Playing The Cosmos Song: Thurston Moore & John Sinclair On Sun Ra
, May 30th, 2014 04:42
Sean Kitching talks to John Sinclair of MC5, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Paul Smith of Blast First Petite about the life and music of Sun Ra
It's Friday May 23, the day after the centenary of Sun Ra's birth, and I'm sat around a table in a pub in north London with John Sinclair, Thurston Moore and Paul Smith, founder of the Blast First record label. As David Stubbs' excellent Sun Ra piece which appeared on the Quietus on the day of Ra's birthday last Thursday has rendered an introduction to the man and his music unnecessary, I intend to keep this opening paragraph short so as to reproduce the interview as fully as space permits. Thurston Moore himself needs little introduction, as he is well known for both his work with the seminal New York band Sonic Youth and innumerable other projects as he is known as a champion of underground music, film and art in all its forms. For those interested in further listening, his Top Ten Free Jazz Underground list is essential reading. John Sinclair similarly needs little introduction. The one-time manager of the MC5, poet, leader of the White Panther Party and lifelong pro-marijuana activist, is also (alongside Moore) one of the most vocal Sun Ra acolytes, as can be seen on Don Letts' excellent documentary Brother From Another Planet. Paul Smith's Blast First brought Sun Ra to wider recognition with a trio of releases in the late 80s and early 90s, starting with the compilation Out There A Minute (which served as my own personal introduction). All three were close to Sun Ra. Our discussion takes place in anticipation of the Sun Ra Arkestra's performance in celebration of the centenary of Sun Ra's birth on the 31 May at the Barbican. I have open before me a notepad with some questions but as soon as I press record, Thurston launches into a question for John (which is exactly what I was going to ask him anyway).
Thurston Moore: Do you remember the very first time you heard of Sun Ra and how that resonated with you? As far as being curious about him...
John Sinclair: Oh yeah, I was curious. I'd read about him. I don't know... I remember the first time I'd heard the music and saw the Sun Ra albums. I was with Roger Blank the drummer [who played with the Arkestra during the mid 60s]. I met him in New York at the end of 64. Roger was coming to Detroit with a trio and he wondered if we could put him up. Then he came to our house and I showed him to his room and he opened his suitcase and pulled out one of those old portable record players and he took out two albums by Sun Ra. That was what he had in the suitcase, and maybe a change of clothes. Which was impressive in the first place... this was a fanatic [laughs]. He was just raving about Sun Ra. Super-Sonic Jazz and Jazz In Silhouette... these albums were just unbelievable, with their outer space art on the covers. So he put that on and we had a joint... and man, I was knocked out. And it was, I dunno... it wasn't like anything you'd ever heard.
TM: When did you see him?
JS: I must have seen him in New York at Slug's Saloon... but I don't have a clear memory. In 1966 I was in prison for 6 months and when I got out my friends were putting on these incredible concerts at the Village theatre... like Coltrane and Albert Ayler. That would be a gig, right? And they had one the week that I got out and I wanted to go to it but that didn't happen so I went to the second one and that's when I interviewed Sun Ra at 48 East 3rd street.
TM: Do you remember, like, a first impression?
JS: [Laughs] Yeah, my mind was blown completely. And they were.. in the early 60s in New York, they were still in what you would say was a developmental stage in terms of what the Arkestra became. They weren't an Omniverse Arkestra... they were strictly out there. I don't remember them playing any recognisable melodies, or jamming, or on a groove. I don't remember any of that. I just remember the outness. And their costumery was fairly primitive...
TM: You must have been familiar with John Gilmore, to some extent?
JS: I had the Blue Note album, Blowing In From Chicago, with Clifford Jordan. Great album. They would reference this Sun Ra character... but I mean it was very far fetched, they were definitely not anywhere near the mainstream in any way... Of course I had a great affinity for that because that was where I was coming from - outness and defiance and all that kind of shit.
TM: What did you interview Sun Ra for?
