When The Lights Go Down, Who Will Hear 'The Last Transmission'?
ARUN RATH, HOST:
A lot of popular musicians in the '60s and '70s showed a passionate interest in getting extremely high - higher than any human has ever been. I'm talking, of course, about space exploration. David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Sun Ra, Funkadelic all contributed to our shared space mythology - not so much these days. But a new record is a welcome and trippy exception.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAPTER 01 - PROLOGUE")
MELVIN VAN PEEBLES: I guess you got us back on planet Earth groomed on some island back a few centuries ago, before I was even born. I guess I could be writing all this down and stuffing it in a bottle. I guess I could be strolling down to the beach and tossing it into the sea. But under the circumstances, ESP is the best you're going to get out of me.
RATH: The music is from a band out of London called Heliocentrics. And the poetry is by the one and only Melvin Van Peebles, the revolutionary filmmaker who probably doesn't get his due because he gets lumped in with the blaxploitation genre. Van Peebles weaves a story that's been described as an intergalactic rime of the ancient mariner, an astronaut sending out messages while exploring deep, deep space - messages about the sort of love you can find in the cosmos when you lower your standards a bit, like no longer holding out for carbon-based lovers. It's called "The Last Transmission."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELEPATHIC ROUTINE")
VAN PEEBLES: Turns out the cave wasn't just any old cavern. It was some kind of tavern. It was more the clouds would disperse and seem to be just swirling around, where a bunch of locals - misty, methane-based folks getting down. Well, this one - the finest lady/cloud I'd ever seen.
RATH: The idea for this story came to Melvin Van Peebles years ago, back when he was in the Air Force.
VAN PEEBLES: I used to fly these as a navigator, a radar-operated bombardier, on a secret jet bomber. And it flew so high that people didn't even know it was in there for years. And I spent a lot of time up above everything. You're sitting there in another world - I mean, in really another world. And these sorts ran through my mind a zillion times.
RATH: Van Peebles only decided to set the story to music once his producer, Eothan Alapatt, slipped him an unreleased instrumental track from this band Van Peebles had never heard of - Heliocentrics.
VAN PEEBLES: Melvin, you've got to hear this. You've got to do this. That really simply is what happened. Then I heard it and I said wow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DANCE")
RATH: The sounds reminded Van Peebles of his long-forgotten galactic love story. So he wrote it up, laid down the vocals and sent the recordings to Heliocentrics' founding member, Malcolm Catto.
MALCOLM CATTO: Melvin somehow got hold of this track and done his own thing on it without us even knowing.
RATH: But Catto wanted to collaborate on more than just one song.
VAN PEEBLES: It started the seed, you know, of a concept to us. Why don't we make, like, a science fiction kind of soundtrack to go with this story?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAST TRANSMISSION")
VAN PEEBLES: We're as happy as can be, my methane mom and me.
RATH: Heliocentric supported Van Peebles' distant love story with otherworldly sounds, lots of oscillation and static, like distant radio signals that just don't want to cooperate.
CATTO: That's basically our idea of what it must seem like by the time it reaches another intelligence far often into space somewhere. What would it be like, this message? It'd start off and then slowly dissipate - dissipate until it's light years away, and you just get all of this, like, radio chatter.
That's an idea that really interests us is that somewhere, someplace maybe all this stuff that's going on right now with this interview and all the TV stuff that's been going since the '50s - all this information will eventually filter out through space and arrive somewhere. And what would that be like? It would be crazy the sound that it would make. And that's what we were trying to recreate.
RATH: Melvin Van Peebles was ecstatic about the odd partnership.
VAN PEEBLES: We have me here in New York and them in London. Never met, but it seems I know them - what they're thinking, what I'm thinking. It was phenomenal. It was great. I haven't had so much fun with clothes on in years.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAST TRANSMISSION")
VAN PEEBLES: Life is about making due, which brings me back to my methane mama. What she can do to my molecules - well, we won't go into that. Suffice it to say, there ain't no way I'm changing back.
RATH: That's Melvin Van Peebles, film director, musician, composer, actor, playwright, novelist, poet - probably a lot of other things we don't even know about or understand. Together, he and Malcolm Catto's band, Heliocentrics, have released a new album called "The Last Transmission."
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