Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkensteinby John Corbett
Using cultural critique and textual theory, Corbett addresses a broad spectrum of issues, such as the status of recorded music in postmodern culture; the politics of self-censorship, experimentation, and alternativism in the music industry; and the use of metaphors of space and madness in the work of African American musicians. See more details below
Using cultural critique and textual theory, Corbett addresses a broad spectrum of issues, such as the status of recorded music in postmodern culture; the politics of self-censorship, experimentation, and alternativism in the music industry; and the use of metaphors of space and madness in the work of African American musicians.
"Fascinating and at times brilliant, Extended Play addresses a number of issues that circle around ‘music’ in ways that are new and stimulating, and explores them with wit, intelligence, and sophistication. Corbett is an important thinker, as well as a good journalist—a rare combination."—John Szwed, John Musser Professor of African and Afro-American studies, American studies, Music, and Anthropology, Yale University
"One of the most important aspects of Corbett’s trawl along the musical fringe is that it denies the genre definitions that usually constrain music books—this is not a book about jazz or rock or art music but about all of them. It is precisely this which enables him to address the broad questions about the effect of technology, globalization, etc. on our sense of what it is to make and listen to music. An outstanding work—lucidly written, well organized, engaged, and intelligent. It is certainly one of the most stimulating books on music I've read in the last couple of years."—Simon Frith, author of Sound Effects and Music for Pleasure
"Yes, contemporary musical creativity is alive and well and well-celebrated in this valuable book. Great music that often has audiences of three people is here discussed along with great music that has audiences of thousands."—Michael Snow, film, sound, and visual artist, and editor of a collection of essays, Music/Sound
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Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein
By John Corbett
Duke University PressCopyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
BROTHERS FROM ANOTHER PLANET
The Space Madness of Lee "Scratch" Perry, Sun Ra, and George Clinton
I am the firmament computer, I am the sky computer, I am the orbit computer, I am the space computer. Inspector gadget Lee "Scratch" Perry, the upsetting upsetter, who make music better!–Lee Perry
It's more than avant-garde, because the "avant-garde" refers to, I suppose, advanced earth music. But this is not earth music.–Sun Ra
Funk upon a time, in the days of the Funkapuss, the concept of specially designed Afronauts, capable of funkatizing galaxies, was first laid on Man Child, but was later repossessed and placed among the secrets of the pyramids until a more positive attitude towards this most sacred phenomenon, Clone Funk, could be acquired. There in these terrestrial projects it would wait along with its co-inhabitants, the Kings and Pharaohs, like sleeping beauties, for the kiss that will release them to multiply in the image of the Chosen One, Dr. Funkenstein.. And funk is its own reward. May I frighten you?–George Clinton
Within the distinct worlds of reggae, jazz, and funk, Lee Perry, Sun Ra, and George Clinton have constructed worlds of their own, futuristic environs that subtly signify on the marginalization of black culture. These new discursive galaxies utilize a set of tropes and metaphors of space and alienation, linking their common diasporic African history to a notion of extraterres-triality. Ra worked with his free jazz big band, the Intergalactic Jet-Set Arkestra, and asked "Have you heard the latest news from Neptune?" Perry helped invent "dub" reggae in his own Black Ark Studios and reminds us that "not all aliens come from outer space." In his spectacular mid-seventies live concerts, funk-godfather Clinton staged an elaborate "mothership connection" and says "Starchild here! Citizens of the universe: it ain't no thin' but a party y'all!"
On the margin, all three have taken their production "one step beyond" into a zone in which, as Clinton puts it, "fantasy is reality in the world today" In doing so, they have all thrown their own identities into question, taking on a multitude of costumes and alter egos; each of them is a myth-making, alias-taking, self-styled postindustrial shaman. Such identity-invention is consistent with an ever-present issue in Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean music: the connection between madness and cultural production, exploration and innovation. The currency of terms like "crazy" and "way out" exposes this rhetorical figure, epitomized on the cover of an album by jazz bassist Curtis Counce from the 1950s called Exploring the Future on which Counce is pictured wearing a space suit, bass in hand. More recently–and less goofily–in an ode to her mother, Abbey Lincoln sings: "Evalina Coffey made the journey here / Traveled in her spaceship from some other sphere / Landed in St. Louis, Chicago and L.A. / A brilliant, shining mother ship / From six hundred trillion miles away."
