On the night Lee "Scratch" Perry performed at the New York venue B B King's last month, the news came through that the 1960s ska master Desmond Dekker had died. It seems that the first wave of Jamaican stars is becoming a rare species, historic monuments worthy of preservation orders.
Yet, although he began working around the time of Jamaican independence (he is 70), few performers can match the charisma of the wry, spry and ageless Scratch. His influence is undisputed, from the beginnings of his career as a writer and producer at the legendary reggae hothouse Studio One to his 1970s productions at his own studio, the Black Ark, which helped transform Bob Marley and the Wailers from rudeboys to rasta revolutionaries.
Though he now resides in Switzerland, Scratch remains a figurehead for his homeland's cultural heritage. Wreathed in smoke from a stick of incense stuck in his hat, he interrupted his B B King's set to ask for water, with which he promptly sprinkled the audience in an unexpected blessing. All very High Church, and also extremely Jamaican--or perhaps, more accurately, African.
"I remember Scratch coming in to record the Wailers in our studio above my family's record shop, Randy's, in the early 1960s," recalls the Jamaican producer Clive Chin, whose father, Vincent, launched the influential reggae record label VP. "He would come in early and sprinkle white rum in the four corners of the studio for a good session. He wouldn't sing to the musicians to describe the sound he wanted: he would do something outlandish like jump his left knee towards his right ear, to explain how far out he wanted them to push the sound."
Of the many producers I have seen in action, none has touched Scratch for sheer agility. Sound seems to hit him physically. Working at the Black Ark in the 1970s, he would jitterbug with his four-track TEAC recorder. With every dip, twirl and swift flash of a fader, he would send sound soaring in abstract directions, scattering beats and tones like sparkly confetti.
If you make it to his shows at the Jazz Cafe in London this month, expect a seance, an encounter with a Caribbean shaman. His live performances, however, sometimes fail to match the extravagance of his classic productions. "Scratch built his reputation as a producer, not an artist," says the reggae archivist Carter van Pelt. "But his personality on stage is intriguing for anyone who likes a good laugh, because he's an entertaining guy to watch in action."
Scratch is the archetypical outsider, and some of his more bizarre behaviour has been well documented. On one occasion he declared that the coconut was God. Of course, when he explained the thinking behind this to me in his Kingston yard in the 1970s, he was quite convincing. The coconut does indeed supply many human needs, from the meat to the milk, and, obviously, those versatile hairy husks can be woven for shelter. So if natural functionality is anything to go by, all hail the great coconut.
They have other uses, too. "I remember Scratch busting into the offices of Trojan Records, which owed him royalties at the time. He was with two big bodyguards, shaking a big coconut and shouting, 'I man come fe sabotage! …