By the time I stumbled to the phone, the machine had already picked up. “Rise and shine, sweetheart ;” crowed a chirpy electronic voice. “Day’s getting old !” I interrupted the message, the receiver’s hovering proximity to the transmitter instigating a brief convulsion of feedback, before switching the answering machine to “off” and murmuring hello to Vic. “It’s now or never,” he said. Still dazed, dopey from painkillers, I forced out a question : “OK, wow, that’s kind of a big surprise, so what’s the plan ?” Vic seemed to have been awake for hours and mainlining caffeine. He spoke with flickering intensity : “Today is anything can happen day. Be ready to go in twenty minutes. I’ll pick you up at your place.” I registered assent. Vic punctuated the call’s end with : “We ride !”
It was just after sunrise on a warmish September morning. I was decked out in Chinese silk pajama bottoms. Pulling them out by the elastic band in front, I examined the gauze pad, which had seeped a little with blood and pus in the night. Slipping into a T-shirt and tennis shoes, I splashed cold water on my face, kissed my sleeping wife, grabbed the vial of drugs, and set out for points south, the far South Side of the city that hugs the contour of the lake, into a neighborhood I’d never seen, the home of a man I’d known a little, about a stash of historically invaluable stuff he and I had once discussed. He’d been dead for more than a year.
Three months earlier, on a griddle-hot July afternoon, I’d been sitting in my un-air-conditioned home office, tooling around on e-mail, which then took what now seems an unacceptably long time to load. Among the new messages that oozed its way onscreen was one interestingly headed : “Emergency ! ! ! Sun Ra’s Home in Peril ! ! ! !” It had been forwarded twice, once from Mike Watt, bassist of fIREHOSE and the Minutemen, and then from an acquaintance of mine who knew about my abiding interest in Ra. The e-mail’s source had been shed in the process of forwarding, but its contents gave a few details : Sun Ra’s home in Chicago was being vacated and all his possessions were being thrown into the trash ; could anybody help ? ; if so please write back to Mike. Somewhere in the message, the sender mentioned a film festival and her own name, which was Heather.
It wasn’t Ra’s house. I knew that because he’d left his Chicago apartment in 1961. But the hidden meaning of Heather’s message was clear to me. Alton Abraham, Ra’s first major supporter and his manager in the ’50s and ’60s, continuing piecemeal for decades after, had died nine months earlier. It was Alton’s place. I remembered having thought to myself at the time I heard of his death about the mountain of materials he’d told me about—instruments, writings, tapes, documents. I had suggested finding a place to safeguard and archive these precious objects, and he agreed, charging me with finding the right institution. I’d made inquiries, tried to interest the few folks I knew who worked in those sorts of places, but got nowhere. Funny to think from this vantage, but a houseful of Sun Ra ephemera was not, in 2000, considered culturally significant enough to merit the cost of being stored.
Alton’s death gave me first pause to think about the fate of these things. After consideration, I decided that there were plenty of people to attend to them, someone certainly would, if nobody else then Abraham’s loyal sidekick, James Bryant. So I let it drop. These months later, sweating onto my keyboard, once again I had the same thought : surely there’s somebody working on this already, at least from the thousand people who must have gotten the Watt S.O.S. My fingers assumed position to delete the e-mail. But just before I let them follow through, I was seized with doubt. What if nobody’s on it ? What then ? Where will all that shit land ? I reopened the message, jotted down the name Heather, and dialed the office of the Chicago International Film Festival.
A few moments later, I was speaking with Heather. She’d only sent the e-mail to her friend Mike half an hour earlier, and I was the first one to contact her, so she was flustered and a little wary. I briefly introduced myself, told her that I’d written about Ra, had spent some time with him on several occasions
She asked if I was free that night, said that she was busy with work. I said yes.
“Meet us at the California Clipper,” she said.
“Us ?” I said.
“Yeah, there’s three of us. Can you be there around eight ?” We agreed and hung up. I thought for a minute about the insane speed of today’s information superhighway, some idea like that, long since made quaint by the hyperbolic curve that technology’s speed has followed in these intervening years. Amused, not thinking too much of it, I went about my day.
The California Clipper was dark and empty. A brown bar-back with ornamental detail occupied one side of the space, and a small stage with red velvet curtains sat unused in a corner. I arrived first. After a short wait at the front of the tavern, the door swung open and three young women stepped in. One introduced herself as Heather. The others gave their names, and we wound around to a rear booth, the three of them setting up on one side, me on the other, like a tribunal. I had not noticed the banker’s box carried by one of the women, but after a slightly more involved round of introductions, Heather pulled something from inside the cardboard container at her feet and said : “What can you tell us about this ?”
It was a shallow wooden block with a swath of metal affixed to one side. A print plate. I felt its weight in my hands, spelled out the words backward, controlled my excitement, and said : “This is what they used to print the record cover for Other Planes of There, which came out in the mid-1960s.” I put it down. “I know you think this comes from Sun Ra’s house, but it doesn’t. If you look, you’ll find some of what you have has the name Alton Abraham on it. The three women looked incredulously at one another ; one reached into the box and put an envelope on the table.
Heather said : “How’d you know ?” I examined the envelope, which was addressed to Abraham, the return address : Sun Ra in New York City.
