Remembering Sonny Sharrock
Strange to say, I can't remember where or when it was that I first found Sonny Sharrock, though knowing him feels eternal. It must have been at least five years ago when I first heard part of an interview and some of his music on WKCR-FM. What I heard stopped me in my tracks. The sound of his voice, the way he spoke, the things I heard him say, and then his music! Stunned, fascinated, moved, riveted, confounded, amazed, I resolved to seek out this man at my first opportunity. But he didn't seem to be scheduled to play anywhere around town, and none of my friends seemed to know anything about him (I've got wiser friends now). Then a while later there was an article in a newspaper or magazine, and, finally, notice of an upcoming concert in town.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am always late, but this time I was there early. I remember a fairly large room (which one, where?), a stage, and to the right of it a radiant light; peering into that light, I discerned a stocky, grey-haired figure, legs a little too short for his impressive torso, fumbling with some wires amidst a bank of amplifiers and equipment. No matter how much I looked around for a logical source, there were no floodlights or stage lights turned on; rather, the light had to be coming from the man inside it. In a final attempt to apply logic in this dawning of my most magical time, I explained to myself: "This band has an angel for a roadie!"
Then I heard his voice amidst the radiance. "Oh, sh-t," he grumbled, "What the f—k am I supposed to do now?" And, finally noticing me gawking at him, he threw back his head and laughed. That laugh… Ask anyone who knows and loves Sonny about that laugh, that goofy, rowdy, no-holds-barred, joyful laugh.
I had heard that voice on the radio, and I'm good at voices. This profane angel was Sonny Sharrock.
The only thing to do then was pull myself together, stop gawking, and go try to help. Knowing as little about wires and amplifiers and sound equipment as I did about angels on the planet (I'm a little wiser myself now, at least on the latter subject), and stricken with some new-found shyness, I stumbled over to him, picked up a dangling loose end of wire, and said stupidly, "How about if I hold this?" And standing closer, each holding half a wire in the air, we inspected each other frankly and curiously, already knowing we were friends forever, and wondering about the details. I saw a sturdy grace, felt a powerful intelligence, greeted a gentle and humorous gaze, and shared a profound welcome. (And the fact that I was wearing my John Coltrane pin over my heart didn't hurt my case at all).
When Sonny finally got the wires sorted out and began to play that night, the music I heard changed me for always. It taught me for the first time what it is to be fully human, fully alive and free. Sonny once said in an interview (in music he said it always), "I want the sweetness and the brutality, and I want to go to the very end of each of those feelings." And "I've been trying to find a way for the beauty and the terror to live together in one song. I know it's possible."
Someone recently asked me about Sonny's music, and groping for words, I offered that it is completely free and unprecedented, but with enormous knowledge and discipline contained in it. This is one of many difficult and advanced lessons I've learned from Sonny: Knowledge and discipline contained within freedom are not a contradiction, but a perfect, exquisite balance. Taught to me in what he called his "futuristic electronic folk music" – and by the way, no one else has ever defined it better, though critics and other wordsmiths around music have tried. In no particular order: "ecstatic vitality," "unprecedented guitar hysteria," "ferocious," "cathartic," "unfettered," " fervent chaos," "transcendent," "blistering noise," "brute volume," "awkward honesty," "painfully truthful," "bewitched by beauty," "totally sick," "fervently swinging," "notes hunching together like orgiastic sardines," "seismic," "a lovely bouquet of cankers and thorns," "a paroxysm of six-string mayhem," "tumultuous glory," "wall-rattling shiver and clang," "the purest, most liquid guitar tone," "a simple, stirring lyricism," " bedrock soul," "brawny dance music with catchy hooks, tough edges and direct, often surprisingly tender melodies," "torrential," "feverish," "super-godly," "exploring thresholds of pain and noise," "consummate elegance," "inspired and adventurous, and never compromised," "shards of splintered glass," "beautifully frenetic," "fiercely swinging," "mind-altering," "corrosive," "visionary," "rambunctious," "a giddy 8O-car pile-up," "daring, beautiful, terrifying, strange, sweet, and roaring," "fierce buzz and howling wail," "as serious as a neutron bomb," "caveman technique," " sublimely touching," "sentimental, folk-like simplicity," "sonic landslide," "inspirational," "early-period chainsaw," "unabashed spiritualism," "an ethereal, hallowed quality, at once wide and intimate," "ferocious sonic squall." All true, I think, except I balk at "caveman technique" and I'm not too sure about the sardines.
Sonny's music, when heard in person, always left New York audiences scorched and trembling, excoriated, flabbergasted, stricken, ecstatic, shocked, thrilled, enraptured, flayed, and ennobled. And screaming for more. Once at the Knitting Factory after a set of unbearable beauty and pain, he surveyed the havoc he had created, a packed room in a standing ovation of stamping, howling fools like me, soaked in various bodily fluids. Out came his best defiant sidelong stare, accompanied by the trademark curling of his substantial lower lip. "The f—k's the matter with you people?" he demanded. Oh, nothing, Sonny. Only passion, only glory, only you.
But as is always the case with truth, you had to be ready to hear Sonny's music, and sadly, much of humanity was not. There's a well-known harbor incident, well-known because Sonny loved to tell it and laugh about it, when every fancy yacht pulled away from a Florida marina as Sonny's music roared across the waters (the sardines and other sea creatures no doubt grooving below). Also, I read someplace about an Italian jazz festival where Sonny played after the Modern Jazz Quartet did its set, and his wife wept to see the entire audience dissolve into the night. "C'mon," said Sonny, providing his own unusual brand of comfort. "That's nothing. You want me to clear out the ushers too?"
