Tuesday, January 19, 2016

SUN RA & HIS OMNIVERSE JET SET ARKESTRA, 1987


One of my favorite periods for new musical discoveries in my life was the mid-to-late '80s. It was just after I'd grown sick of hardcore punk and wanted something deeper. Inspired by my first Butthole Surfers gig to explore more adventurous and forward thinking music, I started listening to WFMU DJs other than Pat Duncan. Thanks to the connections I had there, I also started hanging out there regularly and getting to know the DJs I liked. God, I learned so much from them. Irwin Chusid turned me on to the Godz, William Berger introduced me to Krautrock, and on my own I discovered the Silver Apples and avant-garde jazz. One artist in particular stood out in that genre for me: Sun Ra, the Man From Outer Space.

From the first time I heard his strange music and read liner notes which claimed he was born on Saturn, I knew this was no ordinary cat even in free jazz! This was music that would have scared the daylights out of me if I'd heard it when I was ten years younger. But I was now grown up and no longer scared of what awaited me in the unknown. Not long after I began working my way through the Sun Ra section of WFMU's massive record library, a one-hour documentary about Ra and his Arkestra called "Making A Joyful Noise" aired on my local PBS channel. I taped it and watched it back over and over again, gripped both by its music and his unique philosophical musings and ramblings throughout the whole thing. And then, at the height of this burst of Ra-mania, I got the word that he was bringing his band to New York's Central Park for a free outdoor show on June 20, 1987. The timing could not have been more perfect for me to bear witness to one of the most extraordinary concerts I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing.


(As an avid collector of bootlegs, I am always seeking out recordings of certain shows I happened to be in attendance at over the years. It just so happens that there is a partial recording available online of the very show I'm about to detail. I strongly suggest you begin streaming it now, before you read further.)

Things started with the Arkestra making their way onto the stage, all of them dressed in shiny, colorful robes. They immediately started into a long spell of joyful improvisation. It was hard for me not to get swept up in their happy cacophony, even as I began to notice that Sun Ra himself hadn't bothered to take the stage yet. The jam ebbed and flowed a bit before building to a loud, blaring crescendo led by Marshall Allen's saxophone squalls. And then... and then... June Tyson started to sing.


June Tyson was a fucking goddess. A powerhouse of a woman who should've been given much more to do with her voice in Ra's scheme of things. No sooner did she open her mouth than the crowd began to erupt in a sea of gasps. Her voice was so soulful and deep it was unreal. Soon everyone was moving and grooving and clapping their hands as she sang, "Outer space is such a lovely place, all spic-and-span, all lovely and grand..." Her lyrics were an open invitation to follow her to all the ends of the earth. Believe me, I would have done so immediately, without a second thought. Alas, she only sang that one song, then exited. Had she continued to sing for the next two hours, I would have stayed for every last note and not even cared if Ra never emerged.

No sooner had June finished her song than the percussion section went into a break that started subtle but grew in intensity as it went. By this point the show was already over fifteen minutes old and the Man From Saturn still hadn't shown his face yet. But suddenly, the horns joined in and completed a fanfare that sounded just as majestic as it was otherworldly and freaky. And then... Sun Ra finally made his entrance, walking very slowly, dressed in his classic space costume. He bowed to us, then turned to face his Arkestra. For what seemed like an eternity, he just stood there at first, completely motionless as the band continued playing. He stayed still, waiting for the band to reach a fevered crescendo. Finally, at the precise point where you were beginning to wonder if he was ever going to move, he raised his hand and motioned for the band to grind to a screeching halt. Then they paused just long enough to take just one deep breath... and plunged head first into the most amazing fucking jazz jam I've ever heard in my entire life to this very day.


Alas, the version of "Calling Planet Earth" they played that day is not included on the bootleg recording of the show for some weird reason. A great, great pity, because it was nothing short of transcendental. The members of the Arkestra got up and began dancing in time as the crowd followed suit, and soon, everyone was swept away in a tidal wave. We were all as one, band and audience, answering to a power higher than ourselves. The call-and-response soon began and we were all communicating one-on-one with the forces of space. If you weren't dancing by this point, you were most likely dead. No church service I ever saw in my younger years was half as rapturous as this. Central Park was no longer part of New York City -- it was now officially part of Saturn, and we were all residents of a new planet.

And that was just the first half hour of an almost three-hour show. Admittedly, the rest of the show after that would pale by comparison. It seemed quite unusual for Ra to go from that into -- wait for it -- a completely straightforward, extended version of "Mack the Knife," with one of the Arkestra doing his best Satchmo impression for vocals. It went on for several minutes and once again saw the band getting up and dancing around the stage in a circle before it was over. It was a good version, but it seemed like an awkward segueway from what we'd all just seen and heard. And indeed, much of the rest of the show was given over to standards like "Take the A Train." But even within some of these old chestnuts the occasional brief burst of outer-space freakiness would break free, just enough to let you know this was Ra and not Duke you were listening to. And now and then another free-form jam would show up in between songs, nothing as expansive as the one that opened the show, but just long enough to remind you where you were. All of it was well done and they finally ended on a note similar to where they'd started with "Space is the Place." When the ride was over, no one wanted to return to earth. Least of all me.

