Lee Scratch Perry – A Personal Appreciation
09/03/2021 by Gerry McMahon
They say that you should never meet your heroes. Well, when it comes to Lee Perry - for me and many more like me - you can ‘scratch’ that notion. Time passed in the presence of Perry was a pure privilege. He was a genius, unique, highly talented, driven and determined, colourful and creative, mischievous, in love with his fans and an all-round decent (if somewhat delightfully different type of) bloke. And his range went well beyond music, with family, art, nature and black magic all getting a look in!
His recent passing marks a well-documented watershed in the history of reggae. Indeed, recent times have witnessed the passing of many roots reggae luminaries from the golden era – from Toots Hibbert and Bunny Wailer to Daddy U Roy, Bob Andy and Israel Vibration’s Apple Gabriel. And whilst they all had their personal charms and musical accomplishments, none made quite the type of unique and indelible impact that Perry did. And for a man who ‘couldn’t sing for nuts’, that’s quite an achievement. Truth be told, he was more than worthy of his Grammy award and ranking in Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
In the course of Rototom Sunsplash’s 2019 crowded agenda, Perry’s son Omar asked me why I held his father in such high esteem. Beyond the music and his engaging interactions, in reply I focused on the capacity of one born in poverty, in a 3rd world country, with little education and a quirky disposition, to minimise his handicaps and maximise his abilities, to the benefit of many and the joy of millions. And to be still nimble-footed, touring constantly, performing longer gigs and producing music for all and sundry - whilst galloping into his mid-80s - was no mean achievement.
Beyond music, one of the first deep impressions left on me by Perry happened in the course of an interview, whilst driving back from Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival in 2012. Question: ‘So tell me Lee, what has been your greatest achievement in music?’ Answer: ‘It nah come yet’. Perry’s response – at 76 years of age – reflected his positive disposition, appetite for life and an unswerving commitment to his work and fans. And some would say that his greatest achievement didn’t actually came to pass until 2019, via the Heavy Rain album, peaking at No. 1 on Billboard's Reggae Albums chart. It was Perry’s first ever No. 1!
Despite his eccentric and roguish disposition, Perry also enjoyed a remarkable capacity to invoke forgiveness from the few that he surely irritated. Though, truth be told, given their longstanding animosity, I can still hear the late Jah B./ Bunny Wailer growling in anger when I mention his name!
Bunny aside, this capacity to forgive was evident some years ago, after a close associate had to explain to airport customs how a wad of marijuana was found in his bag (that had allegedly been discreetly placed there by Perry!). Forgiveness was also on display long before that incident, when Adrian Sherwood arrived home to find that his ‘house guest’ (i.e. Mr. Perry) had buried his expensive television set in the back garden! Credit to Sherwood that this didn’t destroy the relationship, as they often re-united and brought their relationship to new heights via the aforementioned No. 1 Heavy Rain.
Despite his endearing and childlike disposition – comics were his thing and Superman was his hero - truth be told, Mr. Perry also had a capacity to ‘roam offside’ when his alcohol consumption passed a certain threshold. On recent concert tours it was standard fare for a decent bottle of champagne to be left in his dressing room. Whilst he always offered his entourage a glass thereof, once it was empty you could look out if he went off in search of his favoured ginger wine! As a result, his minders frequently tried to dilute his alcohol with water! But as his biographer David Katz explained, promoters and minders have been doing that for years - and Perry is well aware of their attempts at deception!
One night in 2019 his alcohol intake provoked an unedifying post-gig ‘stand-off’ on a busy Dublin street. A misunderstanding provoked a whirlwind of expletives being hurled at a member of his travelling crew, as the cheering and chanting crowds falling out of the local pubs came to support him! However, the following morning it all was ‘sweetness and light’, as the pair restored their rosy relationship, swopped secrets and laughed as they boarded the plane, leaving the previous night’s exchanges well behind them – ‘there’s no business-like show business, eh?’. In sharp contrast to his alcohol intake, Perry had a remarkable capacity to smoke large quantities of marijuana into old age – and was often the last man to leave the party - with no apparent impact on his moods or behaviour.
My fascination with Perry began almost 50 years ago. It was ignited by the exotic album covers and the riveting rhythms stored therein. Little did I think that a 7,000-kilometre distance between Ireland and Perry’s Jamaica would be bridged in time. It first came to pass when I approached Ireland’s Electric Picnic festival organisers to see if I could be his driver for the forthcoming concert. Fortunately, it was a timely request, as Perry’s status was a bit wobbly at that time, due to a tendency to try raising his fee just before going on stage. As one promoter explained, ‘I already had 29 acts booked and good to go. So, I wasn’t prepared to be blackmailed by Lee Perry’. Fortunately, the relationship with the promoter was eventually healed, enabling your author to subsequently serve as Perry’s chauffeur (and eventual) minder, runner, gig reviewer and interviewer!
But the cherry on the cake was when I dared to ask him if I could play (my bongo drum) at what proved to be his last Irish concert. Perry promptly replied ‘No problem’. And for that I will be forever truly grateful, as he enabled one of the greatest privileges in my life.
Contrary to some people’s suspicions, Perry’s normal demeanour was neither a distracting nor a destructive one. For example, long car journeys from gig to gig normally passed peacefully, with him working away quietly on his laptop on new rhyming lyrics. And he was also respectful enough of his fellow travellers not to light up inside the car! Though I will always remember one journey where he discarded the laptop and broke into a non-stop soliloquy (or one-man speech) for the full 4-hour duration! On reaching our destination – by which time he had shut up - the stares on the faces of the travelling party were a sight to behold!
On another occasion, I was flattered when he asked me if I thought he was mad. Now, we’ve all met a few strange people in our time, but Mr. Perry was one of the sanest I ever had the pleasure to meet. For example, for all his bizarre behaviour, he always remembered post-gig to direct his minder to go collect his fee (preferably in cash!). And whatever about his occasional abuse of alcohol, he drew a line when it came to ‘hard drugs’, with cocaine reserved for special opprobrium.
Notably, Perry never seemed to carry money – though he was always accompanied by a carefully guarded suitcase that was packed to the brim, bursting with the oddest assortment of knick-knacks! However, he was a generous man, as reflected in his family dealings, his post-gig entertainment and tolerance of liggers and hangers-on and in the passing of the rights to The Congos’ band of the classic Heart of the Congos composition. As he put it: ‘many men sell their soul to the God of money’, but not Perry. And despite the troupe of friendly females that came backstage post-gig, he always left the concert venue alone. When asked about this, he explained: ‘The Lord cured me, so that I don't see how I should be tempted by girls who are only going to give me trouble’.
To conclude, I never knew that I could dance and cry at the same time. That changed on August 29th 2021, when I heard the news of Perry’s passing. And when Bob Marley was told that his God (Haile Selassie) was dead, he rushed to Lee Perry to compose the earthmoving Jah Live track. Who now can we run to? Though Perry’s rendition of Dreadlocks in Moonlight and Jah Live with Pura Vida (on YouTube) are probably good places to start.
Goodbye Lee. Put plainly, life will never be the same again. So, thanks for the music and the memories. It was a privilege to know and work with you. When I asked about his greatest life achievement, Perry succinctly replied: ‘Saving my soul’. So then, there’ll sure be some jiving and jinking with high hilarity in Heaven now that you’ve arrived! Here’s hoping we’ll all be able to join in come the distant future.
So yes, it’s unequivocal. Long live Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.