Psychic Space Gypsy – Twin’d Evenings with Hawkwind's Nik Turner
, November 15th, 2013 07:10
The Mighty Thunder Rider talks to Aug Stone about Mayan gods, transvestite Mariachi strip clubs, and having a really good time
(photo courtesy Arnie Goodman)
Nik Turner turns to me and says ‘Do you know my good friend Genesis P-Orridge?’ and minutes later I’m giving Genesis my card to send me a copy of the limited edition 7” he’s just presented to the legendary Hawkwind alumnus. It’s a lovely looking single of Psychic TV covering 'Silver Machine' b/w 'Hurry On Sundown' that PTV made 230 (of course) copies of "just to give to friends". I’ve experienced a number of coincidences involving Psychic TV just this past week and the fact that I’d been reading Thee Psychick Bible on the train ride down has me reeling. But, to twist Arthur C. Clarke’s words a little, music-making is often indistinguishable from magick. And that’s certainly the case with the repertoire about to be performed.
Five nights earlier I’m exhausted. But Nik Turner’s Hawkwind are playing. Can’t miss this, it’s even a free gig for heaven’s sake. I walk into the back room of Bar, a pizza joint in New Haven, Connecticut, to find Turner himself standing by the bar - decked out in an iridescent rayon/polyester suit of lavender periwinkle, polka-dot braces, and light blue floral printed shirt underneath (to which he’ll later add glittery silver face paint) - bellowing, squonking, and letting fly tenor sax runs out into the night. Right before opener (and Nik’s backing band) Hedersleben start up, I text my friends "knackered, heading home" but something about Hedersleben’s enticing brand of space rock keeps me from actually exiting. Friends show up eventually and soon Hedersleben are back on stage with Nik at the helm. I’m still tired. But from note one the rocket catches me up in its blast off and it’s nothing less than a complete transformation into pure joy.
The opening trio of tunes is blinding – Earth Calling, Born To Go, Time We Left This World Today - one could describe this juggernaut as a sonic attack were it not so welcome. And right at the front is a 73-year-old man, hand raised in front of him as if holding a mighty gem – in power, triumph, benediction – with such intensity in his voice as to command all spirits present to fall in and dance. Rhythm section of Bryce Shelton (bass) and Jason Willer (drums) is unstoppable – thunderous yet infinitely groovy. Kephera Moon, now with face paint and less clothing, offers up space noise and melodies from her four synths, leaving these to slinkily twirl around Nik with a tambourine for a beautiful version of Children Of The Sun. The two trade vocals at songs’ end, embraced and beaming. This and new song Galaxy Rise are the only points in the set Nicky Garratt switches his electric guitar for 12-string acoustic. Garratt, of the UK Subs and now Hedersleben, also has an intriguing vegan cookbook, Mango & Mint, for sale at the merch stand. All the while a fantastic film by Phil Mucci has been blaring behind them. Made especially for the tour, amidst shots of nebulae and rockets, the large-afro’d badass Angel Lin strolls on, her incredibly fluid movements always syncing perfectly with the sound, before taking up the lotus position and, now four-armed, ripping open her chest to emit pure white light. Except for two numbers, the set is all Hawkwind, but 'Fallen Angel' from Nik’s new record, Space Gypsy, holds its own in terms of sheer rock power. And during the heavy blues stomp of 'Orgone Accumulator' one wonders, considering the fate of the inventor of that tarnished silver machine, Wilhelm Reich, what would happen if the authorities caught wind of this music that can make you feel this good. Nik’s a big believer in the healing power of music, as I’ll soon learn. He’s also the subject of a documentary film by Sarah R. Brady, a preview clip of which shows him talking about his own experiences with orgone.
And now here I am, standing in the basement of St. Vitus Bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, still revitalised from the whole experience in New Haven, talking to Genesis P-Orridge about his upcoming "gift to New York City", two free shows at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar on December 27 and 28. Nik later tells me “Genesis is really cool. He’s a good friend of mine. He was always like a fan. He always did his own thing and was always very iconic and cutting edge, avant garde. I saw him occasionally and occasionally did gigs with him. Not me playing with him particularly but him doing his act and me witnessing it [laughs]. But more recently I did at gig at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco and he and his wife came down and performed. They had two girls with them who danced. Genesis recited a poem by Michael Moorcock, ‘Armor For Everyday Wear’.” (Genesis can be heard reading this on Nik’s Prophets Of Time album and on Space Ritual - Live 1994.)
