Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the blind jazz visionary, inspired a who’s who of rock music, including Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart, Jethro Tull, Eric Burdon & the Animals, Tim Buckley and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Kirk, a master of multiple reed instruments and the flute—some played simultaneously—jammed with, loved and hated all of the above musicians. John Kruth, a Kirk biographer, shares this aspect of the artist with PKM.
In January 1968, Ian Anderson left his home in Blackpool, England, and met up with his old mate Jeffrey Hammond, who was attending art school in London. About one month later, Jethro Tull was formed. Anderson had already picked up the flute in the latter half of 1967 but hadn’t gotten too far with it. Visiting Hammond in his tiny one-room flat, Ian discovered his friend’s eclectic record collection. In the pile he rifled through were albums by the likes of Ornette Coleman, Captain Beefheart and Roland Kirk.
“I found the abstract jazz of Ornette Coleman to be a little baffling,” Anderson confessed. “Harmonically it was a little brisk. The thing that caught my attention was the album by Roland Kirk. Here was someone playing, essentially from a jazz background, but rather than bewildering us with very complex or unduly showy displays of bravura, he seemed to take a simple tune, and in rather a naive way, make something of it, in terms of improvisation.
“I only heard it once or twice but ‘Serenade to a Cuckoo’ stuck in my head. When I was able to play enough notes on the flute that I could get a piece of music together, it was a natural thing for me to play. Curiously, the way I played the flute back then, I had no lessons or instruction book. I didn’t know where to put my fingers or how to make an embouchure. I had to figure it out for myself. I found the scat-singing approach, singing along with the notes you’re playing, a good way to fire up a note. I could actually get a sound by doing that, where it was very difficult for me to get a clean, clear tone. I had used that technique when I played guitar. Scat singing is as old as civilization. It’s employed by pianists who hum along nonsensically like Mose Allison [and Thelonious Monk, Glenn Gould and Keith Jarrett to name a few].
“When I was fifteen or sixteen, listening to blues, I sang along with the guitar lines. I don’t know where I heard it; probably on the various records I borrowed. It was an approach. It came very easily with the flute. It allowed me to produce a more aggressive and rougher-edged sound. When I heard Roland Kirk it was right at the point when I learned to make a noise on the flute. It was a noise I made. It was a noise he was making. It immediately created a point of reference for me, to try and develop that into an all-out assault on the ears. From not playing the flute at all in 1967 to being the main featured instrument in Jethro Tull in the summer of 1968, it was a pretty short six months. I would have really been into him if I had a chance to listen to the rest of his music,” Ian said, sounding almost apologetic. “Jeffrey had the album, and I couldn’t afford to buy anything. I was absolutely penniless at the time. Later in 1968, by the time I had any money to buy a record player, my attention had drifted to the Cream and Jimi Hendrix, people who were more contemporary, bands we had been playing alongside of.
“Roland Kirk had found the key to the jewel-box in much the same way as J. S. Bach did some 250 years before, in the sense of producing music which was very often very simple that could be embellished and developed.”
While Jethro Tull’s cover of “Serenade to a Cuckoo” on their debut album, This Was, helped introduce a generation of longhaired white kids to the brilliant, blind multi-instrumentalist, the appreciation was hardly mutual. The New York Times critic Robert Palmer would later point out for all to see that Mr. Anderson’s “lively flute playing” was simply “a pale carbon copy of Roland Kirk’s.”
“It’s a hell of a thing to live with,” Kirk groused. “When Jethro Tull plays the wrong changes on my tune ‘Serenade to a Cuckoo’ and makes probably five million dollars and I get the crumbs from some royalties. I recorded ‘Serenade’ back in the Sixties when Jethro Tull was still teeny bopping in school, learning how to speak black, learning anything about black music. You feel a hell of a draft about this.”
