THE WIRE magazine has a gallery of wonderful vintage Sun Ra photos and related artworks up on their website, excerpted from the recently published Sun Ra + Ayé Aton: Space, Interiors and Exteriors, 1972 by John Corbett (paperback, PictureBox).
Originally published in Arthur No. 7 (Nov. 2003)
Blacks Off Earth Now!
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum
CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.
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“A rat done bit my sister Nell with Whitey on the moon.
Her face and arms began to swell and Whitey’s on the moon.
I can’t pay no doctor bills, but Whitey’s on the moon.
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still, while Whitey’s on the moon.”
When William S. Burroughs completed his paranoid masterwork Naked Lunch in 1959, not even his closest friends—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso; born cheerleaders all, and no slouches in intuiting the teleology of social control—would have labeled it out-and-out prophecy. And yet a mere half-century later, we’re confronted with a totalitarian state that insatiably advances its influence and exports its dissatisfaction; a quisling media reduced to advocating these imperial ambitions; religious zealots as the new carnival barkers; a police apparatus bent on self-perpetuation; universal surveillance; lawless outlands designated as zones of amoral commerce; and addiction masked as consumer need. Not to mention a far-right party (which Burroughs labeled the “Liquefactionists”) dedicated to liquidating everyone but themselves.
Visionaries, it would seem, often turn out in retrospect to be mere stenographers who have become somehow temporally misfiled.
The same may well prove true of free jazz pioneer and denizen of Saturn Sun Ra, whose legendary 1974 cult film Space Is the Place has just been lovingly restored by Plexifilm in a special 30th anniversary edition. This chronicle of interplanetary black colonization, NASA conspiracy and an epic Manichean poker match for the fate of the world-kind of a quasi-documentary Buckaroo Banzai filmed in the middle of proto-revolutionary, Cointelpro Oakland-contains 20 minutes of newly restored footage (mostly interracial sex scenes), interviews with the director and producer (middle-aged white men) and home movies of Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Myth-Science Solar Arkestra goofing and playing in front of the Pyramids in Luxor, Egypt in 1972 (at roughly the same time that Kenneth Anger, equally besotted with Egyptian imagery, was shooting scenes for Lucifer Rising with Donald Cammell and Marianne Faithfull at the same location).
In 1971, Sun Ra and his band had traveled west from Philadelphia at the invitation of Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party to Oakland, California, where they lived in a Panther house and Sun Ra taught at Berkeley. By 1974, amid increasing factionalism, no less than Eldridge Cleaver had kicked them out, and they were headed back to “the City of Brotherly Shove.” But not before producer Jim Newman and director John Coney lured him into a prospective half-hour concert for the local PBS affiliate, which somehow mutated into one of the oddest documents ever committed to celluloid.
The film opens amid a welter of space jazz, on what looks like a yellow Sony Playstation controller drifting through space-actually Sun Ra’s spaceship, captured in pre-digital blue-screen on 16mm film. As the mothership lands on a lush tropical planet (in reality Golden Gate Park), Sun Ra and his entourage stroll through an enchanted garden the equal of the fantasy sequences in Heavenly Creatures-with floating bubbles and hovering trilobites topped with red orbs encased in glass and exotic flowers bearing fruit of orange hands and wine glasses. Draped in flowing robes and an Egyptian headdress topped with a large sun dial, Sun Ra (who wrote all his own dialogue) proclaims, “We’ll set up a colony for black people here-see what they can do on a planet all their own, without any white people there… Another place in the universe, up under different stars.” Then as he conjectures relocating them via “isotope teleportation,” “transmolecularization” or simply teleporting the entire planet through music, we see Sun Ra suddenly spinning clockwise away from us into deepest space, like the lifeless Gary Lockwood, Jr. in 2001. All this before the opening credits.
Suddenly it’s 1943, in a Chicago nightclub, where a local gangster (the Overseer, played as a kind of satanic pimp by Ray Johnson, one of the bank robbers in Dirty Harry) demands that Sun Ra-then a piano player known as Sonny Ray-be ejected for his discordant style. Sonny’s jazz arpeggios quickly escalate into overpowering chord inversions, as glass shatters, smoke billows from the piano, the dancers are blown out of their tops and the crowd riots and stampedes toward the exits. Just as quickly, Sun Ra and the Overseer are faced off against each other across a red velvet table in the middle of a vast desert, where they compete in an arcane card game using a modified ghetto-fabulous Tarot deck (featuring Cadillac Eldorados and nude sirens) for the fate of the earth.
