Tag Archives: Sun Ra

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

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For All the Past and Coming Years of Sound and Friendship

Photograph by Jose Padua
I didn’t become aware of Prince until around the time of his third album, Dirty Mind, when I’d see this poster of guy with a kerchief around his neck, a flashy sport coat over his bare chest, and skimpy black briefs hanging in the window of Melody Records at Dupont Circle. I’d be on my way home from my first full time job after graduating from college, waiting for the bus outside the record store after getting off the subway. It was 1980 and I was a messenger at the Library of Congress, delivering requests for information by hand to various departments within the Congressional Research Service, while the guy in the poster, obviously, had a much more exciting job than I did.

But it was all fine with me. On paydays, I’d go into the store before hopping on the bus. At the time I was listening mostly to avant garde jazz, and after completing my mission of hunting down every record Albert Ayler had made in his lifetime, I was perhaps looking for some change of pace. The guy in the poster, of course, was Prince, and at first I had no idea what he was all about. I’d read about him here and there—stuff about him being the next big thing—and I was intrigued. But it wasn’t until someone brought Dirty Mind home—I don’t remember if it was me or one of my brothers—that I heard any of it. What I do remember, though, is hearing the opening of the song “Dirty Mind” for the first time—how the drums and keyboards led to that voice. I didn’t think it was a great voice, at first. I mean, Philip Bailey, Al Green, Smokey Robinson, and on and on—I probably could have thought of a dozen falsettos I liked more off the top of my head. But as I listened I saw how Prince got his voice to say everything he wanted it to say, and what he was saying wasn’t like anything else that was around at the time, because what he was saying was both dirty and sweet, hard-boiled and romantic, light and profound.

From that first time hearing him, I was hooked. From then on, Prince’s music was a part of my life, though his wasn’t the only music I needed. There was still the avant garde jazz I was big on—the previously mentioned Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and so forth; there was punk and “new wave” like Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, Wire; there was the Ramayana Monkey Chant and all sorts of music that to me was essential. I understood that not everyone was into this wide variety of sounds, and that was cool. I could hang with people who didn’t get Sun Ra, I could drink at the Tune Inn on Capitol Hill with Patsy Cline playing over and over on the juke box for the hundredth time, I could attend a prim and proper recital of Mozart and enjoy both the music and the scene, but if you didn’t like Prince I was immediately suspicious of you. And whenever I heard someone say something along the lines of, “I don’t think Prince is all that great,” I’d make my way to the other end of the bar, find someone else to talk to at the party, or just leave to get away from the ugliness.

Still, this isn’t to say that I always moved down to the other end of the bar. I probably spent a little too much time, especially when I was young, hanging out with people I didn’t quite click with, people who I felt safe with but who didn’t inspire me. But after a while I did move on. I started hanging out less with a crowd that only listened to Top 40 radio or classic rock and who didn’t care much about poetry or foreign films and modern art and a million other things. I started hanging out more with those friends from college who would actually party to Ornette Coleman’s music, Talking Heads, and Prince of course. They were a little bit crazier than my other friends, but then I was a little crazier than my other friends as well, and becoming less crazy was, for me, neither option nor choice.

Over the years I made new friends, lost touch with old ones, got pissed at good friends, laughed uncomfortably with bad friends, made up with real friends, and fell completely out with others because sometimes it’s just so hard to even say anything. There were people whom I missed like the next sip of bourbon, and people who were just stomach aches and head aches and sore throats and pink eye. As for me, I was, by turns, a saint, an asshole, a pillar of strength, a pompous jerk, the wittiest person in the room, the dullest clown in a travelling circus of the damned. There were things that I could have done better, things that I did do better, tasks that I performed spectacularly, and tasks at which I was completely lost but did anyway, because, Jesus, sometimes it was just nice to do something/anything whether I was good at it or bad at it. That I continue to have good days and bad days proves that I am alive.

Not long after he died, I played Prince’s Dirty Mind album again. And again. Then I listened to For You and the eponymously titled Prince album again, because in 1980 that’s what I did—I went back to those earlier records. After one more go at Dirty Mind I listened to Controversy, 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day. I went on like that for a while—working, writing, doing the things I usually did by myself and with my family during the course of the day, all while reliving the progression and evolution of sound, from the late 70s to the present time, through the music of Prince.

I imagine that, during the course of those days, I was bopping my head up and down a little more, tapping my feet more than I usually did when I sat at the computer and wrote. And, I imagine, that with the help of this music, I felt a little more becalmed and content than my obsessive compulsive mind—with its unending flash of words and images and emotions—usually allowed me. Because in my more panicked moments, I look at life as an all too rapid process, the basis of which is solely biological and thus entirely lacking in the sort of essential qualities needed to form any manner of philosophical much less spiritual approach to existence. It’s when my thought processes slow down that they regain any kind of warmth in this regard, and I start to believe again that moments, years, even entire millenniums have direction and meaning. Oddly enough, it’s music that can slow me down like this.

One night, in the middle of all that, I took a photograph of my daughter Maggie and my son Julien playing in the back yard. My wife Heather was late getting in from town and by the time we were done eating dinner it was already starting to get dark. Still, we kept on going, bouncing this big red ball and a smaller blue and white ball back and forth between the four of us. In the photograph I took, Maggie is holding the red ball and laughing while Julien is holding the smaller one and looking serious because when you’re younger, like him, you feel like you have to work that much harder to keep up with everyone. At my age, much of the time, I still feel like that. Then I get caught up.

