Category Archives: 5. Music

Notes on Sun Ra’s Magic City and Other Improbable Notions


Even when the starting point is the sweet instrument that was Luther Vandross’s voice, as in the poem below, I’d often end up going back to Sun Ra’s Magic City. It begins with Sun Ra playing some spaced out chords on piano while Roger Blank adds punctuation on the drums. It goes on like that for a while, with Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, and Danny Davis playing these sort of flying flute lines over and around Ra, who seems to be going back and forth between the piano and clavioline. Then, about fifteen minutes later, there’s this outburst where John Gilmore pierces the calm on tenor sax, and Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, and Danny Davis are joining in, back on their saxophones, along with Harry Spencer on alto, Robert Cummings on bass clarinet, Walter Miller on trumpet, and Ali Hassan on trombone. They’re all blowing into their instruments like it’s the end of the world and their job is to make sure you don’t miss anything. It’s one of the scariest moments in jazz—and also one of the most insanely beautiful.

I’d play this in my apartment on some sleepless or post-drunk Saturday night into Sunday morning when I lived in New York. Then, on those occasions when I just couldn’t get to sleep, I’d head outside, then walk uptown to feel the pre-dawn and early dawn glimmerings of light as they swept across Manhattan. Sun Ra’s Magic City is not calming music, by any means—even the quieter parts are tense—but as I walked out into the city, going from my Lower East Side neighborhood towards Midtown, carrying this music in my head, I felt calm. It was a feeling similar to leaving the Circle Theater back in DC after having just watched something like Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers or Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties—the feeling that this work of art has taken you not away from the world but deeper into it. For me, that was always the preferred direction.

It’s why I’d always rather watch an anti-hero than a super hero. It’s why, back in the days when we had newspapers in the morning, I’d start my day by reading the obituaries. I’d look for the death notices of writers whose works I admired, actors, directors, artists. A part of every morning, then, was spent looking to see if Samuel Beckett had died, or Federico Fellini was now gone. I’d always try to find who’d lived the longest, but still, I was seeking reacquaintance with the recently departed. When Sun Ra died in May of 1993, Columbia University’s WKCR played his music non-stop for a few days. For those days, if I was home, between a temp job or a stop at Scorpio’s, Mona’s, The International—one or another of the many bars I frequented—WKCR was on, and I was listening to the music of Sun Ra.

I’d just seen him perform live at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village the previous year. This was after his stroke, so he had slowed down quite a bit. He needed help to get to his piano. He couldn’t spin around while wailing on his keyboards the way he used to do. He couldn’t put on a giant sombrero and dance around the stage while singing “Mack the Knife” as I’d seen him do at the Kilimanjaro Club in DC. But he was still making his music. Now he was gone.

I wrote this poem years later, a few years after we’d moved to the Shenandoah Valley. You’d think that being out here I’d be listening to a little more country music, but I don’t. In fact, I’m pretty sure I listened to more country music when we lived in the city. When we move back, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m playing George Jones, Patsy Cline, Hank Snow, and other folks like that more often again. But Sun Ra will continue to be in the mix, and be someone whose music I listen to—for all the secrets and wisdom he continues to release—wherever I am.