“I knew Alton. He passed away a while back. They must have sold his house.” They pulled more items from the box, and I identified them and gave a little lecture on each one, puffed up with the thrill of the moment. A note from Ra to Alton discussing possible record covers. The original drawing for the cover of Discipline 27-II. Assorted sketches with Ra and the Arkestra spelled out on them. A couple of record covers with space themes. I remembered the last meeting I’d had with Abraham, at Valois, the diner in Hyde Park with the greatest motto : “See Your Food.” We had chummed around talking nonsense as if we’d been buddies—his voice so deep and cavernous it seemed to come from somewhere inside his large frame rather than his throat. I sensed a longing for camaraderie that might not be so alien to the predisposed loner.
“This is so incredible. You don’t know how outrageously important this stuff is,” I said, returning to the print block. “It took me five years of hunting just to find a finished copy of this record with an offset cover, and then I had to pay two hundred dollars for it, it’s that rare. And here we are looking at the printmaking device that they used to hand-make the initial pressing in Alton’s makeshift basement facility.” I straightened up. “The history of DIY music production, the lost early logbook of the most important jazz big-band leader since the 1960s, one of the great visionary artists of all time. This is the root of it all !” The box emptied, we sat looking at its contents as a delayed round of drinks finally arrived.
“A friend of mine is a picker,” said Heather. “He knows everything going on demolition-wise on the South and West Sides, and when something’s being torn down or emptied out, they know where to find him. He got a call to salvage this place, but there wasn’t anything valuable in his eyes, no modernist furniture or cool old fixtures, so he declined. Knowing that I liked spacey stuff and weird kitschy images from the ’50s, he bought a handful of things from them and gave me my pick of the litter. I saw it and flipped out because I knew it was Sun Ra and I knew we had to save it.”
Heather sipped her drink, and one of the other women spoke. “We sent out the e-mail, and here you are, as if we had called you. Or sent up smoke signals.”
“What do you intend to do with it ?” I asked.
“None of us has the expertise or inclination to do much of anything with it. That’s why we went looking for the right person. Seems like you’re the right person.”
“I would be honored. The main thing would be to keep the bulk of it together. Break it up, and each part doesn’t mean as much. I’ll pledge to do right by it, whatever that ends up meaning.” I leaned back, contemplating the most outrageous single acquisition that I would ever make with an unwarranted sense of circumspection. I still had no idea where this would go. I was pleased that I had not hit delete.
Heather selected a single object from the pile and said : “I want to keep one thing. Nothing too important, but a souvenir to remember this.”
Sensing the end of the inquisition, the third woman moved to my side of the booth and proposed a toast : “To Sun Ra, wherever he now resides.”
A few days later, I was in Vic Biancalana’s backyard. Mats Gustafsson, the Swedish saxophonist, friend, and fellow record fiend, was in town for a gig, and he accompanied me on the visit. After hellos, during which we learned a little more about our host’s work, including his greatest prize, which was vintage stained glass and historical terra-cotta, we retired to Vic’s garage, where he storehoused and assessed his scavengings.
I liked Vic at once. Shortish and solid in stature, he was coarse, tough, and charming and spoke with an unrelenting Chicago accent : a working-class Italian American guy who panned the grounds of the city’s once-opulent-now-destitute neighborhoods as their edifices were crumbling. He had a gentle smile cocked to one side, the genial hustler, and he spoke of things he would sell and ones he might keep for himself based on his wife’s predilections. “She’s the boss,” he said, tongue only partly in cheek. From the lilting way he talked about his job, I got a feeling from him that Vic and I were of the same school of thought about material culture. We were both zealots of stuff.
Momentarily distracted by a pile of seven-inch records—Vic offhandedly told us we could have any of them we wanted—we surrounded a big olive-colored chest. “This is what I got,” he said, pulling open the top and revealing a small container full of Ra paraphernalia on a par with but more bountiful than the Clipper unveiling. Mats and I rifled through the things, holding back gasps and shrieks as we uncovered more print blocks, El Saturn Records press releases from the ’50s, and a business card for the Cosmic Rays, one of the vocal groups that Ra coached.
“Heather mentioned that you turned down a full-on salvage,” I said. “What are the chances of you reconnecting ? You think the house has already been emptied ?”
“I drove by the other day, and it’s as was,” said Vic. “I don’t know if she got someone else working on it, but I can try to find out. Might not be easy, though. One thing them asking you, another you asking them.”
“How much for everything in this box ?” I asked. We settled on a price ; I cut him a check and loaded it into my car. Vic said he’d work on being in touch with the woman who was selling the house.
“It’s been sitting there empty for a year, so we may have a little time. But if it’s already sold, maybe they need to be out. We’ll know soon enough.”
Six months earlier, on the racquetball court with my cousin Tim, I had noticed a bulge in my shorts. Ignoring it for as long as possible, I had the hernia diagnosed and fretted about it endlessly, as only a good Eastern European boy can, ultimately by pretending it didn’t exist. By the time of my initial meeting with Vic, the little inguinal bugger had become a pest. Weeks passed. I imagined that Vic would call and soon we’d be on a big haul, which gave me a great excuse to put it off. Every few days, I’d check in, and he would tell me he was working on it. I drove to his house a few times to look at other scores, some cool Prairie School chairs, a set of terra-cotta lions he’d extracted from the top of a building. The latter he was forced to give up by an alderman who threatened to shut him down if he didn’t put them on her front lawn overnight. The island of misfit toys or the mafia of reclamation—sometimes it was hard to tell them apart.
Wondering about the potential contents of the house, I called an East Coast record producer I knew who had dealt with Alton. He said he hadn’t heard anything about Alton’s place being cleared out. “Anyway, it’s nothing, I’m sure,” he said.