Five years later, on July 4, 1992, I had the privilege of seeing Sun Ra for the second and last time, again in Central Park. Frankly, this show wasn't half as grand as the first, with June Tyson nowhere to be found and Ra making a somewhat depressing entrance in a wheelchair with no big opening fanfare. He played for less than an hour and was still good, I guess, but clearly on his way out by then. Less than a year later both he and June were gone, Saturn having called them back home. I'm thankful to have seen them while they were still "calling planet earth" their home.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

CHRONOLOGY OF A BRAZEN CHILDHOOD, 1970-79


I heard my first garage punk record in 1970, when I was just five years old. My mother helped me start my record collection with these "grab bags" of cutout 45 RPM records she'd acquired from the department store she sold cosmetics part-time at. 10 singles for a buck, totally random selections, most of them totally obscure. In one of those mystery bags was a single by a group called Five By Five. One side was an even heavier version of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" than the original, with swirling Hammond organ added. The other side was a group original called "Hang Up." I took one listen and was changed forever. It was loud, raw, heavy and mean. Thusly, "Hang Up" became my very first favorite punk rock song. That's right, folks, I knew I was gonna like my music hard and heavy when I was only five. Can you say the same?


Around that same time, my then-Aunt Yvonne babysat me one fine Saturday afternoon at her apartment just two doors up the street from me. In an effort to entertain me, she put on a new record she'd just bought: "Unicorn" by what was then just a two-man group called Tyrannosaurus Rex, with Marc Bolan. It was totally unlike anything I'd heard in those grab bags. Its dark, mystic nature scared me a bit at first, but I was totally absorbed in it by the end, and I still couldn't forget it days later.

A week later, when Mom took me to the record store to pick out the very first album I'd ever own, I knew right away it had to be "Unicorn." To my delight, they had it. But Mom was a bit unsure of it at first. I still remember the conversation that ensued. "This isn't hard rock, is it?" "No, Mom." "Are you sure? Because I don't want you listening to hard rock." (Never mind that I'd already discovered it!) "Trust me, Mom, it's mellow, Aunt Yvonne played it for me." "Okay, I'll buy it for you, but if I don't like what I hear, I'm taking it back." We went home, I went to my room and put it on, and soon I heard a knock. "Is that the record I just bought you?" "Yeah, Mom." "Hey, this is good, I like it!" She and I are both huge T. Rex fans to this very day.


With school five days a week, Saturday became my go-to music day. I could've slept late, but that would've meant missing the Monkees rerun at 9:00 followed by the British glam-rock show Supersonic at 9:30, which featured T. Rex, the Bay City Rollers, and Roy Wood, among many others. Then, in the afternoon, Grandma would take me over to hang out with Vince Bailiff, my first music buddy. We bonded over Zep and Rush for awhile, but ultimately drifted apart after he disagreed with me about the merits of punk. Or sometimes I'd hang out downstairs in Uncle Joe's "apartment" listening to his records. One afternoon he and then-aunt Yvonne were telling me about how they were going to the local Mr. D's club (run by someone who lived right across the street from us) to see the New York Dolls. Not knowing who they were, I made jokes like "Oooh, are they cute? Can I come along?" The answer to both questions was no. The next day I asked Joe how it was. His two-word review: "Too loud." (He never liked heavy rock anyway.)

One Sunday afternoon in '76 I went with my parents to visit some friends of theirs who had a son around my age, the name of whom I've long since forgotten. We went off into the rec-room while our folks drank and talked in the kitchen. Fumbling for a way to break the ice, he asked me if I liked hard rock. Of course! "Well, wait until you hear THIS!" he beamed as he then lifted the lid on a piece of stereo furniture and pulled out a double live album by a new band I'd never heard of. He showed me the cover and I was mystified and baffled by the fully made-up faces, the outer-space costumes and the images of their bassist breathing fire, and quite taken aback by the music. It all looked and sounded like a comic book come to life and I fell right in love with it. And that was my introduction to Kiss. I adored them... for awhile.


Meanwhile, back at the department store, Mom's newest co-worker was a lady named Sue who moonlighted in the offices of a magazine distributor. I was heavily into Marvel Comics by then and soon I was blissfully getting them all for free, as Sue would regularly sneak big yellow envelopes filled with the latest Spider Man and Fantastic Four adventures out of the workplace and into my hands. Month after month I awaited the latest batch of Marvels, and Sue always delivered right on time. Then came the day I opened that big yellow envelope and saw that this time she'd thrown a music magazine in there too. It had Led Zeppelin on its front cover and its name in big neon letters: CREEM. This was the magazine that would inspire my lifelong writing hobby... and corrupt me forevermore in the process.