NEVER TOO MUCH

The mix tape I made for myself in 1982
and can no longer find begins with
Luther Vandross singing “Never Too Much.”
I lost it in 1992 in New York.
Maybe I lent it to my painter friend, who’d
been painting in his studio in Dumbo listening
to Captain Beefheart and Earth, Wind & Fire
and wanted to try something different.
After all, inspiration is a variable thing,
and what one sees while listening to
That’s the Way of the World is different
from what one sees when Trout Mask Replica
is playing on the boombox in his studio.
We did a lot of drinking, then, of course.
I lived above the laundromat on Avenue B
between 3rd and 4th streets. Sometimes junkies
would shoot up in the tiny foyer of my
building. Sometimes people would just
die on the street, some guy would collapse,
some beautiful woman would just stop
singing. Sometimes after smoking and
drinking I’d get to my fourth floor apartment
out of breath, thinking I could be dead too,
just another young fuck dying young,
then I’d sit down, turn on the stereo,
and listen, hearing something like “Jesus right
beside me, he never buys and he smokes.”
Maybe I heard it wrong, but those were
the words that stuck to me like the gum
on my shoe, that made me get up again
when I’d caught my breath and smiled
to myself, by myself, so high and lonesome.
Walking up a deserted Fifth Avenue
on a Sunday morning after staying up all
night, the music in my head was Sun Ra’s
The Magic City because I felt like
a black and white science fiction film
full of cold granite and gray skies.
Other cities had moments of silence,
but every moment of my life in New York City
had a soundtrack. Lou Reed was the mumbling
heat-seeking voice behind the junkies;
Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 18 was for
waking up unemployed on a Wednesday morning
just before the clock struck noon. Luther Vandross
played so many afternoons before I hit the bars
or met my friends. How many of them knew?
When I moved to New York I brought my paintings
with me but I never painted. I smoked cigarettes
and I wrote—about color, shape, and movement—
as I listened to my soundtrack, as I ate cheap
chicken and rice, washed my hands, splashed
water on my face, maybe ran a comb through
my hair, just once, that was enough. And I was always
by myself when I listened to Luther Vandross.
Sitting on the sofa in my apartment in the early evening,
waking up from whatever was missing during the day.
Stretching my arms, turning away from the window,
looking back toward the sink, as the sunlight seemed
to slide down the walls like liquid, when everything
would turn dark. I’d stand, light my cigarette,
open and close my door to walk down the dirty stairs,
and suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore.

-Jose Padua

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North Richmond Street, Being Blind

Photograph by Jose Padua
My eight-year old son Julien is singing
an East River Pipe song, going “I don’t care
about your blue wings, I don’t care about your
blue wings, baby” and my fifteen year old
daughter Maggie reads The Girl With Curious
Hair
while my wife and I drink beer at the pub
on Main Street (Julien and Maggie, iced tea
and a coke) before we all go back to our old,
dirty, small-town house. This place used to be
called Helltown and some people still call it
that, except at that precise hour when the sky
over the mountains is a perfect flinty lapis lazuli
blue, and the river is a woman named Edna with
the most joyous laugh, or a man named John,
his kidney stone like a 12 gauge shotgun shell.
He hopes to pass it before his Monday night
factory shift, the roughest in all the valley.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Distance Between Ground and Sky as Measured in Units of Work

Photograph by Jose Padua
When we were dropping our son Julien off at school earlier that week, he looked at the boy who was getting out from the car ahead of us. I opened the side door to let Julien out and he yelled, “Shavon!” Julien ran toward the school door and yelled, “Hey, Shavon, Baby!” Shavon, the boy who was in the car ahead of us, turned around and waited for Julien. They walked in together.

I never say “Baby” that way. Nor do I use the variant “Babe.” And as far as I can remember, the only person to regularly call me “Baby” was my landlord in New York. “Jose Baby,” he’d say. It was, I imagine, his way of acknowledging that I was all right. I wasn’t one of the junkies or crackheads in his building (my next door neighbor Anna would often complain about “those junkie people”). And I paid my rent more or less on time—or at least until toward the end of my stay in New York. It made me all right in my landlord’s eyes. It made me “Jose Baby.”

At home with my family, in the small town we live in now, I’m the sort of person who often uses the term “Honey.” I rarely ever call my wife Heather by her name—I always say “Honey.” If I do somehow say “Heather” it’s reason for us to look at each other and pause, as if we’d suddenly been transported to some odd parallel universe where I say “Heather” instead of “Honey.” I also call the kids “Honey” at times, the way my mother would use the work “Anak” with me and my brothers—“Anak” being a Tagalog word for “son”/”daughter” or, simply “child.” It was the sort of term I’d hear if I was coming down with a cold and my mother had just felt my forehead to discover I had a fever. “Anak,” she’d say, out of concern. As such, it was a word that comforted me. It meant that she knew what was wrong, and was taking care of things.

A couple of days earlier, we were a little late dropping our daughter Maggie off at school in the morning. That meant that by the time I got to the drop-off line for Julien’s school, I was a little further back than usual. I was tired and wished I could just close my eyes until the doors for Julien’s school opened, but then I looked out into the distance. Because of where we were in line—right where there’s a break in the woods that surround Julien’s school—I could see clear through to the sky above the tree line where the land slopes down to Leach Run, the stream that lies about a mile east of town. The way the colors were blending made it hard to distinguish between earth and sky, horizon and cloud, near and far. Or maybe it was just my aging eyes. Either way, I liked what I saw, so I took a photograph. Then I had a coughing fit.