“Nothing ? You don’t even want to check to make sure that important historical material isn’t being trashed ?”
“Let me make a few calls,” he said. A week later, I called again. “I checked and it’s nothing, it’s shit. Nothing but forty years of junk, no tapes, nothing significant. Shit shit shit. Nothing but shit, you hear ?”
I let his weird rant die out. “Yep, I hear you loud and clear.” I knew four things for certain : (1) it definitely wasn’t shit, there was something important at Alton’s, maybe lost tapes ; (2) it was of great historical significance ; (3) he was after it ; (4) I could never trust that guy again.
However, after six weeks of effective procrastination, I admitted to myself that the likelihood of salvaging the house was dimming and that I should schedule my surgery. Vic said he’d been in touch and they were “considering his offer,” the specifics of which he would not divulge. But still time dragged on, and I steadied myself to go under the knife.
My father-in-law was the one person I knew who was experienced in the hernia surgery department, and his advice was not to worry, that he’d been up and at ’em later the same day. This seemed far-fetched to me, but it gave me courage as I was prepped and shaved and drugged. “Let’s give him a really fun trip,” I remember one anesthesiologist saying to another as the spike hit my arm. “Count backward from one hundred.” I didn’t make it to ninety-seven.
Experiences vary wildly, I learned, and I could barely stand up by the second morning. The second night my penis turned purple and I made a panicky call to the nurse, who said it was normal, happens all the time. “If there’s even a remote chance of this happening,” I grumbled unhappily into the receiver, “then you must tell the patient about it ! It’s terrifying. I thought it was going to fall off.”
On the third morning, slightly better, upright at least, I stood on my front porch waiting for Vic. His pickup rolled alongside the curb, and I hobbled over and climbed in.
“Morning !” he said, handing me the joint he’d been toking. I shook my head, jiggling the plastic pill bottle at him.
“I’m high enough already,” I said.
“Yeah, nice getup,” he said, regarding my PJs quizzically. “What happened to you ?”
“Hole in my GI. They had to patch it up.”
“Should you be lifting ?”
“Definitely not. You think you can handle it, let me play supervisor ?”
“With my crew, no problem. You’re the boss.”
“I thought your wife was the boss.”
“You see her here ?” He flashed me a wolfy grin.
We made our way to the Kennedy Expressway, which was still clear just as the sun was snapping to attention. At the city, we off-ramped onto the Dan Ryan—Dangerous Dan, I always heard it called—populated by barely held together 1970s American cars with no suspension going the speed of lowflying jets and changing lanes at random intervals. I glanced at Vic’s hands on the steering wheel. Harsh and sandpapery, clenched vices, they were the hands I’d learned to associate with heavy duty junkers. Nothing to mess with. Unconsciously, I rubbed mine together and thought of their baby softness, which signaled privilege and life choice ; the tips of my left fingers were calloused and stiff from guitar, a bit of my hands empathizing with Vic’s.
At Forty-Seventh Street, we exited the highway and headed east. Looping around, Vic stopped for a few minutes at Valois, the very same diner, and grabbed us breakfast and coffee to go. Back up on Forty-Seventh we pulled up to King Drive, which used to be called Drexel Boulevard, and stopped at a light. From all sides of the intersection, men descended on the truck. “Hey, Vic, what’s the score ?” said one. Another leaned in on my open window. “Thanks for that dresser. I picked it up from the alley the other day, good as new. What people throw out, it’s crazy.”
“Glad to hear,” said Vic.
“Whatcha got today ?”
“I need five guys ready to go until the job’s done,” said Vic. “Down on South Euclid. Here’s the address.” He passed a slip of paper with the number. “Oh, and we need a truck.”
“No problem, boss,” and the men dispersed.
“Lots of bosses,” I said, as Vic turned and drove south and then east.
“The real boss is always the one with the purse strings,” he said. “These guys like it when I come around because I pay better than anyone else. So I can count on them. Most of the pickers on the south side pay thirty dollars for a day of work. I pay one hundred dollars. But they have to come to do their share, otherwise I use someone else. The guy I was talking to sometimes works like a foreman.”
After about ten minutes, we pulled up to a small midcentury house in a suburban enclave, a well-kept neighborhood with pockets of disused and abandoned property. He parked the truck out front. Five men, one of them the foreman, sat on the front porch, a fifteen-foot moving van parked in the driveway.
“What took you so long ?” said one of them, flicking the butt of a cigarette onto the street.
Vic left me and made contact with the owner, who turned out to be Alton’s ex-wife. She and some friends were already hauling garbage bags to the front of the driveway. “It’s clothes,” she told Vic. “We’ll be working alongside you for the morning.” While they negotiated and hammered out the finances of the day—I’d already figured out that Vic would get it going and coming, being paid by her for the salvage and by me for the stuff—I went down into the basement in back, where I was greeted by an elderly man. I introduced myself, and he told me he was Alton’s ex-father-in-law.
“I remember when Alton brought Sonny around. He and his band would come to this house wearing all sorts of funny hats and capes. The neighbors were pretty wigged out.” He paused, a portentous gatekeeper, and I thought about finding a glass of water to wash down a booster pill, my groin beginning to throb. “You figure this stuff’s worth anything ?”
“Yes, I expect it is,” I said. “But I’m more interested in its meaning than its value. I think Sun Ra was brilliant. He should be as well known as Duke Ellington and Count Basie. And Alton was essential in helping push him out there. There’s a lot of the story that hasn’t been told.”
