June 5, 2018
On sale now: Strange Stars by Jason Heller
by Melville House
In the 1960s and 70s, old mores and lingering repressions were making way for new freedoms, as sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll became the rallying cry for a new generation. But one cultural force rarely gets credit for its catalyzing effect on this revolution: science fiction.
Strange Stars, from Hugo Award-winner Jason Heller, tells the story of how incredibly well-read artists—David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and many more—brought the galactic flare of sci-fi to their lyrics, their sounds, their styles — and changed pop music forever.
Strange Stars is on sale today. To help you kill some time as your spacecraft docks at the nearest station with a bookstore, here’s an excerpt.
A group of students took their seats in the classroom at the University of California, Berkeley, one day in the spring of 1971. They were about to begin a most unusual course. Granted, this was a university campus in the Bay Area in the early ’70s; the unusual was commonplace. But something entirely unprecedented was about to happen. As the students settled in, opened their notebooks, and clicked their pens, in walked Sun Ra.
Dressed in a flowing, brightly colored caftan—not the dashiki seen often on African-Americans at the time, but something that dazzled like the lining of a B-movie astronaut’s spacesuit—Ra took command of his class. Its official title was African-American Studies 198, but it became better known as The Black Man in the Cosmos. As science-fictional as that sounds, the class was offered alongside UC Berkeley’s more traditional courses on subjects such as quantum mechanics, plasma physics, orbit theory, x-ray astronomy, interstellar gas dynamics, artificial intelligence, and aerospace management. Members of the Arkestra, the revolutionary free-jazz ensemble led by Ra, swept through the aisles, collecting recording devices. Ra didn’t want his lecture to be taped. Despite that, at least one intrepid student managed to capture the class on audio.
“Music is a language, and my music speaks of everything,” he informs the class by way of introduction. What follows is a meandering yet eloquent discursion on various ancient texts, philosophical references, and religious concepts. About a half hour into the lecture, however, his speech takes an abrupt turn toward sci-fi:
This planet is vulnerable to any kind of creature, any kind of being, to come over anytime they want and pretend to be a man or a woman or a child. […] Anything can come on the planet and grab one of your brothers and take him to the Moon, Jupiter, anywhere. […] Some people can come from outer space and take the whole thing over.
Following the lecture, a performance took place. The Ensemble played a set of celestially themed, improvised jazz, with Ra taking his place at the keyboard. In recent years he’d started using the Moog synthesizer, which he employed to innovative, futuristic effect on his album Space Probe, which he’d recorded as the ’60s shifted into the ’70s. It wasn’t the first time he’d made music about space. Born Herman Poole Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, he’d played in various unremarkable jazz combos before undergoing a transformation 1936. One day he had a revelation: Surrounded by bright light and the sensation of morphing into a form of energy, he left Earth and traveled to Saturn. There, aliens with “one little antenna on each ear” guided him toward cosmic enlightenment. They also advised him to drop out of college, which he did, ironic in light of the university lectures he’d wind up giving in 1971.
Creating a new identity for himself, complete with glittering robes and headdresses that evoked both Ancient Egypt and pulp science fiction, Sun Ra assembled his Arkestra. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, he released a string of albums that tapped into combined sci-fi wonder and Space-Age hope with the rising tide of African-American consciousness and Civil Rights. These albums were instrumental, but they didn’t need lyrics to promulgate their sci-fi themes: Titles such as The Nubians of Plutonia, We Travel the Space Ways, and The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra made it abundantly clear where Sun Ra was coming from. The music telegraphed his cosmic aesthetic; it comprised cutting-edge gadgetry, interstellar pings, washes of textured static, and a methodology derived from the universal freedom espoused by free-jazz contemporaries such as Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane (each of whom dabbled, to a far lesser degree, in sci-fi titles and tones). The term Afrofuturism was still decades from being coined, but Sun Ra embodied it—a speculative combination of science fiction and Black utopianism that projected the dreams, fears, and tribulations of the present into the far reaches of tomorrow. Sun Ra wasn’t influenced by science fiction as much as he was science fiction.
Months after Ra’s 1971 Berkeley lectures, in nearby Oakland, he began filming a low-budget, independent movie. In a rough sense, it dramatized his own mythic metamorphosis from the chitlin-circuit organist Herman Poole Blount to the heliocentric messenger Sun Ra. It also served as a call to interplanetary action, a rallying cry for those who would transcend the earthly bedlam of the present and look toward the stars for their salvation. It would be released in 1974 under the title Space Is the Place — and it would help spark an explosion in Black sci-fi music destined to transform the cultural landscape.