I’d been under the weather since the past weekend when Maggie and I saw Yuja Wang perform at the Kennedy Center in DC. I was a running a bit of a fever and was hoping that seeing Yuja Wang might do the same thing Sun Ra did about a quarter century ago when I saw him at a performance at the Bottom Line in New York. That night I was in the middle of a horrible sore throat/flu and I wasn’t sure it was wise for me to attempt to make it out to the Bottom Line. But, because it was Sun Ra, I made the effort. I dragged myself out of my apartment.

That night, I left the Bottom Line after some two or so hours of Sun Ra’s performing (usually he’d play even longer, but this was after he’d had a stroke). And I felt fine. My lungs were clear. I could smoke a cigarette without feeling like I was breathing in fumes from the back of a bus (yes, I was a hard-core smoker back then). And, I could have another Jack Daniel’s on the rocks with my friends and have it slide down my throat as smooth as the overnight DJ on WBAI. I was, in other words, all right. I was, once again, Jose Baby.

Seeing Yuja Wang perform that weekend didn’t quite do it. Unlike after seeing Sun Ra, I still had my flu and my fever. I still needed that ibuprofen a few times a day to feel at least marginally human. But then, Yuja Wang is only thirty years old. I think that in a few years the power to heal will come along on top of the ability to play a sick-as-fuck encore off the top of her head.

After I’d dropped off Julien, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some soup, orange juice, and ibuprofen. That’s what I figured I’d need to make it through the rest of the day until it was time to pick up Maggie and Julien from school. As I passed by the magazine rack, I saw something horrible. Wrapped in plastic, it was labeled the “Trump Anniversary Collection,” and beneath those words, peering out into a distance populated solely by wealthy, racist assholes, were the eyes of Donald Trump. At the bottom of the package, underneath Trump’s orange chin, was further explanation that this was a “Patriot’s Kit” and included bumper stickers, a “’Promises Kept’ magazine,” and a “Ready-to-Frame Portrait.” The scream I made in my head was so loud I swore everyone in the store could hear it.

I laid a few copies of Field & Stream on top of the stack of Patriot’s Kits, then walked to the back of the store. There I grabbed a quart of Tropicana 50% Less Sugar/Some Pulp orange juice. I took that, a double pack of the store brand ibuprofen, and two cans of chicken soup and went up to the register. As I drove home, I thought about how the sky by the elementary school, in the clearing between the trees, looked something like a Mark Rothko painting. And I thought about my wife and my children, my mother and father, and all the days of winter we had ahead of us and all the work we had to do.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Routine Evaluation of My Accomplishments at This Late Stage of the Middle Part of My Career

Photograph by Jose Padua
Because of a mix tape I played for what
must have been a couple of decades, I can’t
hear Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover”
without expecting to hear T.S. Monk’s
“Bon Bon Vie (Gimme the Good Life)”
right after it. There were train rides when
I was so weary I’d fall asleep in minutes,
days when I was so sad flowers lacked both
scent and color. Weeks were lost like socks
with holes in them and days recalled like
bad products except there was no store
where I could take them back, no class action
lawsuit for squandered opportunities and
essential connections missed. These years
of love have sustained me far beyond
anything I ever could have imagined;
a dusting to an inch of snow overnight
on cold asphalt resulting in a two hour delay
is all part of the good life. I admit I didn’t
always know this, just as I understand
that there are gaps in my resume that
will never be explained, and disturbances
in my sleep that briefly interrupt the dream.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Self-Portrait of the Artist Written in the Early Off-Season of the Universe

Photograph by Jose Padua
It was during my sophomore year in college when the professor for my Introduction to Poetry course laid the tone arm down onto the record that was spinning on the portable turntable. This, she assured us, was poetry we might already be familiar with. In a moment, we heard a voice on the record singing “Morning has broken like the first morning/ Blackbird has spoken like the first bird/ Praise for the singing/ Praise for the morning/ Praise for them springing fresh from the world…”

I was sitting near the front of the class, and upon hearing the first sung notes of this song, I turned around to see how the rest of the class was reacting to it. That’s when I saw Claude, a big grin on his face, looking like this was the happiest moment of his academic career. He was a political science major—maybe even a “college republican.” Whatever it was, there was something about him smiling at recognizing a Cat Stevens song that was sickening.