“Sonny was about my age,” he said, pushing himself from the folding chair he was sitting in to his feet. “Strange gentleman. OK, well, good luck with all that.” He left, screen door banging after him.
Alone, I surveyed the room. A basement : tools, lawnmower, hose, and gloves, interspersed with piles of record covers, stacked face-up. Omniverse in Blue. We Travel the Spaceways. Holiday for Soul Dance. I picked up the top one on a stack, which was empty. Another, same, the back cover never tipped on, baring raw cardboard. I picked up a third one, and it had an LP inside. I checked, and the short stack of maybe thirty beneath it was full of records.
On a nearby workbench, there were tapes, reel-to-reel boxes covered with elaborate writing, some unspooling onto the floor. I made my way to a room toward the front of the house, the inside of which was a post-Katrinalike mess. Laying on top of one mound of papers was a larger rectangle of cardboard, a chunk taken out of the bottom corner, on which was a familiar image of a topless space woman arching backward over a moonscape. Weird, I thought, that someone would make so perfect a copy of the cover image of the second edition of Jazz in Silhouette. As luck would have it, an empty cover of the record was sitting on a shelf alongside several more. I held it next to the drawing, the comparison yielding to the fact that they were exactly the same ; this was the original drawing for the cover. At that point, I knew we couldn’t take anything for granted, no matter how disposable it looked.
Moving farther along into the rearmost room where the furnace was located, I noticed what looked like a kid’s tent, an out-of-place piece of interior architecture. Four triangles of cardboard had been adjoined at the sides with tape, making a pyramid that peaked at the ceiling. There was just enough space along the bottom edge to crawl underneath, as if into a teepee. Inside were throw pillows and notebooks, some signed Bryant, some Abraham, and the remnants of similar lined sheets that had been burned. Candle drippings covered the floor. It was clearly a ritual spot. Pages in the books contained elaborate wish lists addressed : “Dear Creator, please grant me . . .” They were immodest. Cars, boats, fancy houses, and zillions of dollars were divined in these books, along with world peace, the eradication of hunger, and the power of flight.
“Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you about this.” Vic’s voice startled me. “Crazy, isn’t it ? I wonder what they were up to.”
“What’s the story upstairs ?”
“We’re all set. There’s one room over here,” he walked me to a small padlocked interior space, “that they don’t want us to take. Everything else is fair game.”
I looked at the room. Tapes and stacks of posters and record covers filled it. Weeks later that room would be the source of nagging questions. Why that particular stuff and not the things they left out ? What great wonders were in that room ? Where did they go ? Where are they now ? In the heat of the moment I had no time for such speculation and simply plowed ahead.
“Cool, off limits, got it. Let’s go.”
I outlined my excavation priorities for Vic so he could pass them along to the guys. Tapes, sheet music, writings, drawings and record cover designs, instruments, Ra-related papers, PR material, relevant books. If we came across anything else that seemed possibly worthwhile . . . into the truck. We could sort it out later.
Box by box, we began moving things upstairs and onto the porch. I knew I shouldn’t antagonize my wound, but I schlepped along with the others, stopping more frequently, but calculating that without my help we would never finish. There were surprises—the bottom layer of things in the front basement room had been through a flood, so it was moldy and rotten. We left it. One box of records, totally full, was crawling with bugs. It too was a casualty. Otherwise, up things went. Two 35-mm film canisters sat in a basement office, bearing a strip of white tape on the top : Space Is The Place. I took them to the front door and dropped them off, to be brought to the truck. A few minutes later Vic pulled me aside and said they didn’t want us to take the film. “Fine, whatever they say, but let them know that we’re not going to dig things out for them to choose between. They had months to sort.”
Upstairs, we were working on different rooms, all of which were filled with variously fascinating material. At a certain point, midday, I noticed another crew seemed to be working with us. Sussing out their chief, I took a break. “Hi, I’m John.” I said. “Who are you ?”
“Name’s Will,” he said.
“What are you doing here ?”
“I’m taking things away,” he said. “I have a shop and I’ll resell them.”
I looked around at his guys, wondering what they thought about working with others doing the same thing and getting paid three times as much. “Who hired you ?” I said.
“Vic invited me. Said there was too much for him, that I could have some.”
“Well, I’m the one paying for all this stuff, so sorry to say, but please pack up this last load and head out.”
A cheap golden sphinx statuette observed us from a bookcase, flanked by little copper pyramids.
“Hey, man. What’s the deal with a white boy coming down here and taking all this important booty ?” His voice changed, his inflection hardened. “You’re raiding Tut’s tomb, my friend, like those anthropologists. Raiding Tut’s tomb !”
“What are you planning to do with the things you take ? Putting them in a museum ? Gonna drag ’em up to Du Sable and make good on your cultural patrimony ?”
“Shut up, thief ! This is my culture. I’ll sell the shit out of it if I want to.”
Vic interposed himself, and Will backed down, taking a bag of hats and hailing his men. “Not cool, Victor,” he called over his shoulder.
“Why’d you call him ?” I asked.
“Look, there’s extra, so I thought I’d give him a taste.”
“Triple dipping. So you wanted to be paid three ways !”
“You got a problem with getting paid ?”
