“When everything was happening, I didn’t know what was going on. Then I realised it was time for me to wake up and recognise that this is the second judgement. But me no know how it happened.”
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is at his coastal Jamaican hideaway, competing for cell-phone airtime with tree frogs and crickets. He is trying to describe how he felt when awakened on the morning of December 1st, to find that the basement-level workshop of his home in Switzerland was ablaze. “At the time, maybe I was somewhere else in the world,” he suggests, referring to his state of mind, rather than a physical presence. “I don’t have to be in Switzerland, right? Maybe I was in heaven.”
Of course, Perry calls this the “second judgement” because his legendary Black Ark studio in Kingston was totally destroyed by fire in the early 1980s. He’s made conflicting claims over the years as to how and why the Black Ark perished, but has typically insisted that he burned it himself, due to the negative energy of the artists and hangers-on that used to flock there.
The situation of the Swiss “Secret Laboratory” was different, being a solitary workplace that very few outsiders have ever been granted access to. Even his step-son Noel, who lives on the floor above and often acts as Perry’s tour assistant, was not allowed inside the sacred space, where Perry would voice new songs on pre-recorded rhythms, create paintings and junk-sculpture fetishes, and store the many homemade costumes that fans around the world have presented him with. With so much original artwork, stage clothes and music files gone up in smoke, the Upsetter has became seriously dejected.
“After the firemen finished, we go look and everything was black,” says Mireille, Perry’s wife. “Lee’s room is completely burnt, everything gone. He didn’t even have a pair of shoes to wear. From the fire and the water, everything was like an earthquake.”
The fire took place the morning after Mireille’s birthday, which falls on the same day as their wedding anniversary, though the couple did not go out to celebrate that night. Instead, Lee worked on new songs in the Laboratory, including one that Mireille had written for him, and a handful of others for his friend and collaborator, Raffaele Ferro, AKA Ranking Alpha. “I was doing a song and then another song come into my mind, so I go down to the studio again,” Perry explains. “I go to bed at about six o’clock in the morning, and when I come up from downstairs I forget to blow out the candle – it was on top of a Bible. Sometimes, Mireille always come and say, ‘Look, the candle,’ and me never remember fi go look because I go to bed too late.”
“I don’t normally like to give him candles,” adds Mireille, “but a photographer came three days before, and Lee did want a white candle because of the pictures.”
That’s why I’m in Jamaica, to find out from God why it happened.
Although the Swiss blaze was clearly accidental, in the preordained universe of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, nothing so negative could be put down to mere chance. Perry has always spoken of perceived foes, sending negative energy from afar. “My story is that these people working obeah to achieve vanity. The Upsetter name is big and they want to take it, so them send duppy obeah fire, but fire make the firmament, so fire can do anything. No one have power over fire; only water can tax the fire, and even fire fight water with the water tax.”
Despite the momentary upheaval, Perry has ultimately taken the loss of the Secret Laboratory in his stride. When he made a public posting about the fire on social media a few days after the calamity, the outpouring of love from his fans greatly raised his spirits. Currently recharging his batteries in Jamaica, he’s looking forward to the series of live gigs he will execute with Mad Professor in Britain and Ireland, in celebration of his 80th birthday next March. Hopefully, some devoted fan will deliver a new costume backstage on the opening night in Dublin, since he’ll be flying straight from Jamaica to the show.
“Anything that happen, I don’t ask it to happen, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” says Perry, before signing off. “What happened did happen, and nothing can happen unless God make it happen. So that’s why I’m in Jamaica, to find out from God why it happened.”