William S. Burroughs isn’t the only counterculture deity being feted with a centenial. The late Sun Ra would have been about a month shy of 100 years old, but his presence permeated St. Mark’s Church on Friday night.
Old friends and fans from Boston, Detroit, and the East Village gathered to read from Prophetika: Lost Writing of Sun Ra, Vol. 1 (to be published April 29 by of Red Hook) and some of their own work inspired by the jazz musician, poet, and Afro-futurist cosmic philosopher who collaborated with everyone from Amiri Baraka in the ’60s to Sonic Youth in the ’90s.
I have many names.
Some call me Mr. Ra.
Some call me Mr. E.
What kind of mystery am I?
The night, sponsored by the Poetry Project, was at once a throwback to Sun Ra’s time in New York from 1961 to 1968, and a progressive homage to his apocalyptic proclamations. Ra’s focus during those years (and extending beyond for about four decades) on the centrifugal forces threatening to unravel the world, are strikingly resonant today — and Friday night’s readers didn’t hesitate to use Sun Ra’s “equations” to critique the devolutionary forces that seem only to have sped up since his death in 1993.
Far-outedness aside, Sun Ra’s vocabulary is totally of our times. His philosophy and hypnotic poetry offer a way to step back and look at today’s often shitty world, with the aid of a productive, empowering kind of nihilism. Fuck all of this, he said, but don’t just give up. Start anew.
The evening’s host was Phast Phreddie Patterson, adorned with a fez and blessed with the lung capacity required to blow hard and long on a saxophone — impressive because the man is not the picture of youth. Patterson, a DJ and music writer, was active in the late ’70s garage scene in LA, and also penned the introduction to volume one of Prophetika.
Charles Plymell, a lesser known beat poet, with a Burroughs-esque elocution nonetheless, topped off his mic-time with a poem of his own, which mapped the trajectory of Sun Ra’s influence and brought his ideology up to the present day.
The planet is doomed, not if, but when.
Plymell praised conscientious objection, something Sun Ra also stood by, and assailed the U.S.’s continuing role in conflicts around the world.
Sun Ra was correct in refusing to go to war,
as he did for World War II,
as I did for Korea,
and as Muhammad Ali did for Vietnam,
We can’t do anything about the terrors of the catastrophic universe,
but if war is in the human genome,
we can stop being pawns for the evil merchants of death.
Sun Ra carried us through the century of pain with his music,
His vibes are with us tonight.
Sun Ra 100 years long, 100 years strong.
Sun Ra plays tonight.
Sun Ra’s move to New York City from Chicago in 1961 marks the beginning of his experimental years. Ra and his band, the Arkestra, played a weekly show at jazz spot Slug’s Saloon in Alphabet City on Third street between Avenues C and B. Live shows were often spaced-out to the max — with Ra’s acerbic, but softly-spoken words foregrounded over noise-jazz improvisation.
Slug’s was home for a wide variety of jazz acts, so Ra’s shows could sometimes be rather alienating (also, the guy claimed he was from Saturn) to a crowd that might be expecting something less… weird. Toward the end of his New York years, Sun Ra had been thrust into the mainstream, yet his music and mythical personality would retain their avant-garde nature.
Sun Ra’s hypnotic presence was perhaps best invoked that night by Detroit garage rock legend Mick Collins, of The Gories and Dirtbombs fame, decked out in a silken psychedelic shirt as he read Ra’s poems backed by Mike Edison on the theremin — who took his turn reading after Collins– and Bob Bert on the bongos. Collins is a massive dude with a massive voice, and there were no apologies as he boomed people back from the seats closest to the speakers. He introduced “Step Out of This Dreamworld,” as a poem that he felt “really gets to the heart of Sun Ra’s solar myth equation.”
Is this a planet of life or death?
If this is a planet of life, why are you people dying here?
This is not a real world.
This is death disguised as life.
You’re only dreaming in this dream world.
Wake up! Step out of this dream world into a possible reality.
You’ve got to come to the edge of the universe.
You’ve got to get away from this planet as fast as you can!
I would make a better world than this while I was asleep,
I wouldn’t make a world like this in my most evil moment.
What kind of planet is this?
This planet is a disgrace–
A disgrace to the Devil,
And a shame to God.
This planet is out of order,
simply and completely in disorder.”
Sun Ra’s massive staying power and widespread appeal are pretty astonishing in light of his steadfast commitment to his philosophical credo and devotion to keeping it weird. He lectured at Berkeley; peered at readers through sunglasses on the April 19th, 1969 cover of Rolling Stone; and played a set on Saturday Night Live in 1978. He’s one of the most prolific recording artists ever, with perhaps hundreds of albums, some released as extremely limited edition, hand-decorated LPs.
In 1971 Sun Ra was asked in an interview to explain “the message” behind his work.
“It’s all about people doing something else other than what they have done. Because what they have done is the possible. Because the world, the way it is today, is a result of the possible.”
The Sun Ra Arkestra played Drom in the East Village on April 18.
R&B musician Barrence Whitfield wrapped up the night. He called attention to another facet of Sun Ra — despite his sometimes dark pronouncements and far-reaching critique of the world order, he was charming and kind-hearted. Whitfield recounted how Ra had opted out of playing a gig at an official venue at the New Orleans Jazz Fest in the late ’80s, preferring instead to play music at an elementary school. Whitfield said he was blown away to see the legendary musician — “you know, ‘Look into my eyes! Look into my eyes!’” — playing the flute and dancing around with a bunch of kids.
Whitfield met Ra in person for the first time backstage at a show in 1985, when his band, the Savages, opened for the Arkestra. That night, Whitfield said, he saw at least two people become totally entranced with Ra — his roadie and a reporter. “This journalist comes over to Ra, and he grabs his hand — ‘will you come with us?’ And the journalist goes, ‘Yes Sun Ra, yes!’” Whitfield and his bandmates looked on in wonder as yet “another convert” was indoctrinated before their eyes. “What is this man? How does he get these people to listen to what he has to say?!”
Phast Phreddie assumed the mic once again. “This concludes our journey through space, thank you everyone.”