RAH KIRK BONDS WITH JIMI HENDRIX
“I like things from Bach to Roland Kirk. He hasn’t even started yet… Roland Kirk, that cat, really when you hear it, you can hear so much for the future too. I mean, not necessarily by notes, but you can hear it by feelings.”–Jimi Hendrix, New York City, January 1968
Mitch Mitchell was a skinny, frizzy-haired jazz freak, whose polyrhythmic drumming helped jump the pulse of the British psychedelic explosion. Inspired by the outstanding Elvin Jones, Mitchell’s beat laid the thunderous foundation for Jimi Hendrix’s brilliant mercurial high-voltage improvisations. He also hipped Hendrix to Roland Kirk. Jimi was said to have arrived at Heathrow Airport in the height of Swinging London with a battered copy of Rip, Rig and Panic stuffed in his suitcase.
Chas Chandler, former bassist for the Animals and manager of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, soon spirited Hendrix over to Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street in London, where he met Roland Kirk. Awestruck by the sensational sound and sight of a man playing three horns at once, Rahsaan immediately became his “favorite musician.”
In Kirk, the “Voodoo Child” discovered a kindred spirit, a true original like himself who ignored all rules and defied categorization. What most people misunderstood about both artists was their ability to master the history of black music and infuse styles of the past with fresh ideas to create something powerful, beautiful, and new.
In Jimi, Kirk found a psychedelic soul brother, a fearless pioneer steeped in the tradition of the blues. Hendrix was one rock star whose music Rahsaan could appreciate and respect despite his stringent feelings about the abuse of electricity in pop music.
“Electricity?” he growled on The Case of the 3-Sided Dream in Audio Color, “No good! You know I ain’t gonna go for nothing like that. I pull the plug out of you! Then what’s gonna be happening?” It was obvious to anyone with ears that Hendrix was the innovator in a medium plagued with poseurs. There is simply no blueprint for originality. Both Jimi Hendrix and Rahsaan Roland Kirk essentially invented themselves. They both burned a mad path across a sad, square world at breakneck speed and one bright moment later, they were gone. They stuck around long enough to play some phenomenal music, yet they paid some heavy dues for their individuality. Their outrageous clothes, wild stage antics, and mind-boggling virtuosity made them both a target for narrow-minded critics and audiences that simply didn’t get it. Accused of flash and gimmickry, this pair of “uppity niggers” detonated a sonic bomb that helped demolish the tired old clichés of both jazz and rock. Neither one of them knew any limit to their expression. They were simply, as Rahsaan often said, “too heavy for most people.”
“I like Charlie Mingus and this other cat who plays all the horns, Roland Kirk. I would really like to meet Roland Kirk and I’d like him to play with us. If people read this, they will say that guy must be joking. But I really think we’re doing the same things. We have different moods and things. Some of the moods are on the same level that Roland Kirk is doing.-Jimi Hendrix
Rahsaan Roland Kirk on The Ed Sullivan Show (with Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp)-Beautiful madness!
Meetings of famous musicians and the intense atmosphere of jam sessions make for great popular mythology but not always great music. Most jazz musicians approach a jam session as a workshop, maintaining an unspoken code of etiquette. Showing your ability to listen has always been of equal importance to what you have to say on your instrument. The rock and blues world tends to be much looser and if there are more than three guitars present, the music can quickly degenerate into an ego-driven wank fest.
Rahsaan was a master of jam sessions. Between his vast musical knowledge and the enormous arsenal of instruments he perpetually lugged around, there wasn’t a sound or style he couldn’t handle. He could be quite an intimidating presence and if provoked he was downright dangerous.
Hendrix, whose public persona was sexy, cocky, and self-assured, was actually shy, vulnerable, and nervous. Author Chris Potash describes their meeting in his book The Jimi Hendrix Companion: “Jimi was in awe of Roland, afraid that he would play something that would get in Roland’s way. You can tell by the way he speaks of Kirk that Hendrix regards him as some kind of Master Musician. As it worked out Jimi played what he normally plays, and Roland played what he normally plays, and they fit like hand in glove.”