After a set as explosive and powerful as the one described above, I’m back in this New York goth club cellar, chatting to Turner about the new tour and his many interests and current projects. One thing I note is that Nik looks you straight in the eye for the entire length of your conversation. This is a man of great intensity, and great compassion.
Nik Turner: The tour’s going really well. The audience reaction is great, like it was tonight. It’s like that every night. People love it. We’re on a bit of a roll, really. I think music is to be shared. We all try to harmonise each other and turn each other on. I think music is a healing force and so I like to try and heal people and give them a good time. Giving them a good time is a healing thing, raising people’s spirits and getting them enthusiastic.
(photo courtesy Barry Plummer)
So how do you feel about the music now as compared to 1972?
NT: I think it has evolved, obviously. My own musical taste has evolved. I listen to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew a lot, and I wasn’t listening to that then. I was at a concert of Miles Davis at the Isle Of Wight Festival where he was playing that, but I didn’t get into it until more recently. For me, I try to progress all the time with my music. I play, I do exercises, and I try to set myself really difficult targets musically to gain more technique on the musical instrument in order to express myself. I try and turn it into talking, talking through the instrument, telling people to have a good time [laughs] and love each other.
I have a very casual attitude to all this, to me it’s entertainment. But entertainment with an agenda, really. Of spreading joy and love [laughs] and that sort of thing. I mean I worry about being too overtly hippy [laughs] but peace and love are not fashionable sentiments in some quarters and I think they should be. I think people should be at peace instead of at war in Afghanistan, Syria, or any of these places. It’s bullshit, isn’t it? People imposing their will on other people’s freedom, on their freedom of expression and freedom to express themselves. I think the only rule should be that people don’t hurt each other [laughs]. Or "Do unto others as you would have them do to you." I think Jesus was a cool guy. I’m not a Jesus freak, I think all these fucking Jesus freaks are hypocrites. He had some good ideas and I call on his ideas quite frequently – "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." I think they’re really cool maxims, really. I think he was great. But all these other people they just make me sick. I know so many people who are born again Christians and they’re just greedy bastards. They won’t give to their neighbour, they’re not the good Samaritans who help the poor fucked up guy on the street. It’s terrible.
(photo courtesy Arnie Goodman)
Both tonight and in New Haven, you have taken time during the set to tell us that there’s been a lot of misinformation on the internet about what’s going on between yourself and Hawkwind. Even going so far as to invite Dave Brock on stage to play with you. So you’d still be up for making music with him again?
NT: Oh yeah, of course. I’m not one to bear grudges and I’d rather give Dave Brock an olive branch and have him come and play with me and be friends. But I don’t know if we can from his point of view.
How did you meet Michael Moorcock, whose poem ‘Black Corridor’ has been read out at the shows with great vigour?
NT: At the beginning of when I was involved with Hawkwind, my friend Robert Calvert was on the scene. He worked on this underground magazine as the Science Fiction Correspondent and Mike Moorcock had been working on it too. I was introduced to him by the Art Director of the magazine, who was Barney Bubbles. Barney then subsequently designed all the Hawkwind graphics and went on to design everything on Stiff Records and (laughs) numerous other high-profile items. Mike’s a really nice guy, a gentleman. We get on well, we’re good friends. I’ve always had good times with him. I’m actually going to ask him if he could do some poetry reading for us on another album we’re putting together. That’d be nice. I like a multitude of his works. Favourites? I don’t know. Gloriana, all his sword and sorcery books like Corum, Hawkmoon, Jerry Cornelius The Condition of Muzak. And Mother London and King Of The City, which are biographical works about London.
I’m always looking for stuff to read. I really like sciences and I read lots of reference books. I was studying Mayan mythology so I was reading all these books about the Mayans. I spent time in Yucatan when I was in Mexico. I was staying in Mexico City playing with the Mariachis in Garibaldi Square. They have trumpets and play all this really romantic Mexican music. I was playing with them as well as playing gigs with a keyboard player who had all these orchestrations programmed on his keyboards. We’d play really romantic Mexican music with these really beautiful girl singers. I was doing gigs with him in sleazy cantinas, transvestite strip joints, and really extremely upmarket hotel lounges. Quite diverse. And at nights I was playing with the Mariachi musicians in this square that’s dedicated to Mariachi music. At any time of the day or night there’ll be ten bands playing, all at the same time, all over the square, and the acoustics are set so they don’t interfere with each other. People go there to have parties.
