Jamaican producer, singer and living legend Lee "Scratch" Perry, aka The Upsetter, aka Pipecock Jackson, has always been an enigma, an eccentric that has led many to baffle over his sanity, potential drug use and the potential that it's all one big act.
If you're hoping that the film by Ethan Higbee and Adam Bhala Lough – and narrated by Benicio Del Toro – clears it all up for you, you'll be disappointed. But, c'mon, do you really want to know if Scratch takes off the uniform and is a regular Joe each night?
Of course not. And that's what "The Upsetter" reminds us. Perry's quikiness, his incendiary language – which we let him get away with because we sorta think he might be a little more than eccentric – are part of the package.
We're also reminded by the soundtrack and by the footage and the story in the first part of the film, especially, that Scratch is no imposter. The "show," if it is indeed a show, isn't a trick to mask a lack of talent.
No, the show is the bonus track on the CD of Perry's musical life, which is just about the richest to emerge from Jamaica. Starting out in studios during the ska era, Perry and his producers (who ripped him off, he says) realized his talents didn't lie in front of the mic, but, rather, on the other side of the studio glass.
Honing his skills at Studio One and with Joe Gibbs before striking out on his own, Perry drew a line in the sand with his 1968 "People Funny Boy," an attack on Gibbs that is credited with being among the first recordings to use a sample (a baby crying) and with making what most feel is really the first reggae record.
Through the '70s, Scratch and the music that emerged from his Black Ark Studio had no equal. But things came to a boiling point and the studio burned down (people say it was mysterious but it sure looks to me like there's footage in this film of him setting fire to the place).
Scratch left Jamaican and, for a while, music. He's been back for years but few would argue that anything he's recorded since matches his classic output.
The vintage footage throughout the picture is amazing to see. Even if, at times, it seems out of kilter. Such as when The Congos' "Ark of the Covenant" is playing but the footage is actually of The Mighty Diamonds.
Most sizzling, of course, is what Perry has to say. At one point he calls The Congos – whose landmark "Heart of the Congos" is described in the film as being the end of the Ark – "demons," and he says that The Clash were on drugs when he recorded them in London in 1977.
He says most producers ripped him off but then that he was wrong to surreptitiously sell the tracks he recorded with The Wailers to Trojan Records in the U.K., causing a rift between Marley and Perry that ended one of the most fertile collaborations in reggae history.
Later, upon hearing the news that Marley died, Scratch recalls saying Marley ought be happy. "He should be glad cause now he can get rid of his misery. He did have to support so much gunmen. ... He's lucky. Otherwise you know how much gunmen he would have to be feeding now? And how much cocaine man he would have to support?"
When Perry says, "People don't know what keeps me going. They think it's drugs, but it's not drugs" and "I am perfect and I never tell a lie," we're not sure what to think.
But when he says at the end, "I promise not to die," it seems pretty safe that Scratch and his musical legacy will outlive us all.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.