JS: We had an underground paper in Detroit called the Warren-Forest Sun. [The interview appears in the Sun Ra Interviews & Essays book, edited by John Sinclair.]
TM: So you were the one who was instrumental in introducing Sun Ra to the MC5?
JS: Oh yeah, I'll take full credit for that. But they were jazz lovers already. You know I got the terrible rap of being some sort of Svengali for these guys, but really Rob Tyner was a very advanced individual.
TM: As far as them doing 'Rocket No9' on Kick Out the Jams. I would imagine that was something you were behind?
JS: Well, I played it for them originally... but I mean, Tyner took his name from McCoy Tyner [legendary jazz pianist who played with John Coltrane] - that's pretty far out for a white kid from Lincoln park in 1965.
TM: Well, that's gotta be better than Rob Ra (everyone laughs). I never knew that Tyner took his name from McCoy... that's interesting.
Paul Smith: The other day when you were talking about the Ballroom and you said Sun Ra and the MC5 played. You said there was 150 people there?
JS: It was the Community Arts Theatre auditorium... 1967. Maybe 100 people...
PS: It's something I never knew, I always imagined like 1,000 people there or something...
JS: It was a big undertaking for us to arrange for Sun Ra to come, but I wanted him to play in Detroit so bad... we never had any money in those days but we did all this great shit. I can't figure out how we did it. So we brought them down and about 100 people came. The MC5 didn't really have a following then, I wasn't their manager, just their friend. So few people came to that that we couldn't pay their way back to New York. One of our guys had a Volkswagen van and he drove them back to New York.
[To Thurston I'd like to ask you the same question. How did you first hear about the Arkestra and how did they impact upon you?
TM: I knew about Sun Ra being around in New York but my interest in jazz sort of came very late in my life, mostly in the 80s and you know... people that I really sort of respected who were writing about music, people like Byron Coley. My wife Kim had a big jazz listening history so I would see all these records at her parent's house that she had left behind, all Coltrane and McCoy Tyner and Archie Shepp and I was very curious about the records, more than the music to begin with because they looked so badass. The music that I was really interested in at the time... I went to New York just to be involved with the avant-garde rock music - what was going on at CBGBs and Max's Kansas City... first the New York Dolls and then getting into bands like Television, Patti Smith and then when I moved there in 76, the people my age who were also moving there to do music were people like James Chance and the Contortions. And a lot of them would reference, like specifically, real outsider jazz recordings by like... Albert Ayler. So I became very interested in Albert Ayler and so, I would look at these records - I couldn't afford to buy them - and the covers would have this sort of swirly, neo-psychedelic vibe to it and I wondered what they could possibly sound like. I thought, this kind of reminds me of the vibe I get from the Stooges' Funhouse... that look, you know. And then I was on tour in the 80s with Sonic Youth in a van and I would spin the radio dial and I would come to a jazz station and I'd invariably leave it on because it was such an abstraction for me to hear this music, because I didn't grow up in a household with it. And I always would notice that the DJs would back announce these records. They would list every person's name, the personnel and I wondered what's that all about? I mean they don't do that on rock & roll radio. This really interested me, this respect for the musicians in the band, so I asked Byron Coley, who was a music journalist who I knew was a jazz hound. I said, can you make me a cassette tape of what you think is the perennial jazz music? He made me like 60 cassettes [JS laughs], that were finely annotated... Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker... everything. And I listened to them intently for like a whole six month tour, on headphones. Then I started buying literature and reading about jazz history, starting from the very beginning. I started listening to Fletcher Henderson and I moved forward, getting to the avant garde and that really struck a chord. Which led me to the European scene of free improvisation that was defining itself away from like the African American model. They realised that they needed to define themselves as who they were, Caucasian European players. I talked to Evan Parker about it and he was like, we'd listen to these ESP records of New York loft jazz and the moments on that where they were really just starting to play together, they wanted to fetishise that... make whole sort of compositions out of just those sort of moments. I was getting into all of that and I realised the one sort of wild card in it all was Sun Ra. And so, I knew Sun Ra had been playing in New York, I would see his name all the time in the Village Voice and he would play open air gigs in like Tompkins Square Park and people would say, like man we went to see the Arkestra in Tompkins Square Park and it was wild and there were all these people in costumes... and I thought what is that? So I started to go and see Sun Ra gigs in different place in New York.. and I think the first one was... it might have been the Village Vanguard, it might have been Sweet Basil's...
