Hanging Out With The Man From Saturn

Several people have asked me to tell the story of my encounters with Sun Ra.

Over a span of about six or seven years, I caught Sun Ra and his Arkestra in Boston at least eleven times. While that’s not a lot by Deadhead standards, it’s probably more than I’ve seen any other musician live, with the exception of the great khyal singer Bhimsen Joshi.

To an alienated, jazz-obsessed teenager in Boston’s western suburbs, the knowledge that there was a bandleading madman who claimed to be from outer space was incredibly welcome. My high school library maintained subscriptions to a wide variety of periodicals — the usual suspects (Time, Newsweek, Life), some slightly more unconventional choices (The New Yorker, Ms.), and a few that were pretty bizarre. Of these last, there were three that made a huge impression on me: The Village Voice (where I first read about conceptual art, Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman), Source: Music of the Avant-Garde (where I first heard of Cornelius Cardew, Christo, Steve Reich and Alvin Lucier), and Downbeat (where I kept up to date on all the latest jazz happenings, and where I first learned of the existence of Sun Ra).

It was during my junior year in high school that I found out Sun Ra and the Arkestra would be performing for a solid week of gigs at Paul’s Mall in downtown Boston. Of course I was completely ineligible to go and spend hours in a jazz bar; I was fifteen. But I went anyway, and got to the club at least an hour before showtime. I was the first audience member to arrive, and somehow managed to talk my way through the bouncer. I’d brought my camera, a noisy Miranda SLR loaded with Tri-X black & white film which I “pushed” to ASA 1600 (wow! archaic darkroom talk!).

The first night I took pictures; two or three rolls’ worth. The following day I developed them at school (and went into Boston to hear the Arkestra again), and the day after that I printed them and took a sheaf of prints into Paul’s Mall, where I showed them to the musicians. Sun Ra was pleased, and autographed one of the photographs with a ball-point pen: “Space Age Greetings from Sun Ra,” with the date. Alas, the ink has faded on the photograph and can no longer be read.

The band was promoting their releases on Impulse!, particularly “Space is the Place.” There was quite a bit of that material presented at Paul’s Mall. Some elements were the same from night to night; they always played “Shadow World,” and there was always some sort of extended synthesizer solo from Sun Ra. And there was a lot of great soloing. Having the entire band crowded onto the tiny stage at Paul’s Mall was a triumph of space management.

After that? Not much Sun Ra for a few years, although I continued to buy records and had quite a good collection by the time I moved into Somerville to share an apartment with two friends in 1977. Which was the year that Sun Ra’s Arkestra played the Cyclorama, a huge circular hall in Boston’s South End that was a superb venue for their brand of outer-space theater.

I persuaded about four or five of my hippie friends to come, and we bought tickets for the second of two sets. Which was the right thing to do: the first set lasted two hours. The second set lasted four, and concluded in the wee hours of the morning with a massive drumming session that featured a number of dancers and a fire-eater who blew huge spheres of flame into the air while the band roared and pounded. One of my roommates had ingested a powerful psychoactive substance which was at the peak of its influence at this point; I turned to look at him and was rewarded by a facial expression: mouth gaping in amazement, eyes wide open with pupils the size of quarters.

I didn’t meet Sun Ra that time. We went home, completely blown away.

Ahhh, but the next time Sun Ra came to town, I was ready.


Robert Rutman and his instruments, the Steel Cello and the Bow Chime

A little back-story is necessary. In 1977, I’d begun working with an artistic genius named Robert Rutman, who’d created a family of remarkable steel instruments, the Bow Chime and the Steel Cello. A teenager, I had become obsessed with the sounds of the Bow Chime after hearing it in a local concert, and eventually spent a few hundred dollars (which was a lot in those days) on buying one of the instruments. I was the first (and for a long time the only) person to buy one of Rutman’s instruments. I used it in my own music, gigged with Rutman’s group, the U.S. Steel Cello Ensemble, and promoted his work every chance I got.

Here, by the way, is what three Bow Chimes sound like.


A Bow Chime

You need to know that if you’re to understand what I wanted to attempt when I heard that Sun Ra was returning. He was to perform at a now-defunct theater in Boston, and it was to be a week-long run in which the Arkestra was joined by light artist Bill Sebastian, who had crafted an extraordinary device (the Spacescape light organ) that gave a dazzling visual accompaniment to the music. I made plans to go every night.