Perry, Ra, and Clinton take space iconography seriously and turn it into a platform for playful subversion, imagining a productive zone largely exterior to dominant ideology. In this chapter, I will introduce these musicians and the issues that they manipulate, comparing and contrasting their use of science fiction (taken as fact), technology, industry relations (recording and distribution), eccentricity, insanity and the creative construction of alternative identities and renovated social possibilities.
In his own way, each of these musicians presents himself as being extraterrestrial; Ra, Clinton, and Perry live as "brothers from another planet." This intergalactic identity may be meant literally, as in the case of Sun Ra, who, before he died in 1993, insisted that he was actually, physically from the planet Saturn. Or it may be more figurative, as in the outer-space (socio-) political party-ing of George Clinton, who adopts the explicability of the court jester: "Fool is neutral all the time, you know; I can be whatever comes through here without ever looking like I'm out of my bag." In either case, I want to suggest that an essential component of any serious consideration of their music and myth-making has to do with the acceptance of this impossible suggestion of outer-space origins, with believing, for a start, that Sun Ra was not of this world. I think this is true not only because they are great thinkers who deserve respect and suspended disbelief (though they are and do), but because while this E.T. metaphor–if it can be considered a metaphor–may indicate the insanity of its maker, it also cuts back the other direction, suggesting the fundamental unreality of existence for people imported into New World servitude and then disenfranchised into poverty. Thus Ra, Clinton, and Perry may force us not just to question their sanity, but to question our own. Is it sane to believe them? Is it sane not to believe them? Is it "reasonable" to believe that they are from space? Is life on this planet not an unreasonable, otherworldly existence in itself? It is a question of grappling with the African-American fight against what Cornel West calls "walking nihilism," a form of resistance waged with "demystifying criticism" or "critical prophecy" Indeed, in their own separate ways, Ra, Clinton, and Perry are just such prophets, busily demystifying through remystifying–as Clinton puts it: "We're gonna blow the cobwebs out your mind." Thus, since their work must be dealt with on its own terms, I will spend just a brief time recounting the "real" history of each musician.
Sun Ra's earthly tenure is difficult to trace with any certainty, but he was born Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century. He played piano and arranged for the big-bands of Fletcher Henderson and Eugene Wright before settling in Chicago in the early 1950s. There, the Arkestra took shape, eventually establishing a core membership some members of which are still in the group today It was in Chicago, as well, in the mid-fifties, that Ra began experimenting with extraterrestriality in his stage show, sometimes playing regular cocktail lounges dressed in space suits. In 1961 Ra left the Windy City, settling for nearly a decade in New York City, where he directly influenced a vast number of East Coast jazz musicians. At the start of the 1970s, Ra once again transplanted the Arkestra, this time basing the group in Philadelphia, where they continue to live, work, and record.
George Clinton was also born in the South, in Kannapolis, North Carolina, in 1941. Moving up the coast with his family, in 1952 Clinton settled in Newark, New Jersey, where he formed the doo-wop group the Parliaments. From 1958 to 1967, the Parliaments recorded singles for various small record labels. Since many of these labels were located in Detroit, the musically adventurous Clinton learned about that city's psychedelic groups, especially MC5, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, and the Stooges, and in 1968 he formed Funkadelic, an ensemble that innovated the combination of funk and psychedelic rock. In the same year, Clinton dropped the "s" from his more commercial outfit, making it Parliament. With these two groups and on his own, Clinton made hit records through the 1970s and into the 1980s, landing smash dance hits like "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)," "Flashlight," "Knee Deep," and "Atomic Dog." Though persistent drug and money problems have substantially decreased his creative work over the last decade, Clinton has periodically revived the P-Funk All Stars, an amalgam of Parliament/Funkadelic members. With the support of Prince and Prince's Paisley Park record label, the last few years have seen a renewed flurry of P-Funk activity, including large-scale concerts and a couple of records.
