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David Katz pens the lives of two outstanding Jamaicans

Published:Friday | October 14, 2011 | 12:00 AM
David Katz (left) and Lee ' Scratch' Perry.
David Katz with master tapes at GG's. - Contributed

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

David Katz is a music multitasker, compiling and doing the notes for retrospective Jamaican music CD compilations, playing music publicly once a month upstairs at the Ritzy in Brixton, England, giving talks to university students, and presenting on panels at the Rototom and Reggae Geel summer festivals in Europe.

In addition to writing liner notes for CDs, Katz says "I continue to write about reggae wherever I can, being regularly featured at present in Mojo, the Guardian, Riddim, Wax Poetics and Caribbean Beat". It is through writing, as well, that Katz is probably best known to Jamaican music audiences, as he is wrote the biography People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee 'Scratch' Perry'. That book was first published by Canongate in 2000 and now, a decade later, he has done a biography of Jimmy Cliff.

The cover of the book makes it clear that it is an unauthorised biography. Still, Katz makes it clear that the publication is not without first-hand merit. In an e-mail interview, Katz said "for the record, the Cliff book is not entirely taken from secondary sources, since I have conducted interviews with him on more than one occasion (from the time when I was working on my second book, Solid Foundation: An Oral History of Reggae), and I have interviewed many musicians, producers and other peers that interacted with him throughout his career".

Not yet in Jamaica

The book will be available in Jamaica later this year.

And while Perry asked Katz to be his biographer, it did not mean that it was a simple process of interview and response. He points out "with the Perry book, my contact with the protagonist was far more regular, which was certainly preferable, especially in regards to fact checking. On the other hand, for many years, Perry refused to give a straight answer to just about any question put to him, so the process was not very straightforward for that book either".

Katz said the process of becoming Perry's biographer "is a long and complex one". It sprung from an article he wrote about Perry's album Millionaire Liquidator: Battle of Armagideon in the mid-1980s, for the magazine Wiring Department. In late 1986, he went to London where Perry was living, located him and handed over a copy of the magazine.

Perry was impressed and eventually "summoned me to the studio he was working in, and made me undergo a bizarre initiation ritual, involving several stones from the River Thames and a death's head ring. I was thus appointed his 'ghostwriter,' and given the ultimate honour, yet heavy burden, of helping him to write his autobiography, despite insisting there were surely others better suited to the task. So the idea was really Perry's, and I spent nearly every day with him for the next two years, at his request, gleaning as much of the tale as possible."

Caribbean Lives

On the other hand, the idea for the Jimmy Cliff book came from a publisher. Katz said "James Ferguson of Signal Books launched a series called Caribbean Lives, in conjunction with MacMillan, the idea being to publish a number of short, easy, accessible pocket books on some of the most important figures to emerge from the Caribbean. James suggested that a Jimmy Cliff biography would fit very well among the other planned titles celebrating the life and work of luminaries such as Marcus Garvey, Ché Guevara, Learie Constantine, and Bob Marley, and I entirely agreed."

"Cliff is a major figure in the world of Caribbean music, and his tale is a fascinating, a very heartening one, especially since he has shown himself to be a great humanitarian, committed to social change, as well as being an exceptional singer, songwriter, and actor," Katz said.

Katz came to reggae through radio in his childhood. Katz said, growing up in a small town in northern California, it so happened that the only radio station there played reggae, "So I can remember hearing songs like Junior Murvin's Police and Thieves as a pre-teen, in the late 1970s".

"Then, during my teen years, there was a marvellous three-hour reggae programme broadcast on that station every Sunday night, called Midnight Dread. It was on from 10 p.m. to 1a.m. and I would tune into that show religiously (making cassettes each week by placing a small recorder next to the clock radio on my bedside table, and very weary at school the next morning)," he said.

The presenter, Doug Wendt, went to Jamaica regularly and accessed not only the popular, commercial records, as Katz said, "I remember him playing all kinds of very raw dub music" - including Max Romeo's Open The Iron Gate, recorded at Lee Perry's Black Ark studio in 1975. It did not hurt that Wendt also spoke about Jamaican culture, giving "the social and political backdrop to the music," and also had guests from Jamaica.

"I remember a female dub poet explaining what dub poetry is, and what Nyabinghi music is all about. Then he had guests such as the Wailing Souls, and I remember them singing Kingdom Rise Kingdom Fall live in the studio, a capella," Katz said.

He describes hearing Jack Ruby's sound system in 1982 as "mind-boggling" and "by the time I first travelled to England in 1983, I was truly hooked on reggae and dub; and being exposed to pirate radio stations such as DBC and other sound systems all helped further my reggae education. Lee Perry's work was so incredible that I was really compelled to write about it, once I had begun writing about music in Wiring Department, and when I returned to the UK in late 1986, my reggae interest deepened. And meeting Lee Perry opened up all kinds of connections for me in that world".

Right the many wrongs

There was also the matter of writing to right many wrongs, as Katz said "Also, I was partly motivated to write about Jamaican music because I was reading articles that I knew were full of errors, so I figured I should try to get as much information out there as I could, especially since I had firsthand testimony from interviews I was conducting with various artistes for the Perry book. So I began writing for The Beat magazine in Los Angeles and a short-lived magazine called Underground in the UK, eventually progressing to write for Mojo, the Guardian, the Air Jamaica in-flight magazine, and so on".

He has also contributed to a number of books, including The Rough Guide to Reggae, I-Land Reggae: From Heartbeat to Revolution and Keep on Running: The Story of Island Records.

With two Jamaican performers' biographies under his belt, The Gleaner asks Katz for a wish list of five more whose lives be would like to detail. He said "I have been asked to do another biography of an important Jamaican musical figure, but until I am able to secure a contract for the book, I am unable to say more about it. Similarly, my 'wish list' might extent to several pages - but, at this point, I would not really like to name names".