Back here in New York, it seems people thought there was an official Sharrock fan club of which I was the president, simply because if you wanted to be my friend you had to know and love Sonny. So every time he played here I'd appear with a crowd of Sonny enthusiasts and some first-timers, who then emerged a few hours later to join the constantly enlarging crowd the next time. Obviously, this was not my doing, but Sonny's. Still, we created a throng, and all of us dove shamelessly for broken guitar picks as they sailed from his hands during the sets. Afterwards I'd instruct each novice to take the broken pick to a music store and buy some new ones of the same kind to give Sonny at the next gig, so he'd never run out of them and have to stop playing. Fender medium, the rainbow-colored ones.
Another time I arrived at the gig and was horrified to discover that I'd forgotten my little gift for Sonny at home. I rushed off to the nearest guitar store, Matt Umanov's on Bleecker Street. Of course it had closed at least half an hour before, but I could see a couple of workers still inside, so I pounded on the door and pleaded for mercy. No, no, no, closed, no way, forget it, go away. "Oh," I wailed hopelessly through the locked door, "I need some rainbow Fender medium picks for Sonny Sharrock." "Where's he playing?" came the interested reply, and the door opened a crack, a clerk's hand emerging with a pile of the cherished items. "Tell Sonny to have a great gig," said he, disappearing into the back of the dark store. I didn't even get to pay for the picks, but I gave them to Sonny along with the message and the story, which made him do that glorious laugh. I swear I saw the same clerk later on in the audience during Sonny's second set, and at the next gig he brought three friends-- and I hope plenty of rainbow guitar picks. As a "Downbeat" writer astutely noted at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia, "When it was over, picks and hearts littered the floor."
At a later date the "fan club" became a comical sort of Asian-style doo-wop group. As we waited in the ticket line one night, Sonny buzzed past us hauling some of that infernal electric-guitarist equipment on a wheeled cart, singing loudly as he went. "What is that beautiful tune you're singing?" I begged to know. "Oh, it's from 'Towhead,'" he replied, whizzing past. "'Towhead?' What in the world is he talking about?" One of my companions, wiser than I, enlightened me: "He means Tauhid. It's Pharoah." At home I played Tauhid over and over until I learned the tune, "Japan" (or at least something fairly like it -- I can't sing). The next time we were in line, Sonny caught me teaching it to the whole "fan club" and making them sing it a-cappella. How wonderful to have made him laugh once more!
Sonny was always doing or saying things that amazed us. Once, having taken the subway, two buses, the MTA, and a very long walk to get to a bar in a small town in Massachusetts, we were rewarded with a set of great, profound, revolutionary — yet, in deference to the setting, totally accessible — music. Between sets he addressed the awe-stricken audience, introducing the band members; then he announced, "I want to apologize to the good people of Somerville. It seems I was criticized in the local paper after our last concert here because I used obscenities on the microphone, and I am sorry for offending the sensibilities of the citizens here. And now," he intoned after a short, freighted pause, using another of his sideways rebel stares, "We're going to play another tune I wrote. It's called "She's Only Fourteen and I Know I'm Going to Jail'." (By the way, on the album Seize the Rainbow this tune is identified simply as "Fourteen," but now we are privy to its full title, at least in Massachusetts.)
If you weren't blessed to know Sonny, some of this might make him sound like a contentious person. He was completely the opposite: endlessly patient, kind, good-humored, gentle, considerate, generous. He once told me he had done two wrong things in his life. Once after a tour gig he was rushing to get into the van taking the musicians to the airport, there was very little time, and a big, lumbering fellow came up to him and began to compliment Sonny's playing. "Oh, Sonny, I really loved the way you played tonight," said the fan, "I'm—" "Thanks, man. Sorry, gotta go, man, we've got a plane to catch. Thanks, man, sorry, man," and off he dashed, apologizing. The next day someone told Sonny that the big fellow was – well, I've forgotten his name just now, but he was a guitarist with the folk group the Weavers. This terrible crime haunted Sonny, and he promised himself never again to brush off a fan. I didn't ask him what the other thing was that he did wrong in his life; I'm not sure I could have handled knowing. But when I tell you he was an angel on this planet, you can believe me.
Almost from the very beginning I worried about Sonny's physical health. Many others, observing his radiance and his unstinting, all-out, vibrant energy, both in performance and as a person, were unaware that he was in any danger. But I had read about his angioplasty operation and I knew he had asthma and diabetes. A couple of times in the fire of performance I saw his spirit actually begin to leave his body; at those times his music stuttered, he stumbled in his dance, paused, let out a howl or groan, and forced himself back into his human frame. Oh, yes, I worried about Sonny.
During the Christmas season of 1993-94, I hung upon the front door of my apartment a picture of a female angel, because I thought she was lovely. The picture shows her stooping on the front steps of a doorway to pick up something, and in honor of the season I taped a tree ornament to the angel's hand. After the season the ornament remained until early spring, when I reminded myself to change it, looked around for something else to put in her hand, and without too much thought glued one of Sonny's picks there. It's there still, and if you want to come by you can see it.
Sonny's gone now. I have lost my hero, my radiant, very human angel, the most beautiful music ever played for me. I left my John Coltrane pin with Sonny in his coffin and made a Sonny Sharrock pin to wear in its place over my own shattered heart.
As long as I have to stay here on the planet,
I will always work to make sure that the future remains full of his music,
his name, his image, and his ideals. And should anyone ever wonder, in
the words of the title to one of Sonny's most beautiful tunes, "Who Does
She Hope to Be?," I hope to be, will always try to be, someone worthy of
standing inside his light, of knowing, hearing, and loving Sonny Sharrock.