KRUTH MEETS KIRK’S PRODUCER JOEL DORN
For years I’d heard rumors that a bootleg of this fantastic jam session had been floating around. I was determined to find it and hear the music for myself. I began running up my phone bill and running into brick walls. Then producer Hal Willner confirmed the rumor that tapes indeed exist of Rahsaan jamming with Jimi Hendrix in London. “I was shocked when I found out about the tape,” he admitted. “I heard it was a project that was going to happen. Maybe it was just a sketch of something they wanted to pick up on later. But maybe it’s one of those tapes we shouldn’t hear,” Hal said, raising an eyebrow. “Maybe it would be best left to the imagination. You wouldn’t want to mess with the ghosts of Rah and Hendrix!”
After chasing my tail from coast to coast, I wound up in (Kirk’s producer at Atlantic Records) Joel Dorn’s buzzing, cluttered office on Fifty-Seventh Street. Somebody had tipped me off to the fact that Joel actually had a copy of the tape.
Riding downtown in a cab on a hot summer day with Joel and his son Adam on the way to a recording session, I brought up the subject of the tape. Joel immediately grew irritable. He knew I knew that he had the tape, but he didn’t want to deal with it. He said he couldn’t recall what the problem was. “I think there’s a buzz or some kind of trouble with the tape. Whatever it is, it’s not worthy of release. It’s not good enough to be a Rahsaan record and it’s unworthy of Hendrix.”
Dorn maintained a fierce integrity when it came to posthumous Kirk releases, keeping an eye on Kirk’s legacy with the tenacity of pit bull or worse, a Jewish mother. He assured me that he was the last stop on the train when it came to which of Rahsaan’s recordings were destined for release.
“But could I at least hear it?” I pleaded with him. “I don’t know where it is. I’d have to find it,” he shot back. “What did it sound like? What did they play?” Suddenly I got the feeling I had crossed an invisible line and become a royal pain in the ass. Dorn was now looking at me like just another freak bugging him about Rahsaan. It was clear he didn’t care to discuss it. He began to appear rather feral; tugging at his white beard and baring his teeth as the discussion dragged on.
“Look,” Dorn said, trying to get me off his back, “call this guy in L.A., he’s a Hendrix nut. I think he’s got a copy:’ He gave me the number and I called it that night. Bullseye! The guy from the coast had the goods and was willing to trade in return for some dubs from the new album of Rahsaan rarities that we were in the midst of compiling.
PROOF OF THE KIRK-HENDRIX JAM APPEARS
Waiting for the mail to arrive, I read some more of Chris Potash’s Hendrix Companion: “By the summer of 1969, he was listening to more jazz, enjoying the sounds of Coltrane, Coleman, McCoy Tyner, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk – who was like an idol to him. Jimi’s own musical ideas were probably closer to Kirk’s than to the modal concepts of Coltrane or Miles Davis. Since Hendrix was able to play three guitar parts simultaneously, he must have felt an immediate affinity for Kirk, who could play three wind instruments at once. And Kirk’s amazing mastery of circular breathing techniques allowed him to blow unusually long sustained lines which matched Jimi’s own legato guitar lines. From the start of their early jams in London at Ronnie Scott’s club (around the early part of ‘67) Kirk and Jimi communicated on a mutual plane, recognizing that the blues was at the heart of their respective styles.”
A couple days later, a big, padded envelope arrived marked priority mail. The cassette was simply labeled “Kirk/Hendrix Jam (R. Scott’s).” There were no song titles or musicians listed. I slipped the tape into the boom box and waited. It was hard to tell what was going on. A sonic sludge gushed out of my speakers like a gruesome glob of phlegm from a Gila monster with bronchitis. Somebody had obviously set up the microphone in a goldfish bowl! The bass was loud and fuzzy. It played a simple repetitive vamp reminiscent of a fanfare ala Albert Ayler or Sun Ra. Somewhere in the swirling cacophony I could hear a blaring trumpet. Hendrix was pumping his wah-wah pedal. Some of the phrases he played were in octaves, similar to the tag on “All Along the Watchtower.” The drums for the most part kept a steady four-four beat. But where was Rahsaan in this mess? I could hear something that sounded like horns playing simple repetitive phrases, but it’s doubtful Kirk would have been relegated to that chore for the entire length of the first jam. The untitled song ended with a thunderous crash and a crowd of about thirty people could be heard politely applauding.
