There have existed a gaggle of artists who for much or all of their careers traipsed the shaky tightrope between genius and insanity. Hell, it can be argued that all great artists do this in some regard. Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry belongs to that significantly smaller yet still sizeable group who not only made the leap of faith into batshit insanity, but continued to release quality work afterward. Of course, audiences delight in the archetypal image of the crazy-eyed rock star and thus, through romanticization and revisionism, unfocused albums are often elevated to cult classic status. (Is Syd Barrett’s solo career really as remarkable as the psych-rock bloggerati would have us believe?) So, lest we devolve to a torch-wielding mob demanding human sacrifice, it’s important that when we listen to a record like The Return of Pipecock Jackxon we keep in mind that shit-smeared walls do not necessarily equate to high art.
Of course, sometimes they do.
Originally released in 1980 on Black Star Liner, The Return was re-issued in 2011 by Honest Jons Records. While I’m not aware of any difference in sound quality between the two issues, the latter (pictured above and spinning at my side as I type this article) comes packaged with some incredibly insightful liner notes that offer far better historic context than I ever could, explaining in some detail exactly what kind of shit was smeared on the walls of Perry’s backyard studio, Black Ark: “layers upon layers of paint and posters and book pages, a chronological history of Scratch’s mental state,” says photographer Bill Bradford. Quotes like that one and “the sonic index of Perry’s psychic unraveling” – used by liner notes author David Katz to describe the record – might lead one to believe that The Return is a particularly dark album. However, such is not the case.
While there are dashes of frustration and desperation whisked about, most if not all of them are tinctured with a lighter shade of introspective, absurdist humor. Scratch is indeed losing his mind here, but one would be shortsighted to assume that he isn’t fully aware of and embracing that fact. Think about those instances when the world around you seems so totally ass-backward that all you can do is laugh hysterically. That’s what this record sounds like to me.
From Perry’s spontaneous recital of all 26 letters of the alphabet in the epic opener “Bed Jammin” (a conversational dub response to Bob Marley’s “Jamming”?) to the backup vocal refrain of “koo koo” in “Who Killed the Chicken,” the absurdity of it all is acknowledged and thus tangible; lyrical flotsam drifting in a (mostly) smooth sea of psychedelic dub grooves. I say “mostly” because in spite of the bluesy guitar licks and hazy synths, there are some rough patches that welcomingly hark back to the badman vibes of Upsetters 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle. That being said, if the title “Babylon Cookie Jar a Crumble” isn’t enough to put a smile on your face, then Scratch’s cartoonish cackle at the end of that song probably won’t either.
There is much that can be written about this album’s other themes – the intermingling of Jamaican and European cultures, the eternal battles between love/good and hate/evil, and the humble pursuit of idyllic silence — but it is Lee’s ability and determination to find humor in dire circumstances that rings truest to me. Just under a year ago, I saw Scratch perform at B.B. King’s in Manhattan. He dropped many a gem that night (read more here), but without a doubt, the one that best informs how I hear The Return of Pipecock Jackxon is this: “I don’t drink anymore, I don’t smoke anymore. The only thing I have to keep me happy is craziness.”