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The strange reconstruction of the Black Ark

The final days of the Black Ark are surrounded in mystery, strangeness and sorrow. For not only was it the end of Lee Perry's homemade studio and the amazing music he produced there, but the end of his family life and the cameraderie that made the Black Ark such a magnet for singers and players. The fact that things went downhill so quickly and completely at the Black Ark is heartbreaking, and it is tempting to wonder what might have happened if Lee Perry's train had not gone off the tracks. Truth is stranger than fiction, and certainly this is the case when it comes to the strange attempt to reconstruct the Black Ark in 1979.

Throughout 1978, things went downhill for Lee Perry. One by one, several factors combined forces to put a virtual strangle hold on his life. After years of non-stop production and consuming large amounts of ganja and alcohol, Perry's excessive lifestyle was beginning to take its toll. Island's refusal to issue Heart Of The Congos and Roast Fish Collie Weed And Corn Bread left Scratch frustrated. Relations with his partner Pauline and his kids had become strained. Local thugs were hitting him up for protection money, and some hectoring Rastas were also getting on his nerves. Just one of these circumstances would have been frustrating enough; to have all of them happen at once must have been totally vexing.

Despite the chaos, Scratch still managed to keep the tapes rolling.

Despite the chaos, Scratch still managed to keep the tapes rolling at the Black Ark. Prodigal son Bob Marley returned to the Black Ark at this time to record two arresting songs, "I Know A Place" and "Who Colt The Game". Scratch voiced a handful of singles that all contain a mood of definite uneasiness: "Chase Dem", "Baffling Smoke Signal" and the sprawling "Free Up The Prisoners". Junior Murvin and George Faith both recorded follow up material to their Police And Thieves and Super Eight albums. Sadly, other than a few songs being belatedly released, none of this material has seen the light of day. The material that George Faith cut at this time is particularly tantalizing: if "Guide Line" is any indication of the rest of the material, Scratch could have produced another album to rank alongside War Ina Babylon or Police And Thieves.

By the end of the year, Scratch had managed to find fault with almost everyone around him. Rather than a friendly place where musicians and friends enjoyed gathering, the Black Ark became a very negative place. Dreadlocks became the enemy, with Scratch becoming distrustful of anyone who wore their hair in locks. Scratch spent hours vandalizing the walls of his studio with paint and magic markers, scrawling a incomprehensible and incredible amount of words on virtually every surface. After months of friction between them, Pauline abandoned Scratch, fearing for her own sanity. His children remained behind, but were clearly frightened and bewildered by their father's disturbing actions. By January 1979, Scratch was largely alone in his kingdom of confusion.

Lee Perry is a man who does not believe in coincidences; he believes everything happens for a reason. And so when a young stranger showed up at the Black Ark in April 1979, he greeted him with the words "I've been expecting you." Henry "Henk" Targowski was a free-wheeling impresario and reggae fan who had come to Jamaica in hopes of distributing Scratch's productions on his Black Star Liner record label. He was totally unprepared for the six months of madness that followed.

Besides the obvious disarray and vandalism, precious master tapes were carelessly stacked on the floor.

Targowski was apalled at the state of the Black Ark. Besides the obvious disarray and vandalism, precious master tapes were carelessly stacked on the floor and had been damaged due to a leaky roof. Scratch proceeded to explain the situation to Targowski: he was "Lord Thunder Black", and his black footprints of time trod across the rainbow (something that would later be depicted on the cover of The Return Of Pipecock Jackxson LP). Operating from his "Raja Faith Sound Magnetic Power Station", Scratch was hoping to create "Love Universal Automatic Vibrations" and needed to loose the "Seven Seals Of Love". Most importantly, he had been entrusted with protecting "the original Jah soundtrack" and was "declarating the rights and executing the wrongs".

Bewildered, Targowski decided he had to help Scratch. He had other business to attend to in Jamaica, but faithfully returned to the Black Ark in the evenings to keep Scratch company and to tidy things up. Before long, Targowski noticed that Scratch's mood had improved, and his outlook was generally brighter. The two men struck a handshake deal on the distribution of Scratch's music. Targowski left for his home in Amsterdam with the master tapes for the Cloak And Dagger album, as well as a variety of late Black Ark recordings.

Targowski made several return trips to Jamaica throughout 1979, consolidating his working relationship with Scratch. Plans were made to rebuild the Black Ark, record a new album, and tour Europe as Pipecock Jackxon And The Corner Stones. Scratch accompanied Targowski to Holland in January of 1980, where he voiced a few tracks that would later find their way on to the Return Of Pipecock Jackxon album. In the spring of 1980, a trio of European session musicians journeyed to Kingston to become part of Scratch's new band. Unfortuantely, the line-up was never really amalgamated, due to Scratch's dim view of most of the available Jamaican session men. A few old friends such as Theo Beckford, Max Romeo, and Dillinger began to hang out at the Black Ark, where jam sessions started taking shape. However, Scratch still remained elusive and moody, and precious little was recorded.

As soon as a drummer sat down behind the drum kit, everyone realized that there was a method to Scratch's madness.

At one point, Scratch demanded a very unusual renovation to the Black Ark. A layer of sand was laid down in the drum booth, and a wooden riser with a hole in the shape of the Star Of David was built on top. Water was then poured into the star-shaped hole, forming a small pond. A large sheet of glass sat on top of the riser, covered with chicken wire. While everyone scratched their head over the bizarre construction, as soon as a drummer sat down behind the drum kit, everyone realized that there was a method to Scratch's madness. The wood gave the bass and tom drums a distinctive bassy sound, while the snare drum and cymbals were given extra punch by the vibration of the glass and the chicken wire. It was a sound that no other studio could achieve -- something that had long been a trademark of the Black Ark.

With the Black Ark now cleaned up and repaired, new studio equipment financed by Black Star Liner arrived. As it was being installed, faulty wiring nearly blew up the new mixing desk. Scratch suddenly grew angry and said "Leave it. Take everything back! Forget the whole thing." This marked the point of no return for the Black Star Liner crew. After six weeks in Jamaica, a small fortune had been spent on equipment and accomodations with few results. All of the lofty plans for a new album and European tour quickly disintegrated. Fed up, the musicians left Jamaica. Scratch then dismantled and destroyed all of the remaining equipment, ruining the Black Ark completely.

"They were in a haste to catch a flight that isn't ready."

Back in Holland, Targowski let the smoke clear and then gathered together the music that had been recorded over the previous few months. The result was the strange Return Of Pipecock Jackxon album, released on Black Star Liner in 1980. The album is a mix of 1978 out takes from the Roast Fish And Cornbread album, as well as the new material recorded at the Black Ark during the abortive reconstruction process. While it has some enjoyable moments, it is a decidedly uneven and unfinished sounding album. As Scratch later said of the release, "They were in a haste to catch a flight that isn't ready." Earlier Black Star Liner releases included the excellent Turn And Fire, a collection of Black Ark discomixes that included an alternate version of the incredible "Disco Devil". Black Star Liner also released some 12" singles on a new Black Art label such as Max Romeo's "Norman" and Jah Lion's "Earth Is The Lord".

Jamaican music is filled with many "what if" situations, and the reconstruction of the Black Ark is one of them. Perhaps if Scratch had been able to recuperate and properly rebuild the Black Ark, a new period of creation would have happened. It's certainly not a stretch to imagine a revitalized Lee Perry carrying on behind the mixing desk into the digital era of reggae — an upsetting King Jammy. Ultimately, despite the turmoil surrounding the last days of the Black Ark, Scratch bent but he did not break.

February 2007