From there, Sun Ra wanders through contemporary Oakland as the contest plays out-convincing the locals he’s a galactic emissary, opening a storefront “Outer Space Employment agency,” and generally using music to cure the addicted, raise the drunken, reform the exploitive and search out the enlightened.
“Are there any whiteys up there?” asks a skeptical youth at a neighborhood rec hall.
“They’re walking up there now,” says Sun Ra, with his implacable hipster academic delivery. “They take frequent trips to the moon. But I notice none of you have been invited.”
Meanwhile, two field agents from NASA (including Morgan Upton from comedy troupe the Committee) sit in cramped, smoke-filled rooms hunched over reel-to-reel tape recorders, combing through his every word for some sign of conspiracy. After an attempted tryst with a couple of the Overseer’s call girls-where, pointedly, they can’t get it up-the NASA gumshoes kidnap Ra and hold him hostage in an abandoned warehouse. “Come on, Ra,” one of them says, “how do you convert your harmonic progressions to energy? There’s a black space program, isn’t there?” As a specialized form of torture, they leave him trussed up and trapped in headphones that play an endless brass band rendition of “Dixie.” But Ra escapes, the chosen are beamed out of their settings as economically and decisively as the luckless beauties in Mars Needs Women and all are led aboard the spacecraft, in what seems very much a template for the last scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind three years later. (In fact, the five-tone melody used for alien contact was lifted from the intervals in Sun Ra’s “Lights on a Satellite,” recorded in 1960. “Did you ever see Star Wars?” he once asked an interviewer. “It was very accurate.”) As Sun Ra’s spaceship seeks the new black world, the earth supernovas behind him.
Threaded throughout the narrative are live performances of the Arkestra, which were actually filmed at a soundstage on the Embarcadero owned by the Mitchell Brothers, who were just then in pre-production on their breakthrough feature Behind the Green Door. In fact, the two projects shared production costs, a platform built for the band was used to mount a sex contraption in the porn film, and Space Is the Place cast member Johnnie Keys appears as one of two black studs who pleasure Marilyn Chambers using an elaborate pulley system in the latter.
Director Coney, in the accompanying interview included on the DVD, claims the film was “an homage to cheesy science-fiction films of the ’50s and ’60s” like Rocketship X-M (1950) and Cat Women of the Moon (1953). Traces of Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, LeRoi Jones’ (later Amiri Baraka’s) play The Black Mass and Black Muslim theology can be detected-notably the concept of the Mothership, in which Black Scientists were to return to earth to mark the end of the 25,000-year reign of the white mongrel race, and which was in turn appropriated wholesale by George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. Clinton name-checks Sun Ra in the liner notes to the 1974 LP Standin’ on the Verge of Getting’ It On; other noted acolytes include Pink Floyd, the MC5, the Grateful Dead and, perhaps oddest, Bobby Beausoleil—star of Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother, inspiration (through his nickname, Cupid) for Arthur Lee’s band Love and confederate of Charles Manson (and convicted murderer)—who toured California throughout the mid-’60s in a copycat group called the Orkustra.
The Overseer can be one of the Celestial Overseers from The Urantia Book—inspiration to Stockhausen, Elvis and Gene Roddenberry in his creation of Star Trek, which Sun Ra reportedly was reading from daily. The robed, hooded, mirror-faced being accompanying him in the opening scene seems taken from Maya Deren’s Meshes of an Afternoon, shot in 1946 but unavailable until much later (although with the extent of Sun Ra’s readings in arcane and secret texts, who knows?). Or the cosmology could just as likely have come from outer space itself. Biographer John Szwed, author of the exhaustive Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, puts him, in his East Village days, in the same company as Moondog and Joe Gould—legendary eccentrics who walked the streets to the delight of an uncomprehending public. One of Sun Ra’s favorite stories, commemorated in the song “Advice for Medics,” was that when he played a mental hospital in Chicago in the ’50s, a woman reputed not to have moved or spoken for years walked slowly to the piano and screamed at him, “Do you call that music?”
Sun Ra rarely slept, lived on vitamins, fruits and food supplements, and ardently believed he had been abducted by aliens at an early age, through a process he termed “transmolecularization.” He considered music a physical, celestial force capable of transforming governments, enlightening races, curing disease (Norman Mailer once claimed a Sun Ra performance cured his cold) and, yes, propelling spaceships, for which he and his band were merely the collective antennae. Gibberish? Pseudo-science? Mumbo-jumbo? Exactly what they said of Burroughs and his Mayan scholarship, South American miracle drugs and language-as-a-virus theories around the time Space Is the Place was first gestating. And yet, just this week, no less than NASA has detected a pressure wave traveling through space from a black hole in the Perseus Galaxy Cluster 250 million light years away—a sound wave 57 octaves below middle C on the piano, with a frequency of once every 10 billion years. According to scientists, it is a B-flat.
