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.