I mean, Cat Stevens was OK. I might have liked his music more back then if I’d seen the film Harold and Maude, in which his music plays a big part in setting the atmosphere for what happens between Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, but at the time I hadn’t. I only saw Harold and Maude recently, watching it with Heather and Maggie one weekend night after Julien had fallen asleep early. After several decades, I started to like Cat Stevens more. Back in 1976, though, my idea of poetic language in music included things like the work of Gil Scott-Heron and Chicago Beauchamp’s spoken word performance in Archie Shepp’s Black Gipsy. My poetry professor, I gathered, had a different idea. She let all of Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken” play, and when it was finished declared, her eyes wide with the passion of a million sonnets, “Poetry is about the beauty of language, as such.”

That, of course, was the worst part of it. Hearing that cheap and easy declaration, I was sure, had to be both the lamest and most frightening moment of my poetic life. I felt like I’d been abducted by some horrible cult. It was sort of like that time between my Junior and Senior year in high school when I was at the University of Georgia on a program run by the National Science Foundation. A group of students from the university had befriended a number of us from the NSF program, and one weekend took us on a picnic in Watson Mill Bridge Park, then tubing down the shallow south fork of Broad River.

It was a fun afternoon. I was tubing down the river holding hands with Anne, this girl with long blonde hair from Texas who was studying math for her NSF program. She was beautiful and smart and, as I was a little slow in these matters, she was the first girl I ever held hands with. Everything was going fine until after we’d gone tubing, where our older friends from the university had one other stop to make. That stop was to their church. We had to listen to a talk about Jesus and being born again and all this other stuff. My mind wandered off toward thoughts I found much more pleasant, and I kept trying to distract Anne, but she was paying attention to all the Jesus talk.

I avoided our so-called friends from the university after that day, but Anne had come to the conclusion that they were cool. I started hanging out with Janet, who was also studying math in the NSF program but was an atheist, idolized Orson Welles, and at the time was making her way through the works of Aldous Huxley.

As for the poetry class with the professor whose mantra was “Poetry is about the beauty of language as such,” I zoned out for the rest of the semester. I sat in the back, staying out of it, wondering if, perhaps, this whole poetry thing wasn’t for me. Forty years later, not a day goes by when I don’t still wonder that. But then words start coming to mind again along with the sounds. Sometimes I just let them bounce off of each other in my head for a while. Sometimes I write them down immediately. Either way, it’s my work. It’s what I do, whether anyone likes it or not (and some people don’t). My poetry presents my ideas, my aesthetic, my view, my way of connecting with the world—as such. And every time I write a new poem, it is as if I am born again.

This is a photograph of the birds that flew over my wife, my daughter, my son, and I last year after we’d arrived in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in the early off-season of the universe.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Reflections on a Song by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson and Other Intervals Between Two Points in Time

Photograph by Jose Padua
Looking out
the kitchen
window in the
dim early evening
light I’m waiting
for the stray cat
in the back
yard to move
just scratch its
nose with its
paw or else
dash out between
gaps in the
run-down picket
fence when I
realize it’s not
a stray cat
I’m looking at
but a black flower
pot knocked over
on its side and
in that instant
I remember all
those years I lost
being obsessed
searching for meaning
in places where
there was none.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

These Nights We Lived Under Bourbon and Small Planets

Photo by Jose Padua

Her name was Sarah Star
and though the “Sarah” was
probably her real name,
the “Star” we weren’t so sure of.
She was one of our favorite bartenders
in one of our favorite bars,
the Scorpio on Avenue A,
and it was something like 1992
when I, going back and forth
from unemployment to temp jobs
and paying $700 a month on time,
sometimes not, for my apartment
on Avenue B, was in many ways
one of the well-off people in the
neighborhood. Sarah dressed like
a character from The Great Gatsby
and did it so well it was neither
affect nor pretense nor performance
but evidence of the manifestation
of celestial light in the souls
and shoulders of certain residents
of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
She was short but walked tall,
thin as an alley even though she
moved like Park Avenue right below
Grand Central Station just a little
before eight in the morning. One night
after last call she asked me and my friend
to walk her home and right away
we started singing Fats Domino
to her over what was left of our bourbon,
crooning “I want to walk you home,
please let me walk you home…”
and we sang it again on the way
across town, “I want to walk you
home” even though we were already
walking her home, and we talked about
galaxies and planets, the beer and bourbon
replaced by four-in-the-morning
New York air, breathing it in like
cigarette smoke, breathing it
back out. At the door of her building
we each said good night to her,
each gave her a hug, then walked back
to our side of town feeling enormous
like the sky, like a song only Fats Domino
could have written but which we sang,
into every corner of the night,
as if it were ours. And at Bowery
and Houston, my friend and I said
our “See You Later”s and he headed up
the street toward his apartment
as I kept going east, my feet moving
like the fingers on Fats Domino’s
right hand.

