Mick Sleeper in conversation with David Katz
In the past few years, the intrepid David Katz has
gone outernational with his knowledge of the life and times of Lee Perry.
David has been writing about reggae for many years, culminating in the
insightful People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee "Scratch" Perry and Solid
Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae. He has also helped compile
crucial Lee Perry collections such as Born In The Sky (Motion)
Shop Vol. 2 (Heartbeat). I spoke with David on the phone from his
London home in February 2001.
Sleeper: Writing a biography about anyone is a monumental
task, so I can only imagine what writing a biography about someone as
mysterious and eccentric as Lee Perry was like. So, what was the experience
Katz: Well, I suppose for me, in many ways, it seemed
like the impossible task. And, as I'm sure you're aware, the original
idea was not mine! It was kind of a burden placed upon me by Mr. Perry.
I think it took me a long time to even consider accepting that task.
And, after I considered it as something that I might attempt, Scratch
would not give me a straight answer to any question that I asked. I had
to get into this mode where -- if Scratch taught me anything at all, it
was to listen and observe. So, for those first two years, when I was
pretty much seeing him on a daily basis -- on his request -- I was pretty
much just listening and observing, just observing the master at work.
And when he wanted to talk about things, I would make sure to take note
of what he was saying. And once he left Britain, it entered a different
phase - he was in Switzerland, he was no longer "up the road" -
and my contact with him became more sporadic. I also began to interview
as many of his contemporaries -- people who worked with him -- as I could.
I made my first start of a rough draft, and after about 50 pages, I realized
that there were just major, major gaps in my knowledge. And then, somewhere
along the line, I felt like I was ready to try again. I had interviewed
more than 100 people already, and then once I got the funding to go to
Jamaica, to do research, at the end of it, it was over 200 people that
I interviewed. So, I guess you could say that it was a long process --
and not a clear cut one!
Sleeper: There's that famous quote from Chris Blackwell
about how "there are no facts in Jamaica"...
Katz: (Laughs) Yeah! Right! No facts in Jamaican
music! Ten years of research... And, as I said, I wrote this really early,
rudimentary draft and it got to a point where I had a major stumbling
block -- there were just too many things that I didn't know. As you know
from my introduction, Scratch would play this game with me, where he
would be hassling me: "Where is this book you're writing?" And
I would say, "Scratch, there's too many things that I don't know..." And
he would say "Hey, anything you want to know just axe me!" "Well,
okay, Scratch, tell me about your parents..." "Well, if you
want to know about my parents, you gotta go ask my mother -- because mother
knows best!" (Laughs) But see, this was Scratch's way of
telling me if I really want to know the whole story, I'm gonna have to
go to Jamaica and talk to his mother -- which I did. But, at the time,
I was saying "Look, Scratch, you're right here in front of me! I'm
here in London, earning this measly wage stuffing envelopes -- how am
I going to get the money together to go to Jamaica? Are your parents
still alive?" And he says "Blood clat, David, yuh nuh see it?
Me is dead already, me is a ghost!" (Laughs) Once I had
more interview material, and once I started over again with a new draft,
Scratch started to give some pretty straight interviews, for whatever
reason -- something he hadn't done for years. He seemed to have reached
this point in his life where he was willing to speak out about the past
a bit more. So that really helped, you know?
Sleeper: Well, I know from interviewing Scratch a couple
of times myself, once he gets the "mad scientist" act out of
his system, he'll start telling you what you want to know. I guess that
was your experience with him, as well.
Katz: Yeah, I guess my ultimate experience with him
is that he's very, very moody. He's a very moody person. And when I first
met him here in London, there was a whole entourage of people that were
connected to him, but they were all trying to feed off of him. They were
pretending they were there to help him, but really they just wanted to
suck blood out of him, get money from him, and boost themselves up. And
he could see through this. But with me, I could say that I didn't really
want anything, it was just enough of a thrill and an honor to be around
him and see him at work. So I think he sensed that. And after he had
read what I had written about him already, I think he seemed to sense
that I had some kind of insight, some kind of view that other writers
didn't have -- and certainly that the people around him didn't have! And
Scratch isn't the only one who does this -- Yabby You and other people
kind of behave the same way. When they first meet you and they don't
know you, they kind of act their strangest to see how you're going to
react. And if you say "huh, this person's crazy" or act scared,
then they won't be honest and upfront with you.
Sleeper: Yeah, I've noticed that from the few reggae
artists I've interviewed -- I remember Dillinger being sort of charmingly
grumpy -- but once you let them know that you're a serious fan and know
their music quite well, they open up.
Katz: Yeah, I know what you mean! You remind them of
some song that they haven't thought of in years, and then they appreciate
that. But I think partially why you got such good interview material
out of Scratch when you interviewed him was because he had already seen
what you had done with your website.