And so I watch as the years go by, taking into consideration the varying levels of light and dark, warmth and cold, speed and its opposite. While some parents may see money, career, and marriage as the most significant indicators of the brightness of a child’s future, I rarely think along those lines. And while they’re good to have, there are other things that are more basic and more important. Which is why, on a beautiful night, when the sun has gone down and the air begins to cool, what I wish for my children before anything else is a future full of sound and friendship. And the ability to move through the years like a falsetto that says everything that can possibly be said, and in so doing aspires toward grace.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

How the Blues They Send to Meet Me Don’t Defeat Me and Other Easy-Listening Favorites

Photograph by Jose Padua
This is what it’s like living with me.
My wife, not feeling well but having
to work, works at home like me today
and sits across the table. “Do you need
quiet?” I ask, before I put on some music
because I always play music while I’m
working and the kids are at school and
she answers, “No, it’s OK,” and I say,
“I’ll put on something mellow,” and go
looking for the music I want to hear.
In a few minutes my music starts to play.
First there’s the sound of the keyboard
then a snare drum and a voice going,
“Nuclear war. Yeah. Nuclear war. Yeah.”
When Sun Ra starts singing, “It’s a
motherfucker, don’t you know, if they
push that button, your ass is gonna go,”
my wife starts to laugh. “What’s funny?”
I say. “This is mellow?” she asks. “But
it is,” I reply, because Nuclear War is
actually one of Sun Ra’s mellower records,
but it begins with that title cut. And I explain
how this was a song Sun Ra actually thought
he could have a big hit on the radio with,
and that the tune is completely catchy,
though it does have that “motherfucker” in
the chorus. “And plenty of big hits have
the word ‘motherfucker’ in them,” I explain,
though at the moment I can’t think of any.
“But wait,” I say, “for those of us who are
old enough to remember there was ‘Raindrops
Keep Falling on my Motherfucking Head;’
it was a big hit for BJ Thomas in 1969,”
but my wife doesn’t believe it. “It was big
on the country charts,” I say, but she doesn’t
budge from her state of incredulity and
secular disbelief. Then I make myself some
sausage and eggs, and when I’m done eating
I ask, “Do you want some?” as I look at
my empty plate, knowing that if she’s hungry
I’ll be right back in the kitchen, warmed by
the heat of the stovetop, and glowing like
the songs that forever fill my heart with joy.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua of Maggie holding up her drawing of Sun Ra.

A Hundred and One Years of Sun Ra and Other Examples of the Beautiful Passing of Time

Photograph by Jose Padua
Over the years, of all the musicians I’ve seen perform live, the one I’ve seen more than anyone else is Sun Ra. Wherever I was, if he was coming to town, I went to see him. There was never any question about it. Even one time, in New York, when I was in the middle of some horrible flu, I went to see him play, and by the time the show was over I felt completely fine. He and his music had that kind of effect on me.

In fact, one of the few things I actually regret—and, since I consider every sort of misstep, error, or wrong turn a learning experience, I don’t regret much—was that time in New York when Sun Ra was set to play at the bandstand in Central Park. It had been a stormy summer day, and I just assumed the show was going to be rained out. Of course, later in the day things cleared up a bit—still I didn’t think it was enough for the show to have gone on. Then, in the early evening, when I stepped outside for the first time that day, I ran into one of the guys who worked at the Nuyorican Poets Café, which was just down the street from me. He was heading into work.

“Man, I just saw the greatest show,” he said.

“What?” I said, incredulous. And I’m sure I must have been pissed and said something like, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Things cleared up uptown, and he went on. Of course it’s going to clear up for Sun Ra.”

I, of course, felt like such a fucking loser for not having faith in the power of Sun Ra. I did manage to catch him in a club in New York at least one more time before he left the planet on May 30, 1993. When he died, WKCR played his music non-stop for about a week, and so for about a week, whenever I was home, I listened to Sun Ra and nothing else. There aren’t many musicians I could listen to exclusively for a whole week without eventually wanting to hear something different.

When my daughter Maggie was born, it wasn’t long before I played Sun Ra’s music for her. I probably started with something easier, like Jazz in Silhouette. Though by the time she was four she was already asking me to play her “some of Sun Ra’s weirder stuff” when I picked her up from school. So there we were, riding around our new home—this conservative small town called Front Royal, Virginia—playing Sun Ra’s Disco 3000 record in our mini-van. For a little while, anyway, when we first moved here, it was pretty much just Sun Ra and P-Funk that Maggie wanted to hear when we were making our way around town. And, naturally, when Julien was born, it was probably just a week—or maybe even a few days—after we brought him home that one night I played for him “The Conversion of J.P.” from the Sun Ra record, Space Probe. It’s this deceptively simple piece, starting with percussion and flute for several minutes before Sun Ra comes in playing these halting, broken chords on the piano. Subtly and beautifully, he builds on this as the notes start to come together and move forward. By the time the piece is over, you know and you feel that Sun Ra has taken you somewhere. And in a way that no one else could.

Today, May 22, 2015, marks the 101th anniversary of the arrival of Sun Ra on the planet. About two and a half years ago, on the occasion of his second birthday, Julien seemed to take a few moments to channel Sun Ra. That’s what you see in this photograph—Julien, at his toy keyboard in the evening on his second birthday, wearing a wild pair of sunglasses and gazing up at the heavens. It’s very much the sort of pose Sun Ra would strike in the midst of a performance. And just looking at this photograph, I start to hear the sounds. At first, it’s Sun Ra’s music. But then, it becomes something else—something for which Sun Ra laid the foundation and upon which Maggie and Julien will be building, using whatever art forms they see fit.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Never Too Much

Photograph by Jose Padua
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 laundrymat 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

Photograph (taken on Houston Street, August 2014) by Jose Padua