After the first night, I went backstage, and made my case to a member of the band, who took me to see the Arkestra’s road manager, Richard Wilkinson.

I explained that I worked with artist who crafted amazing musical instruments out of sheet steel, and that the sounds they produced would be ones that Sun Ra might find useful, compelling and beautiful. I must have been persuasive, for a group of the players agreed to come to my house, where one of Rutman’s instruments was set up. Wilkinson, James Jackson, Marshall Allen and one other player all took a cab with me to my home in Cambridgeport, and entered my music room.

There, set up in the corner, was my Bow Chime. And I played it — and y’know what? It was every bit as impressive as I said it would be. They all agreed that “Sunny” had to see the instrument, and he might even want to use it in the show. One of the musicians leaned over to me as the conversation was concluding and asked if I knew where they might be able to score some weed. That was interesting, since I knew that Sun Ra disapproved very strongly of drugs. In the event, I was unable to help; I know this decreases my hipness quotient, but that’s the way it was.

The next day in the afternoon, Wilkinson, James Jackson and Sun Ra came back to my house, and Sun Ra admired the instrument. I had made arrangements for Robert Rutman to be available at his studio nearby, and we went over to his place. I introduced them: “Bob, this is Sun Ra. Sun Ra, this is Bob.”

Rutman, a lean, cynical, laconic man with a slight German accent and a perennial 5-day growth of beard, said, “Hi, Sun Ra. You wanna beer?” Sun Ra replied, “Yes, I think I will have a beer.” Bob handed him a can of Budweiser, and the two men drank.

They chatted briefly, and Bob handed Sun Ra one of the big bass bows that were used to play the Bow Chime and the Steel Cello. Sun Ra walked to one of the instruments and started stroking the metal rods with the bow.

This was very interesting. I have met exactly one person who was unable to evoke the deep, echoing drone of the Bow Chime. And that person was the Man from Saturn. Sun Ra could not seem to engage the bow with the surface of the metal. All that came out were a few high whistling noises. I was amazed. Rutman looked skeptical and a little disgusted. The band members looked reverent and a little awestruck.

Sun Ra went on to attempt playing the Steel Cello. The same thing happened. This was an instrument that activated with the slightest touch of the bow…and he could not get any traction on it whatever.

Well.

He put down the bow and asked Bob if the Arkestra could use the instruments on stage at the Modern Theater during the remainder of their run. Notwithstanding the fact that the Great Man did not seem able to play his creations, Rutman agreed, and they worked out some details. Rutman was also given comps for the show (as was I, of course).

Then Sun Ra spotted Rutman’s dog, whose name was, simply, Rutdog. Rutdog at the time was just a Rutpup, and a friendly one at that. Sun Ra’s face lit up.

He went over to Rutdog and leaned down.

“Hello, little puppy,” he said in a light tenor voice. “You’ve never met anyone like me before. You know why? Because I’m from Saturn, that’s why. Shake hands with your nice friend from Saturn, now!”

Rutdog shook hands with Sun Ra. I looked over at Rutman. He had a strangely exasperated expression on his face.

The story basically ends there. Rutman delivered the instruments to the theater and they were incorporated into the Arkestra’s show that week; once a night, Sun Ra would leave the keyboards and come forward to the front of the stage where they stood…and invariably fail to elicit more than the most meager whistling noises. After a few minutes he would return to his seat amid thunderous applause. Rutman came to one of the concerts, but he didn’t like it.

The last time I heard the Arkestra was at another Boston concert a few years later. The band was almost two hours late; the band bus had been in an accident on the way up from Pennsylvania. Another member of the audience and I wound up organizing a massive clapping jam that lasted easily 90 minutes. I have often wondered who he was — we never exchanged a word, but we were clearly operating on the same level.

The band finally arrived, and they played a fairly perfunctory set of just under two hours. Pretty good for a group of musicians who’d been in a fairly serious automobile accident not long before. They were obviously tired, and when they finally reached the end of the show, June Tyson came out and began to sing “They’ll Come Back.”