-Jose Padua

Another Friday Night Lost in My Head vs. the Collected Songs of the Filipino Genius

Photograph by Jose Padua
Tonight while doing the dishes
I wrote a song in my head
the guitar part came first
some jangly chords played
to a bold steady beat
going on for several bars
like a night out on the town
in the damp heat
of an infinite summer
and then I heard the voice
wailing midnight wisdom
in my inner ear singing
words that moved like
wheels burning on
the dark pasty asphalt
something about the way
they tumble about
the way I tumble about
the way you tumble
through it all and
never stop and the song
kept going on
in my head even
after I was finished
doing the dishes
even after I was finished
bagging up the trash
taking it out to the curb
wiping my feet on the porch
and by the time I was walking
back in the front door
I was still hearing the song
and as great as it was
I started to get
a little tired of it
weary of the melody
as beautiful as it was
and the beat which
didn’t make me want to
move with it as much
as when it first started
its renaissance of rhythm
dwindling into something
like the fall of an empire
when the people have
heard enough of everything
that’s real and want nothing
more than something
that’s easy to believe
a song that goes baby baby
over and over again
baby just show me
what you’ve got
.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Another Yellow Moon

Photograph by Jose Padua
I used to do it
all the time
and I was even
fairly good at it
but now with
my sometimes aching
fingers and diminished
ability regarding rhythm
I play about twice a year
and tonight I picked up
my daughter’s acoustic guitar
because my own
is all out of tune
and hidden behind
old books and older LPs
and after looking everywhere
for one of her guitar picks
and not finding where
she stashes them
I sat in the dining room
held the guitar in my hands
and looked around until
I found next to my spot
on the dining room table
an expired AARP membership card
which I put between my fingers
then tried to figure out
the chords to the old
Tom Waits tune
“Downtown Train”
and like a subway
stuck on the tracks
somewhere in Brooklyn
I didn’t get anywhere close to it
which isn’t to say
this is only reason
I’m writing
this poem.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Self-Portrait with Flashbacks in the Purple Bathroom of the Lavender Farm in Milton, Delaware

Photograph by Jose Padua
I remember the days of
cigarettes and whippets
a pack of Marlboro Reds
in a box you’d buy
after you pulled the
whipped cream can from
the store shelf when no
one was looking suck
the nitrous out of it put
it back down slide the
glass door shut then
go to the counter with
your cigarettes trying
not to laugh while you
paid then letting it loose
like dropping a handful
of spare change once you
got out the door and laughing
at the night sky walking back
to your neighborhood fast
or slow like a glass door
with smudges or the arrival
of the Queen of Sheba it
was hard to tell sometimes.
Some people did the hard
stuff but you were always
sensible about this and
measured it almost with
precision and a clear eye
on the future except one
time a friend said his heart
stopped from too much nitrous
but he/they/someone got it
going again and he’s living
in Canada now or Wisconsin
being some kind of life coach
or whatever they call that
professional self-help situation
when there’s someone with
a certificate doing the
unwieldy lifting for you.
And me I’m living the calm
life now in small town
conservative America thinking
beautiful socialist thoughts like
wild mist coming off dry ice
in the late Pleistocene or in
the evening quiet of the living
room loving both my family
and the way the rug ends
and the wood floor begins
when I walk toward the hall
on my way to the stairs when
its time to go to bed thinking
how every molecule within me
that has survived and is alive
moves in exquisite time like
an orchestra of oboes, bassoons,
horns, trumpets, timpani, strings,
and takes up space like brass in
pocket on a day coming out
of a store all shiny when there
really was nothing I needed to buy.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua