Monday, May 25, 2009
Seeing Lee Scratch Perry perform live is a lot like the classic tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. A huge crowd has gathered, eagerly anticipating a monumental appearance of a very important figure. Hype is fever pitch because the media have been telling anyone and everyone that the man who gave Bob Marley his style (and backing band), the producer of “Police and Thieves”, a madman who burned down his own world-class hit studio in the back yard of his house, IS COMING TO OUR TOWN.
Like the king’s tailor in the old tale, who blew smoke up the king’s ass on a regular basis, Scratch’s current record company (different for each new album) has been pounding the waves with tales of his madness and eccentricity. People are on the edge of their heels to catch a glimpse of Bob Marley’s friend and maybe even shake his hand.
Scratch takes the stage very late to much fanfare, overdressed in bright colors. On his head a custom made hat that he fabricated with a glue gun, mirrors and knickknacks over a baseball cap, on his feet are boots that he individualized with similar mirrors etc. In his hands are his water bottle, bible and other personal effects, along with an elaborately embellished microphone not unlike the hat and boots. One night he even had a bright foil Happy Birthday balloon trailing from his hands to hilarious effect.
The crowd’s reaction is immediately loud and approving: they laugh at Scratch’s short stature and crazy clothes, and they are charmed. Women say he is a cute man, and brothers want to get high with him. He was Bob Marley’s friend and producer!
The first song settles in, and everyone is a little surprised at it’s absolute mediocrity- surely Scratch will warm up and really get into it tonight. In fact it’s kind of shitty-has he lost his voice or something?
The drummer counts the next tune, rolls and comes in. The band settles into another one of Scratch’s famous rhythms like “Curly Locks” or “Roast Fish and Cornbread”, and Scratch paces the stage, anointing it occasionally with “holy water” from his plastic bottle, and muttering rhymes like “Super ape/super tape/super ape/super grape…”.
Some people, like the crowd in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, are wondering to themselves “Does Scratch really suck, or is it just me?”. Many individuals in the throng aren’t paying enough attention, or don’t really know the difference.
Further tunes ensue, drawing from Scratch’s vast catalog of music. He pulls off the cap long enough for everyone to see that he is not a bald old man. He has a neatly combed grey afro, a trick Bo Diddley also used onstage in later shows. Scratch is physically fit, and quite sane really. Although he has never been known as a gifted vocalist (“Roast Fish and Cornbread” is an example of him really trying hard, “Captive” is a well done vocal single), Scratch has always had vibes galore. The crowd begins to pick up on his bitterness, and rhymes like “I am the pussy man, I am the cocky man” and his misogynistic comments turn women off completely. He may think it is dirty and hot like Prince but it is just plain dirty. People start to leave after the third song.
The band pounds through the laundry list of Upsetter rhythms as Scratch keeps pacing the stage and chanting things like “Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King” or “I am Jesus, I am Inspector Gadget” or maybe his favorite “When I shit, my enemies cry, when I piss, my enemies die”. He feels no obligation to try harder, it is almost a contempt he seems to feel for the people who paid top dollar to hear him at least sing “Curly Locks”. Scratch has already cashed the deposit for the gig, and looks forward to a few minutes from now when he will collect the rest of his large fee and leave quickly.
By now the place is emptying out steadily, the people got to “see” Scratch but they feel ripped off, like a cowboy who spent his entire paycheck at the brothel on payday and didn’t even get laid. “Oh well,” they seem to be thinking, “better to leave than stand here and listen to this noise.” A few faithful followers are still dancing, waving Red Stripes and yelling “Jah” when Scratch does. The band wraps up their last song, and Scratch leaves without an encore, and is gone instantly in a discrete van.
(This article is a composite of several impressions of The Upsetter in person, inspired by seeing Lee Perry six or eight times since the nineties in Vancouver and Seattle- Johnny Horn)