“It is possible,” says Andy Fabian of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, England, “that other galactic clusters are singing in other tones.”
Nothing to do now but wait.
DVDs/videos courtesy of Cinefile, the official video store of Arthur. Contact Cinefile at (310) 312-8836 or http://www.cinefilevideo.com.
At the center of a wind tunnel, we find ourselves stuck between perspectives. Is the world moving at a million miles around us, or are we the ones who are flying? This week, join hands with Hairy Painter and Ivy Meadows as they plunge into the unknown, fortified by Prince Rama of Ayodhya‘s ancient primordial howls, growling synthesizer moans and consciousness-melting pulsations, which swirl like electrified streams of sonic debris in the positively charged atmosphere… “Give yourself. Lose yourself.“
playlistum lyeth beneathio…
[HAIRY PAINTER + IVY MEADOWS DJ SET]
keiji haino – look, darkness and light both begin to copy
clara rockmore – the swan
conrad schnitzler – electric garden
s.d. batish – raga tilang alaap
far east family band – live in l.a. 1978
seltaeb – nug mraw a si ssenippah
alejandro jodorowsky – tarot will teach you/burn your money
arthur russell – the name of the next song
robert johnson (on speed? <—–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Johnson_musician Playback_issues_in_extant_recordings) – – hold my body down
rusty santos – feel radio signals (botanical mix)
pocahaunted – time fist
julian lynch – topi garden 2
mawan te dhiyan – surinder kaur & parkash kaur
sun ra – celestial road
albert ayler – the wizard
sonny sharock – black woman
nagane aki – the wind that flows through the trees
paul metzger – the uses of infinity (side a)
This week on Arthur Radio we invited the Spectre Event Horizon Group to create an original and undoubtedly mind-expanding segment for the show (you may otherwise know them on the Arthur blog as secret santa, purveyors of obscure and highly relevant technological, biological and environmental information of this day and age). Here’s a description of their first audio documentary contribution, straight from Spectre themselves:
Spectre begins its experiment with radio by getting a tutorial from Albie Tabackman, an inventor + osteopathic physician who – among many other cool projects – has got a customized electric delorean up on blocks in his backyard. He’s also our friend Max Fenton’s dad, who joins us as well: lately Albie’s been working with stirling engines, and today they both kindly help us understand how it is stirling engines work and why we should each have one under our kitchen sink. Or don’t you want your own personal emission-free power plant?
More on stirling engines from the Spectre vault: http://spectregroup.wordpress.com/2010/04/09/the-stirling-age/
This week’s playlist…
May 22– SUN RA
Ark-Angel, musician from Saturn, via Birmingham.
ALSO ON MAY 22 IN HISTORY…
1805 — Esoteric poet, proto-surrealist Gérard de Nerval born in Paris, France.
1845 — American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt born.
1885 — French novelist Victor Hugo dies, Paris, France.
1887 — Surrealist, pugilist Arthur Cravan born, Lausanne, Switzerland.
1895 — Indian religious leader Jiddu Krishnamurti born.
1914 — Ark-Angel, composer Herman “Sunny” Blount born, Birmingham, Alabama.
1925 — Indeterminate painter, sculptor Jean Tinguely born.
1948 — Jamaican-American writer Claude McKay dies, Chicago, Illinois.
Excerpted from The 2009 Autonomedia Calendar of Jubilee Saints: Radical Heroes for the New Millennium by James Koehnline and the Autonomedia Collective
TONGUE TOP TEN #3 – April 27, 2009
1. Easily the best-looking LP we’ve had the pleasure of grappling lately is Light by Reiko and Tori Kudo, issued by Siwa. Reiko and Tori are best known for their work with Maher Shalal Hash Baz, but this stuff is even more casual, diffuse and haunting. Mostly just piano and female voice, the sound has an elegance and mystery that makes our veins wiggle. It’s like some sort of otherworldly cabaret, beamed in from Planet X. And while the music is available now as a CD, the LP version is just incredible—a wooden box, with nine separate compartments, each containing a printed booklet with lyrics. Quite unbelievable, even for Siwa, which has long set a tough-to-match standard for packaging. Hats off to the label’s Alan Sherry and all who sail with him.