On the next number, the bass and drums kicked off a vamp that sounded like a Latin-flavored version of Pharaoh Sanders’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” Somewhere in the distance Rahsaan is playing a swooping flute line until that trumpet butts in, overpowering him. But why can’t we hear Kirk’s horns? Perhaps his microphone was malfunctioning. In this Latin jazz groove, Jimi’s playing resembled Carlos Santana’s soaring Mexicali blues. Just for a moment, before the tape comes to an abrupt end, Kirk’s tenor sax comes bubbling through the muck and mire. He’s clawing his way through the fray, spiraling into oblivion, overblowing his horn in what sounds like a fit of frustration.
This flawed document proves their meeting was indeed a bright moment, which was unfortunately lost for whatever reason – either God’s will or slovenly engineering. The playing was obviously inspired but the sound was another matter.
“Oh yeah, I had a jam with him at Ronnie Scott’s, in England, in London. And it was, you know… what else can you say? Because you know, I really got off. He was really great. I was so scared. I mean, he gets all those sounds and so forth. I might just hit note and it might be interfering and you know…But like we got along great I thought. He told me I should have turned up or something.”-Jimi Hendrix
“He came off that jam feeling like he found a soulmate,” Hendrix’s friend and producer Alan Douglas recalled. “Jimi loved [Rahsaan’s] madness and his inventiveness and his magic.”
“They put Jimi Hendrix in a bag. They called him a pop artist. But Hendrix was a stone blues player,” Rahsaan declared. “He worked with Little Richard and all the blues people, but he got put down, so he went to England and recorded his message music and they called it a pop thing. He got stuck with the label. Labels are another form of segregation,” Kirk said disdainfully.
“When we let ourselves be placed and say he plays ‘rock’ and he plays ‘pop-rock’ and he plays ‘jazz’ – these are little boxes that guys are put in for control. I never go along with those labels. Labels are just something to sell something to somebody!
“[Hendrix] never got to record what he wanted to record,” Rahsaan lamented. “He was a fantastic cat. Me and him played together at his house, if you could call it a house. For all the money they were supposed to be paying him, this man was living in a one-room flat up over a beer joint. That was about two or three years ago, while they were selling his posters out on the street.”
Kirk was deeply concerned for Jimi’s well-being. Not only was he appalled at how the record companies treated him and the squalor that he lived in, but Rahsaan was worried about the flamboyant guitarist’s voracious appetite for acid. Kirk believed his steady diet of hallucinogens was causing Jimi’s “Gypsy Eyes” to “see too much.”
Eric Burdon, lead singer of the Animals, recalled how one night in London, Rahsaan took him aside and said, “‘Tell Jimi to stop doin’ so much goddamn LSD because he’s gonna blow his brains out if he isn’t careful.’ But Kirk smoked hash like a railroad train. Rahsaan would always make references on stage about taking care of your body as well as getting out into the stars.”
“Volunteered Slavery”-Rahsaan Roland Kirk at Montreux, 1972:
“I had a permanent love affair with Rahsaan,” Burdon confessed. By the late sixties the string of hits that hurled the Animals to the top of the charts had subsided and the “poor boy” that lived his life in “shame and misery in the House of the Rising Sun” was ready and willing to follow Kirk to the ends of the earth: “I saw him in London and I was doing psychedelics and I just wanted to give up my whole career and become his roadie. I was begging the Lord to take me on the road with him. He took me aside and he said, ‘No man, you’ve got your own thing and you’ve gotta pursue it. So, keep up the faith and all that shit.’ Then he blessed me and went on his way.’’
