Monday, June 30, 2014
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Posted by: Jen Santisi
CAN NARCISSISTS BE MOVED TO SHOW EMPATHY?Friday, May 30, 2014 (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jen Santisi
Researchers at the University of Surrey and the University of Southampton have investigated whether narcissists can elicit empathy for another person's suffering. It has been well documented that narcissists lack empathy, but why is that the case, and do they have the capacity to change that behavior? The research is published inPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
When we think of narcissism most of us can all think of a colleague, friend, or former significant other that would fit the description; "A bit full of themselves, self-centered, and don't seem too concerned about the effects they have on other people," says lead researcher, Erica Hepper. This lack of empathy has a detrimental effect on interpersonal relationships, social bonding and prosocial behavior.
For the purposes of this research, the researchers focused on individuals who exhibit subclinical narcissism, rather than a clinical diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Dr. Hepper explains that this distinction was made because "people high in subclinical narcissism are psychologically healthy and well-adjusted, often even very successful, whereas people with NPD are inflexible and volatile, and don't manage day-to-day life well." Subclinical narcissism is also more common, and the number of people exhibiting narcissistic traits in our society continues to increase. The participants were broken down into two categories, 'low narcissists' and 'high narcissists,' which identifies participants as being less narcissistic or more narcissistic than the average person.
Results of the research
The researchers examined whether narcissists are capable of empathizing with another person in distress by having participants read a vignette describing a recent relationship break-up. Regardless of how mild or severe the scenario was, high-narcissists did not show empathy for the subject. The results pinpoint the role of narcissism as driven by its maladaptive components such as entitlement, exploitativeness and exhibitionism. Furthermore, narcissists lacked empathy even when the scenario was relatively severe (i.e., the subject was overwhelmed with depression).
The researchers then tested whether narcissists are capable of showing empathy when they are instructed to take the perspective of the target person. Female participants were shown a 10-minute documentary describing a woman's experience with domestic violence. Participants were prompted to "imagine how she feels" while watching the video. Low-narcissists were unaffected by the cognitive-perspective taking, implying they were already taking the woman's perspective. High-narcissists reported significantly higher empathy for the woman in the video when they had been instructed to take her perspective, versus not being prompted with that suggestion.
Lastly, the researchers tested whether narcissists can be moved, not just emotionally, but also physiologically. Previous studies have shown that increases in heart rate reliably indicate empathetic response to another's emotions or suffering. High-narcissists had a significantly lower heart rate when exposed to a target character's distress, illustrating that their lack of empathy is also physiological. However, perspective-taking led high-narcissists to respond to another's distress with the same level of autonomic arousal as low-narcissists.
The findings suggest that narcissists do have the capacity to empathize with other people's needs given the right conditions. "If we encourage narcissists to consider the situation from their teammate or friend's point of view, they are likely to respond in a much more considerate or sympathetic way," Dr. Hepper says. This is an encouraging result and suggests that relatively anti-social members of society can be empathetic, which would improve their long-term relationships.
Dr. Hepper is extending this research to on-line social interactions and ongoing relationships, in an effort to observe whether narcissists can respond in an empathetic way when speaking with someone who is distressed, or with existing friends and romantic partners.
Hepper, E. G., Hart, C. M., and Sedikides, C. (2014). Moving Narcissus: Can Narcissists Be Empathic?.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(9). http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167214535812
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB), published monthly, is an official journal of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). SPSP promotes scientific research that explores how people think, behave, feel, and interact. The Society is the largest organization of social and personality psychologists in the world. Follow us on Twitter, @SPSPnews and find us at facebook.com/SPSP.org
Sunday, June 8, 2014
Beer with a Painter: Mark Greenwold
I was surprised when Mark Greenwold gave me his address, because it was, like my own apartment, in “upstate Manhattan,” a far remove from the center of the art world. I had been struck by his painting in the midst of the 300-artist Surviving Sandy exhibition — its weirdness and drama, but also the way geometric, abstract passages were fluidly merged with densely packed representation.
Greenwold’s home is utterly normal, comfortable, and neat as a pin, with matching folded towels hanging in the bathroom. The studio is in a large back room, with a drafting table, desk lamps, ballpoint pen sketches, clippings of quotes and notations taped to the walls, and hundreds of the tiniest brushes.
It overlooks a rooftop schoolyard, and the sound of children playing during our afternoon visit added to the feeling of an almost suburban existence. Perhaps Greenwold cultivates the privacy that comes from the quotidian to create paintings of psycho-sexual intensity, which are decidedly anti-heroic.
Greenwold was born in 1942 in Cleveland, Ohio and received a BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art and an MFA from Indiana University. His paintings of the 1970s were attacked for their content and censored for representations of explicit sex. His more recent work includes representations of himself (often naked) and recognizable artist friends like Chuck Close and James Siena in complex interiors. In 1995–96, a retrospective of his work was organized by the Colby College Museum of Art and traveled to the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, SUNY. He is represented by Sperone Westwater Gallery, where he was the subject of a 2013 solo exhibition.
* * *
Jennifer Samet: You grew up in Cleveland; how were you introduced to painting?
