Remembering Space-Alien Donald, Phoenix's Oldest Gay Canadian Rapper
Space-Alien Donald as he appeared in Ben Kitnick and Saxon Richardson's 2013 documentary.
Ben Kitnick/Saxon Richardson via Vimeo
Jason Kron vividly remembers his first close encounter with the entity known as Space-Alien Donald.
It's understandable, since getting asked if you were a fellow extraterrestrial is something you don't soon forget. As the local musician and frontman for Hug of War recalls the otherworldly experience, it happened in late 2009 during an ordinary show at Trunk Space, where he was approached between sets by an unusually dressed elderly gentleman who stated he wasn't of this earth and inquired if the same was true of Kron.
"He introduced himself as an alien and asked if I was an alien too. I don't recall exactly how I answered, but I was very flabbergasted because I'd never had that sort of introduction to a person before," Kron says. "When you meet someone who's dressed like nobody one else was and they unapologetically tell you without a wink that they're a space alien, it's very memorable. It was unlike meeting anyone else, ever."
Even for a weirdo artist haven like Trunk Space, it was a pretty unique scene. It sparked a conversation between Kron and Space-Alien Donald "where he started asking me a lot of questions to determine if I was skeptical of the government and things of that nature," but also their mutual love of art, music, and performance. It also led to a fast friendship between the two carbon-based lifeforms and is one of a thousand joyful memories that Kron has of Space-Alien Donald, who passed away on April 20 at the age of 79.
Like many in downtown Phoenix's art and music scenes who were friends with Space-Alien Donald, who was also known by his earthen name Donald Thomas Roth, Kron feels fortunate to have known the late artist and performer, if only for a few years, and speaks fondly of his kindness, generosity, intelligence, verve for life, and -- most of all -- his fearless individuality and true uniqueness.
Ben Kitnick and Saxon Richardson's 2013 short-form documentary about Roth, the artist is quoted as saying, "It can be fun being different." And he did just that.
Roth was certainly one of a kind, says Kron, and it went beyond his eccentric personality, his extraterrestrial persona, or his off-kilter performances as the "World's Oldest Gay Canadian Rapper."
"It would be safe to say there no one else like him in the world," Kron says. "Donald followed his own path in every respect and he was very much a proponent of not taking life seriously whatsoever. I think a lot of people looked up to him because of that."
Space-Alien Donald always had a tendency to stand out, even among downtown Phoenix's rotating cast of oddball characters and vibrant weirdos, and not just because he often wore his signature black beanie adorned with multicolored felt horns or humorously rapped about Mars and marmalade over Casiotone-like beats.
Whenever he'd hang out or perform at Trunk Space or Funny World, the artist commune and venue east of downtown he owned, Roth would be the oldest person in attendance by several decades. According to Treasure Mammal's Abe Gil, it was one of Roth's many charms.
"I feel like he like he represents something so special, especially in the Phoenix music scene, for the most part because, that old people are frowned upon," Gil says. "It seems like music is a young person's game, but he was like, 'Fuck that, I'm gonna do what I want, I'm 70 fucking years old and I'm going to start this project and I don't give a fuck.' And that's what I loved about him."
And Gil wasn't alone in his love of Roth. Archbishop Jason Polland, a local musician and one of Roth's closest friends, admired him for his fearlessness.
"I think he was a big inspiration for a lot of people, just because it's so rare to see this senior citizen doing what he did," Polland says. "Nobody has elderly relatives that dress up in crazy costumes and sing rap songs about hamsters and robots having sex and things like that."
Photographer Daniel Funkhouser, who lived at Funny World for a time and used Roth as a model for his 2011 series "Cacophrodisiac," says he learned a lot from his positive attitude and fearlessness.
"I never met someone who owned themselves so well. He wasn't afraid of any situation. He would just show up anywhere. He'd be the oldest person at any show and didn't care," Funkhouser says. "He made his life completely like he wanted."
Polland admits that while Roth was famous for his performances, his Space-Alien Donald persona, or as "this sort of eccentric character," he was much more than that.
A gentle and offbeat soul with an energy and optimism that belied his age, Roth also possessed a quirky sense of humor and outlook on life, and a yen for science and knowledge.
"He was such a complex and multifaceted personality that he was able to interact with a lot of different personalities on a lot of different levels," Polland says. "We'd sometimes hang out for hours, talk about the world, science, philosophy, the folly of humanity, all the silly things that the human race is getting into, things like that. He was a voracious reader. He called himself an 'information junkie' and was like this sponge for knowledge because he love to learn about everything. And he was well-versed in many subjects: art, music, science, history, every topic you could think of."
And he had a particular fascination with the cosmos. Hence his moniker as Space-Alien Donald, which was also symbolic of the fact that he felt alienated from society for most of his life. Born in 1935 in Ontario, Canada, Roth never felt at home in his native country for any number of reasons, according to Kron.