Over nine hours we uncovered a full truck’s worth, topping off in the back of Vic’s 4 by 4. A seeming piece of trash turned out to contain, when opened, what was labeled “El Saturn Treasure Map,” laying out the global ambitions of Abraham and Bryant and, by association, Ra and the Arkestra. The world, according to this 1959 Ouiji board cartography, would soon be theirs. Notebooks and ledgers were all half full, abandoned at some unexceptional date ; the full parts were fascinating, intimations of a business plan that included establishing a Cosmic Research Center and the acquisition of a limousine with proceeds from their million-selling singles. As a statement of purpose, it was so earnest and naive that one couldn’t help but be smitten.
Alton had told me about their secret society, Thmei Research, and the dictionary of occult terms that they’d been working on for years. This item magically appeared, the list of participants with Ra’s original name, Herman Poole Blount, charted in the colophon. Nearby were various Thmei artifacts : stationery, books, some documents. A few things didn’t surface that afternoon, including any of Sun Ra’s writings—the broadsides he’d allegedly written and distributed in the early years—and Ra’s name-change document that Abraham had shown me in our first encounter, as he put it, “to prove I am who I say I am.” About a year later, a cache of sixty or so of the broadsides turned up in one of the boxes ; the Cook County government document escaped our efforts.
Vic’s crew worked hard. Most of them were younger than me, in their thirties ; friendly and quiet, they kept to their labor. One guy was much older. Maybe seventy-five, he was the most diligent of the men, hauling twice as much as the others ; shirtless, he had the physique of a bodybuilder, chiseled and taut, with a frizzy beard and hair frosted bright white against his dark skin. He looked like someone had collaged an old man’s head onto a twenty-five-year-old triathlete’s body. The few times he spoke, it was through a nearly toothless mouth. In my mind, he conjured the biblical figure Ezekiel.
The foreman left all decisions to Vic, but he helped organize the trips up and down, making sure nobody went into the proscribed room, encouraging occasional breaks, managing the procurement of lunch. I took a break and sat on the cement steps out front. The surreal aura of the afternoon was setting in, and I reflected on what we were doing. From my perspective, this was an archive on a par with that of the most important literary figure or artist in American history, but a mysterious and very disorganized one—imagine if Ernest Hemingway’s agent had been a hoarder, or if Willem de Kooning had been the head of a Masonic society whose papers were discovered . . . in a blast zone.
The day resonated more personally, too. My relationship with Alton, our conversations about the stuff, even the specific
objects—this had an air of unreality, a dream quality that was egged on by the painkillers and the way they subtly broke registration between what might happen and what was actually happening. As if through a veil, Alton’s bass voice on the other end of the line : “Mr. Corbett, have you heard ? The Germans bought a tape for one million dollars.”
“Huh ? What tape ? What Germans ?”
“I don’t know exactly, but I have it from a reliable source.”
“Whoever sold it must be a business genius ; you could never recoup that much.”
“Shows that the Germans are crazy for Sun Ra.”
“Crazy would be the word.”
I flashed to conversations with Ra himself, including one on his deathbed, his way of gliding between everyday reality and some unfamiliar kind of existence—another plane of there—in the span of a few words. We’d found the entire chain of production for the iconic cover of Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, from Ra’s own preliminary sketches, evolving over the course of several graph-paper pages in a notebook, through his refinements on onionskin paper and the addition of color, to the final ink drawing, the matching print plate, and finally test prints of the cover, which sports a flamboyantly curvaceous, cartoony outlay of his name with a jagged abstract drawing nested atop its central letters. The fact that all this might have gone into a landfill (where were the Germans now ?), how tenuous all the connections were, the delete key, the rejected salvage, the fact that I was perhaps the only person Alton had told about the dictionary we’d just saved for posterity, the sheer amount of material that we were amassing and what the hell we would do with it. When I stopped to think about it, it was almost too much to fathom.
Work resumed, I snapped out of it and hauled and packed for the rest of the day. In a bundle of papers we found the original color separations, all hand-painted on vellum, for Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth and Super-Sonic Jazz. I made stacks of books, quickly selecting ones that dealt with music, mysticism, race, astronomy, astrology, history, and philosophy, sometimes flicking through them to try to identify Ra’s permutation-filled marginalia. Manuals for obsolete typewriters, common medical books, how-to guides for home improvement—these were left. A copy of Sex and the Single Girl seemed relevant in its incongruousness. Some of the more unusual medical materials, including a selection of obscure machines, we took. Alton was one of the first African American X-ray technicians in Illinois, the fact of which is particularly interesting in light of his fascination with the occult and enlightenment : creating secret societies and making the unseen visible.
“Corbett, come down here !” Vic’s voice resounded as the workday came near its finale. In the basement, there was a freestanding safe. “Should we crack it ?” he asked, sensing the answer.
“I guess so,” I said. A crowbar was procured, and all the workers gathered around, some pitching in, some watching while Vic and the foreman pried the ancient thing open like a squared-off giant clam. Seven of us crowded the unfinished room, empty but for a few books and stray pieces of timber, a broken accordion backed against a wall. With a clank, the safe’s door came loose to reveal an empty shelf. Vic was panting, sweating profusely. A little cloud of dust rose from beneath the black metal box.
With one slow but smooth movement, the oldest worker reached down and strapped on the accordion. “Hey, there ;’ he said, tipping his grizzled head at my pajama bottoms and wheezing a few choked notes on the instrument. “You got the pants, now do the dance !”
Basking in the absurdity of the moment—where was I and what was I doing ?—I did a wan little jig. But my crotch was shot, and I was beginning to fret over the next move. “I think we’re done here,” I said. “Vic, can we get to a phone ?”