“There haven’t been many, maybe one or two, musicians who were truly endowed with a spiritual self beyond the realm of the normal materialistic – I’m just blowing for a job or my next Harley Davidson. Rahsaan was in it for something else altogether. To me he was the real true black man, a real African spirit transplanted into the heart of America’s big city,” Burdon said in a gravelly whisper. “It’s like somebody took a tree from the fuckin’ jungle and just whipped it out of the ground and transplanted it and it grew things in the form of saxophones, flutes, stritches, nose flutes, TV sets, tape recorders, political speeches, and jokes.”
“In the concept of Tarot cards, they [Hendrix and Kirk] were both clowns,” Eric theorized. “But when you turn the clown upside down he becomes a magician and the joke is on you. I think they both had that element going for them.”
“We were supposed to make a record together,” Rahsaan said of Hendrix. “There was talk of us recording. We were supposed to get together in New York, but different things always came up to where it never happened. We never recorded anything together, but the plans were there to record. He asked his managers to get the negotiations started but one time they said he was busy and then I was busy and they stalled around. But there were two people he wanted to record with – Miles Davis and myself.”
“It’s funny the way most people love the dead,” Jimi once mused in an improvised eulogy that eerily summed up both men’s lives. “Once you are dead you are made for life. You have to die before they think you are worth anything. I tell you, when I die, I’m not going to have a funeral. I’m going to have a jam session… Roland Kirk will be there, and I’ll try to get Miles Davis along if he feels like making it. For that it’s almost worth dying, just for the funeral…”
With one week left before the deadline for this book, I had just about thrown in the towel trying to find out who comprised the band that night at Ronnie Scott’s, when the “Voodoo Chile” and “The 5000 Lb. Man” crossed paths. Suddenly the phone rang. It was Kirk’s bassist, Vernon Martin, calling from L.A. He said he had a dream that I was trying to reach him. He was right… I was!
“We played with Hendrix at Ronnie Scott’s in 1969,” Vernon recollected. “It was an onslaught, a glorious coming together of energy. It was real heavy but at the same time there was a certain innocence. Jimmy Hopps was on drums, Ron Burton played piano, and I was on bass. I can’t recall but I think there was somebody blowing trumpet. That situation was truly a phenomenon. Playing with Jimi was a very high gospel of mixing elements of rhythm and country/blues guitar with tremendous energy.”
Beyond a mutual appreciation with Jimi Hendrix, Rahsaan was known to regularly jam with various members of rock’s aristocracy, including guitarists Eric Clapton and Steve Stills. A rare video entitled Supershow, filmed in 1969 before an enthusiastic audience of British hipsters in an airplane hangar in England, features Kirk and the Vibration Society burning through “I Say a Little Prayer” at full tilt along with cameos by Led Zeppelin, Buddy Guy, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. An excerpt from the Supershow video:
KIRK MEETS ZAPPA AND THE MOTHERS
Roland Kirk first played with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in April 1969, at the 4th Boston Globe Jazz Festival, a two-day event with an eclectic line-up featuring B. B. King, Nina Simone, Sun Ra, and the Mothers of Invention. Backstage at the War Memorial Auditorium, Zappa approached Kirk after his smoldering set and invited him to jam with his band of inspired lunatics.
“I met [Kirk] after he had done his part,” Frank Zappa told interviewer Dick Lawson, “and I said, ‘Would you be interested in playing with us?’ He said he didn’t know and I said ‘Well you’ve never heard the group before – you don’t know what we do. If you like it, come on out on stage and start playing and we’ll back you up. So, we played for about five or ten minutes and he came wheeling out there with horns hanging all over him and blew his brains out.”
Down Beat writer Alan Heineman found the set “quite literally indescribable.’ He captured the moment in a concise glowing review that appeared in the May ‘69 issue. “Pandemonium broke loose as Kirk wandered out and jammed with them for the rest of the night. All stops were out Kirk wailed, The Mothers dug it and responded with uncanny support. Kirk weaving in and out of the flow of sound patterns into which Frank Zappa directed his crew. Basie riffs by the reeds, a raunchy stripper blues with Kirk sounding as raspy and earthy as he ever has. Zappa instantly picking up Kirk’s concepts and playing telepathic guitar counterpoint. Choreography, high kicking, everybody on his knees, everybody on his back…The audience was close to berserk. [Promoter George] Wein had to close the curtains, turn up the house lights and beg them to leave which they ultimately happily/sadly did. That particular set is lost forever but Kirk and Zappa are crazy if they don’t make a record together… Nobody with half an ear who heard it could ever again say that jazz and rock can’t combine without damaging one of the idioms. An incredible, exhilarating, exciting set.”
For whatever reason such an album never materialized. Perhaps they both really were crazy. (Although rumors persist of existing video and bootleg tapes from their infamous meeting, Gail Zappa and the Zappa family have, so far ignored any and all requests.)
Years later in 1976, at a press conference in Japan, Frank recalled his momentous meeting with Rahsaan: “During our set, led by his attendant [percussionist Joe Texidor], he came up to the stage. As you know he’s blind. But his body understood all of our signals [Zappa often conducted The Mothers with hand signals. Like an out-of-work mime coaching third base for a minor-league team, he employed a series of obscure cues denoting different time signatures, free jazz sections or whatever mad plan he had in mind].
“At one point everybody in the band was supposed to get down on their back and kick their feet in the air, while still playing. As soon as we got on our back, he also got on his back. When we got up, he also got up. He grasped everything. He is an excellent musician.”
“He had an amazing ability to know what was happening, especially musically,” said the Mothers’ wild frizzy-haired keyboard wizard Don Preston, recalling Kirk joining Zappa’s motley group for the second time, three weeks later at a festival in Miami. “He could sense when it was his time to play. Rahsaan knew a couple of the songs we were playing. I think we played ‘King Kong’ which was based on one chord and it didn’t have all the really bizarre stuff we used to do. We played an open free section, which he was totally capable of fitting in with that. He was also very warm and friendly.”
“He certainly was unique. There’s never been anyone like him before or after,” said saxophonist Bunk Gardner. When he sat in with the Mothers, I remember him coming on stage behind my brother [Buzz] and put his fingers on the trumpet while my brother played. I think his guide, Joe Texidor, was even further out than he was. It was like the blind leading the blind! In Miami, somebody spiked the punch with acid. Motorhead, our roadie was acting so weird and my first thought was what’s going to happen to Roland?”
Here’s what the jam looked like from Joe Texidor’s perspective: “When we came out, Frank said, ‘What do you hear Roland?’ and he answered, ‘I don’t know, man, whatever you want. How about some blues?’ So, Frank kicked off a tune called ‘All Night Long.’ We played it for about forty-five minutes, but about twenty minutes into it, Frank goes down on one knee. Between licks, Rahsaan asks me: ‘What’s happening?’ I told him ‘The cat’s on his knees.’ So Rahsaan goes on his knees still playing, blowing his brains out. Frank is trading eights and fours, back and forth, then I go down on one knee. Frank continues on guitar, then lies down and keeps playing. When Rahsaan hears the people’s reactions, I tell him, ‘The cat’ s lying down.’ So, he lies down and so do I. So, there’s the three of us on our backs, playing. The people got up out of their seats and came to the stage – it was pandemonium.”
“He played with Frank Zappa and that was the best Zappa ever sounded as far as I was concerned,” the late George Wein recalled. “Rahsaan made him play. He made that whole group play. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. It was sensational!”
“To me, Rahsaan was a rock ‘n’ roll musician!” Hal Willner exclaimed. “He would’ve blown those people at CBGB’s away. They would have loved him. He had the energy they were going for. I’d never seen anything like him in my life. His rants about rock music were really about the people who would only listen to rock music. He had nothing against it. He kind of liked it actually. He had no problem sitting in with Zappa. Zappa had great respect for Rahsaan and listed his name on Freak Out! as an influence on the band,” Willner pointed out.”
