Outerviews: 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) and Upsetter 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 like?

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 mean?

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 and myths.

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.