Apocalypso Now

13 September 2012 | 6:00 am | Christopher H James

“God bless Jamaica,” he announces after a few thoughtful seconds. “Land of riches. Land of the fathers. Land of Jamaica. Land of reggae. Land of raggamuffin. Land of ragga touchin’. But [now with a serious tone of voice] I say, ‘Behold, this is Jamaica. Jamaica dub it’.”

Okay sports fans, time for something new. It's called Jamaican rodeo, and it involves one of the pre-eminent faces of Jamaican music, Lee “Scratch” Perry. The concept is you have to see how long you can maintain a conversation with Mr. Perry as he bounces off the walls. Often hailed simply as Scratch, Perry is a pioneer who has not only made a career out of defying convention, but also conventional logic, whilst ruffling innumerable feathers over a fifty year career.

The first danger is that I'm going to run out of questions. A sound interview approach is to come up with a few different topics and have in mind some simple follow-ups. This line of inquiry, however, becomes almost impossible when the interviewer has only the vaguest notion of what the interviewee is telling me. It feels like it's all rapidly about to implode, as I struggle to process in real time his thick Jamaican drawl and unusual choice of words.

Starting on what should be safe ground, specifically his new album with Ultraworld inhabitants The Orb, I ask Scratch if he's a fan of their music. He responds in a soft, croaky voice “Yarp. Y'one thing every people ask me about in review. Everybody interested in it. Me love it. Me love it [coughs]. The man crazy. Man craze it, and people love it. Many people love it. Many people love it and dub it, and rub it and scrub it. I love it too.”

Unlike real rodeo, this bull starts off reasonable and calm, lulling the contestant into a confidence that he might actually stand a chance. As I fish for details on the collaboration, his answers tail off inaudibly. My question – 'How was the album made?', seems to fry his mind. He begins by claiming they “ran down the place,” before rambling into incoherence. Fortunately he starts to use repetition, which makes a few words understandable; he notes that there was some “…rocking and rocking. Beef, bam, boof, beef, baff, boof...” “You listening to me?” he interrupts. He makes a high, chirpy “hello” like a cuckoo clock and finishes with some rhythmical heavy breathing.

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For decades, public debate has disputed whether Scratch is genuinely crazy. It's a discussion fuelled by his statements, bizarre clothes, paranoid outbursts and a history of erratic behaviour, which has included wrapping himself in gaffer tape, insisting that Island Records boss Chris Blackwell is a vampire and claiming responsibility for setting fire to his recording studios. The debate is a typical mainstream response to such antics informed by the usual apocryphal rock mythology that conflates “eccentric” and “insane”. It's a romantic view that wrongly celebrates insanity as a creative force.  There is no tangible evidence that Lee Scratch Perry is anything other than eccentric to the extreme, particularly as he managed to maintain a career which includes a half century of recording experience, a literally uncountable number of records – even Scratch doesn't know the answer to that one – including collaborations with the Beastie Boys, The Clash and Bob Marley amongst others.

When he cut his first record, Jamaica wasn't even a country; it was an undistinguished colony of the British. Speaking of which, I ask if he did anything to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jamaica's independence. “God bless Jamaica,” he announces after a few thoughtful seconds. “Land of riches. Land of the fathers. Land of Jamaica. Land of reggae. Land of raggamuffin. Land of ragga touchin'. But [now with a serious tone of voice] I say, 'Behold, this is Jamaica. Jamaica dub it'.”

I ask for a little clarification as to whether there was anything specific he did. “Jamaica?” he sounds surprised. “I've done it… Anything that goes on with your phone? …My phone rocker turn up.”

Is there anything that he misses from Jamaica? “Most other thing that I miss? I miss our gold sands that we have in Jamaica. The sands that we have in Jamaica, I miss them…” he starts to tail off again, muttering something about Bob Marley. Suddenly he seems to find his groove again and starts singing with gusto, “God bless Jamaica! Land of the old. God Bless Jamaica. The land of dub. Dub and dub and dub. Rub and rub and scrub. And God bless Jamaica, the land that we love, and love and love and love… thank you.”

An interview with his now departed friend, John Martyn, suggested that Scratch's apparent looniness is a defence mechanism to keep away people that he doesn't trust, which would appear to be almost everyone. It's a plausible idea, as there are unhinged moments during the interview that border on disturbing, particularly when the man-made sound effects kick in. I want to know whether he has any other projects or plans on foot.

“After this I have a movie coming out,” he pauses for dramatic effect. “Vision Of Paradise: Land Of Fire And River Of Ice.” Sounds enticing. I probe for some more specifics. “Vision of the past; vision of the future, right?” he states the last word firmly as if trying to draw a line in a sand. “After that I'm going to make me another album, an LP/CD/EP, Banzai Rule, Banzai School.” Then something goes haywire. His voice lowers into a threatening, almost mechanical sounding smear. “Do I make you people turned on and be happy, happy, happy, happy,” he starts rapping. “…laughing and slapping… reading and kicking and kicking… pissing and pissing and shitting and shitting [makes a demonic bird laugh sound]… and that's rudimental [the same laugh again but slightly more robotic] “…you confuse your illusion.” The laughter continues, his voice as conceivably low as possible, distorting his words beyond any comprehension. All I can catch is something about “stress” and “the universe”. He closes by announcing either, “Hello old man in Eastern temple” or “Eastern Timor”.

There's only a short time left, and I have to improvise questions to make it to the finish line. I ask him what he likes about Switzerland, his home since 1989. He responds with great enthusiasm, “The mountains, the trees, the plants, the flowers, the ice, the snow, the rock, rocks forever… warm weather, the best weather. [starts singing again] Come shine and the weather is change. I wanna move my dancing feet. To the rescue! Here I am! We love that. I love it. Come in! Jam, jam, jam, jam, jam. Jam the jam and jam rock [mumbles to a close], Okay, how do you like that?”

I feel a twinge of regret that I wasn't brave enough to start this encounter with some Swiss questions. The mediator's voice interrupts to let me know that I have 60 seconds left, enough time for some heartfelt thanks and a goodbye. I had clung on until the bell sounded and could now collapse onto the padded rodeo floor. I was disorientated but still keen for some more of Mr. Perry's Alpine wonderland. Alas, the circus had already left town.