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.