They’ll come back, in shining ships of gold,
with wisdom never told —
tales of myth-world splendor…
and they’ll take back, the others who are not
of Earth’s dimensions one —
the others who are ready.

Harmony, melody, rhythmic magic,
tales of myth-world splendor..

And then a phalanx of jackasses began yelling out, “Hey, c’mon, Sun Ra! We want to hear more saxophones!” It didn’t matter; the concert was over.

That was the last time I heard the Arkestra.

Here’s Bill Sebastian’s film with Sun Ra, for your viewing and listening pleasure:

8 Apr 2014, 9:53pm
by eric siegel


hey dan…thats funny, art on the beach was the last time I saw sun ra. I had seen him a few times at club and college dates before then, and loved his old el is the sound of love and the early stuff. As his thing got more and more elaborate, he kinda lost me. and the gig at the art on beach I just didn’t go for. he seemed to be putting us on, i couldn’t connect. funny how you saw it so differently.

6 Apr 2014, 9:51pm
by kailash Ray


Hi Warren, I enjoyed reading your story about the great Sun Ra.One night after I had been listening to Charlie Mingus at the Village Vangard, about 40 feet past the club on the same side of the street, and up one flight of stairs I walked into my first Sun Ra concert ,along with Paul and Carla Bley Albert Ayler, and others It was my first time and I can never forget those magic times in my teens.Love to you and family from Chazz in Thailand

6 Apr 2014, 7:03pm
by Charlie Berg


My brother used to do light shows for Sunny back in Philly – mostly @ Gino’s Empty Foxhole (a famous Philly coffee shop for the avant garde). Hankus & I used to always see band members on the 26 bus in Philly after high school, they on the way to rehearsal at Sunny’s crib in Germantown. I saw him about 6 times maybe more…didn’t the Arkestra play at Berklee Performance when he was doing the Fletcher Henderson charts? I have some memory of that…mostly saw him in Philly. Once when I was on the road in San Diego.

Dave – I never heard of “Inventory Time.” But there are some Sun Ra specialists who might know; I’ll see if I can track a few of them down for you once I get back from India.

11 Aug 2011, 7:30pm
by david brown


ok i have a question… do you remember a song Ra did in about that timeframe called “inventory time”? i have searched thru hundreds of albums, even this bizarre set of 28cds from Detroit holidays 80/81 (“Transparency” records)… nowhere to be found… all i can remember is

“it’s inventory time/inventory time
callin on all the birds
countin up all the beasts
it’s inventory time…”

y’know, the usual kind of sprechgesang a la ra and JT… just curious

other than that, the best i can do is relate that i stood next to john gilmore @ the men’s room urinals at the “Washington Natatorium”… 1981, the only concert i have ever seen at a swimming pool… he was very friendly

one nite at Ed Murphy’s supper club in d.c. Ra came up to me, grabbed my shoulders and said, “I HEREBY SENTENCE YOU TO 99 YEARS IN YOUR OWN BODY”

as you have kindly pointed out, Warren, i have forgotten a lot, but that wasn’t one of them things. peace

Rutman is quite old, living in Germany. He still performs. The link to his website is in the story. I still have my BowChime and I am actually getting ready to use it in a piece soon.

14 Mar 2010, 9:24pm
by Timo Tuomainen


Warren, do you know what happened to Rutman? is he still alive? And what about his instruments, the Steel Cello and the Bow Chime… are they still in use somewhere?

14 Mar 2010, 8:48pm
by Timo Tuomainen


thanks a lot Warren! just awesome!

HA! I remember seeing Sun Ra with you,sort of. It was definitely a bit over my young, innocent,earthbound head,yet i do recall being enthralled. Thank you,again,Warren, for your excellent influence.

That’s right! It was your dad who was our chaperone that night. Wow…good to remember that.

12 Mar 2010, 11:46pm
by Dan Spock


Hi Warren. I recall these days in high school, in particular the time you talked my Dad into taking us underage kids to the Jazz Workshop to see Charles Mingus. I too became a Sun Ra fan, saw the Arkestra perform 3-4 times, most memorably at Art on the Beach, a concert series in NYC that used to be staged on a huge vacant landfill across the street from the World Trade Center.

 

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