David Katz drily comments in the opening lines of his definitive biography of Lee Perry:
"Lee Perry has spoken of his origins in many contradictory ways. He has claimed to come from Jupiter, once said he was born in the sky, and has often named Africa as his true birthplace; Perry has additionally suggested that his empty body was taken over by space aliens after his undocumented death."
How do you even begin to write the biography of such a man? David Katz' response has been to write a book whose meticulous detail and documentation is as far from the excesses and self indulgence of Lee Perry as can possibly be imagined. At 461 pages, with an additional 25 page album discography, a 9 page bibliography, and a 28 page index, People Funny Boy relates to its subject like a teenager who rebels against bohemian parents by being extremely responsible and serious.
Although some reviewers have complained at the sheer weight of detail here, David Katz' thorough and scrupulous approach for the most part works. He shows a level of respect for reggae music largely denied until recently, with the publication of books like Barrow & Dalton's Reggae; the Rough Guide and Stolzoff's Wake The Town. His book is also a salutary response to those who see Lee Perry as a weirdo and a wacky one-off, rather than someone who worked for many hard years at the grassroots of a rich and varied musical culture.
In large part, the exhaustive detail of this book springs from Katz' grasp of the essentially collaborative nature of Jamaican music and the many individual contributions that together make up a particular piece of reggae magic. People Funny Boy is not just about one man but, as any good book about reggae must be, about a whole musical culture and the complex Jamaican society where it originates. Katz' unrivalled access to Jamaican musicians is such that it would be quicker to list those left out than those interviewed in the course of his book. The narrative takes a frequent stop to accommodate the potted biography of yet another reggae musician who Scratch worked with, fought with, or bumped up against during his early years in Kingston.
Those who have found this level of detail daunting might usefully see People Funny Boy not just as a biography but as a reference book for reggae music as a whole, to be revisited over and over again. Also, use it as a companion to the music itself. Put any Lee Perry tune on your hi fi, look it up in the index, and there it will be. Read about it while you listen. In fact, so great is the reach of this book that you could play any reggae tune up to 1984 when Perry left Jamaica, look up the artist in the index and read about him as you take your listening pleasure.
Essentially the book divides into three sections. The first documents Perry's struggling years from his birth in a poor rural district in 1935 to his arrival at the end of the Sixties as a figure to be reckoned with in the Kingston musical cockfight. The second section begins with his musical collaboration with the Wailers and the construction of his Black Ark studio. For Katz, these are the golden years. He writes well about how reggae music actually sounds and how it comes together in the studio, and writes with particular verve about the distinctive Black Ark sound of this period.
It is probably no coincidence that the book's most fresh and revealing anecdotes are found in this middle section. These are anecdotes not of bad behaviour on Perry's part but which reveal the rich life behind the finished musical product. There is Clancy Eccles' account of how Perry would use the toilet of his record shop for hours on end to write his lyrics, scribbling them feverishly on a piece of cement bag. There is the account of how the song "Mr Brown" originated in the rumour that swept Jamaica of a duppy "speeding through the land on a three wheeled coffin, on top of which three John Crows were perched, one of which was asking for a certain Mr Brown. Glen Adams found a sizable crowd searching for the coffin right in front of the Upsetter record shop and quickly put together some lyrics about the situation." We even find that Perry's Cow Thief Skank is aimed at rival producer Niney the Observer who, according to Perry, once stole a cow in his youth, and is referred to in the lyrics as Moccasin, "due to his sporting of unfashionable sportswear". Elsewhere, the rich and astonishing music being made does not always live through the names, dates and places. But at its best, Katz' book puts the reader right there in the studio or on the street corner. He gives us the accidents, the chaos, the way great music is seized out of the moment and from unforeseen trivia.
The third section of the book, subtitled "I Am A Madman", begins with Scratch's long self exile from Jamaica in 1984 following the destruction of his Black Ark studio, probably at Perry's own hand. Lee Perry's eccentricities seem to have been, at first, a form of psychic self defence, a way to keep at bay the hangers on and the musical conformists. At one point he is quoted as saying "Me decide that me want to close the reggae campaign because reggae is a dog. Me decide to close the reggae shop and open the ears, close the reggae campaign." The extent to which Perry was prepared to go against his own peers and all Jamaican cultural norms is remarkable. He is described as driving around town with a piece of pork impaled on his car aerial to keep away fake dreads and idlers, even painting on his car "I am a battyman" which in Jamaican terms is as radical as it gets, if to be radical means knowingly to affront received opinion. But, after his self exile from Jamaica, Lee Perry is not waving any more but drowning. These final one hundred pages are, by and large, a grim litany of rows, rip offs, failed projects, and generally second rate musical product. For me, Katz' meticulous and self-effacing approach, leaving the facts to speak for themselves, is less successful here. The relentless stream of detail becomes claustrophobic and undifferentiated, intensifying the general sense of waste and misery.
But how do you evaluate someone like Lee Perry? A life still being lived does not lend itself to neat conclusions, all the more so when your subject has a reputation for burying people's television sets in their back gardens, and scrawling over every inch of their living room walls. These are people who were helping him out at the time. What might he do to someone who writes a critical book?
It should be remembered that People Funny Boy is only the second major biography of a major reggae figure. The other is Timothy White's biography of Bob Marley, Catch A Fire (Hamish Hamilton 1983), which takes an entirely different approach but seems to me equally successful. Some reviewers have complained that Lee Perry remains an enigma despite all the detail of Katz' book. Timothy White's response to an enigma is very simple; he invents his subject's innermost thoughts. Rather cheekily for a white American, Timothy White imagines whole passages of Marley's inner consciousness, often in broad patois. Chapter Seven of Catch A Fire begins:
"Nesta cursed and spat. It was suffocatingly hot inside the welder's shed, and the air itself seemed thick and syrupy; he almost expected the dense gob of saliva he had expelled from his mouth to linger in the still air to linger in the still air, drifting slowly downward to the dirt like a pebble sinking through a pudding."
Don't hold out on us, Timothy. What kind of pudding did Bob have in mind? Did the great man clear his throat before he spat? But, while sometimes preposterous, Catch A Fire is always enjoyably so and Timothy White's 'faction' approach successfully gets across Jamaica in all its white rum and red soil magnificence. His buccaneering approach and David Katz' more sober and self-effacing approach stand as alternative templates for writing about major reggae artists.
Any minor criticisms do not detract from the fact that People Funny Boy is a massive achievement. This is truly the definitive biography. Any future book on Lee Perry would have to stand on the shoulders of this one, if indeed it could be written at all. At its best, as we have seen, Dave Katz puts us in the thick of it, in the day to day business of great music being made.
Let the great Augustus Pablo, in conversation with David Katz, have the last word on this: "Everybody look pon the past and wonder how they plan this out, but we don't really plan. Anybody tell you anything else is a lie they telling." At its best, Dave Katz' biography gives us this truth.