a new album and the documentary The Upsetter: The Life & Music of Lee “Scratch” Perry reveals, the dub/reggae icon is a poet, not a madman.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
For nearly fifty years, Lee
“Scratch” Perry has been making some of the most cracked and crucial music to
come out of Jamaica (the world for that matter) as well as producing the finest
that reggae (Bob Marley, Gregory Isaacs), punk (The Clash) and experimental
music (Adrian Sherwood, Mad Professor) had to offer with the same mysterious
zeal that he brought to his own dub recordings.
At 75, the wily and prolific Mr.
Perry shows no signs of slowing, what with having released his latest CD Rise
Again (reviewed here at BLURT) with eccentric bassist/producer Bill Laswell
behind the dub box along with legendary Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist
Bernie Worrell and vocalist Tunde Adebimpe from TV On The Radio. The meeting of
Perry and Laswell should’ve occurred ages ago. It certainly sounds like a dark
and decades-old dub collaboration when you hear Perry muttering over the slow
greasy spacious grind of “Scratch Message” and “Wake the Dead,” to say nothing
of the dippy “Dancehall Kung Fu.”
Beyond the work, new and old, is the
legend of Perry – the Phil Spector-like aura of violence and weirdness that
makes him as much a curiosity as it does a genius. Questions as to whether or
not he burnt down his own Black Ark Studios after a rumored bout with cocaine,
acid, Satan or some unholy mash up of the three; queries as to whether he sold
off Bob Marley’s earliest recordings to the rival Trojan label from under Chris
Blackwell’s nose; the supposedly creepy things he does in his chalet in
Switzerland involving kept samples of urine and feces: these are just a few of
the bugged-out for-instances that make the scatological speaking Perry a modern
marvel of pop oddity.
Oh, and not to forget – the dynamic
subject of the recent documentary narrated by Benicio Del Toro, The
Upsetter: The Life & Music of Lee “Scratch” Perry.
Director/writers Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough (each responsible for films
with hip hop giants Lil Wayne and Damon Dash) had three weeks with the elusive
dub commander at his Swiss home and on tour throughout the United States.
Once there Perry spoke almost unendingly about his work and weird times while
providing the filmmakers unprecedented access to his visual archives.
“He loves to play mad and has pushed
the envelope of madness for brief periods in his life,” says Higbee. “But if
you keep listening to his words he’s speaking the truth about life in its
“The Upsetter started as an exploration of Lee’s life and the inspiration
that lies behind his music,” say Higbee, of the layers that exist within
Perry’s art. “The goal was to have him tell his story and no one else. Originally we didn’t want to have any
interviews or voiceover, but we found that we needed a little VO to fill in a
few gaps, but the VO is still quite sparse in comparison to most films. We just
wanted the film to be all Lee in his words and I feel like we’ve accomplished
this.” That VO is the same mumbled voice given to The Usual Suspects,
acclaimed actor Del Toro.
The process of Perry getting involved took over five years,
as the filmmakers had constantly been warned as to how difficult it was to get
to him or even gain an audience with him.
“I made sure we were ready to start shooting this thing and had at least
the initial financing before I even met with him because I knew he had people
coming at him all the time and I wanted to make sure we were ready to pull the
trigger if he was down,” says Higbee, who hooked up a meeting with Perry in a
Chinese restaurant in London in 2005 after one of his gigs.
The meeting was hilarious. “He was having a bit of a family
reunion at the restaurant so there were like 15 family members there, it was 3
a.m. in the morning and it was quite loud. I came with a couple grand in cash
in my pocket so he knew we were serious and I sat next to him for 3 hours and
told him my dreams and that I’d been thinking of this for years and he said,
‘Cool, let’s do it.'” Three months later the filmmakers were in Switzerland
with Perry telling them his life story over the course of two weeks on hundreds
of hours of tape.
Certainly there were tales that wound up tough to unfold.
The story of Perry’s Jamaican wife and family was the hardest. “He really
wished to not speak on her and his kids he had with her,” says Higbee. “In the
end he did speak quite a bit on them but we ended up taking much of the family
section out of the film in the last cut because the flow just wasn’t working.”
Of course, there are the bizarre aspects of life with Perry, like the scenes of
the Upsetter – a little gray haired man to begin with – standing next to a
giant bird cage in his Swiss mountain home. “Every morning he goes and speaks
to his birds and they speak back. It was fun to see this ritual play out every
morning. The strangest incident, though, was when we were in San Francisco and Lee got wind that Borat had
taken a shit on the street in his movie. Lee immediately wanted to stop the car and
have us film him taking a shit on the streets of San Francisco.”
Ultimately, “The Upsetter: The Life & Music of Lee
“Scratch” Perry has been committed to celluloid to make more of a
mess of the dub master’s life or legend. The whole thing may look like a mossy
verdant Herzog flick of the 1970s, but it isn’t there to spread ridicule or more
rumors due to the subject’s unendingly unedited rants.
“I think if you really pay attention and listen to his
words,” concludes Higbee, “you realize this man is a poet and not a madman.”
[Photo credit (still from film) by Adrian Boot]