Sleeper: Well, I remember in one interview -- it was
kind of weird and embarassing and flattering all at once -- he told me
that I was "the man he was looking for" and that he sent me
an "SOS through ESP" and because I was the one who answered,
it proved to him that I was the guy (laughs). So I didn't really
know what to say to that!
Katz: Well, I'm sure he saw it that way at the time.
This is the thing with Scratch: he takes everything as a sign. He doesn't
seem to believe in accidents, he's said that to me. There are no accidents,
and no mistakes -- everything happens for a reason. So when he came across
your website, he's going to see that as significant.
Sleeper: I know that there have been a lot of myths
and legends surrounding Scratch, and he's been elevated to a rather mythical
status in some circles. Did you want to -- for lack of a better expression
-- cut the crap and set the record straight?
Katz: (Laughs) I think what I didn't want to
do was add to the myths. And whether or not I've succeeded, you readers
can tell me. I really did not want to mythologize Scratch any further...
You hear some things, and every time you hear them, they get more outrageous
all the time. I hear all kinds of rumors, and think "this is just
garbage". It's like "Chinese whispers" -- you whisper something
to somebody, they whisper it to someone else, and by the time I gets
back to you it's blown all out of proportion. And I think what was particularly
troubling for me -- no disrespect to the people who have written these
books -- but, you know, there are some accounts of Bob Marley where, instead
of him being a singer who created some incredible music and eventually
turned into an international star, you get these things where Marley
is an angel of God, Marley's gonna walk again on the Earth - you know
what I mean? And it just gets to be a little bit much. So for me, when
I was writing People Funny Boy, I was very aware that Scratch
is an extraordinary man -- but he's still just a man! You know what I
Sleeper: Yeah. Some of the things you hear about Scratch
are great stories, but you know that they're not completely true. But
you really uncovered a lot of facts, the facts behind those anecdotes
Katz: I think that an other thing that maybe makes it
difficult for writers is that Jamaica is an extremely spiritual place.
And there's a belief in spirtualism that maybe we jaded folks from the
west don't have such a connection to. There's this whole kind of belief
in the spirit world that exists in people's daily lives that we don't
have. So I think there is something to that quality -- because the people
involved in the music believe in this and bring it into their music,
it's hard not to romanticize it but at the same time it's something that
we writers don't really understand. Do you know what I'm saying?
Sleeper: You have to overstand before you can understand.
Katz: Right, right! Or because it's not part of our
lived reality, it becomes difficult to write about accurately, or at
least from the point of view of the people who are living that reality.
Sleeper: Let's talk about Scratch's music. When I talked
with Steve Barrow in Vancouver last year, he told me that when the two
of you were compiling Arkology, there was a lot of really rare
material that you pushed to get on the set, but it didn't happen. What
are some of the really amazing things still in the vaults?
Katz: Well, the first thing I would like to say about
that Arkology project is that my involvement was really due
to Steve Barrow. Trevor Wyatt [from Island] approached Steve with the
concept, and Steve said "well, if you're doing a Lee Perry collection,
Dave Katz should be involved". And I really appreciate that Steve
did that, because I'm very pleased with what we put together. It has
to be said that the initial thinking at the time from Island was to do
just a re-release of something like Scratch On The Wire or Reggae
Greats, with just a couple of bonus tracks -- just one CD. And Steve
and I said "hey, come on -- there's enough material for at least
three CDs or more". And there was a lot of reluctance -- at first
we were told "well, we don't have any unreleased material".
And I said "wait a minute, that's ridiculous! You have that African
album - the songs that Scratch did with those Congolese mechanics, you
guys have that album." And the people at Island didn't really rate
that album, they felt it was unfinished. And I later came to understand
that the master tape that Island had of that album is really poor quality.
So, fair enough - they weren't prepared to release that album. But we
were told, "no, there's no unreleased stuff, we have everything
on DAT, just make a list of the tracks you want on here". So Steve
and I put our heads together and listed the tracks that we thought should
be on there. And, lo and behold, they didn't have most of those tracks
on DAT, so Trevor agreed to get the master tapes. So the first master
tape to come out of the Island vaults was their master of the Congos
album -- with an extra track on it that had never been released! And a
totally alternate version of "Congoman". And so immediately
we found all kinds of unreleased and really rare and amazing material,
including an unreleased Junior Murvin song. But that track was vetoed
by Island, it was deemed "not good enough" (laughs).
It's a shame. There's definitely enough tracks for an Arkology Part
Two . Which had always been planned, actually, but then Island changed
hands -- first Chris Blackwell quit, then Island was bought out, and nothing
has happened with it since. It's a totally different company now, and
they don't really seem interested in releasing that kind of material.
And they're sitting on all kinds of other material too, by different
artists, and it's all sitting in the vaults.
Sleeper: I think it's unfortunate that Island is sitting
on all this unreleased material while all of these half-assed companies
are releasing bogus and not really legit collections of Scratch's work.