"He was very much an outsider, especially growing up in Canada in the '30s and '40s," Kron says. "He was gay, he was an intellectual, he was an atheist, all while living in this rigid, Christian, uneducated community. So even from the beginning he felt like this interloper, this outsider in society who didn't really fit in and couldn't relate to other people."
It fueled Roth's lifelong sense of wanderlust, which caused him to leave home before graduating high school and hit the road. "At some point he just said, fuck it, and just went completely on his own path," Kron says.
Like any alien out cruising the cosmos (well, the benign ones, at least), Roth was in search of exploration and human contact. Entirely self-educated, Roth traveled across Canada before venturing to America in the 1960s and ultimately winding up in Northern California. He landed jobs in the scientific or electronics industries in the then-embryonic Silicon Valley and later at University of California Berkeley's radio astronomy lab, all without any college experience.
"He never spent a day in college. He lied about his experience to every employer in order to get hired and then he would just figure it all out," Kron says. "He'd also make up his own titles, like he called himself a non-accredited electrical engineer."
Very much a Renaissance man, Roth also spent time pursuing various projects over the years in art, music, and particularly science, including engaging in experiments in defeating gravity.
"He very much lived [the] sort of lifestyle in the way that he was completely devoted to his hobbies," Kron says. "He didn't so much make art as he was art, like just the way he lived his life. He made himself art."
After retiring in the late '90s, Roth touched down in Prescott in 2000, partially because of the fact he felt particularly welcomed by the staff at the Walmart in the northern Arizona city.
"Donald traveled around a lot when he retired and he would gauge how well he liked a city by going into Walmart and seeing how friendly the employees were," Kron says. "And in Prescott, the employees were the friendliest."
Despite the affability of Sam Walton's minions and Prescott's free-spirited bent, Kron says that Roth didn't exactly fit in. ("People were very standoffish and non-receptive to his eccentricities and sense of humor," Kron says.) Phoenix, however, had greater appeal and, thus, he moved to the Valley in 2010. Roth already had become acquainted with the downtown's culture scene after attending events at Trunk Space or interacting with local musicians and bands when they'd come up north.
Gil remembers meeting Roth at a show at Prescott venue La Casa Calavera shortly before the septuagenarian moved to Phoenix. According to Gil, it was where he helped Roth come up with his stage name and encouraged his rap career.
"He told me he was thinking about starting a rap project, but he was hesitant to do it initially," Gll says, "Getting to know him, I was like, 'Dude, you're Space-Alien Donald and you're the World's Oldest Gay Canadian Rapper and you have so much to offer.'"
Those proved to be prophetic words, as raps and rhymes about everything from robot sex to Martian marmalade weren't the only thing that Roth had to offer Phoenix. In 2011, he purchased a ramshackle three-bedroom house for a song and transformed it into ultra-colorful Funny World, named for the parody religion and life philosophy called "Must Be Funny" that the lifelong atheist devoutly followed. Roth allowed artists and musicians to live there and host shows.
Kron was one of its first residents.
"He kind of saw it as his Field of Dreams to an extent, which is how he'd phrase it, and we could live there rent-free and make it as weird as we wanted," Kron says. "He didn't care about his own fame. Like anything he did that got notoriety, it was really just a tool to encourage others to act out and get creative."
And Funny World's residents did just that. Inside its neon-colored walls, all manner of outsider art and indie gigs took place. The Phoenix scene fully embraced both Funny World and Roth, Kron adds.
"He tried to integrate into society in so many different places and I think that being a free-thinker made that hard at times. But moving here was a good change because Phoenix really embraced him and his eccentricities and his ideas," Kron says. "We kind of welcomed him with open arms and I think he was at his happiest here."
Roth was a constant presence at Funny World gigs.
"He just loved speaking to new people, he loved just walking around Funny World and talking with total strangers that were not run-of-the-mill conversations whatsoever," Kron says. "He was much more interested in getting to know other people and interacting with other people than being famous or boasting about himself."
Roth attended shows up until late last year when he was hospitalized after being unable to walk. Despite enduring three surgeries on his hips and spine and a multitude of painful procedures, Kron and Polland say he remained positive and creative, including working on his plans for a robotic space suit that would host his transplanted brain and enable him to live on Mars (a lifelong goal).
"He always claimed he was going to live forever and the subject was irrelevant. He thought he was going to live on Mars," Kron says. "He went through some really intense things in the hospital and if he was every worried about any of it, he had a hell of a poker face. Worrying? Anger? Sadness? He'd tell us that those aren't things for space aliens to feel."
"Yeah," Polland adds, "He'd tell us, 'Those are petty, human concerns.'"
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