Perfect Sound Forever

Lee Perry live
Still Crazy After All These Years

October 30, 1998, New York City
an observation by Jason Gross
(June 1998)

Somehow it seemed appropriate that on the day before Halloween ('goosey night' as we call it) around the time of a 'pagan' holiday, people should gather to celebrate a mad man for two sold-out shows, even if it was in a trendy area of New York where a movie was being shot. So here's Wetlands, putting on these shows for Scratch. As the crowd flooded in, two screens surrounded the stage, one with multicolored swirls and one with homemade movies, both dimly lit. Making the mistake of not coming there early, I had to watch this from the far end of the bar, which seemed like a quite a distance even in a small club like this.

In a crevice next to the stage, drum and bass heroes Spring Heel Jack started things off, cutting up some ambient versions of Miles Davis (maybe they snagged a promo of Panthalassa), though they weren't noticed by most of the crowd who were busy sipping beers. SHJ added echo and reverb, airplane roars, screeching and chanting to the mix as they segued into their own drum and bass mix, adding some LOUD, slamming beats from their latest, Busy, Curious, Thirsty, going from fast percussion tracks to ambient to rave. The crowd nodded along, staring at the stage, waiting for Lee and not picking up on this amazing music.

One thing that struck me right away was that this was a white crowd at a reggae show. I'm guessing but I think the Beastie Boys name-check, the Clash connection, GRAND ROYALE cover story, techno album with Yello and Tibet Freedom Concert appearances have made him some kind of quirky icon to the adventurous. Another fan assured me that he's not a 'roots rocker' and has his rep thanks to the Clash. I wouldn't go that far to say that's all he's got- having lapped up a number of his recent CD's, I'm amazed at how wacky out and insanely inspired the guy is.

The set-up of the stage seemed, appropriately like a mystic experience with the lighting left only on the stage and the eerie whistling waves sounds that flew around the club, courtesy of mix-master the Mad Professor working the boards and the four-piece Robotics Band warming the crowd up (kind of like the MG's for a Stax review). And then there was the man. He was a homeless version of Sun Ra, decked out in purple robe and pants, suspenders, bike-horn and a helmet studded with bangles, carrying around an ape doll. The only thing I'd seen comparable to this was the Butthole Surfers and he made them look like a Vegas act.

Scratch was in good spirits as he laughed and smiled throughout the set. The set pretty much consisted of his material from the last 10 years- he's put out so many LP's that it'd be pretty damn hard to catch EVERYTHING. There were weird remakes of "Roast Fish and Cornbread" and "Soul Fire" (redone as "Get Ready For Lee") went along with "Open Door" (appropriately from his record with the Professor), "Devil Dead" and "Inspector Gadget" (one of my favorites) and covers of the Staples Singers' "I'll Take You There" (done as "Come Go With Lee") and the Temptations' "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone."

Throughout the show, he went from odd, declamatory speeches to launch into a croon for a song. During the speeches, his guitarist would laugh and shrug (like most of the crowd). Lee was serious- seriously nuts but he was serious about this. He came out like an prophet of the apocalypse, especially with the Mad Professor reorganizing the music, shouting in an echo that made it sound like he was on a mountain top, yelling through a thunder storm. 'I am your father, I create you all through music-magic,' he commanded as the Professor made the bass throb above the driven drumming. Each song ended with a stream-of-conscious speech before he launched into another song with the band providing chanted/sung backing vocals. Just to keep up his spirits, he demanded a spliff from the crowd and perked up after getting one and putting it to good use.

This is not something you can make up even though you wonder if this did actually all happen. Needless to say, it's something you really need to see for yourself. You didn't even need a reefer yourself to get a buzz from the whole thing- Lee 'Scratch' Perry himself is his own mystic experience.

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