Mark Greenwold: I grew up in a house where there was no particular appreciation of art. And, as a Jew, there is a fatwa against telling stories in pictures. My family thought I should be a lawyer because I liked to argue. But I was always pretty sad, anxious, and contentious, without a place for it. I got some paint-by-number sets, but I couldn’t just fill in. I would take the little brushes provided with the sets and make copies of Max Beckmann portraits. There was great physical pleasure in that; it seemed authentic.
So, I had a breakdown in the career plan to become a lawyer, and before high school, I took over my sister’s room and my saintly grandmother’s room, and used the space to make things. I was painting on the walls, like the character in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. Thank God my grandmother was there, because she was a great supporter; I feel like she’s been watching over me forever.
In high school, I had a genius teacher, named Thom Lehnert. He made the art room into an enchanted world. He took away all the structural hierarchy of the classroom, brilliantly. There was a special-needs kid in the class who painted watercolors. He would keep dipping his brush in the water, and the water would get darker and darker, dirtier and dirtier. And, in the end, he would pick up the jar, and drink it. Lehnert would just say how great this was!
In the school library, I had found the book The Family of Man, which is perhaps the most famous anthology of photographs, and has since been questioned for what is considered its overt sentimentality. But at the time, I thought nobody knew about it. I was working from those images like it was my dirty little secret.
I could never work in class or in front of anyone. I am still very self-conscious. I would paint in the basement of my home, and bring work in for our weekly critiques. I brought in a piece, and Lehnert said, “Oh, that’s from The Family of Man!” I was shocked; I felt revealed. But, he didn’t say, like some people might have, “You can’t paint from photographs.” He said, “Oh, how great, you found this! You are inspired.” That was amazing.
JS: You mention secrets and being self-conscious; it seems you have turned this into part of the content of your work.
MG: Yes. Shame has always been a huge aspect of my work: secrets and lies, the shamefulness of everything, of being human. Ernest Becker said we are all animals with brains and worms with assholes. We embody all those levels.
People can’t stop talking about Lena Dunham, in her show, “Girls”: how she is not ashamed; she is always naked. And I think, “But why is it courageous? Why should we hate our bodies to the point we do?” It is true in men as well as women.
So, okay, I make myself naked. But is that easy for me? Is it honesty? Is it confessional? Am I an exhibitionist? Am I making a comment? It is a lot of things. There are precedents in photography, like John Coplans. Coplans’s work is amazing, but he was a formalist; he took an old man’s body and made it into abstraction. I am not doing that. I am painting myself.
I even did one of the great no-nos. I painted a partial erection. It was called “A Jewish Couple” (2011), and it was on the announcement for my show at Sperone Westwater. I thought, “Does this make a lot of sense? Is it career suicide the way I presented myself?” But it seemed what I wanted to do.
Does shame ever stop? The paradigm of being an artist is that you can take this stuff and find a way of working with it. It is raw; it is never resolved.
JS: The figures in your paintings are situated in elaborate interiors. You use design magazine photographs as sources; can you tell me about this?
MG: The way I begin is with the visceral excitement I feel about a space. In recent years I’ve read more about Jewish history and Yiddish theater. I love some of the 19th-century Yiddish writing, as well as the writers who come out of that tradition, like Isaac Singer and Saul Bellow and Philip Roth.
Shtetl culture was all about people in enclosed spaces. They are living in claustrophobic environments and have very little sense of the outdoors. Nature essentially means trouble, and God is someone you argue with. You don’t, as a Jew, really believe in God. My Orthodox Jewish grandmother didn’t really believe in God. My 96-year-old mother doesn’t really believe in God.
What is real, though, is this fucking family that you’re fighting with all the time – all these people on top of each other constantly laughing and swearing. It is the aliveness of that, but also the humor, the pathos, the death and the sickness, and the amazing whining – all of it.
My work is about the excitement and the intensity of the familial, relationships, and friendships. The enclosure, the scale, the compression, and the complexity of how I make the paintings, which is sort of endless.
JS: Do you always work from photography and found images?
MG: I have always worked from photographs. I could never work from life. If I have a real person, I would just want to talk to them or touch them or get rid of them. Also, I love the distancing relationship to photographs.
There was a brilliant impersonator of Richard Nixon, who I saw on Johnny Carson. One day, as he was performing, he was looking at the palm of his hand. Carson asked what was in his hand. He was sort of embarrassed, but then he said, “I have a picture of Nixon in my hand.” I thought, “Wow. This guy who spent his life impersonating Nixon still needed the fact of Nixon to trigger his imagination.” That was a good analogy for the way I work. I need something specific to begin with. Whatever I give to it comes out of that.
JS: I see in your studio that you have only certain sections of the painting visible, and everything else is masked off. Why do you do this? I also see post-its on another panel where you seem to be sketching and making notes on the composition.
MG: I work in fragments. I move around constantly; I don’t work from top to bottom. I’ll work all around and back over things a million different times. That’s why it takes me so long. In a public conversation, Lisa Yuskavage said that I’m playing exquisite corpse with myself. It is absolutely true. I’m creating this frustrated relationship with the whole.