THE CAPTAIN MEETS KIRK
It was a hot August afternoon as Dorthaan Kirk sat beside an open window, alternately sipping on a Heineken and a True 100 while keeping an eye on the neighborhood, watching kids with backward baseball caps whiz by her house on their bikes. Wandering around the living/music room, I looked over Kirk’s old knick-knacks, various music boxes, a pipe collection, and figurines of lions. Photographs of Rahsaan, Dexter Gordon, and Martin Luther King Jr. adorn the walls side by side. Dusty Down Beat awards and other important documents and proclamations hung on the wall, frozen in time.
Dorthaan drifted along to the lazy rhythm of a John Coltrane ballad playing on the stereo. She appeared lost in thought when suddenly she piped up: “Do you know this guy who calls himself a captain?’’ “Is he a musician?” I asked. “Yeah, he’s a musician!” she replied, like I’d asked a stupid question. “Calls himself a captain!” she repeated. “Captain Beefheart?” I ventured.
“Yeah. That’s the one! That’s him!” she said and slipped off somewhere into silence again.
“What about him?” I asked, strolling around the room, checking out Rahsaan’s old worn lounge chair and thumbing through the remains of his fabulous record collection.
“He used to always come see Rahsaan whenever he played California. They’d sit around talking and smoking until all hours of the mornin’. He was crazy! Don’t ask me, I just didn’t get it,” she laughed.
It’s not hard to picture Beefheart blabbering some fractured poetry riff like “Big Eyed Beans from Venus” while Rahsaan played “the mascara snake” (as the rock dadist called a clarinet) or maybe the harmonica, and nose flute simultaneously.
In homage to Roland Kirk, Beefheart tried his hand at playing soprano and tenor sax simultaneously on his infamous Trout Mask Replica album (produced by Zappa).
Although his heart was in the right place, the Captain’s histrionics on “Ant Man Bee” resemble more of a burst of spontaneous chaos than the carefully constructed harmonies produced by Rahsaan’s one-man horn section.
One night in 1978 at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach (California), Captain Beefheart shared a charming story about Rahsaan with his devoted audience. It was two in the morning, after a show, and Kirk was hungry. He said he wanted to know where he could find some good soul food. To which Beefheart allegedly replied, “The only place you can get ribs at this time of night is in the Bible!”
“This may come as a surprise to some of you, but Captain Beefheart was a very, very devoted fan of Rah’s,” Dorthaan said. “I can remember them spending hours in a restaurant in Denver some years ago, talking about the music and the industry in general. They shared some of the same convictions. Captain stayed over in Denver for two extra days just to hear Rah play and he had commitments elsewhere. He is such a witty person. He is a rock artist but knows music and is very outspoken and honest. I think this is one of the reasons Rahsaan respected him and had a rapport with him.”
ANOTHER KIRK FAN: TIM BUCKLEY
Another devoted fan of Rahsaan’s was singer/songwriter Tim Buckley, (whose music, along with Beefheart, Frank Zappa released on his short-lived Bizarre label). “He’s gotta be given a chance,” Buckley declared. “He has a hell of an understanding and a huge heart, and he’s a phenomenal player. He is still an idol of mine and an inspiration and probably always will be.”
“Roland Kirk is a man who knows America, Buckley told journalist Frankie Nemko. “He talks a lot between songs and its real hard for a white audience to sit there and listen to this black discourse without feeling alienated. That’s not his purpose not his reason for doing what he’s doing. He’s trying to tell you what American heritage is. He’s a walking museum of information.”
But Buckley understood that Kirk’s message, whether musical, political or historical was “too much for people to accept… 300,000 people aren’t going to go to his concerts like they do a Rolling Stones concert.”*
When it came to plugging in, Rahsaan believed the public couldn’t see the forest for the artificial Christmas trees. As an outspoken advocate of truth, Rahsaan constantly demanded honesty from himself as well as his fellow musicians. Kirk was like an Old Testament prophet, or a lone sheriff of the Wild West, taking a firm stand against poseurs, blasphemers, and ignorant revisionists. Rahsaan firmly believed in mastering one’s instrument. “I don’t need electricity to present my music,” he explained. “You see all that damn electricity is not the answer, they don’t have electricity in Africa where all of this black music comes from. We don’t need to plug in. We are the juice!