Can you remember the effect it had on you?
TM: Yeah, I can remember everybody came marching out and they started playing and I just sat there thinking this is the most beautiful, otherworldly music. I'm kind of an obsessive so I spent every coin I had from washing dishes buying jazz records, much to Kim's displeasure. I would sneak these records in. But they were pennies per pound and there was a record store in New York called Sounds, all second hand records, but they had an adjunct store that was just jazz and I spent my days... every day, just pulling shit out. And I now have all these records that are as rare as hen's teeth. Sonny Murray records, New York Art Ensemble records. Black Dada Nihilismus. Ayler and Sonny Murray and LeRoi Jones [later known as Amiri Baraka]. You know, the first lines on that record are like 'At best, the white man is corny...' (everyone laughs). So I started reading about black nationalism. Then of course the touchstone for me was high energy Detroit rock & roll, the Stooges, the MC5, and to know that music had a connection to free jazz... I started getting fully into American free jazz. And then John Litweiler wrote this book called The Freedom Principle, and for me that was a really important book. I would just go out and find the records. I would see like a hundred Sun Ra records. But it was fortuitous as we were touring all the time and we'd stop at some college town and I'd go to the record store and I would go to the Sun Ra section and there would be all these Saturns and Thoths and nobody at that time was really valuing them for what they were, so they were cheap. I'd take ten of them for like a dollar each and again I still have all of these records. And some of them were like, fully wonderful, amazing ensemble records and sometimes the record would just be Sun Ra waking up in the morning and playing his organ or his synthesiser and he would send the tape off and make a record... and I'd be, 'Why did he make this record?'
What does it say on the documentary A Joyful Noise? Ra says he's like the birds, he plays and if you wanna listen that's OK.
TM: Yeah, like this is what I made today... So I just became immersed in the idiom of anything that pertained to jazz. I went to every gig I could go to. This was the late 80s. And luckily in New York City, these cats opened this place called the Knitting Factory, and every night they had shit like Byard Lancaster, Sonny Murray and Marilyn Crispell and Sun Ra would do lectures. And Paul, who had started doing Sonic Youth records, comes to America and wants to release some Sun Ra so he had Byron make a compilation for him. And Paul was using my phone for doing business and so I'd come home and there would be a message from Sun Ra on my phone. I wish I'd saved all those messages.
PS: You got those drawings though.
TM: When he put out Out There A Minute, I went to Paul's little office space, two blocks away from where I lived in New York and there were these primitive, swirly drawings of little figures and like cosmic drawings on pieces of paper... and I was like what are these? And he said, but we have this other idea about what we're using. And I was like what, you're going to send them back to him? And he let me have them... like three or four of them.
PS: Damn, damn....
TM: And now they're under lock and key, they're my prized possessions. So Paul and I would go see Sun Ra and we'd hang out with him. We'd go backstage and he was this really sweet cat. The best moment for me was when I went to the Knitting Factory and he was doing a talk and the way he did this talk was, you could hear him talking coming down the stairs to the stage, so the whole place went silent. It was like this matinee lecture by Sun Ra. And then he just walked onstage mid-speaking and he stood on stage and he would just go off on all these tangents about jazz musicians being the angels, the messengers. He talked about race politics, about why Americans need to put their bad energy down and listen to the messages from the angels, from the antique blacks, because that's where the true information is as far as like saving the world. It was intense. And then the Arkestra came out at the end of this lecture and they played this rousing 'Space Is The Place' and they played 'Cosmos Song' and as they're finishing, they all walk into the audience and out into the street and I'm sitting there going, 'Man, this is the greatest day of my life' and all of a sudden I feel two hands on my shoulders and I turn and Sun Ra's looking at me, smiling, and he whispers in my ear: 'Play the Cosmos Song'. He kinda liked me. I was a young kid and he'd met me through Paul a couple of times.