More and more, I’m getting braver in a kind of Frankensteinian way. I’m cutting people up and putting their heads on other bodies or on animals. It is interesting to me. The idea of the consistency of a figure seems like a trope with a conventional history.
But who was crazier with figures than Ingres? Ingres—the paradigm of the classical—took crazy, Cubist risks. Picasso loved Ingres because he fucked with the figure more than anyone. In the portrait, “Comtesse d’Haussonville” (1845), at The Frick Collection, the arm comes right out of the woman’s chest. It is one of the greatest paintings on earth, and it makes no sense; it makes less sense than a de Kooning. To me, that is courage.
The post-its and the sketches are part of my process. In one drawing, I’m telling myself that it doesn’t matter if the head doesn’t fit on the body. I want that, but it is hard, painful, because it is breaking with the facts and using them as a stepping-stone for transformation into a more urgent, more hysterical realm. If there is a term for my work, it should be hysterical realism.
JS: Can you discuss your painting, “Sewing Room (for Barbara)” (1975–79), which shows a man stabbing a woman? What do you consider the violent subject matter about, and what did the critic Lucy Lippard actually say about the painting?
MG: I was living in Los Angeles during the Charles Manson murders. In LA, I had made the painting, “Bright Promise (for Simon)” (1971–75). The people in that painting were not people I knew. I used pornography and magazines as sources. Then, when I started “Sewing Room,” I began to use myself, and people I knew. I painted it after I moved from LA to Albany.
In Los Angeles, I had staged a photo shoot at the home of Tippi Hedren, the actress who starred in Hitchcock’s films. Tippi’s son was in my class at UCLA. In her backyard, there were literally lions and tigers. She was wild. I took pictures of essentially a murder, a sex crime. I thought a movie star’s house would be perfect. Of course, even her palatial mansion in the Hollywood Hills wasn’t perfect. But the photographs I took were horrifying. I was the murderer in some. The photo shoot involved my graduate assistant, who happened to look like my then-wife. My wife was pregnant at the time.
The woman in the painting ended up looking a lot like my wife, and the painting was dedicated to her. But that was done in a loving way. I believe all my work comes out of love. Anything you spend a million years working on is about love.
Lucy Lippard essentially said, “You can’t make that kind of painting.” She reduced it and me to a poster child for misogyny. I felt totally blindsided. I didn’t make a painting of a man stabbing a woman as an endorsement.
I have always been interested in violence in my work. It was never something I didn’t do. What is theater? Kafka’s, Shakespeare’s, Aeschylus’s and Strindberg’s work is all about tragedy, or the family, or relationships. In the 1960s, when I was developing as an artist, one of the things that interested me most was film. Great European and American filmmakers like Orson Welles and Bergman and Antonioni were making films about human concerns. Why would you leave any of that out? Why would you leave out the power of Greek tragedy?
Very few visual artists get into the complicated nature of men and women, men and women having issues with each other. Generationally, the issues change, but it doesn’t mean, fundamentally, the questions aren’t always legitimate.
I have also realized that one of the legitimate things that fuels my work, and a lot of people’s work, is rage. Using the energizing aspect of rage: the unconsciousness of it, but also the consciousness of it.
Painting need not just be about big yellow expanses of canvas. If Rothko wanted people to cry in front of his paintings, as if they were looking at Auschwitz or Buchenwald, he had to tell them. He is a great painter, but you cannot convey, with pure abstraction, the same kinds of things you can convey with representation. I’m not saying you can’t have sorrow and pity in abstract paintings, but it is a different sorrow and pity, conveyed differently.
“Sewing Room” was also a radical shift because it was small. I had been making large paintings before that. The scale was based on Piero della Francesca’s “Flagellation of Christ,” which is one of my favorite paintings, although I have never seen it in the flesh. It is small and divided into sections. “Sewing Room,” and all of my work since, is in some way, divided: triptych or diptych-like.
JS: Despite the sections, and even some dissonant stylistic juxtapositions, like the abstract “thought bubbles” emanating from figures in recent paintings, I admire the unity in your work. Can you talk about that?
MG: We are all part of our generation, and our generational experience. I am a Greenbergian at heart. I loved Clement Greenberg’s writing, but what he essentially wrote would have excluded me. But, as a teacher and an artist, I still think mostly as a formalist. It wasn’t the content, but rather, the work itself. I still believe in the allover-ness, that all parts of the painting need to have equal attention.
Of course, everything that Greenberg said you shouldn’t do as an artist was everything that interested me. You shouldn’t have humor, you shouldn’t have sex, you shouldn’t have violence, you shouldn’t have narrative, it shouldn’t be penetrable, it should be flat. Every “should” was something that I thought, fuck that! How can you make art that isn’t on some level literary, historical, and emotional?
JS: You work on paintings for years at a time. This idea of “slowness” has been part of the response and discussion around your work. Why do you think that is?
MG: There is contempt in the art world for craft, and how to make things. We talk about “de-skilling,” and “post-studio,” and artists who make nothing, or have assistants making everything for them.
The valorization of quickness, spontaneity, and the so-called “found,” while considering something made over a long time being fussy, overworked, and overly determined, is total bullshit. Writers don’t believe that. Why should visual artists believe that? I’m sure van Eyck didn’t believe that, and Vermeer didn’t believe that. Chardin didn’t believe it, and Ingres didn’t believe it.
