You can get the finger
A pox on your house, El Rey Theater. Don't take it personally. I dig the art-deco interior, the adjoining cafe serving spectacular sweet potato fries, the fact that ticket prices are usually kept decent. Really though–you guys blew it last week. Wail all you want about public safety, the children, the fear of thousand-carat chandeliers becoming permanently pungent like Otto's jacket. But under no humane circumstances can you allow people to throw down $42 (including Ticketmaster extortion) to see Lee “Scratch” Perry and not let them smoke weed.
Now I'm not looking to do the self-righteous rant and rave about “cannabis legalization,” because, “y'know…it's like….totally good for the soul, maaan. Besides dude, do you know all the things you can do with with hemp?” Shit, it's practically legal in California if you're wise enough to get your prescription. So why couldn't you tell the Tonton Macoutes to play it cool, ease off, instead of forcibly ejecting every soul daring to follow Perry's admonition to “smoke your splifs.”
Consider the crowd. 92 percent having once plastered Bob Marley posters to their dorm room walls, crooning in Wiggum-like bleats to “Jammin” with dread-locked, Trustafarian glee. Mixed in were the prerequisite ex-frat boys, skate-punks there for openers Abe Vigoda (who I regretfully missed) and a smattering of the genuine article, aged Rastas there for one of reggae's patron saints, the BIG to Marley's 2Pac. There's an obvious amount of oversimplification in that analogy, not least of all because at 72, Perry continues to tour and release music and Marley and Perry were collaborators not rivals. Yet there's a certain congruity in the way Marley/Pac's inherent charisma, knack for self-mythologizing, and photogenic appearances made them ripe for iconography. Whereas, Biggie worship these days seems mainly the province of blogs, hip-hop mags, and “lines coming out Jay-Z's fat mouth,” and the average music fan outside of Jamaica and Britain probably doesn't have a clue who Lee Perry is.
Perry During His Short-Lived “Jughead Jones” Phase
Of course, they've heard Perry's music, considering he produced most of the pre-Island Bob Marley material and invented the Dub sub-genre with King Tubby. But Americans have a way of reducing foreign genres to one band, so when most non-music geeks think of reggae, they think of Bob Marley & The Wailers. In fact, I was one of those people until about three years ago when I vaulted past the “every Reggae Song sounds the same” phase and begun to dig deeper, a development that almost immediately led to Perry.
Few artists have amassed such a prolific discography, so predictably I haven't heard a lot of inevitably bible material, but off the strength of those early Marley records, Arkology, Dry Acid, The Congos' Heart of the Congo's, Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves, and the Upsetters' Super Ape, Perry's ripe for inclusion on any short list of G.O.A.T's. Indeed, with most of his peers lying six-feet deep, viewing one of the last reggae legends live felt like watching a wizened, half-mad prophet, one on a George Clinton-like plane of eccentricity–unsurprising, considering Perry's been weird for a very long time (at least, if this old Jools Holland footage of Perry at Black Ark is to be viewed in its entirety.)
The point to this gibberish is that by the time Perry finally graced us with his presence at a quarter past 11, no one one in the room had a choice whether or not we should smoke. I mean what's a sane person to do when presented with a Dub deity dressed in a Lucky Charms NASCAR jacket, wearing a hat filled with flashing lights and miscellaneous tchotchkes, topped with a burning stick of incense, the reggae equivalent of sticking a feather in your hat and calling it macaroni. Or something. Either way, the moment that droning, head-nodding, stoned space funk kicked in, pools of smoke began billowing from the crowd, followed immediately thereafter by lurching security guards, grabbing and forcibly removing people as though they were engaged in some sort of unnatural drug-fueled orgy. A warning would've been nice, instead they carted off people like Reefer Madness had been a vital instructional video in their security training.
The Other Kind of Green
So for the most of the show, the place was Miley Cyrus concert sober, with a short-tempered crowd muttering obscenities and staring balefully at the joints they'd smuggled in. At one point, my friends and I crouched down low and burned one, taking shallow, clipped puffs and exhaling the smoke into our shirts. It was absolutely ridiculous but these were the desperate measures we were resigned to. Because really, Perry was phenomenal, ever-energetic and dynamic, delivering impromptu karate kicks on-stage, warbling with a soaring, adenoidal, alien trill, his backing band sharp and eager to impress with trembling, fuzzy blasts of guitar, zonked out keyboards and haunting melodica bursts.
At one point, Perry even brought out a young girl from back-stage to dance with, not in a skeezy old pervert way but in a charming, debonair, drug-addled sort of way. Of course, Perry's allegedly been sober for the last 20 years, but when you smoke that many trees, your mind is permanently altered. And indeed, Perry dwells in that extraterrestrial orbit with Clinton, Sun Ra, and Cam'ron (how else to explain the video with the boxer shorts and the black eye?). The set-list ran the gamut from the classic 60's and 70s catalog to the more dancehall inflected “God Save His King,” and “Pum Pum” from the Andrew W.K.-produced Repentence, Perry's recent effort for Narnack Records.
By the encore, when Perry performed that old Marley staple “Kaya,” the crowd had thinned, nerves no doubt aggravated by the cruel, unyielding and forced sobriety. Yet those who stayed to the end were treated to an incredible performance by one of the finest musicians to ever turn a cheap mixing board and even cheaper weed into the stuff of legend. At 72 years old, who knows who much longer Perry's going to be able to play, so it's highly advised to catch him before it's too late. Hopefully, next time he returns to LA, he'll play in a more narcotically neutral venue. Or maybe, the El Rey will just learn to lighten up.
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