Lee Perry is five years Clinton's senior, born Rainford Hugh Perry in Hanover, Jamaica, in 1936. In the mid-1950s, at the same time that Clinton was commuting between Newark and Detroit unsuccessfully trying to record for Motown and Ra was parading around Club DeLisa in flowing Cosmo-Egyptian robes playing "Magic Music of the Spheres," Lee Perry was working for Jamaica's preeminent producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd, locating and recording new singers for Dodd's Studio One record label. Himself a singer, Perry recorded a number of singles for Dodd and others, and after a nasty fight he split from Studio One and formed his own Upsetter label. There, he was central in the evolution of reggae out of its predecessors ska and rock steady Producing Bob Marley and many others, Perry was wildly successful, both in Jamaica and in the expanding British reggae market, and in the 1970s he opened his own recording facility, Black Ark Studios, where he continued to produce. Along with King Tubby, Perry invented the studio technique called "dub," and he recorded some of dub reggae's most outrageous discs. Perry had a turbulent period in the late seventies, fueled by the frustrations of the Jamaican music industry, substance abuse, and the loss (by fire) of Black Ark. He was institutionalized for a period, after which he left Jamaica for Europe. Settling in Switzerland, he has continued to put out records that chart the relationship between madness, space/time travel, the Old Testament, and African identity.
What is remarkable, uncanny perhaps, about the story of these three musicians, even in their merely mortal incarnation, is how they have independently developed such similar myths. Coming from different backgrounds, working in different musical genres, based in different parts of the music industry, making music for almost exclusively separate audiences, with divergent political and commercial concerns, Ra, Clinton, and Perry have nonetheless created three compatible personal mythologies, each of which is premised on the connection between identity, madness, and outer space. These mythologies are materialized in three primary areas:
Aliases: Lee Perry, a.k.a. Scratch, the Upsetter, Little, King, Super Ape, Pipecock Jackxon, Inspector Gadget. Sun Ra, a.k.a. Herman Blount, Sonny, Le Sony'r Ra, Ambassador to the Emperor of the Omniverse. George Clinton (and various P-Funk bandmembers), a.k.a. Dr. Funkenstein, Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk, Mr. Wiggles, the Undisco Kid, Lollipop Man, Starchild, Bumpnoxious Rumpofsteelskin..
Costumes: Since abandoning the requisite big-band tuxedos in the 1950s, the Arkestra has become well known for its colorful gear, glittery suits, and outrageous hats, adorned with Egyptian hieroglyphics, stars, moons, and planets; for the last few years of his life, Sun Ra dyed his goatee red and wore an imitation tiger-skin robe and matching headpiece (among many other ostentatious outfits). "Costumes are music," he said. "Colors throw out musical sounds." Since the beginning of the 1980s, Lee Perry's wardrobe has become an increasingly prominent part of his work, his personally crafted crowns, boots, and clothes a tremendous mixture of fetish objects (photos, mirrors, crystals, coins, postcards) and detourne commodities (such as suspenders emblazoned with "U.S.A."). During an interview, he turned around to display the image of an erect penis hand-painted onto his jacket, declaring: "This is Jesus Christ, giver of life." George Clinton's costuming started partly as a result of the high cost of dry-cleaning, as ex-P-Funk vocalist Fuzzy Haskins explains: "We were doing four or five shows a day, six days a week, and you had to have uniforms. We were wearing suits and ties and we'd sweat 'em up in one performance. Then you had to take them to the cleaners and it's a big mess ... it all boils down to the fact we couldn't afford to get our clothes cleaned every day." Clinton suggests that it also had to do with staking out an image separate from the prevailing Motown image: "The Temptations and the Pips had their type of thing wrapped up–the choreography, the outfits.... Instead of wearing the suits we'd just gotten pressed, we'd wear the bags they came back from the cleaners in.. We'd just bust holes where the legs and arms would go. If we were on the road and we didn't have a costume, I'd take a sheet from the hotel and just dump whatever I had around on it." From that point, in the 1960s, Clinton and crew built a huge wardrobe of outfits, from bedsheets covered in lipstick and ketchup to diapers and a pacifier to the Dr. Funkenstein persona as depicted on the poster from Live P Funk Earth Tour LP–dressed head-to-toe in white fur pelts, white 10-inch heels, knee-high, rhinestone-studded boots and a phallic rocket/scepter resting on his thigh.
Wordplay: Central to the work of Perry, Clinton, and Ra is the reappropriation and manipulation of rational language. Perry commences his recent song "Welcome Aboard" with the invocation: "God the Holy Ghost, as He was in the beginning forever it shall be, words without end." In his poem "The Curtain Call," Ra writes: "The scenery must be cleared / For another day / Another kind of cosmo-play / A play on words." Clinton directly relates his own, rather compulsive language twisting to audience empowerment: "I feel that words and word games is communications–like abstract paintings. But it is mainly designed to let you think about it and come to all the different things without preaching. It just make you come to some kind of conclusion yourself."
Madness and (Black) Civilization
In African-American slang there is a longstanding constellation of terms that revolves around the interrogation of sanity. Subtle and supple, this group of words relies on a set of interrelated connotations–a certain fluidity of meaning–that links madness with excellence and innovation. For example: "crazy," "wild," "out of control," "nutty," "insane," "out." These terms have been most fully developed and deployed in relation to music, especially jazz and blues. Indeed, the first commercial blues record, released in 1921, was Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues." Initially, these terms carried two additional strong connotations: intoxication and love. On the Memphis Jug Band's 1934 record "Insane Crazy Blues," Charlie Burse sings: "I'm going insane, standing out in the rain, spend a thousand dollars, it don't mean a thing ... Everybody calls it love, me and my little turtledove ..." In 1954, Dinah Washington sang her "New Blowtop Blues," a virtual topography of madness which connects it with both love and getting high:
I've got bad news baby / and you're the first to know. (X2)
Well, I discovered this morning / that my wig is about to blow.
I been rockin' on my feet / and I been talkin' all out of my head. (X2)
And when I get through talkin' / I can't remember a thing I've said.
Now I used to be a sharpie / all dressed in the latest styles
But now I'm walkin' down Broadway / wearin' nothing but a smile.
I see all kinds of little men / although they're never there
I tried to push a subway train / and poured whiskey in my hair.
I'm a girl who blew a fuse / I've got those blowtop blues.
Last night I was 5-feet tall / today I'm 8-feet 10
Every time I fall down stairs / I float right up again
When someone turned the lights on me / it like to drove me blind
I woke up this morning in Bellvue / but I left my mind behind.
I'm a gal you can't excuse / I've got those blowtop blues.
Well, I got high last night / and I took my man to his wife's front door.
Yes, I got juiced last night / and I took my man to his wife's front door.
She was a 45-packin' mama / and I ain't gonna try that no more.
While madness, on the one hand, is associated with the intoxicating effect of love and drug, it bears two further, more general connotations: passionate abandon and social oppression.. It is a question of creating beauty in (or out of) a subjugating social system, the "madness" in which an African-American listener may lose her or his inhibition, but in which she or he is always inhibited. Hence, a complicated grid of historical, musical, and signifying) strands connects Jelly Roll Morton's "Wild Man Blues" (1927), Jimmie Lunceford's "I'm Nuts about Screwy Music" (1935), Theolonious Monk's "Nutty" (1954), Ornette Coleman's "Focus on Sanity" (1959), Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch (1964), the Last Poets' "This Is Madness" (1971),Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" (1984), and P M. Dawn's "Reality Used To Be a Friend of Mine" (1991). Somewhere, in the midst of that mix, we could locate Sun Ra and the Arkestra's Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy (1963), Funkadelic's "Back in Our Minds" (1970), and Lee "Scratch" Perry's "I Am a Madman" (1986).
Although the subtle shades of meaning that differentiate these various uses of craziness could fill a volume, what we are concerned with is the way that this discursive web sets the stage, in a fundamental sense, for the rhetorical and identificatory tactics of Ra, Clinton, and Perry, all of whom utilize the overarching idea of insanity liberally in their work. Each of them doubles the intensity of this metaphor with a superimposed metaphor of outer space. In the tropology of madness, one is "close to the edge" or "out of one's mind." The mind, and more specifically the reasonable mind, is configured as a terrestrial zone, as earth; sanity is the "ground," from which one departs in "flights" of fancy. Hence, the connection is established between "going way out" (a common phrase in jazz for a solo that transgresses a widely held musical code, such as the established harmonic framework), and leaving earth. Tradition = earth; innovation = outer space. In the language of black music, madness and extraterrestriality go hand in hand.
Excerpted from Extended Play by John Corbett. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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