Why revere Luc Tuymans for saying that if he takes longer than three hours he gets anxious? Fine. I get anxious too. I take a nap; I come back. Then I spend another three hours. Then I spend a year. Why should I not be respected for that, if I can make something that I think is extraordinary?
Why is the archetype of playing like a child, making a mess, and showing your mess, prioritized over the archetype of an adult, questioning, developing, and using their intellect in the work? I suppose it has a lot to do with pop culture, the way music is discussed, and primitivising impulses. It comes from wanting to be like what we perceive as less evolved cultures.
The way I believe in making these paintings, I feel pretty absolute about. If I make things more quickly, I don’t like them, I don’t believe in them. I start to feel crazy though. Why does it take me so long? Well, some writers take ten years developing their work. I work like a writer – in chapters. I go piece by piece, not necessarily consecutively. But the accretion of days changes me.
There is a level of fever in the work. Does that become lessened because I spend a year on something? I think it becomes intensified. Because, like an actor, you can maintain your relationship with it, and in reworking, find a deeper connection to it.
Saturday, June 7, 2014
Oil on canvas
9 7/16 x 7 7/16 in. / 24 x 19 cm. Isidore Ducasse Fine Arts
PROVENANCE Collection of the Artist Private Collection
Dada and Surrealism Reviewed. Arts Council of Great Britain, london, 1979
Accrochage surrealiste, cents queues ni têtes. Isidore Ducasse Fine Arts, New York, 1991
The Surrealist Vision – Europe and the Americas. Bruce museum of Arts and Science, 1998 Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, The Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections. Solomon
R. Guggenheim museum, New York, 1999
Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, The Nesuhi Ertegun and Daniel Filipacchi Collections. New York:
Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, 1999, cat. no. 92.
Alexandrian, Sarane. Dictioannaire de la peinture Surréaliste. Paris : Editions Fillipacchi, 1973,
Baron, Jacques. Anthologie plastique du Surréalisme. Pais : Editions Fillipacchi, 1980, p. 116.
Thursday, June 5, 2014
A Quietus Interview
Playing The Cosmos Song: Thurston Moore & John Sinclair On Sun Ra
Playing The Cosmos Song: Thurston Moore & John Sinclair On Sun Ra
Sean Kitching , May 30th, 2014 04:42
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It's Friday May 23, the day after the centenary of Sun Ra's birth, and I'm sat around a table in a pub in north London with John Sinclair, Thurston Moore and Paul Smith, founder of the Blast First record label. As David Stubbs' excellent Sun Ra piece which appeared on the Quietus on the day of Ra's birthday last Thursday has rendered an introduction to the man and his music unnecessary, I intend to keep this opening paragraph short so as to reproduce the interview as fully as space permits. Thurston Moore himself needs little introduction, as he is well known for both his work with the seminal New York band Sonic Youth and innumerable other projects as he is known as a champion of underground music, film and art in all its forms. For those interested in further listening, his Top Ten Free Jazz Underground list is essential reading. John Sinclair similarly needs little introduction. The one-time manager of the MC5, poet, leader of the White Panther Party and lifelong pro-marijuana activist, is also (alongside Moore) one of the most vocal Sun Ra acolytes, as can be seen on Don Letts' excellent documentary Brother From Another Planet. Paul Smith's Blast First brought Sun Ra to wider recognition with a trio of releases in the late 80s and early 90s, starting with the compilation Out There A Minute (which served as my own personal introduction). All three were close to Sun Ra. Our discussion takes place in anticipation of the Sun Ra Arkestra's performance in celebration of the centenary of Sun Ra's birth on the 31 May at the Barbican. I have open before me a notepad with some questions but as soon as I press record, Thurston launches into a question for John (which is exactly what I was going to ask him anyway).
Thurston Moore: Do you remember the very first time you heard of Sun Ra and how that resonated with you? As far as being curious about him...
John Sinclair: Oh yeah, I was curious. I'd read about him. I don't know... I remember the first time I'd heard the music and saw the Sun Ra albums. I was with Roger Blank the drummer [who played with the Arkestra during the mid 60s]. I met him in New York at the end of 64. Roger was coming to Detroit with a trio and he wondered if we could put him up. Then he came to our house and I showed him to his room and he opened his suitcase and pulled out one of those old portable record players and he took out two albums by Sun Ra. That was what he had in the suitcase, and maybe a change of clothes. Which was impressive in the first place... this was a fanatic [laughs]. He was just raving about Sun Ra. Super-Sonic Jazz and Jazz In Silhouette... these albums were just unbelievable, with their outer space art on the covers. So he put that on and we had a joint... and man, I was knocked out. And it was, I dunno... it wasn't like anything you'd ever heard.
TM: When did you see him?
JS: I must have seen him in New York at Slug's Saloon... but I don't have a clear memory. In 1966 I was in prison for 6 months and when I got out my friends were putting on these incredible concerts at the Village theatre... like Coltrane and Albert Ayler. That would be a gig, right? And they had one the week that I got out and I wanted to go to it but that didn't happen so I went to the second one and that's when I interviewed Sun Ra at 48 East 3rd street.
TM: Do you remember, like, a first impression?
JS: [Laughs] Yeah, my mind was blown completely. And they were.. in the early 60s in New York, they were still in what you would say was a developmental stage in terms of what the Arkestra became. They weren't an Omniverse Arkestra... they were strictly out there. I don't remember them playing any recognisable melodies, or jamming, or on a groove. I don't remember any of that. I just remember the outness. And their costumery was fairly primitive...
TM: You must have been familiar with John Gilmore, to some extent?
JS: I had the Blue Note album, Blowing In From Chicago, with Clifford Jordan. Great album. They would reference this Sun Ra character... but I mean it was very far fetched, they were definitely not anywhere near the mainstream in any way... Of course I had a great affinity for that because that was where I was coming from - outness and defiance and all that kind of shit.
TM: What did you interview Sun Ra for?
JS: We had an underground paper in Detroit called the Warren-Forest Sun. [The interview appears in the Sun Ra Interviews & Essays book, edited by John Sinclair.]
TM: So you were the one who was instrumental in introducing Sun Ra to the MC5?
JS: Oh yeah, I'll take full credit for that. But they were jazz lovers already. You know I got the terrible rap of being some sort of Svengali for these guys, but really Rob Tyner was a very advanced individual.
TM: As far as them doing 'Rocket No9' on Kick Out the Jams. I would imagine that was something you were behind?
JS: Well, I played it for them originally... but I mean, Tyner took his name from McCoy Tyner [legendary jazz pianist who played with John Coltrane] - that's pretty far out for a white kid from Lincoln park in 1965.
TM: Well, that's gotta be better than Rob Ra (everyone laughs). I never knew that Tyner took his name from McCoy... that's interesting.
Paul Smith: The other day when you were talking about the Ballroom and you said Sun Ra and the MC5 played. You said there was 150 people there?
JS: It was the Community Arts Theatre auditorium... 1967. Maybe 100 people...
PS: It's something I never knew, I always imagined like 1,000 people there or something...
JS: It was a big undertaking for us to arrange for Sun Ra to come, but I wanted him to play in Detroit so bad... we never had any money in those days but we did all this great shit. I can't figure out how we did it. So we brought them down and about 100 people came. The MC5 didn't really have a following then, I wasn't their manager, just their friend. So few people came to that that we couldn't pay their way back to New York. One of our guys had a Volkswagen van and he drove them back to New York.
[To Thurston I'd like to ask you the same question. How did you first hear about the Arkestra and how did they impact upon you?
TM: I knew about Sun Ra being around in New York but my interest in jazz sort of came very late in my life, mostly in the 80s and you know... people that I really sort of respected who were writing about music, people like Byron Coley. My wife Kim had a big jazz listening history so I would see all these records at her parent's house that she had left behind, all Coltrane and McCoy Tyner and Archie Shepp and I was very curious about the records, more than the music to begin with because they looked so badass. The music that I was really interested in at the time... I went to New York just to be involved with the avant-garde rock music - what was going on at CBGBs and Max's Kansas City... first the New York Dolls and then getting into bands like Television, Patti Smith and then when I moved there in 76, the people my age who were also moving there to do music were people like James Chance and the Contortions. And a lot of them would reference, like specifically, real outsider jazz recordings by like... Albert Ayler. So I became very interested in Albert Ayler and so, I would look at these records - I couldn't afford to buy them - and the covers would have this sort of swirly, neo-psychedelic vibe to it and I wondered what they could possibly sound like. I thought, this kind of reminds me of the vibe I get from the Stooges' Funhouse... that look, you know. And then I was on tour in the 80s with Sonic Youth in a van and I would spin the radio dial and I would come to a jazz station and I'd invariably leave it on because it was such an abstraction for me to hear this music, because I didn't grow up in a household with it. And I always would notice that the DJs would back announce these records. They would list every person's name, the personnel and I wondered what's that all about? I mean they don't do that on rock & roll radio. This really interested me, this respect for the musicians in the band, so I asked Byron Coley, who was a music journalist who I knew was a jazz hound. I said, can you make me a cassette tape of what you think is the perennial jazz music? He made me like 60 cassettes [JS laughs], that were finely annotated... Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker... everything. And I listened to them intently for like a whole six month tour, on headphones. Then I started buying literature and reading about jazz history, starting from the very beginning. I started listening to Fletcher Henderson and I moved forward, getting to the avant garde and that really struck a chord. Which led me to the European scene of free improvisation that was defining itself away from like the African American model. They realised that they needed to define themselves as who they were, Caucasian European players. I talked to Evan Parker about it and he was like, we'd listen to these ESP records of New York loft jazz and the moments on that where they were really just starting to play together, they wanted to fetishise that... make whole sort of compositions out of just those sort of moments. I was getting into all of that and I realised the one sort of wild card in it all was Sun Ra. And so, I knew Sun Ra had been playing in New York, I would see his name all the time in the Village Voice and he would play open air gigs in like Tompkins Square Park and people would say, like man we went to see the Arkestra in Tompkins Square Park and it was wild and there were all these people in costumes... and I thought what is that? So I started to go and see Sun Ra gigs in different place in New York.. and I think the first one was... it might have been the Village Vanguard, it might have been Sweet Basil's...
