by Jamie Hayes (article originally appeared in Stop Smiling magazine).
“Reality is too harsh. Imagination makes everything nice. Use your imagination and get out of the most drab places by simply holding on to the imagination and making it real.” – Sun Ra
Implicit in the act of making art is the attempt to create a microcosm that transports the viewer to an alternate world and serves as an escape, antidote, or comment on Reality: the worldview of the artist. Clearly Sun Ra and Moondog created beautiful, innovative musical microcosms. But to fully appreciate their work also requires an appreciation of the manner in which they lived their lives, as macrocosmic art. With a persistence rivaling Don Quixote, both Sun Ra and Moondog lived their lives as in a storybook (or better yet, comic book, in Sun Ra’s case). A key element to this living verisimilitude was costume.
Moondog devoted himself to Norse mythology and a wholesale rejection of the Judeo-Christian society he believed hijacked the old and noble Norse ways, going so far as to wear a helmet of horns, chain mail, a bearskin cape (based on the warrior uniform of the Beserkers, who believed that wearing the cape empowered them with the spirit and strength of the animal), and shoes which he fashioned himself out of scraps of leather. Though he was blind, he made most of his clothing himself. This is a minor accomplishment compared to the other activities he carried out without the benefit of sight: hunting with a bow and arrow, building a log cabin by himself, living on the streets of New York for over twenty years.
Sun Ra also looked to the past, to ancient Egypt, in order to find his identity. He rejected Eurocentric philosophies-the best of which he believed were stolen from Egyptian and African sources, then repackaged as Roman ideals. He even went so far as to reject the entire planet, doing away with the concepts of Time and Space as we know them while he was at it. He expressed this visually with his Egyptian and Outerspace inspired costumes, incorporating metallic capes, tunics embroidered with esoteric symbols, elaborate headdresses decorated with coins and metal chains, and always color, abundant color. Ra explains: “Costumes are music. Colors throw out musical sounds”.
As with Don Quixote, if you stop suspending your disbelief, the monstrous giants are simply windmills and the man playing the music is not an ancient Egyptian Sun God or noble Viking warrior, but instead a grown man covered in blue face paint, wearing a smock decorated with a patchwork spaceship, or a blind man in a homemade Thor get-up. But as with Quixote, much of what makes Ra’s and Moondog’s work so effective is exactly this ability to take low budget spectacle and turn it into a lavish alternate universe.
In Ra’s case, this low budget aesthetic is quite intentional and also quite often misunderstood, not just on the level of costume and spectacle, but also musically. His bizarre costumes and sideshow performance (complete with fire eaters, dancers, singers, elaborate light show, and the like) displeased traditional jazz fans, especially in the Fifties and early Sixties when a suit and tie and a straight demeanor was de rigueur. But his more outlandish behavior also found criticism with the avant garde set, as evidenced by this Karlheinz Stockhausen quote from Melody Maker in 1971 regarding a Sun Ra performance he had attended: “I tell you, this first 20 minutes was first-class avant-garde experimental music that you can’t put in any box. It was incredibly asymmetric! … But after this piece came some saloon wishy-washy music. I didn’t like it at all. Sort of cheap, movie music.”
I would argue, however, that as out-there as Sun Ra’s music can be, he also saw his music as an extension of a continuous jazz tradition, regularly including ragtime and big band tunes in the Arkestra’s set. Nor was he one to take himself too seriously – in the Seventies he became enamored of Disney movies and worked numbers from the scores into his set. He was as likely to incorporate influences from his serious studies of religion, ancient Egypt, and the struggle for black empowerment into his aesthetic as those from comic books, sci-fi films, and new-age esoterica. Likewise, his clothing reflects that aesthetic. Sun Ra would not be Sun Ra in asymmetric avant-garde clothing. His brand of out-there required a more inventive, humorous visual expression to underscore his unique viewpoint: it required making something out of nothing, taking cheap, populist, festive fabrics and symbols, and using the power of imagination to infuse them with meaning. At the same time, these foolish costumes also cut the other way as a criticism of those who would take themselves seriously: the suits, the guardians of Reality. The costumes of the Arkestra, then, signify solidarity with the mad – they are the trappings of the wise fool, serving as a comment on and rejection of a reality in which the black man is a second-class citizen. As scripted by Ra in the film Space is the Place as an answer to a young black woman at a youth center who asks “How do we know you not some old hippie or something?”, Ra says:
“How do you know I’m real? I’m not real. I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did, your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real. If you were, you’d have some status among the nations of the world. I come to you as a myth, because that’s what black people are. I came from a dream that the black man dreamed long ago.”
While Ra rejected the authority of the canon, Moondog strove for acceptance into the classical tradition. While he did have his supporters, among them Stravinsky and Artur Rodzinski, conductor of the New York Philharmonic in the Forties, his costume was too outlandish, his itinerant lifestyle too unorthodox. On one hand his music was too traditional tonally, and on the other hand too complex rhythmically for him to be accepted by his contemporaries. Additionally many saw his costume as a cry for attention: it pigeonholed him as novelty act, leading him to share the stage with the likes of Tiny Tim in the Sixties. Or, as Moondog biographer Robert Scotto notes, he was misunderstood and mythologized by the press and different counter-culture movements due to his costume, hailed variously as a Christ-like figure, a Blind Tiresias, or as Father Time. None of these imposed and already defined myths were really true to his highly individualistic and deeply committed beliefs in arcane, Nordic tradition. He described his dress as “my way of saying no. I am an observer of life, a non-participant who takes no sides.”
At times the world seems so insane, it’s enough to drive anyone crazy. In those moments it seems downright logical to embrace the life and work of artists like Ra and Moondog, who chose to break completely with all normalcy, making an special point to reject war, and its champions, organized religion and the state. As David Toop asserts in his book Ocean of Sound : “Periodic rediscovery of Sun Ra’s [and I would argue, Moondog’s] music seems to coincide with each new phase of environmental awareness or spiritual hunger”. Beyond the microcosm of the music, the macrocosmic myth “has an appeal to anybody who yearns for a life more dignified and magical than the one they are living.”