2. Just got a couple of fine new books by the great Cleveland poet, Bree. The bigger of the two (although printed in a wee small format) is was chicken trax amidst sparrows tread (The Temple Inc). This one collects a bunch of Bree’s fantastic prole poesy and uses it to sorta set the scene for a long prose piece about asshole blood. Amazing stuff. There’s also if i cld a body slam on her own imprint, Green Panda Press. This one’s a slim, folded sheet with six “peace poems” (one of which is purely visual). What makes them “peace poems,” we can only guess, but they’re boss and loud, which seems like a good thing. It should be noted that Bree is also hosting the Tres Versing the Pandapoetry festival in Cleveland on May 8-10, this year, which should be an excellent place to be.
3. Great new guitar record out by William “Willie” Lane, called Known Quantity (Cord Art). Willie lived up here in Western Mass. for a good long while and was involved in lots of weird musical shit. Not much of it got proper documentation, however, although Child of Microtones did issue a fine CDR, Recliner Ragas , a few years back. Anyway, Willie moved down to Philadelphia a couple of years ago, and we get a chance to hear him now and then when we’re down there, or he chooses to hit the road with one of the MV & EE traveling carnivals. But his solo work has always been amazing and rare. Well, not so rare this week. There’s this new LP, and it was recorded throughout 2006-2008, and is a total blast. Willie’s mostly solo (save for some licks by Samara Lubelski) and his playing ranges from Wizz Jones power-pluck at its cleanest to Michael Chapman electro-smear at its phasingest. But Willie knows his stuff cold and this instrumental slide through the gates of Neverland is one of this year’s great rides.
Duplex Planet editor David Greenberger and poet Ernest Noyes Brookings at Dunkin Donuts, Jamaica Plain, MA. Summer 1985 photo by Stephen Elston
4. First new issue in a long time of David Greenberger’s vastly entertaining magazine, Duplex Planet. Issue 184 doesn’t revolve around a central theme, but details various conversations David had with the residents at senior centers in East L.A. My favorite is the one with a woman who claims to be the 23rd of 24 children in her family, and also to be a great-great-grandmother. There’s no earthly way to know if she’s full of shit or not, but it’s nice to read her thoughts. Greenberger has a gentle way of probing the memories of these folks that is funny, sad and surprising—sometimes simultaneously. His work is always cool. The same is true of his sometimes collaborator, longtime pal, Terry Adams . Adams, a founding member of NRBQ as well as a legendary Sun Ra collector, has a new CD called Holy Tweet (Clang!).
Primarily recorded as a trio date with Tom Ardolino and Scott Ligon, the vibe is like a stripped down version of the Q Mothership—rolling bones of uniquely shaped, instantly recognizable goodtime roots pop whatsis that transcend boundaries of “mereness” by a mysterious propulsive force. The stuff is always just off-base enough to keep our interest thoroughly poked (especially as the first zephyrs of spring beckon us to the hill towns beyond). Sometimes it’s enough to just enjoy.
5. Mats Gustafsson has ten of the busiest fingers in all of Sweden. And yes, his primary focus is record collecting. But he does a few other things and he does them well. Three recent albums attest to this (lord knows how many record he has released since we last met) and they also map a width of style-ass as impressive as it is bounteous. First is The Vilnius Implosion (No Business), which is a solo work for baritone saxophone, slide saxophone and alto fluteophone. What the latter of these two instruments look like is best left unmentioned, but the sounds are swimming! The music (recorded in concert in Lithuania) is explosively sculptural—three-dimensional blocks of sound bursting through sheets of reality as though it was all a crepe paper curtain. That’s the first side, the flip has longer, grouchier masses of tongue flex, approaching jazzic concepts at times. Lovely! Then we have Mats G Plays Duke E (QBICO), a one-sided LP with Mats playing nearly-straight versions of several Ellington tunes on tenor, enlivened by primitive vocls and raw, live electronics. Parts are sweet enough to play for yr grandma, others will just make her ass bleed. The final piece is a split LP with Dutch pianist Cor Fulher on Narrominded. Fulher uses some extended techniques to take his piano sounds into vast regions of new, and Gustafsson is equally adept at squeezing sounds from his sax that are beyond the ken of most of his peers. Using rolling sequences of tongue-clacks, overblowing, breath-splatter, he ends up doing things, making sounds, that seem impossible. But Mats is more than up to the task. Amazing shit.
6. Hisham Mayet is one of the geniuses behind the Sublime Frequencies project, which is attempting to document many strands of ecstatic global culture before they are bulldozed into oblivion by Western hegemony. His efforts have been prolific and inspired, and his latest DVD, Palace of the Winds, is no exception. It combines snippets of performance footage with long shots of Saharan landscape in motion, and various other shots of the sun-smacked towns and people of the region.
Less tripped out than some of his other films, this one is carried along by the amazing guitar music of Group Doueh, Group Marwani and others. As beautiful as any foot.