Can you remember the effect it had on you?
TM: Yeah, I can remember everybody came marching out and they started playing and I just sat there thinking this is the most beautiful, otherworldly music. I'm kind of an obsessive so I spent every coin I had from washing dishes buying jazz records, much to Kim's displeasure. I would sneak these records in. But they were pennies per pound and there was a record store in New York called Sounds, all second hand records, but they had an adjunct store that was just jazz and I spent my days... every day, just pulling shit out. And I now have all these records that are as rare as hen's teeth. Sonny Murray records, New York Art Ensemble records. Black Dada Nihilismus. Ayler and Sonny Murray and LeRoi Jones [later known as Amiri Baraka]. You know, the first lines on that record are like 'At best, the white man is corny...' (everyone laughs). So I started reading about black nationalism. Then of course the touchstone for me was high energy Detroit rock & roll, the Stooges, the MC5, and to know that music had a connection to free jazz... I started getting fully into American free jazz. And then John Litweiler wrote this book called The Freedom Principle, and for me that was a really important book. I would just go out and find the records. I would see like a hundred Sun Ra records. But it was fortuitous as we were touring all the time and we'd stop at some college town and I'd go to the record store and I would go to the Sun Ra section and there would be all these Saturns and Thoths and nobody at that time was really valuing them for what they were, so they were cheap. I'd take ten of them for like a dollar each and again I still have all of these records. And some of them were like, fully wonderful, amazing ensemble records and sometimes the record would just be Sun Ra waking up in the morning and playing his organ or his synthesiser and he would send the tape off and make a record... and I'd be, 'Why did he make this record?'
What does it say on the documentary A Joyful Noise? Ra says he's like the birds, he plays and if you wanna listen that's OK.
TM: Yeah, like this is what I made today... So I just became immersed in the idiom of anything that pertained to jazz. I went to every gig I could go to. This was the late 80s. And luckily in New York City, these cats opened this place called the Knitting Factory, and every night they had shit like Byard Lancaster, Sonny Murray and Marilyn Crispell and Sun Ra would do lectures. And Paul, who had started doing Sonic Youth records, comes to America and wants to release some Sun Ra so he had Byron make a compilation for him. And Paul was using my phone for doing business and so I'd come home and there would be a message from Sun Ra on my phone. I wish I'd saved all those messages.
PS: You got those drawings though.
TM: When he put out Out There A Minute, I went to Paul's little office space, two blocks away from where I lived in New York and there were these primitive, swirly drawings of little figures and like cosmic drawings on pieces of paper... and I was like what are these? And he said, but we have this other idea about what we're using. And I was like what, you're going to send them back to him? And he let me have them... like three or four of them.
PS: Damn, damn....
TM: And now they're under lock and key, they're my prized possessions. So Paul and I would go see Sun Ra and we'd hang out with him. We'd go backstage and he was this really sweet cat. The best moment for me was when I went to the Knitting Factory and he was doing a talk and the way he did this talk was, you could hear him talking coming down the stairs to the stage, so the whole place went silent. It was like this matinee lecture by Sun Ra. And then he just walked onstage mid-speaking and he stood on stage and he would just go off on all these tangents about jazz musicians being the angels, the messengers. He talked about race politics, about why Americans need to put their bad energy down and listen to the messages from the angels, from the antique blacks, because that's where the true information is as far as like saving the world. It was intense. And then the Arkestra came out at the end of this lecture and they played this rousing 'Space Is The Place' and they played 'Cosmos Song' and as they're finishing, they all walk into the audience and out into the street and I'm sitting there going, 'Man, this is the greatest day of my life' and all of a sudden I feel two hands on my shoulders and I turn and Sun Ra's looking at me, smiling, and he whispers in my ear: 'Play the Cosmos Song'. He kinda liked me. I was a young kid and he'd met me through Paul a couple of times.
PS: We went backstage at the Village Vanguard and that was the first time you met him and he took to you straightaway.
TM: I just sat down and talked to him about language, he really liked to talk about language... it was like a William Burroughs sort of thing where language was locked into this sort of viral situation. So he was like, 'Let's look at language and decode it.' And some girl was there and she was like 'What do you think about the AIDS crisis?' And he was like, 'Well, let's look at the word AIDS... Aid, means to help, so what does that mean, why are we using this word AIDS when it means to help?' And he was trying to turn it around as this other thing and the girl was just petrified... like 'What do you mean by that?'
He was also very into numerology and the occult. To me that idea that language is the source code that we need to hack is what magick is about. One of my favourite Burroughs quotes is: 'language is a virus from outer space...' which is one of the greatest things I've ever heard anyone say on the subject.
TM: [laughs] I had a very nice conversation with him about that... and then I would go to all the gigs and sometimes I would say hi to him and the band were like, they were hard playing guys and they had been around the world.
JS: Regular guys.
TM: Yeah, regular guys. Marshall Allen would be smoking a pack of cigarettes before he went on stage and played, drinking whiskey...
He still does that, even though he's turning 90 next week.