PS: We went backstage at the Village Vanguard and that was the first time you met him and he took to you straightaway.
TM: I just sat down and talked to him about language, he really liked to talk about language... it was like a William Burroughs sort of thing where language was locked into this sort of viral situation. So he was like, 'Let's look at language and decode it.' And some girl was there and she was like 'What do you think about the AIDS crisis?' And he was like, 'Well, let's look at the word AIDS... Aid, means to help, so what does that mean, why are we using this word AIDS when it means to help?' And he was trying to turn it around as this other thing and the girl was just petrified... like 'What do you mean by that?'
He was also very into numerology and the occult. To me that idea that language is the source code that we need to hack is what magick is about. One of my favourite Burroughs quotes is: 'language is a virus from outer space...' which is one of the greatest things I've ever heard anyone say on the subject.
TM: [laughs] I had a very nice conversation with him about that... and then I would go to all the gigs and sometimes I would say hi to him and the band were like, they were hard playing guys and they had been around the world.
JS: Regular guys.
TM: Yeah, regular guys. Marshall Allen would be smoking a pack of cigarettes before he went on stage and played, drinking whiskey...
He still does that, even though he's turning 90 next week.
JS: You know what Marshall said and Gilmore, was that the reason they stayed with Sun Ra was because they knew he was going to leave the planet one day and they wanted to go with him. They didn't want to be absent when that happened.
TM: But they also realised how sophisticated he was, because although he was generally looked upon as this lunatic fringe player by a lot of the downbeat community, or as Cecil Taylor would say 'the beat down community.' Gilmore does this famous interview, where he says 'when I first started getting involved with playing with Sun Ra, I wasn't quite sure about it but when I read his charts, they were probably the most sophisticated jazz charts I'd ever seen.' He said that it was such a challenge for him as a jazz pro.
I'm personally very keen to debunk the idea that he was crazy. I think some people don't realise how playful Sun Ra was in his use of language, myth and ideas. There's a quote on the Brother From Another Planet documentary where Marshall says that he just did that to get the musicians out of the boxes in their heads, so they would be free to play the music. I think too often people take what Sun Ra said at face value.
JS: Or they don't get the sense of humour.
TM: And they also don't understand his responsibility towards discipline, the idea of discipline. You know, if you were in the band with Sun Ra, his glance at you... I mean he's the band leader, he's in charge.
JS: That was something that really impressed us in the MC5, was the discipline. I talked to Wayne about it, the idea that this was serious. The MC5 were kind of like the Sun Ra approach to rock & roll. They practiced every day, they didn't think about anything else (apart from drugs or women) but otherwise they were entirely about making the music. Which was what Sun Ra was about man, I mean he rehearsed those guys every day.. and it wasn't about getting paid. They were students of his and acolytes.
I think Sun Ra must be one of the only massive music innovators who didn't take drugs at some point. You know, Beefheart supposedly didn't take drugs…
JS: Oh horseshit...
He did experiment with LSD to begin with…
JS: What about Zappa...
I think he did most of his experimentation under the influence of coffee and cigarettes…
JS: Well when he was 20-years-old in college, the spacemen came and took him to Saturn, schooled him and said 'you're going to be different.' This is what you are hear for... So what are you going to do? I mean, we tried to get there through acid, he got much farther without having to resort to that.
TM: I thought John Szwed's book was really interesting in this respect in that it really focused on his library and his reading - Egyptology, numerology, gematria and so on. But again, his musical pedigree is impeccable, coming out of Fletcher Henderson's band, I mean my god...
JS: Before that though, I just read this thing, which blew me away. He came out of the southern swing band tradition when he was 13 or 14...
