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Something Big


I saw the Watts Towers — or a picture of them, at any rate — before I’d heard about them, before I knew what they were. They’re in the background of the photo on Don Cherry’s album Brown Rice (1975): skeletal spires silhouetted against the twilight, with Cherry in the foreground, cradling his trumpet, wearing robes that seem not only pan-African but pan-astral. Taken together, the purple-blue sky, Cherry’s outfit, and these skyrocket towers create the impression that this was the site from which Sun Ra would have chosen to blast off and return to Saturn. Cherry grew up near the towers, after his family moved to Watts, California, from Oklahoma. I’m guessing that he must have known Charles Mingus, who was born in 1922, making him fourteen years Cherry’s senior. In his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, Mingus remembers “something strange and mysterious” being built near his home — “what looked like three masts, all different heights, shaped like upside-down ice cream cones” — and how local rowdies would throw rocks at the crazy Italian guy who was doing this construction.

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is the author of many books, including Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; Zona; and White Sands, which will be published in May by Pantheon. His story “Forbidden City” appeared in the December 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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