Amma Grateful Dead Alexandra Palace Gurus Frauds Cults Eric Clapton
“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” - Carl Sagan
* This is sort of a follow-on to my previous post (Bullshit!) which referenced Amma, the so-called “Hugging Saint.” This is my attempt to explain what is really going on when people claim to have transformative experiences by hugging this woman.
“If gurus aren’t real then how come their followers have real experiences?”
Good question, grasshopper.
It may seem like I’m changing the subject but I want to ask you if you’ve ever been to a big rock concert of an internationally renowned act?
I mean a really big one: the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Beyoncé; genre doesn’t matter, any act with millions of devoted fans all over the world will do for the purposes of this thought experiment.
If you have ever attended such an event, you will have noticed the energy in the hall/stadium/amphitheatre when everyone’s waiting for the band to come on. Some fans, as you know, take their devotion to ludicrous extremes; spending their hard-earned cash flying all over the world to catch every single performance of a tour; naming their children after the band members; dressing like them, copying their haircuts, even having plastic surgery to resemble them.
These people, if they ever ran into their heroes at the local Starbucks would no doubt fall to their knees prostrate, forget how to speak, burst into tears and/or attempt to snatch a button off their idol’s jacket sleeve.
So whilst it’s safe to conclude that Eric Clapton is not, in fact, God, it’s equally comprehensible that according to graffiti found all over London circa 1965, he once was.
At least to some people.
That’s an early preview of my point, but I haven’t gotten there just yet and may have forgotten what it was by then, so remember that for me please.
Let’s go back to the rock concert.
OK, so there you are; the place is packed with excited fans and there’s an incredibly charged atmosphere as it gets closer to show time. If the band is late on stage (and the headliner ALWAYS is, for reasons that will become clear immediately after these parentheses) then the energy goes up a few more notches during the wait. It’s positively crackling in there! You could light your joint just by holding it above your head to catch some of the sparks.
What exactly is responsible for this tingling electrical buzz? Is it the band, our modern day shamen, sitting behind the curtain in deep trance, collecting their magical forces and silently transmitting a mega-bolt of emotional flash-lightening to the awaiting massive?
In all actuality, if they’re half-way respectable rock stars anyway, they’re far more likely to be backstage with a Jack and Coke, getting a pre-show blow job.
So the energy must be coming from within the crowd then, right?
The combined anticipation of a large number of people who all share similiar feelings for the band is feeding off itself, multiyplying and gathering force. Picture a snowball barreling down the mountainside, then – using your imagination – keep its momentum, but turn it into fire and make it go in a spiral instead of down.
You have just created a mental picture of what is happening inside the auditorium. It’s like a feedback loop that just continues amplifying and doubling. It’s the magic of the vibe: it increases itself exponentially by itself. If I knew calculus I could probably express it as an equasion. Alas.
Finally…the lights go down! This can only mean the band is about to come on! The vibe triples, quadruples, making the hairs on your arms get tiny erections. People exchange thrilled glances, squeeze each other’s hands, hug and kiss, they start to jump up and down, whistle, whoop, howl, scream declarations of love, someone shouts something funny and the people nearby all laugh out loud.
omigod omigod omigod omigod!
the hubbub the buzzz buzzz buzzz buzzz buzzz buzzz buzzz buzzz buzzz!
The stage lights come on. It doesn’t seem like it could get any higher, but the vibe shoots up another few notches.
Maybe some pyrotechnics go off, or a short piece of video art plays, or a cryptic voice-over of great portent. Laser beams ping all around the room in a lattice that exactly replicates the energetic spider’s web that’s drawing everyone closer in to the centre of the experience, the core of their own being; all of these techniques designed to prolong the penultimate moment before the Entrance and further heighten the uncomfortable, delicious tension.
The crowd is practically wriggling; there’s a surge to the front; but nobody minds getting crushed (yet); the screams get louder, adrenaline and oxytocin are flooding everyone’s nerve terminals. And then….
THE STARS COME ON STAGE!
The lead singer usually comes on last, often raising their arms above their head or in an outstretched attitude of embrace that implicitly includes every single person in the room. Sometimes they make a gesture of humility, like bowing with one hand on their heart or making the sign of prayer. How apt.
It’s like an explosion, like an internal simultaneous fireworks display. The crowd nearly levitates, the roar is deafening, the applause like Katrina on a corrugated tin roof.
Keep in mind that no-one’s played a note yet.
At this pregnant moment of loving expectancy someone in the band has to SERIOUSLY fuck up to stop the vibe of the audience from generating a brilliant performance out of ‘em.
This does of course sometimes happen, and as anyone who’s ever witnessed a crowd “turning” can attest, hell hath no fury like an audience that’s just been badly let down.
The very same individuals who will fork over hundreds for tickets, recordings and merchandise and get tattoos of the band’s logo on their necks, have absolutely no problem whatsoever with hurling a beer bottle directly at the face of their favorite rock star in the entire world, with intent to wound, should s/he stagger onstage in a wasted stupor and, in a croaking voice, forget the lyrics to the fan’s favorite tune.
