I missed a lot of concerts when I was young. Mostly because I was a huge nerd who spent his Saturday afternoons watching re-runs of Xena Warrior Princess instead of building relationships with other human beings. I blame the media. What thirteen year old is equipped to handle a leather bound Lucy Lawless getting flirty with blonde ingénues? It´s all PG TV boobs´ fault that I didn´t get into music until later in life.
Looking back on all the shows I never got to see makes me wish I had an eccentric inventor friend, an Emmett Brown type to whisk me into the past so that I could 1) take no part whatsoever in the romantic or sexual pairing of my own parents, and 2) see some wicked ass shows. There are so many greats to choose from; The Last Waltz, the first tour of the Blackstar album, that time David Bowie performed with Sonic Youth, any Beatles concert with Billy Preston shredding it on the organ… History has so much amazing live music.
But let’s face it, eccentric inventor types or rock and roll wizards or whatever deus ex machina we’re using here tend not to be reliable for more than one go-around. I’d probably only get one shot, one show to catch before the flux capacitor ran out of juice and the whole operation fell apart. So if I could go back in time and catch just one show it would have to be truly epic. I wouldn’t be heading back to hit Woodstock or to see Beethoven drop D minor bombs on Viennese high society or even to catch the first performance of Dance With the Devil in Brooklyn. No. I would ask that genie or wizard or eccentric old inventor guy to send me back to 250 BCE, to the central highlands of Peru to see the last show of Chavín De Huántar.
These guys aren’t so well known now but they were big in the South American scene from around 800BCE. By the time I’d show up some 550 years later their set would be tight. And by that point these guys were huge. Like, HUGE. People would walk for weeks from as far away as Ecuador to catch this gig. And that’s super important for my purposes. If I show up speaking english, wearing black jeans, a flannel button down shirt and a sweater my mom knit me it wouldn’t be that crazy to these guys. They’re constantly getting foreign (presumably bearded) hipsters dropping by. As long as I could pay the cover they’d for sure let me in. And as far as the cover goes Chavín de Huántar were pretty loose about payment; gold, shells, corn, fancy looking stones, pretty much anything could get you in. If I brought them a flashlight or something I’d probably get a V.I.P. pass. And how badly could one flashlight fuck up the course of human history? Probably not much, right?
Great. So we’re set. I tell the Rock and Roll Wizard what’s up and he uses his enchanted Fender to send me through space and time to the last concert of Chavín de Huántar.
The lights start flashing, a totally sweet riff echoes through the inter-dimensional void aaaand fuck yeah! I’m here!
Wait, where the fuck am I?
The first thing I notice is that my breathing is a little strained because that’s what happens when you go up 3000 meters in a hot second. Then I see high peaks on all sides of me and rivers running down into agrarian communities below. I´m surrounded by pilgrims/concert-goers slowly climbing up a gentle slope towards a massive one story stone temple that doubles as a stage. The temple/stage has no visible ingress of any kind, it’s highly ornamented with archways, carvings of wildlife and massive, half-ton heads poking out the walls at regular intervals the whole way around. When I look a little closer I can see that each of these heads is slightly different, it seems to show the gradual transformation of a man into a cat. I start walking with the crowd. I reach security, pay the cover (A flashlight? A box of matches? A wheel?) and get handed a clay mug filled with drugs.
Because that’s how every show these guys have put on for the last 500 years has started; with everyone – attendants, performers, techies, EVERYONE – drinking a goddamn pint of mescaline.
Next thing I know I’m wandering around the mountain top taking in the pre-show: dudes in full shaman-priest regalia are chanting, hitting percussion instruments and playing flutes made out of shells and gourds. It’s starting to get dark and the bonfires are being lit. I’m getting kinda light headed so I stop by a boulder just off the mainstage and notice some folks staring into deep puddles that have formed in the grooves of the stone. I can’t figure out what they’re doing, and one of them is gesturing for me to join them. My belly kinda hurts from the cactus smoothie I just downed and I´m happy to have the opportunity to sit. Peering into the dark water I see it; the slow, glorious birth of every constellation in the southern hemisphere.
Soon night arrives, but the moon and the fires keep things well lit and warm. My stomach is no longer bothering me so I stand up and feel my body stretch in the wonderful, satisfying way it does under the influence of psychedelics. I approach the mainstage, the show is about to start.
