Always one to defiantly and gleefully flaunt convention, Lee “Scratch” Perry sees himself as a channel for the music he makes — and for the healing of his fans.
By Naila Francis
Lee “Scratch” Perry is a man of iconic status, though many may point as much to his wild eccentricity as his creative genius in validating that mantel of legend. And in conversation, Perry, a pioneering influence in the development of dub music in Jamaica and of the “scratch” turntable effect used by DJs, proves to be both. At 71 years of age, the prolific songwriter, producer and performer is still making music and touring. He stops at the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on Sunday, supporting his latest — and according to many, his best in several years — CD, “Panic in Babylon.”
“It doesn’t look like I can retire,” says Perry, speaking from his home in Switzerland, where he lives with his wife Mireille and two children. “I was about to retire but then I discovered that the people need me. Many people show that they need the knowledge, wisdom and understanding. I am here to help the people that believe in me and my music, so it looks like I have no chance of retiring.”
Here, Perry strikes that enigmatic chord. Undeniably quirky, his songs tend to the illuminating and the illogical, sage insight and searing social and political commentary sharing space with the inane and disjointed ramblings of a man who obviously delights in being the center of his own bizarre universe.
“Everything I’m saying in my music and my records are these positive words that I’m hearing from space — the inner space in my head and the outer space in the firmament,” he says, of his stream-of-consciousness lyrics, which take on everything from political corruption and global unease to the healing power of love and music on “Panic in Babylon.” “I hear when angels sing and I hear when angels talk. I see when lightning flashes and I hear when thunder rolls. When lightning flashes, it’s a message and the message comes into my body.”
This Perry shares after frankly stating that inspiration strikes “when I go sit on my throne and my toilet tells me everything that I must tell my people.” That he is serious about this correlation between the elimination of the body’s waste and the messages flowing to him is evident when he emphasizes that he is attempting to be neither rude nor crass but simply explaining how his creation process is sparked.
Throw in bits of Bible verses, his belief in the power of X — try crossing the wedding ring finger and the index finger of the right hand over the heart as proof, he instructs — and a rambling testament to the sustaining force of water as his religion, and some may wonder how he manages to create anything at all. But with a career whose beginnings date back to the ska movement of the ’50s — the “Scratch” moniker comes from the single he cut in 1959, “Chicken Scratch” — and more than 40 albums to his credit, including 2002’s Grammy-winning “Jamaican E.T.,” there is obviously much more to Perry than his outlandishness.
Born Rainford Hugh Perry in Jamaica’s Hanover parish, he was one of dub’s emerging artists, his fascination in the ’70s with drum machines, phasers, reverb and other new technology pushing him to cram more than a dozen tracks of bass and drum onto basic four-track equipment, while experimenting with rock, ambient music and other layers of sound. Yet while he is widely credited as an influential force in reggae, too, it is a term Perry shuns, though he is not too crazy about dub — the sound created by stripping the vocals from a track to leave its raw rhythms — either. He is, after all, a producer known as much for his work with reggae legends like Bob Marley and Toots and the Maytals as he is for artists like The Clash, Robert Palmer and even Linda McCartney.
“I was making culture music. I love jazz music and I love pop music and I love disco music and I was making this type of music in a different vibration before the name reggae came, but in a Jamaican beat,” he says. “But when the name reggae came, they called everything reggae. Everybody calls Jamaican music reggae. Reggae is just a dance and people dance out of mind and out of time.
“My kind of music, it took me a long time to accept that they want to call it reggae. My music — I would call it spiritual music, God music, healing music, Jesus music or something like that. My music heals brains, helps broken hearts. … It’s not coming from my brain as reggae, it’s coming from someplace special.”
Though his lyrics may seem crude at times, given his frankness on just about every subject, Perry believes he has only positive words to share. And so “Panic in Babylon,” a hypnotic foray into densely churning grooves, eclectic sampling, spacey interludes and his signature studio wizardry, finds him spouting lines that attest to his healing powers, the abundance of love he has to share and his determination to see good triumph over evil. Despite the occasional bursts of braggadocio and downright silliness — “I’m Dr. Tick. I’m Dr. Quick and I am Dr. Nick. I says to Dr. Tree I am Dr. Tree,” he intones on one particularly blustering track — critics are hailing a greater lucidity that Perry himself attributes to his having given up smoking and alcohol.
“It was getting in my way. The things I wanted to say I could not say because when alcohol speaks, alcohol is not pure, and when cigarettes speak, cigarettes are not pure,” he says. “I’m not talking too loud anymore. I don’t have to. I am me and I am I. When I put alcohol away and when I put nicotine away, I saved my life and saved myself. I am glad I did that because if I did not do that I don’t know what would happen to me.
“Some people think my music might not be stronger because I stopped smoking, but my music’s cleaner and the energy I send out is pure — healing knowledge and healing spirit.”
It’s this purity of intent that seems to elevate his music from the challenging to the compelling.
And if he cares not for convention, it’s the way he’s always been.
“When I was young, I wanted to be educated by school knowledge and this could not happen. I tried to learn it in school and could not learn it. My knowledge comes from the plants, the trees, the breeze, the flowers, the roses and the earth,” says the man who as a teen was a dancer and domino player of local renown. “When I’m feeling sick, for instance, instead of going to a doctor, I lay down on the earth and put my heart to meditate on the earth and the earth will heal my heart and whatever pain is in my body draw it out of my body completely. I don’t have much contact with doctors.”
For all his mythical past — the supposed burning down of his own Black Ark studio in Jamaica, odd displays of public behavior and floundering creative periods where he disappeared only to resurface in places like Amsterdam and England — there is the sense that Perry is content with who he is and the life that he has fashioned.
“I am just a servant of the Most High,” he says. “If I’m not a magic box, maybe I’m an electric machine or something like that so I can transpose or teleport my music to my fans. If a few hundred people come out to my show or a few thousand, it doesn’t matter because I’m doing God’s work.”
– The Intelligencer