Another thing I'm curious about is the reception the music gets now versus how it was perceived at the time. I think Marshall does an amazing job so extensively touring with the current band. Some of the best times I've seen them involve taking people new to it and often they come out of the show like they've had a religious experience. Do you think audiences are more up for it now?
TM: I mean, it is spirit music...
JS: It's the same... it's there whether they are ready or not. It's never going to be that many that are ready for that... because its too intelligent and it swings too much.
I saw another quote from you John, saying that the more straight jazz fans at the time really didn't get it…
JS: Most jazz lovers at the time did not respond well to Sun Ra.
TM: The first real Ra thing I heard was on Kick Out the Jams. That track, 'Rocket No 9'. That record was hard for me to find in the 70s, it just seemed so contentious...
JS: Lester Bangs hated it.
TM: Yeah. And I remember listening to a college radio station in like maybe 74 when I was a kid, and they did this thing of like, 'We're going to do a series of like the worst records ever made.' And they would play the records and they would smash them on the air. One of them, they played 'Rambling Rose,' the first song off Kick Out the Jams... These guys would normally be playing prog rock but everything I heard on this worst records bit was all amazing... like the Velvet Underground. And I went out and would like search for these records... which there was no way you could do unless you went into a record store and asked for them and they'd have to consult the catalogue and order them in. So Sun Ra became curious to me from the first time I heard the Kick Out the Jams album. It was such an amazing track.
JS: We loved Sun Ra man, the band and I. I mean at that time, there weren't many people seeking him out. For the whole avant garde jazz thing, in the press, there were four people in the US who supported this, writers I mean, the critical fraternity. [Amiri] Baraka, AB Spellman, Frank Kofsky and me. Everyone else hated it. John Tynan [Down Beat magazine associate editor] called it anti-jazz, what Coltrane and Eric Dolphy were playing. Anti-jazz? Coltrane and Eric Dolphy? Excuse me... That was the mainstream, they hated this stuff man. And Sun Ra was at the extreme left wing. See one of the things they hated about this movement in jazz despite all the intelligence and the drive and the rhythmic innovation, was that they were black men protesting against the white power. Max Rhodes, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus... they were on the extreme edge of this and Sun Ra was all the way out, because they were communalists. They were like, I dunno, black hippies.
I've heard it said that certain members of the black community didn't particularly appreciate Ra either.
JS: Certain members? More like most.
TM: You know, Sun Ra was on a panel in New York in the 90s, that was part of the College of Musical Journalism (CMJ) convention that they had in New York and the reason I was there was that Ra was on a panel and Kim was on the panel as well, and Ice-T was on the panel. The one thing I remember was somebody asking Sun Ra: 'What do you think of today's radical black hip-hop music?' And he basically said: 'I think it concerns itself far too much material necessities.' And looked at Ice-T and there was like a question mark appearing above his head and he was thinking, 'Who is this old guy?'
JS: (Laughs) Right, he had no idea.
Well I saw a TV programme where they showed the inside of Ice-T's crib and he had Phil Collins records.
TM: (Laughs) I know, I saw that too.
Obviously there's a massive Ra discography. Is there any particular era that you're interested in?
TM: I love the New York era that John started with, you know at Slug's Saloon, the sixties New York scene when they were really extrapolating free jazz ideas and working with expressions of black nationalism concepts. [1961-68 - a period which saw the release of such albums as The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra, Bad And Beautiful, Strange Strings, Atlantis and many other experimental, small ensemble pieces].
JS: Heliocentric Worlds... wow. He was building the whole concept then... and then by the time you get to the 80s and they were calling it the Omniverse Jet Set Arkestra. You see the many titles of his Arkestra were perfectly descriptive of what he was trying to do. So the Solar Arkestra, that was the first one, when they were trying to reach out. Anyway, with the Omniverse he'd play some Discipline 27 and then he'd play some Fletcher Henderson with John Gilmore on tenor sax... but in the sixties, they were just forming. Every time we heard them, they'd advanced. For me the peak was Heliocentric Worlds Volume 2. Before the ESP records releases they were totally submerged, hard to find...
