If you have a list of alternative icons you’d love to get into but don’t know where to start, get ready to cross some of them off with PRIMER. This week Dan Busheikin paints a basic portrait of the far-out jazz visionary Sun Ra.
FUCK LADY GAGA, bro. Moreso, fuck the way that pop artists present themselves as strange, weird, even non-human, purely for the sake of appearing edgy or artsy or visionary, while putting out generally pretty conventional music. It’s not an artistic statement; it’s branding. And if we look at the root of this artist-as-alien tradition, we find someone whose otherworldliness was so pure on a personal and musical level, today’s pink-wigged pop stars seem like utter frauds in comparison.
In an era of tuxedo-clad black jazz musicians, Sun Ra dressed as far-out as it got, donning shiny, colourful suits, strange headwear, and then some. His oft-morphing ensemble known as the Solar/Myth Science/Astro Infinity/Intergalactic Arkestra followed suit. But behind the funky afrofuturist clothing was a strange mythology and remarkable musical dogma.
Sun Ra, born in 1914, was a ‘contactee’, meaning he claimed to have been contacted by extraterrestrials. This alleged interaction was in the late 1930s, when Sun was still living by his birth name Herman Blount. After that incident, Blount ceased to exist, and instead became Sun Ra, a self-proclaimed angel from Saturn. He wholly embraced that truth, and denied any other details about his life – in fact his birth date remained a mystery up until the '90s. While he isn’t the only individual to make that kind of abduction claim (though it was far less common then), he is certainly the only one also responsible for a sprawling discography of over one hundred full length albums, and literally thousands of songs in various styles, from traditional big-band swing to chaotic psychedelia. It’s one of the largest discographies in music history, rife with limited pressings and handmade artwork – a record collector’s wet dream.
Sun Ra had a lot to say, and that’s a massive understatement. To even call that an understatement is an understatement – just attempt to read this interview transcript. He had an answer for every question, a seemingly supreme knowledge of the world, and an incredible ability to blend absurdity, wisdom, humour, insight, and nonsense. Exactly what you’d expect from a Saturn-ian.
The only thing he did more than speak was practice music, which he was religious about. Sun and the rotating cast of Arkestra members would constantly rehearse in the house that they shared, and despite the psychedelic nature of much of the group’s output, it wasn’t a house of drugs and sex. Sun Ra did neither. Performances were wild and energetic, and the musical chaos would often drive away audience members, which Sun didn’t mind. To Sun, wrongness was the right sound, rightness the wrong sound.
And of course, Sun Ra’s themes of outer space can be easily looked at from a racial perspective. Commenting on black culture and race struggles in America probably wasn’t Sun Ra’s foremost goal, but he grew up in Alabama, and lived with a house full of young black musicians during the racially charged ‘60s, and had some association with the Black Panthers. He certainly had a lot to say on the matter, and in fact taught a course in Afro-American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley called “Sun Ra 171,” but he wasn’t necessarily a preacher for Black Power. (Here’s an excellent paper that discusses Sun Ra in relation to Black Consciousness, if you want to read further.) Sun Ra’s “militant blaxploitation free-jazz absurdist sci-fi cosmodrama” 1974 film Space Is The Place deals heavily with racial themes, though the messages and metaphors aren’t always clear.
Sun Ra left Earth in 1993, at 79-years-old. He's remembered as an incredibly gifted musician with a remarkable mind, and truly cosmic vision. To me, he's an example of the furthest reaches of true creativity. I can't say the same about Lady Gaga.