[Drunk walks into Sun Ra’s employment agency]
Drunk: My man, what’s happenin?
Sun Ra: Everything is happenin.
Drunk: What is this… I mean what… where am I? Who is you?
Sun Ra: I am everything, and nuthin.
Drunk: Nuthin? Well you betta tell me about this nuthin stuff, cause, uh, I need a job. I… I don’t know what to do.
Sun Ra: What have you been doin lately?
Drunk: Uh huh uh, nuthin, really, nuthin.
Sun Ra: How long have you been doing nuthin?
Drunk: Quite some time. Quite some time.
Sun Ra: You must be an expert at it.
Drunk: Got my B.A., ya see.
Sun Ra: We’ll hire you to do that.
Drunk: How much I get paid, man?
Sun Ra: Nuthin.
Drunk: Nuthin? NUTHIN? I got to have sumthin so I can get me anotha botty. I can’t go for that shit!*
So goes a delightfully droll scene in Space Is the Place, the 1974 sci-fi-avant-jazz-social-commentary flick starring Sun Ra, his Arkestra, and various other characters. The storyline centers on Sun Ra as he lands his spaceship (which, head-on, resembles either a pair of eyes or a pair of breasts) in Oakland, California, having been presumed lost in space for a few years – ever since his last European concert tour. What follows is a bizarre, hilarious, at-times disturbing journey through the rise of Black Power by way of the eccentric visions of Mr. Ra. From a card duel between Ra and “the Overseer” to vintage Arkestra performance footage to a slightly X-rated scene in a hospital, Space Is the Place completely entertains while beaming its message to all of us earthlings.
Last Wednesday evening, August 8, the remaining/current incarnation of the Arkestra took to the stage at the Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors series and performed the soundtrack to Space Is the Place. Having researched the film a bit beforehand, I was anticipating watching it in some online form in the near future, but what a surprise – as the movie began playing in its entirety onscreen behind them! It was a dizzying, deranged combination of the film’s freaky images, the band’s grandiloquent costumes (described recently by one reviewer as “sequin spangled capes and headgear looking a bit like a Las Vegas Star Trek review as imagined by a fan of King Tut”**), the cacophony of otherworldly noises, the ever-present airplanes shooting across the night sky, and the overall sweltering NYC summer air.
Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors is the place! (photo by me)
The actual soundtrack music, recorded in San Francisco in 1972 and long unavailable, was finally released on CD in 1993 on Evidence Music. Sun Ra, who passed – or maybe just became lost in space again – that same year, plays all manner of keyboards: piano, minimoog, Farfisa organ, clavinet, rocksichord (!), while erstwhile Arkestra member Marshall Allen handles the alto saxophone chores, as well as flute, oboe, bassoon, kora, cowbell, and assorted percussion (because “as all marines are riflemen, all members of the Arkestra are percussionists”). Mr. Allen, leading the Arkestra nowadays at age 94, was front-and-center at the show, in sparkling red robe and cap, blowing up a storm, as singer/violinist Tara Middleton more than did justice to original vocalist June Tyson’s soulful stylings on numbers like “Satellites Are Spinning” and the funky title song.
Tara Middleton and Marshall Allen with the Arkestra
“The earth cannot move without music. The earth moves in a certain rhythm, a certain sound, a certain note. When the music stops the earth will stop and everything upon it will die.”
— Sun Ra
* Dialogue courtesy imdb.com/title/tt0072195/
Images courtesy unz.com, rottentomatoes.com, markbould.com, pledgemusic.com, amazon.com, ink19.com, djmag.com