While the men finished packing and closing the truck, we drove to a pay phone, and I called home. My wife, Terri, had already been dealing with months of buildup to this, high anxiety and excitement and near obsession. She was the one who had at a much earlier point cautioned me against bankrupting myself—and, by proxy, her—with record shopping. But when she heard the tone in my voice, she knew it was serious.
“How much money do you have, in total ?” I asked. She guessed, and I asked her to bring a check of hers, one of mine, and to get on the phone to find us a storage facility, preferably near where we lived, for a lot of stuff.
“What size storage ?” she said.
“I don’t know, exactly. It’s a 15-foot truck and the back of Vic’s pickup. Maybe 120 square feet ?”
“Jeez,” she said.
We swung back down to the house just as the gate closed on the moving van. Vic produced a beaten-up combination lock, passed out cash to everyone, and asked the foreman to meet us in a half hour at a Shell station on Cottage Grove. I thanked the guys as they one by one disappeared. Vic locked the front door and we pulled away, my head swimming.
Terri met us at the Foster-Ravenswood Storage, where she had procured two storage spaces, a big one, twelve by twelve feet, and another five by four. Ready for the day to be finished, we emptied the van first, sent the foreman on his way, then offloaded Vic’s truck, the last of the items filling the bigger room to the grate that ceilinged it. Terri told me she had the checks, but together we didn’t quite have enough money. I asked Vic if we could have a day or two. “I know where you live,” he smirked.
That night I was tormented. My brain raced with the events of the day, images and words swirling together with perspiration and dust, a microburst of impressions. In the dark, we watched the Summer Olympics, swimmers and divers and runners doing their thing, breaking records or falling short. I had a fever. Changing my dressing was agony. And slowly a sinking feeling came over me. “Damn Sam,” I said to my patient, comforting spouse. “We missed important things, I can feel it.”
I phoned Vic and asked him to get us into the space again. He paused. It was very unlikely, he said, but if he could it would cost more. I told him fine, whatever it took. I slept restlessly, dream and drug and tension and elation mingling unhealthily.
Next morning, Vic told me we’d gotten the green light ; we would have a few more hours in the house the next afternoon. After that, the new owners would take possession, and we’d be finished for real.
My rule of thumb, with repeat visits, if you’ve combed a collection or a store, is that they’re generally unneeded. Intuition, sharp eyes, and the right frame of mind : one pass will suffice. You gather things in a state of autopilot, and like they say of car accidents, time extends to a point that you recognize the important things with near-flawless accuracy. Second-guess, go back for another survey, and you’ll find the dregs, rarely anything that you would have chosen given all the time in the world.
That principle proved to be untrue in the case of the Alton Abraham archive. Vic and I once again drove southward, stopping for an early lunch at a soul food spot in a freestanding house. My recovery much advanced, narcotics downgraded to Tylenol, this time I wore pants—loose fitting, but slacks all the same. Vic knew half the restaurant’s clients, animatedly greeting and being greeted, a table of two cops exchanging small talk with the celebrity picker. The waitress called him “Sugar” and gave us extra collards with our fried chicken, which, slathered in gravy, was divine.
At Alton’s I immediately knew I had made the right call. A whole new room on the main floor seemed to have sprouted overnight, and inside there were more piles of posters and album cover materials. An air-conditioner box contained an Ampex reel-to-reel machine, possibly the one that Tommy “Bugs” Hunter had used to introduce on-the-fly tape-delay echo into Arkestra recordings, anticipating dub reggae by a decade. The forbidden room downstairs had been cleaned out, and the basement was basically empty. I took a roll of metallic filament from the workbench thinking it might be wire recordings ; it turned out to be wire for fixing fences.
A huge walk-in wardrobe, which had been full of clothes two days earlier, was vacant except for a single black suit, hat, and white shoes—a tailor’s apparition of Alton, which oversaw the final purge. Seeing the clothesless room, I realized one thing that I’d neglected to include in my priority list : costumes. As the story goes, Alton bought the Arkestra’s first uniforms—anything but uniform—from a defunct opera company. I imagined the wigs and tricorner hats that Will may have taken, now for sale at a local junk store, the draping, sparkled, spangled garments hand embroidered by Ra, his beloved Buck Rogers caps with red flashing lights. No time for regrets, I thought, regretful nonetheless.
In the mounds of abandoned papers, which would have gone to the street along with everything else, I discovered the original documents for Ra’s deal with ABC Impulse !, contracts which famously included the language that he and Alton crafted to cover extraterrestrial territories. Everywhere I looked, I discovered more tidbits. A scrap of Western Union receipt for a couple of dollars from Abraham to Ra, dated 1962. A little stack of unused tickets for a concert at Budland in 1956, sequentially numbered. The house fallen hollow and quiet, afternoon sun drew long and darkness settled on the day.
“Last call, Mr. Corbett.” Vic’s voice from the top of the stairs. “If you don’t come up now, I’m leaving you here !”
I was on my hands and knees on the basement floor, pulling things from an overstuffed plastic garbage bag that sat alone in the middle of the room, readied for the curb. From the very bottom, I extracted a manila folder, inside of which were the original 1957 musician contracts for Jazz in Silhouette, the Arkestra’s first LP on El Saturn, countersigned by all the players. John Gilmore and Pat Patrick’s cursive handwriting looked alive in the underlined blank spaces. Tossing the folder on the small pile I’d erected, I took it all upstairs, joined Vic at his truck, and pulled the door locked behind me.
