We’ve lost a lot of legends this year: Charlie Watts, Ed Asner, Toots Hibbert, Bunny Wailer, The Gift of Gab, Biz Markie, and Shock G, just off the top of my head. And Michael K. Williams, fucking Omar, and now Norm, it never ends….
But no departure has mattered to me as much as that of Lee “Scratch” Perry, whom I truly believed to be immortal. In 2011 he told GQ:
I create immortality — never grow old, never get cold, never tired, never weary. I am my music. My music refuse to die, my music refuse to be an adult, my music will be a baby for all the time.
How could you not believe him? All the evidence seemed to back him up.
One of Scratch’s defining characteristics was an insane productivity, especially during the Black Ark period (1975–1979), when he had the tapes rolling day and night. Robert Palmer (yes that Robert Palmer, Power Station Robert Palmer, “Addicted to Love” Robert Palmer, but also, lest we forget, “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” Robert Palmer), who recorded at the Black Ark, described the atmosphere this way:
As far as Scratch was concerned, all that mattered was what came out of the speakers, and he had these incredible speakers, like, one eighteen inch woofer in a big metal box hung from the ceiling by chains. That was it. Cranked as loud as it would go. Everything was bassed. And those joke spliffs you see that are like nine inches long? They’d make them out of brown paper and just constantly smoke. He used to spray this vile-smelling rose-scented air freshener through his air conditioner. So you had this really heady mixture of ganja and cheap deodorizer. And these speakers, their main frequency was around 50, so it was quite an experience being in there, like 10 hours a day.
Palmer may have been in there 10 hours a day, but Lee Perry lived in the studio. This is why, though he may have proven not to be immortal in his physical body, I take it as an article of faith that his music is a bottomless well that will never run dry. Just a few weeks ago a new compilation called Black Art from the Black Ark popped up, containing several songs that I’d never heard before. I don’t know where they keep finding this stuff, but Jah willing it will carry on forever.
Another thing I somehow missed all these years is a song called “Play On Mr. Music,” which Scratch recorded in 1976 with a group of Black Ark All-Stars including Junior Murvin, the Heptones, and the Congos.
There is also this delightful behind-the-scenes video showing the recording of the song:
I could watch Lee grooving at his control board all day long. Maybe one of these days I will. I just need some brown paper and air freshener. Hey Alexa!