JS: You know what Marshall said and Gilmore, was that the reason they stayed with Sun Ra was because they knew he was going to leave the planet one day and they wanted to go with him. They didn't want to be absent when that happened.
TM: But they also realised how sophisticated he was, because although he was generally looked upon as this lunatic fringe player by a lot of the downbeat community, or as Cecil Taylor would say 'the beat down community.' Gilmore does this famous interview, where he says 'when I first started getting involved with playing with Sun Ra, I wasn't quite sure about it but when I read his charts, they were probably the most sophisticated jazz charts I'd ever seen.' He said that it was such a challenge for him as a jazz pro.
I'm personally very keen to debunk the idea that he was crazy. I think some people don't realise how playful Sun Ra was in his use of language, myth and ideas. There's a quote on theBrother From Another Planet documentary where Marshall says that he just did that to get the musicians out of the boxes in their heads, so they would be free to play the music. I think too often people take what Sun Ra said at face value.
JS: Or they don't get the sense of humour.
TM: And they also don't understand his responsibility towards discipline, the idea of discipline. You know, if you were in the band with Sun Ra, his glance at you... I mean he's the band leader, he's in charge.
JS: That was something that really impressed us in the MC5, was the discipline. I talked to Wayne about it, the idea that this was serious. The MC5 were kind of like the Sun Ra approach to rock & roll. They practiced every day, they didn't think about anything else (apart from drugs or women) but otherwise they were entirely about making the music. Which was what Sun Ra was about man, I mean he rehearsed those guys every day.. and it wasn't about getting paid. They were students of his and acolytes.
I think Sun Ra must be one of the only massive music innovators who didn't take drugs at some point. You know, Beefheart supposedly didn't take drugs…
JS: Oh horseshit...
He did experiment with LSD to begin with…
JS: What about Zappa...
I think he did most of his experimentation under the influence of coffee and cigarettes…
JS: Well when he was 20-years-old in college, the spacemen came and took him to Saturn, schooled him and said 'you're going to be different.' This is what you are hear for... So what are you going to do? I mean, we tried to get there through acid, he got much farther without having to resort to that.
TM: I thought John Szwed's book was really interesting in this respect in that it really focused on his library and his reading - Egyptology, numerology, gematria and so on. But again, his musical pedigree is impeccable, coming out of Fletcher Henderson's band, I mean my god...
JS: Before that though, I just read this thing, which blew me away. He came out of the southern swing band tradition when he was 13 or 14...
Another thing I'm curious about is the reception the music gets now versus how it was perceived at the time. I think Marshall does an amazing job so extensively touring with the current band. Some of the best times I've seen them involve taking people new to it and often they come out of the show like they've had a religious experience. Do you think audiences are more up for it now?
TM: I mean, it is spirit music...
JS: It's the same... it's there whether they are ready or not. It's never going to be that many that are ready for that... because its too intelligent and it swings too much.
I saw another quote from you John, saying that the more straight jazz fans at the time really didn't get it…
JS: Most jazz lovers at the time did not respond well to Sun Ra.
TM: The first real Ra thing I heard was on Kick Out the Jams. That track, 'Rocket No 9'. That record was hard for me to find in the 70s, it just seemed so contentious...
JS: Lester Bangs hated it.
TM: Yeah. And I remember listening to a college radio station in like maybe 74 when I was a kid, and they did this thing of like, 'We're going to do a series of like the worst records ever made.' And they would play the records and they would smash them on the air. One of them, they played 'Rambling Rose,' the first song off Kick Out the Jams... These guys would normally be playing prog rock but everything I heard on this worst records bit was all amazing... like the Velvet Underground. And I went out and would like search for these records... which there was no way you could do unless you went into a record store and asked for them and they'd have to consult the catalogue and order them in. So Sun Ra became curious to me from the first time I heard the Kick Out the Jams album. It was such an amazing track.
JS: We loved Sun Ra man, the band and I. I mean at that time, there weren't many people seeking him out. For the whole avant garde jazz thing, in the press, there were four people in the US who supported this, writers I mean, the critical fraternity. [Amiri] Baraka, AB Spellman, Frank Kofsky and me. Everyone else hated it. John Tynan [Down Beat magazine associate editor] called it anti-jazz, what Coltrane and Eric Dolphy were playing. Anti-jazz? Coltrane and Eric Dolphy? Excuse me... That was the mainstream, they hated this stuff man. And Sun Ra was at the extreme left wing. See one of the things they hated about this movement in jazz despite all the intelligence and the drive and the rhythmic innovation, was that they were black men protesting against the white power. Max Rhodes, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus... they were on the extreme edge of this and Sun Ra was all the way out, because they were communalists. They were like, I dunno, black hippies.
I've heard it said that certain members of the black community didn't particularly appreciate Ra either.
JS: Certain members? More like most.
TM: You know, Sun Ra was on a panel in New York in the 90s, that was part of the College of Musical Journalism (CMJ) convention that they had in New York and the reason I was there was that Ra was on a panel and Kim was on the panel as well, and Ice-T was on the panel. The one thing I remember was somebody asking Sun Ra: 'What do you think of today's radical black hip-hop music?' And he basically said: 'I think it concerns itself far too much material necessities.' And looked at Ice-T and there was like a question mark appearing above his head and he was thinking, 'Who is this old guy?'
