Sun Ra Neophyte

by Anna Denejkina

“Vodka on the rocks, please.”

“Vodka on the rocks,” he said to the barkeep.

Hart wore his usual get-up: black winkle-pickers, warn and rugged. Black denim jeans, stained with the scratching of asphalt, following numerous falls from a skateboard as he zoomed through city traffic. A black button-down shirt and a black hat, which was now as old as the barfly sitting at the corner of the bar, looking longingly into his beer. Hart’s outfit was always accented with three things: a gold ring, shaped into a head of a lion and holding a large diamond between its scowl, (this was a ring he would never hock, “a gift from my Father,” he would say), his swindling smile, and I’m-up-to-no-good eyes which would send women into a frenzy of flirtation and panty-dropping.

We took our drinks outside the old Devonshire Street bar, now crawling with yuppies and hipsters, and us.

I’ve always romanticized the idea of drinking vodka over rocks with the stealth of a rich man, wearing a three-thousand-dollar-suit and a signet ring stamped with his family crest. Unfortunately the sipping jerked my body, but years of practice meant that I could hide the physical convulsions and keep the piercing gag-reflex on the inside.

As I took my third sip and blinked with one eye to hide the pain, I became involved in obligatory introductions and a mind-numbing conversation. These conversations are now too familiar and too scripted after years of summaries and pleasantries with people you hope to never see again, and, if you do, by some chance run into them while buying coffee, simply pretend to have a different name and make them feel that they are crazy as you take your demented high-road out.

As I stood people watching I noticed that a friend-of-a-friend, Kate, was waving at me with a flailing arm, helter-skelter eyes and a grin from-ear-to-ear.

“I was asked on a date tonight”, she exclaimed, “but I don’t like the guy, he is a bit creepy.”

“But you would get a free dinner, and can always get a head ache at the end of the night,” I said.

Our back-and-forth banter resulted in her stumbling home for a nap before her date, after which she would mysteriously develop a head ache, a stomach pain from the food she ate, begin to feel tired and start her ride on the crimson wave, all at once.

Three cigarettes later we were riding in a mini-van taxi. I remember feeling nauseated from facing the back of the van on the swift five-minute trip.

As we pulled up to the venue I was pushed and shoved by an oblivious crowd stuck in their highly excited conversations of the forthcoming entertainment. As I looked at my surroundings, it felt like time stopped and restarted in slow motion: everyone around me hosted an exaggerated smile while slowly turning their heads over their shoulders to look at the crowd who was in turn looking at them with their own I-am-devastatingly-excited grins.

I would normally associate the State Theatre with a calm commotion of ticket gathering, media pass arguments and bar line-ups. But this evening the crowd was moving along as if pushed into a cattle hold, waiting; then stumbling over each other, so slowly as if halted by unseen walls after each step.

“Is this the line for screwed up tickets?” a man yelled in my direction.

I pretended not to hear him, as I stepped and stopped, and slithered through conversations and crazy-eyes. They were everywhere, with grinning, slimy teeth. My aversion to crowds made me realize that I had forgotten to leave my apartment in far too long, preferring to sit under a blanket spying into the windows of the building across the airway.

“Two Coopers,” said Hart.

“No Coopers.”

“Two Heinekens.”

“Two Heinekens,” echoed the bartender: an elderly lady with a blonde bob now dotted with ashy roots and strands of hair.

Drinking our premium-priced cheap beers we walked further into the overwhelming setting of the theatre, which turns time to a bygone era, until you notice a t-shirt and flip-slops, styled with a well-groomed beard and a pair of round reading glasses, which promptly takes you back to 2014, Sydney.

After finding our seats and being told to turn off my flash when taking photographs, I noticed that the conversations around me signified that everyone suddenly became an expert on the history of the theatre, and its architecture.

“It’s the largest chandelier in the Southern Hemisphere,” came a voice from my left, shooting to the woman on my right who nodded in mesmerized agreement.  The Koh-I-Nor cut crystal chandelier in question is noted as the second largest in this world, and at four tonnes can cause utter carnage on this crowd. I felt safe, however, as I sat in the safe stalls, away from the chandelier’s glare.

Finally the lights turned low, and I prepared myself for the progressive, avant-garde jazz of the Sun Ra Arkestra. An ensemble that tends to be described first with a pause, then an elongated “well” and a finally a crooked smile with a simultaneous raise of the eyes, while searching for the right words.

Lead by Marshall Allen, raging on his saxophone at the age of 89, the 12-unit big band sauntered on to the stage drenched in style before an audience of the mid-aged, the young and the old. The latter finding the groove from the get-go.

Since the 50s the Arkestra has shared their experimental jazz of mythology and interplanetary music, and it was easy to spot those in the crowd who shared a deeper connection to this music than the rest, as they moved and they clapped with a palpable love.

The stage went red as I turned to look at the seats behind me. No one smiled as I spun in their direction and awkwardly pretended to look above them. “I’m not the only Sun Ra-neophyte,” I thought, as I twisted back into my chair before swiftly turning around again to see if I could catch a trance caught in a grin. But nothing, still.

I looked to the woman on my left, her eyebrows danced like little caterpillars under the bright red lights of the theatre. The stage was littered with sequins, capes, light, and embroidered hats; all glimmering under red light bulbs, crawling beams and smoke.

As I followed the music I noticed a redhead in the row in front and to my right. She was convulsing in her chair with a wide-open smile. I wished that I understood the music as she did, and then I pondered her sobriety – she could be high, after all.

“Definitely need to be on drugs for this,” Hart yelled into my ear.

The bobbing heads of white-haired punters highlighted the crowd; I found this oddly mesmerizing before I began to dread the end of the show: I didn’t want to force myself to say something pseudo-intelligent about the music to my clique for the night, or get stuck dissecting the performance to prove an understanding of jazz.

As the lights went up, Hart and I took the emergency exit and walked through the alleyway to the main street, finally leaving the crowd behind. As we stood outside I noticed the marquee had already changed. The show is over, and no one cared.