Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra
Szwed drives home the idea that Ra intentionally travelled beyond the barriers of the expected. "And since everything that is possible has been tried, we need to try the impossible" was an oft permutated statement of Ra's and it explains why Ra was so obsessed with space travel and mystical ideas. Ra obsessively searched out obscure books and practiced his own kinds of numerology and word play, and from these he developed his own unique belief system. In two long sections Szwed paraphrases Ra's beliefs, assuming a voice that might have been Ra's own. (Szwed actually explains in the notes that he is paraphrasing Ra's own words, culled from hours of interviews.) This technique, while not convincing at first, becomes valuable after examining exactly why Szwed chose it. Readers can feel that they are hearing Ra's own voice, therefore strengthening the words' impact and authenticity. Secondly, by paraphrasing Ra's often-convoluted speech, Szwed distills his ideas to their essence, thereby granting us earthbound beings access to the spaced-out meaning. Some might see all this as crackpot mysticism, or worse, insane ramblings, yet Szwed's paraphrasing shows us that Ra was continually revising history in order to revise the future. He was hopefully trying to show us the impossible in ourselves and in society.
What does all of this detailed chronology and extended paraphrasing do to the style of book, though? Szwed writes in an unadorned, straightforward style that often gets a bit tedious to read. He seems intent on including as many facts and ideas as possible from the mountain of research he probably has on this subject. And the long paraphrasing sections often seem inserted at random points in the chronology, as we jump from Ra’s life to Ra’s ideas seemingly without warning. But overall, Szwed’s style fits his subject perfectly-Ra’s life was so colourful that we do not need his biographer to add even more shades.
Szwed succeeds most in Space is the Place by not falling into the post-modern trap many critics fall into: he doesn't try to graft some new meaning onto Ra's music. Ironically, this is what Ra was most into, this re-writing of history and the future. Danny Thompson, long-time Arkestra member, says "Sun Ra didn't say you had to believe; you should just check it out for yourself." Szwed's duty here was not to re-write Ra himself-his duty was to help us understand this mysterious being from another place. And by going along for the ride, he helps us glimpse and even understand Ra's positive, inspiring vision of tomorrow's world.
By John F. Szwed
DaCapo Press (September 1998)