JS: (Laughs) Right, he had no idea.
Well I saw a TV programme where they showed the inside of Ice-T's crib and he had Phil Collins records.
TM: (Laughs) I know, I saw that too.
Obviously there's a massive Ra discography. Is there any particular era that you're interested in?
TM: I love the New York era that John started with, you know at Slug's Saloon, the sixties New York scene when they were really extrapolating free jazz ideas and working with expressions of black nationalism concepts. [1961-68 - a period which saw the release of such albums as The Futuristic Sounds Of Sun Ra, Bad And Beautiful, Strange Strings, Atlantis and many other experimental, small ensemble pieces].
JS: Heliocentric Worlds... wow. He was building the whole concept then... and then by the time you get to the 80s and they were calling it the Omniverse Jet Set Arkestra. You see the many titles of his Arkestra were perfectly descriptive of what he was trying to do. So the Solar Arkestra, that was the first one, when they were trying to reach out. Anyway, with the Omniverse he'd play some Discipline 27 and then he'd play some Fletcher Henderson with John Gilmore on tenor sax... but in the sixties, they were just forming. Every time we heard them, they'd advanced. For me the peak was Heliocentric Worlds Volume 2. Before the ESP records releases they were totally submerged, hard to find...
Some of my friends (much to my distaste) have remarked that they found some of the Arkestra's performance too 'trad jazz.' To me that big band sound is where he was originally coming from, Fletcher Henderson and I think one of the words that isn't mentioned enough when people talk about Sun Ra is happiness. To me, when they're playing those really loose but beautiful big band tunes I feel an incredible inner warmth.
JS: El is A Sound of Joy...
TM: He felt that it was his responsibility...
JS: To turn on the lights...
TM: So he would do these tours where he would play, like, the music of Walt Disney soundtracks.
JS: It was all the same music really. I mean, that's my firm belief.
TM: I mean, he did more traditional big band arrangement stuff in his last years and some people wanted to go and hear like more freeform freakout music and well, it wasn't happening... but something else was happening.
JS: They'd play for five hours... so everything would be happening at some point.
TM: I thought, you know, when Blast First did Out There A Minute, that was a really important record because it was a primer. That was a heavy record for a lot of people you know, for a lot of people in my world, that was the first time they had heard him.
PS: About that time, you started noticing more people, younger people at the gigs. But he was still playing the same places...
JS: He'd play anywhere, it was one of the things I loved about him. He'd just look around and say I can play this...
TM: He was a soldier of the road. One of the very last Sun Ra Arkestra gigs was with Sonic Youth in Central Park...
JS: Man, I wish I could have seen that one...
TM: That was a heavy gig. It was a really magical gig. The weather was kind of, a little off and it was outdoors and storm clouds were coming in, and all the weather reports were saying there's gonna be like a monsoon for a couple of hours... Then Ra comes out, they play first and then Sonic Youth plays, and getting ready there's a downpour, within ten minutes of their set, the clouds move out and the sun comes out. And we're just looking at each other thinking, 'Is this for real, can he really be doing this?' And he was already in a wheelchair [following a stroke] and he was rubbing his hands like this back stage, because of his sickness. He still had the orange beard and a smile on his face but he wasn't talking. His motor skills were a bit challenged. And when he came out there, the sun came out. Crazy. So when we went out, I said 'I'd like to thank Sun Ra for bringing the sun out because that doesn't happen all the time.'
I was lucky enough to see The Arkestra play with Sun Ra before he died. It was after his stroke. I was 19 and I guess that was my window into jazz. Since then I've seen the Marshall Allen directed Arkestra play lots of times. I had some friends who had never seen them say they were concerned it might not be good because Sun Ra wasn't there anymore and I said well in a very real way, he is still there in spirit…
TM: (Nodding in agreement). Yeah, I mean, its a great band...
And they have Farrid Barron, who is a great piano player... and when Marshall picks up the EVI [electronic valve instrument] its like having Sonny back on one of his wild moog solos... I mean, they're pretty much my favourite live band.
TM: That's not a slouch organisation, they're hardcore... it's pretty undeniable.
[To JS] At the Barbican gig on the 31st, you're opening for Arkestra and you're playing with an amazing band made out of the usual Cafe Oto suspects - John Coxon, Steve Noble, Pat Thomas and Alan Wilkinson…
PS: He's not supporting or opening, he's introducing.
That's just semantics surely.
JS: [Laughs] To open for the Sun Ra Arkestra is one of the most daunting prospects... I'm working on a piece based on this article I found... just combing through it for anything Sun Ra said about himself. Kind of a fanfare for the occasion.
As we're reaching the end of the interview, is there anything you would like to say in closing?
JS: I just thought we were so blessed to have this guy. The music was so strong... but then, everything underpinning the music was equally as strong. These were a higher order of beings man. To me, I was a hippy, a would-be beatnik. I was on acid, I was seeking something away from the square life, I wanted to be out there and man, here was the signpost. Yet underneath all the colours and craziness there was this timelessness. Man it just was tremendously edifying and inspirational.