Katz: Yeah, the bootlegs that are done without Lee Perry
seeing a cent of the profits, and without his approval. Most of the time
he knows nothing about it. That is a great shame, it's a bummer.
Sleeper: I'm reminded of that Lost Treasures Of
The Ark set that came out a couple of years ago -- first of all,
two thirds of the songs were not Black Ark tracks, and most of the rest
were already available on more bonafide collections. The only really
rare tracks were the Marley ones.
Katz: These compilations have such a checkered history.
It's unbelievable, really -- if this was rock music, there would be major
lawsuits! It's hard to fathom. The only happy ending with that particular
release was that when Scratch found out about it, he phoned up the head
of Jet Star [the company that released Lost Treasures] and yelled
his head off, basically. You know: "what the hell are you doing,
releasing my material?" And they cut Scratch in on the deal after
that. That's kind of partial justice, but not really.
Sleeper: I was re-reading some of People Funny Boy before
the interview, and was reminded that both George Faith and Junior Murvin
were supposed to record new albums with Scratch before the Black Ark
started falling apart. Did these albums ever happen?
Katz: They did! Junior Murvin recorded a whole new album.
He did it with a band now known as Axx of Jahpostles. They come from
the same area in Jamaica that he's from, and he roped them all in to
do the album. And as far as I know, none of it has ever surfaced, which
is a great shame. And George Faith claims that he did a follow up album
to To Be A Lover called Working On The Guideline, and
so far the only song to come out of that is "Guide Line". Which
is a great song, and if you think that the whole album was like that,
it would have been a dynamite album. And there's another track that I
think came out on a 12 inch called "Don't Be Afraid", which
is not quite as good, but it was an original song, whereas To Be
A Lover was all cover tunes, and this was going to be an original
album. So, as far as I'm aware, both those albums were completed. No
one knows what happened to the tapes.
Sleeper: Some might say that since the demise of the
Ark, the music that Scratch has done has been less than brilliant. My
own opinion is that it's always entertaining, but there's only a few
crucial post Black Ark works. What do you think of Scratch's later work?
Katz: The first thing I would say about it is that there's
always a "delay period". We're now raving over the work that
Scratch did in the 70s and in the 60s -- we're going berserk over the
work he did 20 or 30 years ago. Nobody was really raving about this stuff
in the same way then, or maybe a few people were raving but nobody was
really paying attention (laughs). So, to me, probably farther
down the line people are going to check out certain aspects of what Scratch
has done lately and say "wait a minute". You know, all of these
triple tracked vocals where it sounds like he's having a conversation
with himself -- it's still quite experimental and ahead of its time. So
I think that there's going to be this "delay" factor. And there
have always been some of his later works that I've appreciated, things
that he's done outside of Jamaica, that a lot of people who have followed
his work from earlier on don't like because they weren't open to it,
it was different from what he did before.
Sleeper: I think that there is a lot of snobbery when it comes to reggae. If it was recorded in the 1970s, it's gold -- if it was recorded after a certain date or outside
of Jamaica, it gets dumped on.
Katz: Well, let's look at it another way -- some people
are very particular to what they like. Some people only like what was
happening in the 60s, they don't even like the music from the 70s. Some
people look at the great watershed being Bob Marley's death, some people
don't like what was happening after '79, or whatever. But for me, some
of these things that Scratch has done, it just takes time to listen to
them and appreciate. Like, for me, Battle Of Armagideon was
a brilliant album. I'd say it has one weak track -- one weak, unfortunate
track -- but the rest is brilliant. Some of the stuff that he's done in
the 90s for me is the same, but the first time I heard it I didn't feel
that way. Just to give you an example, Black Ark Experryments --
the more I listen to that album, the more I like it, the more you notice
little things that are going on -- not just in the lyrics, but in the
music. And I would also say the same about Who Put The Voodoo Pon
Reggae. The first couple of times I heard that album, I thought "eh,
this is nothing special", but after awhile you catch the good parts.
What's true in what you're saying in a real immediate sense is that since
the demise of the Ark, Scratch has never really done an album on his
own. There's a couple in the 80s where he's nearly on his own, and then
everything else is in collaboration with somebody else. Although I would
say Time Boom is a brilliant album.
Sleeper: I would say that anything he did with Adrian
Sherwood is fantastic.
Katz: Um, I was less thrilled with the Secret Laboratory album.
It just didn't grab me in the way Time Boom did, I think that
from start to finish Time Boom is completely brilliant. I think
this is the thing -- when you listen to the things he does with Mad Professor,
I think you always hear so much of what Mad Professor brings to the sound,
to the music, to the arrangements. And sometimes it works very well,
maybe other times it doesn't bring the best out of Scratch. It's the
same way with those two Adrian Sherwood albums -- maybe the second one
has more of Sherwood and less of Scratch for me. But I do have that feeling
that in years to come, people are going to be looking over some of this
stuff in the same way we're looking over the 70s stuff now.