Chef Ra died in his sleep this morning, sometime between 9 AM and 1 PM. He was 55 years old.
I first met the Great RA (Jim Wilson) shortly after my dad moved us to Urbana, Illinois. We were living in the faculty housing center and my brother and I had just gotten a go-cart. The first time we took it for a spin, a tall black kid our age appeared out of nowhere and starting chasing us down the sidewalk. "Where'd you get that thing?!" he shouted with such a big smile that my brother and I liked him immediately. Jim had a very positive, fun energy, and a very big heart. The next year, we moved a few blocks away, but Jim discovered us playing basketball in Mark Wetzel's driveway. After that he dropped by often to shoot hoops with us mere mortals. Jim had a towering ego at the time, being a starter on the Urbana Tiger football and basketball teams, as well as one of the biggest track stars in the state. He loved to take wild shots from across the street, and even made some. For us, it was like playing with Kobe Bryant.
When I got to High School, I started an underground newspaper, The Tin Whistle, and printed a letter about racism inside the athletic department. Jim got blamed for writing that letter, even though he was not the author. He got blamed only because the coach knew he was my friend. Unfortunately, that letter ended Jim's football career. As if that wasn't bad enough, around this time, his dad died. (His dad had been a popular assistant coach on the University of Illinois Fighting Illinios football team and his athletic mentor.)
Despite these obstacles, or maybe because of them, Jim became our senior class president at Urbana High, and organized many events (ceremonies) that actually helped heal the racism and other problems inside the school. But when he rode in the homecoming float next to the blonde-haired homecoming queen, many in the stands erupted with racist jeers.
Next time I saw Jim, I was walking a footpath to Woodstock, climbing a hill leading up to Yasgur's farm. He was positively beaming his huge aura. That was one of the happiest states I ever saw him in, hanging out on the trail leading into the festival.
When I got a job at High Times, Jim was one of the first people I contacted. He was known around town then as Rasta James or Ra and had become a fixture on the Midwest swing of the Grateful Dead Tour. (After Woodstock, Jim had traveled down to Jamaica and discovered Bob Marley.) He began throwing reggae concerts in Central Illinois, always cooking for the bands while they were in town. He was a grandmaster of all ceremonies, always generating fun events for enjoying life to the fullest. I learned a lot about counterculture spirituality by hanging around with him. Whenever I came to Urbana to visit my family, he was the person I contacted first.
RA had a bad case of asthma. He almost died during a barbecue he threw at Psychedelic Solution in New York over ten years ago. I loaded him into a cab and took him to the emergency room at St. Vincents Hospital, where they had to shoot him up three times before he could get any air. They can't do more than three shots, so he was lucky to pull through.
RA wrote a column for High Times on and off for 15 years called "Chef RA's Psychedelic Kitchen." High Times produced two videos with him: "Chef RA Escapes Babylon" and "Cooking with Pot."
Last week, we posted a video featuring him on YouTube: