We learned this afternoon that our old friend Ali Akbar died on Tuesday at UT Medical Center. He was 64.
Ali, who was known as Horace Pittman until his ca. 1990 conversion to Islam, was a galvanizing figure in Knoxville's musical and artistic fringe, though it may be hard to explain, to people who didn't know him, exactly what he did.
First a painter of large, boldly colorful and often erotic pieces that he called Gorilla Art--his Gorilla Gala on the otherwise dark and silent Market Square, ca. 1983, was especially memorable--then a performance poet of the freer edge of the Beat school, he befriended a generation or two of Fort Sanders bohemians. Whereever Horace/Ali was, interesting things happened. To some he seemed enchanted, like a shaman whose mere presence bestowed some kind of weird blessing. His intuitive wit and uninhibited demeanor made us all question whether we were taking this whole Life business too seriously.
He was a familiar figure in the nightclubs of West Cumberland Avenue, places like the Longbranch and Bundulee's and Vic 'n' Bill's and the old Trestle beer store in the 1980s. He had a surprising affinity for punk rock, and at punk shows, he was always the oldest guy in the room, and often the only black one. He always danced, usually before anyone else did, and was sometimes invited to take the stage, and perform with bands like the too-short-lived ca. 1985 band Beyond John. As a vocalist, his mesmerizing repetitions could strike us dumb. A phrase like "Got on a bus / Went downtown," chanted by Horace, with eyes closed, over waves of electric guitar, seemed like a dangerous incantation.
In his 40s, he became a Muslim, with a suddenness that surprised his nightclub friends. His conversion muted but didn't end his art and nocturnal life. Even in recent weeks, we've seen him having a look at the galleries, peeking in on shows, appearing unexpected at late-night parties, daring the rest of us to dance.