created some of the greatest and wildest reggae songs of all time and was considered eccentric to the point of insanity.  A man who planted the records he made in his garden and watered them.  A man who wore compact discs glued to his baseball cap and mirrors on his trainers so that he could reflect light back over walls to ‘own them’.

Lee had now chosen to live in Switzerland, and rarely, if ever, revisit Jamaica. This last fact was perhaps the most bizarre. Apart from the intriguing thought of quite what his Swiss hosts made of him, or he of them, he had married a Swiss wife some thirty years younger: an eminently sensible woman called Mireille who seemed in a state of mild shock throughout Lee’s return to Kingston after so many years.

For our first meeting, Lee wore a child’s Mickey Mouse stretch lycra trousers. My first thought was that to arrive in Kingston and spend time with Lee Perry was like stepping off a bus in Memphis and bumping into BB King.  My next was that Lee was unusually small.

He only came up to my shoulder – and I’m not tall.  So his intense creative aura radiated even more brightly, helped by those reflecting CDs on his baseball hat. He also never quite met anybody’s eyes, but looked over their shoulder, unnervingly,  as if addressing an alien presence.

He had agreed that I could spend a week with him to give me the true story of his life and career, which he felt had been much maligned. It was by no stretch of the imagination a conventional conversation or interview.  Because the whole time I spent with him traipsing around the back streets of Kingston to his old haunts, Lee never stopped singing at me in Jamaican patois. Often at the top of his voice. He loved an unexpected rhyme, like ‘Johnny Rotten / is not Joseph Cotten.’

Slow down the music! If you don’t stop on and re-wind then you go far into an explosion so we take it back to slow march and then we incarnate it and reincarnate it to where the children of today wish it and want it.  I am a servant of the children.”

Given that much of the week was also spent sampling Kingston’s finest homegrown, the whole experience took on a hallucinatory quality: Lee singing at me non-stop with his beatbox through the backstreets of the city, where it was rare not to hear gunshots at some stage in the proceedings; Rasta rude boys would come up to Lee and shout in his face when he would completely ignore them.

After a while, and when he had come to trust me – or just got used to me being around – Lee took me to the burnt-out husk of The Black Ark studio, in the back-garden of his old family house.  This was a legendary place where from 1973 to 1983 he recorded classic albums like Heart of the Congos, War Ina Babylon and his own innovative dub classics. When we reached the studio, which Lee had not seen for some years, he wandered around the ruins as if lost until he reached his old producer’s desk with wires and burnt metal protruding from it.

Then he switched on the small Yamaha synthesiser he always carried and started singing again.  He continued singing as he wandered round lighting small fires with newspapers.  This was worrying.  I knew he had already burned down the studio once before, in 1983 out of frustration at what he saw, with justification, as the inequities and frustrations of the Jamaican record business. Then he had gone into exile from Kingston.

Our interview of sorts continued.   I lobbed questions into the middle of Lee’s singing and chanting to the Yamaha.  We were alone in the blackened carcass of the old studio, in almost total darkness except for the small flames he had lit. This is where he had created some of his most extreme sounds in the seventies, punched out of a four-track with a bass that could melt a needle into the red and over-laid with sampled sounds from his TV or the bath.

I stood – as there were no chairs and the burnt out concrete looked uninviting – in the middle of the musicians’ area while Lee addressed  me from the producer’s booth, which was positioned overhead, presumably so he could dominate the musical action.  The roof behind him had long fallen in, so he was silhouetted by the backlight as he spoke for hour after hour of his troubles.

Some coherent patterns began to emerge.  Lee disliked being pigeon-holed as ‘a reggae producer’, for he saw Jamaican reggae as parochial and himself as working best with artists from elsewhere. He was proud that he had worked with The Beastie Boys.

He also revealed a deep ambivalence about the Wailers, who he claimed had stolen the principles of his early work from him.  ‘I and I made the music. All the music.’ That he had been a mentor to Marley in the early days before Black Ark, no one disputed. To many – like me  – ‘Crazy Baldhead’ and the tracks before the Wailers went to Island and Chris Blackwell (‘a vampire’ according to Lee) are some of their finest.

He revealed a real love for techno, which he saw as derived from ska; and also an affection for the days of ‘the punky reggae party’ (and for the actual song which he recorded with Marley), even if he was hazy about actual details. It proved impossible to shake him from the conviction that Johnny Rotten was in The Clash. Indeed, over my many days with Lee, I came to realise that the recording switch inside his head was always set to output rather than input. He was not one of the world’s listeners.

One of the first things Lee had done when I met him was to open up his leather suitcase to show me the most important possessions he always carried around:  pressings of his early records and a purple-caped Action Man, together with several changes of costume for it.

Now he started to take these out and line them along the graffitied walls of the Black Ark to ‘reclaim my music’, along with seven carefully arranged piles of stones. He positioned the Action Man on top of one of the piles of stones.  His adult son, who still lived in the house, watched on, but Lee refused to talk to him and Mireille ended up trying to console the man, who not seen his father for many years.

Lee had made it clear over our many hours of conversation that he cared far more about music than people.  He came up very close to me and looked at my ear.

‘So ya see, the drum represents the heart beat.  The bass is the cut, the lion that flies, walking bass, talking bass come from here [he circled his head with his hand], that’s the brain.  Boom, boom, is from here, the heart.’  And he clutched it.

I noticed that for the first time in hours he had stopped singing and gone quiet, so I took the opportunity to slip in a straight question.

“Lee, what do you make of Switzerland?”

He gave me a glare.

“I hate it.”

His eyes focused as if seeing me for the first time after the week we had spent together.

“And who are you?”

 

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