The next four years of my life were dedicated to the Abraham archive and research therein. It was an incredibly concentrated time, in parts frantic and a bit frightening for me. Far as I can tell, I came close to falling all the way down a well of compulsion. I could talk about little else. All conversation, no matter how it started, twined its way back to Sun Ra. I’m sure it was very boring, but I thought it was utterly captivating. I visited what we referred to as the “lockup” almost daily, brought things home to examine them more carefully, began the daunting task of sorting and cataloging, bought a working quarter-inch tape player and sampled tapes into the late hours, establishing a notebook which I decorated with “Sun Ra Archive—Tapes,” in homage to Alton’s enthusiastic annotations.
Retrospectively, Terri entertained a supernatural view of events : from the beyond, she figured, Ra and Abraham discussed the destiny of all the stuff, wracking their brains for someone who would be lunatic enough to shepherd and account for it all. “Remember that one guy ? He’s a total maniac,” she’d say. “That was their conversation, just before you got the message. That e-mail didn’t come from Mike Watt, it came from Sonny and Alton.”
The piles still settling, Terri and I established a circle of advisers, people whose opinions, judgment, and ethics we trusted. We were judicious with whom and how much we divulged, in part out of a well-founded fear that Ra fanatics would hound us. The first week, distant acquaintances of Heather’s e-mailed me, telling me they’d seen Ra in the ’70s and just loved him. “All we want is a souvenir, something to feel closer to him.” Hamza Walker, our old friend and a curator at the Renaissance Society, visited the lock-up at a preliminary point, taking photos and discussing a possible show. I’d already imagined an extensive exhibition. Hamza floated it by Susanne Ghez, the Ren’s director ; she was unconvinced that it made sense for the institution, which exclusively showed work by living artists. At a music conference at Wesleyan, I told trombonist and scholar George Lewis about the archive ; he was enthusiastic and supportive, and he urged me to start writing about it. Rachel Weiss, head of arts administration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Anthony Elms, independent curator and publisher of White Walls, both made trips to the lock-up in the first months, and they helped us think about the future of the materials. Jazz journalist Kevin Whitehead assisted as we began to collate the disparate material, segregating things into labeled boxes. Independently, I told music writers Lloyd Sachs and Peter Margasak about it ; they both sat listening to the story, jaws slackened.
Stimulated by the notion of an exhibition, we contacted the Smart Museum, on the campus of the University of Chicago. Curators Stephanie Smith and Richard Born visited our apartment, looking through some of the prize pieces ; ultimately, they decided not to do the show because it would all be coming from a single set of owners, a move frowned upon curatorially. Anthony and I discussed the notion of a show at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC). A proposal was tendered, and HPAC agreed, contingent on Elms joining the curatorial team, which would consist of me, Terri, and him. Around that time, we discovered Sun Ra’s incredible early writings, a sensationally robust group of them, typewritten by Ra, some carbon-copied, others in manuscript form complete with his penciled marginalia. Anthony suggested producing a facsimile edition, which was published a few years later, just before the HPAC exhibition.
As much as I felt the free fall of fascination, I was simultaneously experiencing an identity crisis. On one hand, the material was rich and generative ; as George foresaw, I was intent on digging in and initiating some literature on it, in hopes of others jumping in. But the vinyl freak side of my personality was experiencing its own libidinal glee : “Holy crap, I own all of this !” I fussed over which of the cover designs we would frame and hang at home, and fantasized over what incredible material might be hiding on the reels. Years of stalking record stores in search of any El Saturns, excitement over the occasional ABC Impulse ! acquisition, also the rare ones nabbed from friends, ex-freaks who were selling their collections, including Strange Strings and the elusive When Angels Speak of Love. But what would happen to a freak if all his freakish desires were answered, more than he could imagine ? Those past triumphs seemed trivial, mundane. This was the mother lode. I had been to the promised land. Be careful what you wish for . . . it might just crush you.
Terri, ever wiser than I, discussed these unfamiliar feelings with me. “You know, there’s such thing as too much happiness. It’s not good for you to be too excited all the time.” This thought had never occurred to me, raised in a conventional pleasure-seeking household. “Happiness and excitement can be attachments.” I recognized a Buddhist line of thought. “It seems to me that with all these things, you’ve gotten everything you could ever want, and now you’re becoming too attached to them. We don’t really own anything. You can’t take it with you.”
About three years into this phase, an acquaintance named Jim Dempsey called me about introducing a series of Sun Ra films at the theater he managed. I invited him to the lock-up, and we devised a small show of photographs in the lobby during a month of screenings, the first public light seen by the archive. Terri, Anthony, and I readied the stuff for the book and the show. Then, after about four years, I had completely exhausted myself and had to step away. By that time, Rachel had asked me to serve as chair of Exhibition Studies, a program in Arts Admin, and Jim and I, inspired by the fun of the film center’s Sun Ra Sundays, had convinced ourselves that we should open an art gallery. My hands full, I had plenty of reason to back off the archive a bit.