I loved my first issue of Creem so much, with its crazy writing and photo captions and off-kilter points of view and now-legendary writers like Lester Bangs and R. Meltzer, that I bought another issue with my own money. It was the July 1976 issue with Kiss on the cover, and it was even more insane than the last one in every way, with a thoroughly ganja-soaked account of Lester's recent trip to Jamaica, a chronology of rock & roll deaths, and bold ads for fake "legal highs." I knew Creem was something a tween like me shouldn't be reading, yet I still left it foolishly lying around the living room one day. My parents found it there, flipped through it out of curiosity, then promptly called me downstairs to watch them throw it in the garbage and hear them say "Don't EVER let us catch you reading this trash again!" Believe me, I cried all night long.

But where there's a will, there's a way, and I soon picked myself up, dried my tears, and called Vince Bailiff to ask if I could come over his house and read HIS copies of Creem! I was already hanging out with him every weekend anyway, so I didn't even have to concoct a lame excuse. For the next several months I continued to secretly enjoy my favorite forbidden zine at Vince's. Then came the issue that featured an article by Lisa Robinson on a new sound called punk rock and a new band from England called the Sex Pistols, just mere weeks after their infamous British TV interview. I read that piece and felt something click inside my brain. As if that weren't enough, the following issue had a piece about a recently disbanded Detroit-based band called Iggy and the Stooges, the first time I would ever hear of them as well.

Finally, after about six months, my folks found out I was reading Vince's copies of Creem. But by then I guess they figured it was too late, because not only was I not punished for it, but just before my next visit to Vince's house Mom pulled me over and whispered, "I don't mind if you read Creem, just don't let Dad know, okay?" The ban was lifted just in time for me to follow their monthly series of punk rock reports. But within mere weeks, a new ban would take its place... soon after Mom read the report on the Sex Pistols. Mind you, she didn't mind me listening to punk rock, either, and had even bought me the first two Ramones albums. But to her the Pistols were just too extreme to allow.

But the whole Pistols ban quicky proved as big a joke on her part as the ban on Creem, because not only were they getting occasional airplay on WNEW-FM by then, but I'd additionally made a new friend in school named Zoltan, whose older brother Laszlo was the first real punk rocker I ever met. It was through him that I received the access to the Sex Pistols I'd been denied at home. I was forbidden to buy their records, so I went to Zoltan's and taped them, then listened to them in my bed with the tape player hidden under the sheets. Once again my folks found out... and once again they just shrugged and figured it was too late by then. Damn straight it was. (Interesting footnote: a couple years later, one of Laszlo Papp's photographs of Stiv Bators would adorn the front cover of "Night Of The Living Dead Boys." I still remember the day he came home excitedly waving a copy of the album to show me.)

When Elvis died I remember being somewhat shocked by the news but not particularly saddened. But on that very bleak Saturday morning in September of '77, when I was sent around the corner to fetch the newspaper and saw a front page headline which read "Marc Bolan Killed In Car Crash," I cried my eyes out. Still to this day I consider Bolan's death the infinitely more shocking and significant of the two, and I will hear no arguments to the contrary.


Punk fascinated and gripped me to the point that I was soon buying every punk record I read about. In almost every case I'd never heard the band play a note beforehand, and almost every time I liked what I heard immediately or grew to like it over time. But even the Sex Pistols didn't prepare me for what fate had in store for me next. After being flat-out denied in my request for "Never Mind the Bollocks" for Christmas in 1977, I suggested the first album by the Damned as an alternative, and amazingly, my folks bought it. In retrospect they would've been better off just buying me "Bollocks."


The first Damned album scared the living shit out of me the very first time I played it. It was louder, heavier, faster, and more ferocious than anything I'd ever heard before. The musicians sounded like they would kill me if they had the chance to, and the production made it seem recorded in the depths of hell itself. And the whole album's vibe was dark, sinister and creepy, with songs like "Born To Kill" and "Stab Your Back." I listened to this monster just once... then put it back in its sleeve and handed it back to my mother shaking like a leaf and sheepishly moaning, "Uh, Mom, I don't like this record, can we exchange it?" Upon being told I couldn't, I then hid it in the deepest, darkest nether regions of my closet, where I didn't touch it again for an entire month. The day finally came when I summoned up the courage to listen to it again. It absolutely blew my mind in a million tiny pieces that second time, and from that point on, the louder, heavier, faster and more ferocious a new punk record was, the more I liked it.

The Damned, God bless 'em, still rage on to this day, but as we all know, the Pistols burned out quickly. I found out about Nancy Spungen's murder and Sid's arrest in conjunction with it on the school bus from Zoltan the morning after. A few months later, Mom called me from work as soon as I came home from school to inform me of Sid's death. I didn't cry that time, but when I suggested it was sad, she quickly snapped back with "You shouldn't be mourning him, son. He was a sick person." Yeah, maybe he was, but I still have my doubts that he was the one who killed Nancy.

That very same month, I discovered a new local band called the Misfits. But I've already told you that one, and anyway, I think that's more than enough bedtime stories for one night. Now get some sleep, kids, and don't ever let me catch you reading Creem again.