Lee "Scratch" Perry
Scratch Came, Scratch Saw, Scratch Conquered
Lee "Scratch" Perry has come full circle, like a junk satellite launched in the optimism of a simpler time, left to orbit a world which slowly decayed until the satellite itself succumbed to inevitable gravity, and miraculously survived the burnout that accompanies reentry. He was on the ground floor of turning sweet calypso and hip-swinging ska into the mystical elixir of reggae in his Black ark studio in the backyard of his parents' home in the Washington Gardens neighborhood of Kingston. There, Perry infused the throbbing song of Jamaica with maddened alchemy: breaking glass worked into cymbal crashes, time and context bent forwards and back through crude but shockingly effective tape manipulations. He not only invented dub (or maybe perfected it, there are many contenders to the deed on that one) but through it helped shape punk, post-punk, world music, maybe the world. He turned other people's mediocre reggae songs into something cosmic, conjuring seething beasts lurking at the heart of party bands.
In 1979, the barking dog in Perry's brain broke off the chain. He covered every surface in the Black Ark with cryptic writing and then burned it to the ground. The new wave era flowed into the digital techno era, and Perry rode with it, in exile in Switzerland, crafting what many, this ardent fan included, a long line of rather terrible records. But many of us true believers kept up with the old man, hoping he would somehow coax another "Blackboard Jungle" out of the spaghetti of modernity. Of all people, it was the Beastie Boys that introduced Perry to his next phase. His appearance on "Dr. Lee, PhD", a lark lurking at the tail of their 1998 technology-infused Hello Nasty, proved to be the conduit through which Perry could find his footing in the modern world.
As before, not every utterance from the New Upsetter has been gospel, but the point of dub is not stopping to smell the roses but to let the perfume waft up through the open window of your slow-moving train. 2002's Jamaican E.T. offered a glimpse of our new madman, and for it he won a Grammy for the Best Reggae Album that year; imagine his acceptance speech! His albums since then have been an easy glide over sympathetic rhythm, his growled sage-meets-gibberish patter making the twisting backbone of spooky serpent music. The End of the American Dream (2007), a spectral array of Revelations and revolutions is a high water mark of Perry's third period. Chuckling indecipherable boasts against the DNA of funk in "I Am the God of Fire" Perry emerged from his spaceship stronger than he was when he left the ground a decade and a half before.
Scratch Came, Scratch Saw, Scratch Conquered finds Perry coordinating with his American dream cohort John Saxon to similar results. Much whooping is made of his other 2008 collaborations, Repentance with Andrew W.K. and The Mighty Upsetter with Adrian Sherwood, and they are fine albums, but Came, Saw, Conquered has Scratch invoking the skeleton of Marcus Garvey on the burbling "Having a Party" and in this capacity, one of persistence rather than the reverence shown by his other collaborators, we see Perry at his peculiar best. Perry understood in his classic records that the background is actually the foreground, that we as a people have it twisted.
The assured strut of "Heavy Voodoo," the first of two tracks on this album to feature a few tasty licks from Keith Richards, comes off like a Blaxploitation soul boiled down to the carcass, quivering in the bottom of the pot as the thick seasoned broth is extracted. Fellow babbling outworlder George Clinton pops in for tea and a chat on "Headz Gonna Roll", cowbells and soul claps and all is right in the world. His religious songs, though arguably they are all paeans to his smiling groovy Jesus, are sweet - "Saint Selassie" is a cheery shuffle listing out locations in the Holy Land, bus stops on the way to Zion. "Rastafari Live" is more of smoldering booty call to righteousness with Scratch playing cal and response with himself.
If you come to this record, or really any of Perry's records looking for Great Reggae Anthems, you are rolling the wrong joint. While the definition of dub has changed in Perry's exile, he keeps at the soul of his deconstructed bliss pop. Swooning Muzack like "Ye Ha Ha Ha" and garbled transmissions "Rolling Thunder" are but new growth on that palm tree that grew outside his Black Ark studio, the very one where he once buried a microphone among its roots and beat on the trunk for a drum track. Lee "Scratch" Perry defies the notion of the pinnacle, focused more on the slow forward progression. Scratch Came, Scratch Saw, Scratch Conquered may at first seem a rather definitive name for an album that passes on through, but it also hints at a past-present-future persistence, one that will be heard again and again by the robots and cockroaches that are left to roam the Earth when Scratch's train makes another round.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com