Shocks Of Mighty: An Upsetting Biography (Part 5)

Perry spent three days in jail for suspected arson but was soon released. However, he had nowhere to go.

With his life in Jamaica literally lying in ruins, Perry spent the next few years in a kind of exile, most of them in England. Turning his back on producing, Perry instead concentrated on voicing his own material, of which there seemed to be an endless supply. However, during this time Perry's output was erratic; questionable collaborations and false starts were the order of the day. His already shaky relationship with Island Records crumbled when he swore that Island chief Chris Blackwell was a vampire and responsible for Bob Marley's death.

Working with London studio bands, Perry began performing live, and eventually the album Battle Of Armagideon (Millionaire Liquidator) began to take shape in 1986. The album, full of undercurrents and surprises, sounded like the reality of Perry's situation: after years of confusion, the Upsetter was ready to upset again. The following year Perry teamed up with the brilliant English producer Adrian Sherwood and made the dark and spacious Time Boom X De Devil Dead. Working with Sherwood's house band Dub Syndicate (in many ways a new version of The Upsetters), Time Boom was a digital throwback to Perry's glory days at the Black Ark. Sherwood's heavy production style -- in some ways heavily reminiscent of Perry's -- suited the Upsetter's vibe perfectly. The strength of these two albums put the Upsetter back on his feet for good.

In 1989, Perry stopped roaming the world and moved to Switzerland with his new bride, Mireille Ruegg, a shrewd Zurich businesswoman who also became Perry's manager. Far away from dubious dreads and the chicanery of the Jamaican music scene, Perry became a happy family man. He has fathered two children with Mireille, a son named Gabriel and a daughter named Shiva. By the mid 1990s, Perry was working on a new studio for himself in the basement of his Zurich home, calling it the White Ark -- his "secret laboratory" that "no man has entered before" (well, almost: his wife's washing machine is down there).

Twenty years after the Black Ark's zenith, the reggae world saw a Lee Perry renaissance as a new wave of fans embraced the Upsetter's music. Spearheaded by the Beastie Boys' excellent retrospective in their fanzine Grand Royal in 1996, fans and critics alike re-discovered Perry's music and made him (in)famous once again. Record companies were not slow to react to the public interest, and a wide variety of Perry-produced collections and albums were re-released, culminating in Island's wonderful Arkology in 1997, a Black Ark anthology lovingly prepared by long time Perry fans Steve Barrow and David Katz. In April of that year, Perry surprised everyone by playing two delirious, sold out gigs in San Francisco -- his first American shows in more than 15 years -- and later in June played the role of elder statesman at the alternative Free Tibet concerts in New York. An extensive tour of America and Europe followed, with more world-wide performances and re-issues continuing every year for the rest of the decade and into the new century. This is the return of the return of the Super Ape...

In June of 2000, David Katz' monumental biography of Perry, People Funny Boy: The Genius Of Lee "Scratch" Perry was published. More than ten years in the making, it gave an unprecedented account of Perry's life and work. In the words of the Upsetter himself, "I am the half. The half that's never been told."

As we move into the 21st century, Lee Perry remains the proverbial mad scientist, sitting comfortably in his own moutaintop fortress -- a nice family home overlooking Lake Zurich with a BMW in the driveway. He may visit Earth from time to time, but he lives in his own universe, which is every bit as expansive and mysterious as the real thing. Which brings us to the question that any Lee Perry biography must ask: is he or isn't he crazy? My own theory is that the Upsetter is certainly eccentric, but not genuinely insane, at least by strict psychiatric standards. His looney behaviour is designed to delight his fans and confound his enemies. "The Upsetter" is a persona that helps propagate his legend, and after years of acting out this zany dogma, he has come to truly believe it, like a director trapped inside one of his own films. In this case, Lee Perry is trapped inside one of his songs, a fate which he certainly must face with a big grin. Combined with this DIY legend (and no doubt as a result of it) is no shortage of wild acclaim, and Perry must truly feel like the giant that critics, fans -- and the Upsetter himself -- have made him out to be.

Lee Perry's musical universe is one of angels and vampires, flying saucers and scatology, mortal enemies and cartoon characters. Art may imitate life, but for Perry there's no difference between the two. He literally paints, writes on, sculpts, films, records, and sings about everything he encounters. His lyrics encompass a wide variety of references -- the Bible, astrology, Rastafari, ganja, sex, music, and magic. What (if anything) does it all mean? As compelling as it might be to decipher all of Perry's rantings, it would also spoil the fun. Lee Perry's world is one of a kind, and so when he decides to broadcast messages to Earth via the recording studio, we should just hold tight and enjoy the ride, no instruction manual necessary.

"I am a magician. Yes! A magician should do his magic and then disappear!" Perry sings in the autobiographical "African Hitchiker", and if any one phrase from his work can serve as his raison d'être, that's it. As interesting, entertaining, and fascinating as Lee Perry's life and personality is, it can almost all be forgotten and replaced with one simple idea: his music always has -- and will -- speak for itself.

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©1997 and 2006 Mick Sleeper. Unauthorized reproduction would be...upsetting.