“It was only four tracks on the machine,” Jamaican music legend Lee “Scratch” Perry once said of an early mixing board, “but I was picking up 20 from the extraterrestrial squad.”
Last Sunday at the Tokyo club Yellow, the fit 68-year-old Perry burst onto the stage wearing a gilded crown encrusted with faux gems, flashing lights and, apparently, an intergalactic tractor beam through which he channeled inspired madness from his squad in the Beyond.
“CHILDREN!” he shouts in his weirdly shrill voice.
“Yeah!” the crowd answers as it grooves to the drippy beats laid down by the Mad Professor, one of the biggest names in dub today.
“JUNGLE CHILDREN ARE THE FUTURE!”
“YEAH!” Hands fly into the air and the mob lurches toward the stage.
“CHILDREN!” he shouts, “JAPAN AND CHINA SHOULD BECOME ONE!”
“YE — . . .” Hands fall from the air as the crowd gags on the rest of its cheer.
Perry rails on:
“JESUS BANKERS OF CHINESE DOCTORS! DOCTORS IN THE MOOOO-NING! AHMA-YAYA-MAYA-MO-YOOOOO!”
Perry grew up in rural Jamaica and quit school at age 15, claiming that his teachers could show him nothing. He then set about educating himself by, he has said, observing nature and playing dominoes, a game that taught him “to read the minds of others.”
He started out in the music business in 1959 as an errand boy for Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd, who was one of the biggest names in Jamaica’s Sound System scene (sound systems were basically mobile PA systems around which immensely popular dance parties formed). Before long, Perry began producing records at Sir Coxsone’s Studio One and stayed there, more or less, until forming the now-legendary Upsetter label in 1968. He used the immediate success of the label to buy himself complete creative freedom and built a recording studio in the back yard of his Kingston home, christening it the Black Ark.
When Perry burned the Black Ark to the ground in 1980, many wondered if he had finally gone completely mad. At the helm of the Ark, Perry had managed to channel his eccentricities into revolutionizing four-track studio recording, obsessively splicing the tapes with the noises — cows mooing, babies crying, etc. — he needed, thus producing some of the most influential music to bubble out of Jamaica.
Perry also nurtured such talents as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, who were then known simply as the Wailers, and King Tubby, one of the earliest and most enduring forces in dub. But in the decades since the Ark’s destruction, Perry’s productions and his own releases have lacked the vital balance of creativity, innocence and strangeness.
A visitor to one of Perry’s studios shortly after the Ark burned down made the following observations:
“Lee had any number of small children who fiddled with instruments, the board and headphones with alarming proficiency while the session went on. While singing, Scratch had laid out before him and around him the following items: Sagittarius horoscope, a small gold-painted statue of a lion, a set of hand-exercise grips, a book on Buddhist yoga, a notepad full of lyrics, several Lee Perry records with weird phrases scrawled on the covers, a hammer, a pink plastic airplane, a grater, a book on space oddities and a couple of other objects that were beyond identification. He wore a blue denim suit with the top open, a number of copper chains and ornaments, a blue guitar cord around his neck and no shoes. During the session, he stood on books and occasionally anointed his feet with some clear, sweet-smelling liquid from a small rum bottle. The session included several Bob Marley tunes, to which Lee improvised new lyrics. The phrase ‘Coconut Excalibur’ was repeated frequently.”
“HITLAH EXTERMINATAH! HITLAH HITMAKAH! DICKDICK-AHHHHH-DICKDICKDICKDICK-DICK!”
“Yeah!” says the crowd.
“I CHANGE WORDS! I CHANGE TONE! I GO TO JAMAAICAH!”
“DICKDICK DICK TRACEY!”
Two men on the dance floor begin kissing savagely — one grabbing the other by the back of the head and mashing his face into his own.
“CHINESE JAPANESE HEARTS LET ME FEEL YOU TWO AND COMPLETE YOUR FIRE!”
Yellow is a labyrinth of chambers, levels and moods, and reflected Perry’s personality alarmingly well. Some spaces were insanely crowded and cloudy with the fog that spewed from smoke machines located on the ceiling, while others were chilled out, with sofas occupied by splayed bodies. The staircases had flowered into tiered lounges of people balancing precariously and chatting, and as the night wore on, those same stairs evolved into bunks. Perry’s blinking, ranting image was beamed throughout on television monitors — an effect that, together with Yellow’s dark, sprawling environs, caused one to wonder if all this loosely structured confusion wasn’t somehow a projection of the interior of Perry’s mind.
“FAY-YA VAMPAAA-YA! GEORGE BOOSH BURN AND BURN!”
MC Spider sings a low response, “On faaaay-ya!”
“AND TONY BLAIR!”
“FAAAAY-YA VAMPAY-YA! GEORGE BOOSH BURN AND BURN AND BURN!”
Perry then sings many incoherent lines relating, somewhat, to Jesus, while the Mad Professor kicks a nasty funk beat behind him.
“BURN ALL BOOSH! BURN GREEN BOOSH! BURN BOOSH’S MEEEEL-YONS! BURN ALL OUR DREAMS . . . IN JAPAN!”
At the end of his hourlong set, amid the billowing fog machines and green lasers beaming about the room, the crowd cheered wildly and Scratch bowed his kingly head for a moment and then bellowed:
“WE INHERIT YOUR WISHES . . . AND YOUR WITCHES . . . DREAMS COME TRUUUUE!”
Even the bad ones?
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