The band appears and disappears from the stage as if by magic. They’re wearing costumes of gold and silver, feather and bone, the vocals rise and fall with the soaring and crashing crescendos of the percussion section, the wind instruments blend harmoniously with the orchestra with a droning, haunting, glory that celebrates the terrible God of the Chavín. Suddenly, without warning, the earth begins to tremble and the sky itself seems to shake and nearly fall, it’s as if an ancient and unconscionable being is stirring to wakefulness.
It’s the bass kicking in.
Played by a dozen musician-priest, the mountain itself has been transformed into an instrument.
Water, cascading down from the glacial peaks above has been controlled; the flowing stream has been directed carefully through aqueducts under the earth. The water’s been squeezed, confined, it moves fast and hard, pushing enormous quantities of air along with it. Holes have been punctured into these aqueducts from the surface of the mountain and, when uncovered, the rushing water forces the air out of these holes and with it the deep, throaty song of the mountain itself. Multiple punctures allow for multiple notes, effectively transforming the entire peak into one, monstrous wind instrument.
At this point I’m stoned out of my gourd and almost certainly flipping my shit. I’m cheering, throwing my underpants on the stage, screaming like a 12 year old girl at an N’Sync concert in 1997. It’s pretty much the best.
And for most of the audience that’s it. Shows over. Time to buy your overpriced hoodie, find you llama and try to get your strung out ass home. But because I’ve got a rock and roll wizard, a djinn of the dance if you will, I’ve got a back stage pass. I’m a V.I.P.. As all those other suckers file their way off the mountain and back to their quinoa farms or whatever I’m escorted to one of the stage/temple’s secret entrances where I’m given another pint of mescaline. After a none-too-lengthy purification ritual I’m ushered through the passage and into the darkness of the temple, alone.
Inside the walls are close and cool, the ceiling is low and I’m forced to bow my head as if in worship. At regular intervals small holes appear in the walls providing a minimal supply of moonlight and fresh oxygen. In the near-perfect darkness I start to wander and almost immediately find myself lost. Kilometers of a stone labyrinth fold in on itself, dead end and lead deeper into the earth. All around me but always out of sight the band plays a private show; new instruments unleash terrifying sounds that reverberate between the stone walls. The calls of parrots and the roars of jaguars are so real that they confuse my mescaline soaked mind and I start to panic and run. The song of the mountain begins again, pushing me deeper and deeper into the bowels of the temple.
Disoriented, scared, entertained and stoned I stumble into a darkened chamber and suddenly there is silence. I stand up straight, the ceiling is 10 meters high but in the darkness it might as well reach the firmament. Rows of pillars fade into complete darkness on all sides of me. Slowly, faintly at first, the beating of skin drums begin to sound.
Thump… Thump… Thump…
Like a heartbeat the rhythm is unerring. Sound fills the chamber bouncing off stone and I have the strangest sensation that the beat is coming from all sides simultaneously. It’s coming from the walls and the pillars and the very air itself.
The volume of the heartbeat gets turned up, now accompanied by the chanting of a hundred voices (or is it just one?) in a language 1000 years dead. As I cautiously step further into the chamber I become overwhelmed with terror, yet I’m compelled to move on, the rhythm intensifies, becoming louder and faster, the chanting grows deeper and more threatening as it quickens.
Suddenly two things happen.
First, the mountain song begins again. This time louder, with no melody; it’s no song now, it’s a scream. It is as if the earth itself were howling with rage. Second, a blast of living heat bursts into the chamber from above accompanied by moving orange and yellow lights that illuminate a giant statue in what I only now perceive to be the center of the chamber. The heartbeat quickens again, matching my own; racing now in absolute terror. The chanting blends with the howl of the mountain, forging the voice of an old and hateful God.
The statue is hideous, rising to the top of the chamber it’s all teeth and weapons, it possesses all the violence of beast and man. The suddenness of its appearance, the illumination of such a grotesque and awe-ful being after hours of darkness is almost too much to bear. Although I know it’s only stone I see its teeth gnash and its limbs reach out to destroy my very essence; to consume and annihilate me. I scream and flee back into the darkness but the way I came is now blocked by an impassible stone. Instead I run into a passage I swear wasn’t there before and still feeling the demon at my back I run up what might be 10 or 100 steps in perfect darkness. Panting, sweating, gripped with fear, I tumble out of the labyrinth and onto the grassy slopes of the now silent mountain. Relief washes over me as I gaspingly choke on the cool pre-dawn air.
I’m embraced by the smirking priests/rock-stars and am taken to sit on stone benches arranged in a semi-circle just offstage where together we watch the sky get light over the glacier peaks that surround us.
By Guest Contributor / Traveling Writer – at – Large Billy Cudgel