After that I went down to Palenque, to the Temple of Inscriptions and the Tomb of the Lord Pakal. I tried to do some recording inside the Tomb but there was no particular sound about it and you can’t go right inside either. You can go as far as the barred gate and then there’s the Tomb inside there and the larger chamber that you can’t be in. So I gave up, really. I was looking for places to record all the time. I did an album recorded inside the Great Pyramid in Egypt (Xitintoday). I went to Monte Albán in Oaxaca where there’s lots of paintings of people in desperate pain, a lot of suffering. It’s quite interesting though. I just get off on these places. I was there on the Spring Equinox. There were all these Mayans dressed in white who were all worshiping the Sun. It was really cool.
Jodorowsky’s name has been mentioned in connection with you. Was it a possibility that had Jodo’s Dune been made, you might’ve done some music for it?
NT: I had a boyfriend back then. We weren’t gay but we used to wear make up and ponce about in trousers with our arses hanging out of them and leather jackets, looking really groovy but not exactly kitsch. Camp fun but a bit macho as well. Just fun. He lived in Paris and was the muse to artists such as Salvador Dali. He used to hang out with him and Picasso and all these other Parisian artists. I was staying with him and we went to the Café Bol, which has all these paintings by French impressionists on the walls. It was a really cool place, in the Left Banke, the bohemian area. And my friend told me about Jodorowsky, who I think was a friend of his. He knew about the film, he got me to say I’d do some music for it. But I don’t know what happened, it didn’t really get that far. I didn’t write any anything, we were just talking, "Oh you could do some music for it." But then I didn’t hear anything more about it.
(photo courtesy Barry Plummer)
The story of how you came to be working with Hedersleben is quite long and details your relationship with Cleopatra Records. From working with Billy Sherwood (Sherwood’s song 'Random Acts Of Science' features Turner, Rick Wakeman, and Jimmy Haslip from The Yellowjackets) to playing tenor sax on Rhythm Of The Night on Willliam Shatner’s latest record, Ponder The Mystery (Shatner covered Silver Machine on his last outing, Seeking Major Tom).
NT: And I also played on Hedersleben’s record (flute on 'End Of Love'). Then I started making another album which is supposedly my solo album, and features Billy Cobham. It’s a jazz-fusion album. I’m working on that at the moment. Brian (Perera, President of Cleopatra) has lots of plans for me. He wants to do a book and make a documentary film. I shot quite a lot of footage of that. Me busking on the street at the SXSW festival. Playing with bands that were playing on the street. I joined a band that was doing Duke Ellington stuff so I played that. I had my own big band at one point so I know it all. Well… [I know it] badly [laughs].
And what are your plans for after this US tour?
NT: The weekend after I get home I’m going to Germany to play a festival on my own, where I’ll probably play with all the bands at the festival. They’re employing me to be the spirit of the festival. So I’ll play with whoever they want me to play with. I’m always free about it.
I’ll also be doing some gigs with my band Space Ritual in England. I’ve got some gigs in London and in the Midlands at fairly large venues. We do good gigs with that band. We’ve got one gig on the 27th of December in London (at The Borderline). I’m the agent, booker, and manager of all my bands. I’ve got another band called Nik Turner’s Project 9 and we play everything from all of my repertoire. We play latin jazz, funk, we play a lot of Maceo Parker songs, Miles Davis, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Herbie Hancock, and Lee Morgan. We would do 'Sidewinder'.
We’ve got a large repertoire and we do all my Inner City Unit catalogue. We also do The Outriders Of Apocalypse, which was a band that I got together thematically based upon Mayan mythology. The music is loosely based on classical music. I make up my own mythology. Quetzalcoatl came from Atlantis. When Atlantis sank he went to Mexico and brought all this knowledge of astronomy, astrology, science, mathematics, agriculture and gave it to the Toltecs and it goes on from there really. So I’ve got this music that I wrote based around… well, one of the themes is Scheherezade [sings it for us]. That’s the bassline and it’s played a bit like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. I’ve got a girl who plays trombone, another who plays trumpet, I play tenor sax and flute, there’s two bass players, a drummer, a guitarist maybe two, two girl singers, and it’s spontaneous composition. A bit like Sun Ra really. I dress up as Quetzalcoatl [chuckles]. I’ve got a leopard skin suit and a long coat. He looked good, you know. Quite magical, like a witch doctor.
[Having heard me telling Genesis earlier about my standard last interview question, Nik provides the perfect answer without missing a beat] Say you had stolen a space shuttle and were flying it directly into the sun for whatever reason of your own…
NT: What music would I be playing? 'Master Of The Universe'.
Nik Turner’s Space Gypsy is out now on Cleopatra Records. Dates for the remainder of the USA/Canada tour are listed here