“Electronic music has brainwashed us and if we don’t come to grips with ourselves, we’re gonna walk around plugged in! The great masters that have played the electric guitar – Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, and others brought us beautiful music. These masters controlled the electronics, made the electronics work for them. We must not be psyched out and think this new sound is really something new. Most musicians haven’t really done enough research to know that the “new age of electronics” is really something that’s been going on for years. All you have to do is trace back to European people like Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Luciano Berio. These people were writing beautiful electronic-sounding music back in the thirties. But most black musicians, unless they’re being subsidized by some electric company, can’t afford to stay in business and carry around five thousand tons of electricity on the airplane. Everyone is getting on this electronic bandwagon, and consequently, pretty soon everything is going to sound alike. When a man runs a vacuum cleaner, he can’t produce his own touch on that vacuum cleaner because it’s an electric thing. It has its own built-in sound. It would take a pioneer to bring out this sound. What this electronic phase is doing is completely wiping out the identity of anyone playing creative black music. This is a genocide of the music!”
RAH KIRK AND MILES DAVIS
It wasn’t only the enormous popularity of rock bands that irked him. Rahsaan refused to hold his tongue over Miles Davis adventurous blend of funk and fusion: “I remember playing a concert a year and a half ago with Miles Davis and we got to rapping,” Kirk told the crowd at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco one night in the early seventies. “I said, ‘Miles, like y’know, why do you use all that electricity? I don’t dig that stuff too much. Y’know, I like that mute. You quit using that mute. You made a mistake Miles!’ [Then whispering in an imitation of Davis’ shredded larynx, Kirk said], ‘Roland, everybody got to change. What you want me to do about it? So what!’”
“He was mad at rock and roll, absolutely furious. But no matter how pissed off he was, he could still appreciate the music,” claimed the late/great historically obsessed DJ Phil Schaap (best known for hosting Bird Flight on WKCR). Schapp recalled one of the endless debates he had with Kirk over the years on the phone and in person at the West End, a little bar on New York’s Upper West Side: “It was one Sunday afternoon, at about four-thirty, 1974, in January or February,” he said.
“I was sure there was one guy who could really do it, who would change his mind,” Schaap said, raising his eyebrows and grinning like a fiendish cartoon character. Hoping to make Rahsaan eat his words for good over rock and roll, Phil played Kirk a couple tracks off the first Quicksilver Messenger Service album. John Cippolina, the band’s remarkable guitarist (who showed serious promise as a young classical pianist until he traded in his Vladimir Horowitz records for some Bo Diddley sides), impressed Rahsaan with a dazzling display of “hip chops” and a prodigious obbligato on “Light Your Windows.” “He loved it!” Schaap exclaimed. “He also liked their waltz ‘Gold and Silver.’”
Yet Kirk continued his staunch platform against rock and roll whether anyone agreed with him or not. He never thought twice about taking a few minutes between songs to climb up on his soapbox to rant and rave. Rahsaan scoffed at rockers, calling them “Electric Marshmallows,” at the very peak of the 60s electric freak-out, spearheaded by the screaming, acid-drenched guitars of Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and the Grateful Dead. In some ways, it seemed like Rahsaan, the blind visionary, was seeing the future when he said: “These groups took the beat and electrocuted it. The people in this world today like to have superficial electrocuted sounds going through their brain. The average person has been electrocuted all his life. If they don’t get electrified with 20,000 pounds of electricity dropped on their ears, they panic. They storm the bandstand and knock things down because their brain hasn’t been electrified. When the good music is being played the people don’t have too much violence on their minds.”
This article was culled and edited from the new 2nd edition of John Kruth’s Bright Moments – The Life and Legacy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, available from Amazon print-on demand or for a signed edition contact the author @ [email protected]
*For a closer look at Tim Buckley’s life and inspiration, read Lee Underwood’s excellent memoir Blue Melody – Tim Buckley Remembered.