22 may. 2012

A "Blesson" from reggae's mad scientist, Lee "Scratch" Perry

Pop music would not sound the same without the gumption and genius of Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Accounts vary as to whether Perry was the first or just the most adept at tinkering with traditional Jamaican ska and rock steady music to make the more laconic beat and undertow that we now know as reggae. His first classic song in that vein, "People Funny Boy," was released in 1968. Two years later, a young man named Bob Marley came asking for help in formulating his music. He wound up staying in the producer's house for a time, and Perry became literally instrumental in molding the greatest reggae musician of all.

Perry also made his mark as a pioneer of dub music, the electronic, effects-oriented cousin of reggae that's a crucial element in modern pop. Rockers and rappers from the Clash to the Beastie Boys to Animal Collective have acknowledged his influence and invited him to appear on their recordings or at their shows. These are the credentials that earned Perry a place on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time."

At 76, Perry still manages to embark on an occasional tour, and his latest, accompanied by a backing dub group known as the Subatomic Sound System, arrives at the Cedar Cultural Center on Wednesday. One thing seems certain: It will not be boring.

Perry is as eccentric as he is influential. Many people have claimed he is crazy, chief among them Perry himself. (One of his better-known songs is titled "I Am a Madman.") A stubborn iconoclast who called himself the Upsetter, his career has seen a litany of feuds and falling-outs with various collaborators. Most notoriously, when Black Ark, the studio he built in his back yard in Jamaica where he made his greatest records, burned to the ground in 1979, Perry claimed he started the fire himself, either because he was too high from smoking ganja and/or thought the devil had invaded the premises.

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But for the most part, Perry has been crazy like a fox, knowing that controversy and intrigue generate attention. Like the late, similarly flamboyant jazz musician Sun Ra, he has claimed he was born on another planet -- Ra said Saturn, Perry says Krypton. An inch shy of 5 feet tall, he generally dresses in colorful, outlandish clothing, heavily festooned with pieces of self-made art.

With the help of his Swiss wife, Mireille, I tracked down Perry by phone in Poland between tour dates earlier this month. He was winsome, mischievous and generally charming. Asked if he remembered what he was feeling when he made that groundbreaking single "People Funny Boy" -- whose lyrics are a retort to a former employer -- he replied, "The music just came to me out of the clear blue sky. I heard the bass. I was in Jamaica and I was trying to get something spiritual, a special vibration that keeps you cool. I heard it from the birds and the bees and the trees, which is where you go for it in Jamaica."

So why did he move to Switzerland in 1989? "Because I am addicted to snow and ice and it is too hot in Jamaica to make snow and ice," he said somberly. "I don't know why. I just need them."

The funniest and most honest answer came when Perry was asked, of all the great collaborators and protégés in his career, whom he enjoyed working with the most. "Those I enjoy most are those who want to do exactly what I do," he said. "They want to get the feel of my music, the spirituality. My music is a blesson. Not a blessing, a blesson."

Part lesson and part blessing? He cackled with appreciation. "Definitely!"

Source: Britt Robson from startribune.com