Lee "Scratch" Perry

by Nona Willis-Aronowitz

5 June 2006

'I don't smoke ganja anymore; I smoke incense. Because when you smoke incense, your senses are in.'

“Kings and queens, princes and princesses, lords and ladies; are you ready.

Ummm, yeah. The crowd has been slowly filtering into the oddly charming (if beer-encrusted) concert space since 9 pm, and we’ve been listening to opening bands for hours. There’s a swell of impatience as headliner Lee “Scratch” Perry’s name is announced.

Lee "Scratch" Perry

24 May 2006: Toad's Place — New Haven, CT

“This guy is a crazy motherfucker,” I hear a white hippie whisper. So I’ve heard. But when Perry takes the stage, it’s clear that “crazy” is a pretty imperfect description. The guy’s presence is regal, yet obstreperous. Though he sometimes swallows his words, the singer still commands attention.

Most outrageous is his hair—red, yellow, and green, naturally. Multicolored jewels and tassles drip from his pimped-out microphone, glowing against his all-white outfit. Splattered with thick paint, stickers, magnets, and mirrors protrude from his sneakers and hat, attached like barnacles and catching the gleam of the venue’s cheesy black lights. His hat billows with the smoke of the glowing incense sticks precariously placed upon it.

“He reminds me of every ridiculous person at Mardi Gras,” my friend says.

“Make it dance!” Perry demands, as he begins to gyrate. The ska-like beats of his band, Dub Is a Weapon, collide with his nasal cadence. His shaky voice is mesmerizing as it glides over the sometimes-harsh sound of the band’s trombone. Though he’s a legend in his own right, Perry humbles himself before this eager audience.

Beginning his career in the late ‘50s, Perry founded his own label, Upsetter, in 1968. In the time since, he’s produced tracks for the likes of Bob Marley, Junior Byles, the Heptones, and Max Romeo. And, he was one of the first—the first, if you ask him—to experiment with dub. To Perry, it is the real reggae.

“Don’t give up, Americans!” he comforts us. “Someone in America believe in me…dancehall is not the reggae, the reggae is something righteous.” He says that he just celebrated his 70th birthday, a reminder of how many of reggae’s incarnations he has witnessed and how much he has done to help them develop.

Perry has relentlessly reinvented himself many times over, and while he’s no longer recording at the lightning pace of yesteryear, he did finally win a Grammy in 2003. And, of course, he remains as he always has been: as great a personality as a voice.

Throughout the concert, Perry awards us with more of his rascally wisdom. “I don’t smoke ganja anymore; I smoke incense,” he croaks, his beady eyes dancing across the audience. “Because when you smoke incense, your senses are in.” He later holds up an orange and tells us, “In Negril, the sun is this color.”

The mostly white, mostly Corona-drinking crowd sways in exaltation to a mix of classic and unfamiliar songs. The ones in the front grab his hand—“I love you!” he proclaims. “Don’t be shy; how are you?” He smiles.

“I bet he gets maaaaad bitches!” a guy in a polo shirt yells to his friend. I nod to myself. “Probably,” I think, although his wife in Switzerland might take issue with that. Unexpectedly, Perry picks up his tote bag and abruptly walks off the stage. No one’s fooled, though—if anyone will give an encore, it’s Lee “Scratch” Perry.

After his emcee conjures the right amount of energy from the crowd, Perry returns to give a few more nuggets of advice: “Let the music take control of your thoughts,” he says, his voice ecstatic. He ends with an endlessly repeating chant: “Lee Scratch Perry legalize ganja.”

Perry is well on the way to a third wind, when, finally, one of the members of Dub Is a Weapon taps him on the shoulder and tells him it’s time to go. His face falls, but he obliges. The guy in the polo shirt is right in the front, arms outstretched.

Reggae is the type of music that bleeds one song into another, that turns one downloaded track into thirty, that pushes 20 minutes of music into an entire evening. As Perry exits the stage, he is still singing, audible even after he has stepped down the stairs and bestowed his final handshake.

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