Some of my friends (much to my distaste) have remarked that they found some of the Arkestra's performance too 'trad jazz.' To me that big band sound is where he was originally coming from, Fletcher Henderson and I think one of the words that isn't mentioned enough when people talk about Sun Ra is happiness. To me, when they're playing those really loose but beautiful big band tunes I feel an incredible inner warmth.
JS: El is A Sound of Joy...
TM: He felt that it was his responsibility...
JS: To turn on the lights...
TM: So he would do these tours where he would play, like, the music of Walt Disney soundtracks.
JS: It was all the same music really. I mean, that's my firm belief.
TM: I mean, he did more traditional big band arrangement stuff in his last years and some people wanted to go and hear like more freeform freakout music and well, it wasn't happening... but something else was happening.
JS: They'd play for five hours... so everything would be happening at some point.
TM: I thought, you know, when Blast First did Out There A Minute, that was a really important record because it was a primer. That was a heavy record for a lot of people you know, for a lot of people in my world, that was the first time they had heard him.
PS: About that time, you started noticing more people, younger people at the gigs. But he was still playing the same places...
JS: He'd play anywhere, it was one of the things I loved about him. He'd just look around and say I can play this...
TM: He was a soldier of the road. One of the very last Sun Ra Arkestra gigs was with Sonic Youth in Central Park...
JS: Man, I wish I could have seen that one...
TM: That was a heavy gig. It was a really magical gig. The weather was kind of, a little off and it was outdoors and storm clouds were coming in, and all the weather reports were saying there's gonna be like a monsoon for a couple of hours... Then Ra comes out, they play first and then Sonic Youth plays, and getting ready there's a downpour, within ten minutes of their set, the clouds move out and the sun comes out. And we're just looking at each other thinking, 'Is this for real, can he really be doing this?' And he was already in a wheelchair [following a stroke] and he was rubbing his hands like this back stage, because of his sickness. He still had the orange beard and a smile on his face but he wasn't talking. His motor skills were a bit challenged. And when he came out there, the sun came out. Crazy. So when we went out, I said 'I'd like to thank Sun Ra for bringing the sun out because that doesn't happen all the time.'
I was lucky enough to see The Arkestra play with Sun Ra before he died. It was after his stroke. I was 19 and I guess that was my window into jazz. Since then I've seen the Marshall Allen directed Arkestra play lots of times. I had some friends who had never seen them say they were concerned it might not be good because Sun Ra wasn't there anymore and I said well in a very real way, he is still there in spirit…
TM: (Nodding in agreement). Yeah, I mean, its a great band...
And they have Farrid Barron, who is a great piano player... and when Marshall picks up the EVI [electronic valve instrument] its like having Sonny back on one of his wild moog solos... I mean, they're pretty much my favourite live band.
TM: That's not a slouch organisation, they're hardcore... it's pretty undeniable.
[To JS] At the Barbican gig on the 31st, you're opening for Arkestra and you're playing with an amazing band made out of the usual Cafe Oto suspects - John Coxon, Steve Noble, Pat Thomas and Alan Wilkinson…
PS: He's not supporting or opening, he's introducing.
That's just semantics surely.
JS: [Laughs] To open for the Sun Ra Arkestra is one of the most daunting prospects... I'm working on a piece based on this article I found... just combing through it for anything Sun Ra said about himself. Kind of a fanfare for the occasion.
As we're reaching the end of the interview, is there anything you would like to say in closing?
JS: I just thought we were so blessed to have this guy. The music was so strong... but then, everything underpinning the music was equally as strong. These were a higher order of beings man. To me, I was a hippy, a would-be beatnik. I was on acid, I was seeking something away from the square life, I wanted to be out there and man, here was the signpost. Yet underneath all the colours and craziness there was this timelessness. Man it just was tremendously edifying and inspirational.
The Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen and John Sinclair perform at the Barbican on Saturday May 31. More details here There's then a Sun Ra residency at Cafe Oto throughout June, more info on that here