Something changed inside me over the next two years. I found the notion of going record hunting slightly absurd—what could ever top the two days in the Alton house ? And Terri’s words rang true : we didn’t own any of it, we were stewards, keepers, hyperspecialized salvagers. We continued paying to store everything, though we were living more or less hand to mouth. Inventorying and caring for everything was beginning to seem like a burden, more than a joy, although there was still something spine-tinglingly unreal about it. Sorting stuff meant tossing inessentials—candy wrappers, mouse poop, newspapers from 1982, an inoperative Luger pistol, Alton’s gun license, some live bullets, anything personal of his that we found. Even weeding out we were only able to trim away the smaller of the two spaces. The large one remained full to bursting, big aluminum door roaring open every time I visited, the oversweet odor of unburnt incense from another locker wafting together with other normal storage facility smells of mildew, off-gassing mattresses, and decaying cardboard.
When Pathways to Unknown Worlds : Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954–68 opened at HPAC in October 2006, Terri and I had a plan. In one of the interviews about the show with a local paper, I dropped a hint that we were looking for an institutional home for the archive. We were inspired, as well, by a phone correspondence that turned into a friendship with Adam Abraham, Alton’s son, who called HPAC a few weeks before the exhibition opened, having scouted it online. Adam’s response to hearing the saga : he was disappointed he couldn’t have been there to help save all his dad’s material, life had intervened, but he was pleased and thankful that we had, particularly that we were keeping it intact, and he was excited about the prospect of it finding a proper permanent residence.
Not long after the night of the reception, which was packed with visitors, we were contacted by Deborah Gillaspie, head of the Chicago Jazz Archives in Special Collections at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. The three of us met for dinner, and Deborah asked us what we thought of the Alton material going to U. of C. Handshakes over dessert. Like that, we had a new place for the stuff, fulfilling our dream of it staying on the South Side, in a facility with ample resources, accessible to the general public and to scholars as well. Our negotiations over the following year included a few stipulations. They could have anything they wanted, but anything they left was ours to do with as we wanted. In perpetuity, we could use any of the materials that we could obtain rights for, and if anyone else was going to use it, they had to ask permission through us. The tapes would go to another archive ; Special Collections did not have proper facilities to manage sound recordings. And we had been working on traveling the HPAC show, so we needed to be sure we could carry through on that.
My friend Lou Mallozzi was founder and director of the Experimental Sound Studio (ESS), where I often did remastering in preparation for releases on the Unheard Music series. I’d worked on some of the Ra tapes there, too, though the ever-jovial John McCortney at Air Wave Studios had given me such a ridiculous rate for transferring that he and I digitized about fifty of the four hundred tapes, breathlessly waiting to hear what would come next as the tape randomly changed speed and format. A few tapes into it, we figured out that they would sometimes hide things at the out tail of a reel, a two-minute song camouflaged like a snake rolled up in a garden hose.
Over espresso at our favorite bakery one afternoon, I proposed to Lou that the world needed a sound-specific archive designed to save some of the imperiled tapes that were being orphaned as their caretakers died, lost interest, or were otherwise disinvested. As an example, I suggested the El Saturn tapes, which hadn’t gone to the University of Chicago. After months of consideration, he agreed and inaugurated the Creative Audio Archive (CAA) ; the Abraham tapes and Michael Zerang’s Links Hall archive constituted a hearty first two batches.
Pathways traveled to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, in 2010, where it received a glowing full-page New York Times review. Anthony published a couple more books : a catalog of the show and a compendium of the symposium that we’d organized in Chicago, the latter containing more unpublished images from the archive. A few years hence, direct quotations from the Ra broadsides cropped up in several visual artists’ work. In 2013, the Studio Museum in Harlem featured Ra as a source of Afro-Futurism in The Shadows Took Shape, and it is now less uncommon to hear him discussed among artists as a major inspiration, perhaps due in some part to the dissemination of the Alton materials. The audio archive, dutifully and lovingly transferred to listenable digital format by a small cadre of engineers including Todd Carter, has been inventoried complete on the CAA website. Appointments are made to come listen to any of it, and through a commission program at ESS, young musicians and sound artists have put the previously unknown recordings into active service.
Meanwhile, a weight had been lifted from me. Not only in terms of the Alton material, also the vinyl urgency, a habit that had been transformed into something more reasonable, a trickle not a torrent. Nine months after salvaging the house, Vic called to say another picker had sold him some Sun Ra books that he’d found by the side of the road, things that had been discarded before we got there. I bought them from him, six copies of Extensions Out : The Immeasurable Equation Vol. 2, Ra’s second book of collected poetry. It was a title that I’d never seen, an extreme rarity. We gave the library a couple of them, kept the others, along with plenty of multiples and posters, ones that they only wanted in a few copies for their collection. Much of the Alton–Ra book collection was deemed too moldy for the Regenstein, and we hung onto it. The artist Cauleen Smith later used the books for an installation.
Though we still had lots of Ra ephemera, a couple of years after we gave everything to the two institutions, I experienced a bout of what could only be called donor’s remorse.
“Why didn’t I just keep one of the original record cover designs ?” I whined to myself.
It wasn’t a month later that I was looking through my flat files, inventorying record covers that the library had left us. Shuffling though sheets of silver foil prints, I noticed one that didn’t look exactly like the others, its image applied directly onto the blank silver record cover. I looked closely. It was drawn, not printed. Sun Ra’s original mock-up for Other Planes of There. One final wish granted with a wink to a freak from out there in those other planes. Wherever Sun Ra and Alton Abraham now reside.
“Track Six / Anything Can Happen Day : Sun Ra, Alton Abraham, and the Taming of the Freak,” in Vinyl Freak, John Corbett, pp. 221–242.
Copyright, 2017, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. www.dukeupress.edu; https://www.dukeupress.edu/vinyl-freak