But if it’s a top pro act, then all they have to do is capitalise on the vibe that’s been fire-snow-ball-spiralling while they were backstage, and they can turn it into a collective experience that approaches the transcendental. (In fact there is very little difference between descriptions of religious experiences and a fan’s account of the best concert ever.) Ideally then, a sort of energy exchange starts to happen between those on stage and those watching. The vibe has energized the band, now the band starts to give it back to the crowd.
AND – they’ve got electric guitars and really big speakers!
Now the energy has a form, a sound: it is MUSIC!
The best and highest and most magical of all the arts I don’t care what you say. It is MUSIC that moves us to our core like no painting ever could, sorry Leonardo, because you just can’t feel the vibrations of the colours in a painting in your cunt.
(Or cock or whatever.)
Or as Dick Clark might say of the Mona Lisa “well, it’s good…but you can’t dance to it.” Neither can you sing along (especially not whilst abrasive guards scream “KEEP MOVING!” in various languages as you shuffle past it in a herd, but that’s the subject of another essay).
The music, the heavy intoxicating music; its pulse, its deep, deep beat, its soaring melodic lines, its poetry; the music fills the space like ether escaping from the alchemist’s jar and EVERYONE is super-super fucked up and loving it.
When I say “everyone”, I do not of course mean literally everyone.
If you’ve ever accidentally ended up at a concert of a massive star that you don’t particularly care for because someone had a free ticket or something, then you will know exactly what I’m talking about.
I once got dragged along to a Phil Lesh and Friends show in Concord, California, despite a life-long inability to understand the musical phenomeon that was the Grateful Dead (Lesh having been their bassist, for those who share my indifference).
Maybe it’s unresolved trauma from that time my parents took me to see the Dead as a little kid in London in the 70s?
The only thing I remember about the show is that groupies stole our home-made apple pie from where we thought it was safely hidden backstage and it upset me in a really big way. I have a very clear visual of going to the wicker basket to get it because I was starving and then just the shock and disbelief when I pulled away the tea towel and the pie had seemingly vanished. I couldn’t understand what had happened and even thought at first we must have left it at home, even though I clearly recalled it being in the basket earlier.
That was my first personal experience of theft you see. I knew you weren’t supposed to take other people’s stuff and until that instant, I didn’t fully comprehend that there were those who did it anyway. I lost a shred of innocence that night. It’s perfectly fitting that it was an apple pie too; that American symbol of all things good and wholesome.
Nonetheless, I don’t think the stolen pie can be the sole reason why I have a deaf spot regarding the Grateful Dead. While I don’t mind a couple of their songs, I’ve never been able to “get” them really or to put my finger on what it was about them that inspired such mass adoration.
Their music has always struck me as slippery. It noodles along and slides and slithers here and there in a largely inoffensive way, but then just as easily it slips straight out of my ears and leaves no trace behind. It doesn’t stick in my head or throb in my soul.
It doesn’t make me cry.
But I agreed to go to the Phil Lesh show with my raver boyfriend (the Dead having gained a whole new audience on the back of nouveau psychedelic culture) because Bob Dylan was opening (!) and I’d never seen him. As it turned out none of the boyfriend’s bonehead pals, including the driver, bothered to look up directions to the venue, so we got lost on the way and arrived just as Dylan was taking his bow.
Already pissed off, I tried to be open to Phil and Friends, and to get into the groove that everyone else was clearly deep into. I hoped that since the Dead were famous for their live shows more than their studio recordings, now I’d finally understand what their fans had been frothing about all this time – having blocked out all memory of seeing them in their heyday, thanks to the apple pie incident. But because I didn’t feel the crowd’s anticipation, only a wary kind of apprehension, there was no way I could catch their buzz, no matter how many hits of acid I ate. (I know because I tried.)
It was a very strange feeling. I was “a part of” something, because I was there, physically present along with everyone else and yet, I was outside of it because I simply couldn’t connect with the scene. I felt like an anthropologist at first contact: I’m here with you but I do not know your ways.
People are just as fanatical about the many Dead off-shoot projects as they are about the original band, and so the lively atmosphere did not reflect whatsoever what I was personally feeling. Though I tried valiantly to battle my own preconceptions, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to dig the music. So I tried to stay neutral during the wait, but my true feelings bordered on dread. I’d missed Dylan and now I was stuck at this fucking Phil Lesh show!
Alone in my bubble, nothing could penetrate it. Strangers smiled rapturously at me, assuming I was as jazzed as they were. I smiled politely back, feeling nothing.
When the band came on, it was as I feared: I don’t like the Grateful Dead much, which – no surprise – this music sounded exactly like. Maybe they were even playing Dead songs, I really couldn’t tell you. It all sounds the same.
The slippery music slid around me, mainly passing right over my head, leaving me the strangely unaffected eye of a storm that was sending everyone else flying. Gradually, my feeling further degraded. I was no longer just unaffected, I was BORED and starting to get angry. The Dead were legendary for the length of their shows and I was getting a bad, bad feeling that its former members stayed true to the old tradition.
I suddenly remembered an old punk joke.
Q: What did the Deadhead say to the other Deadhead when they both ran out of weed? A: Dude, this band suuucks!
I chuckled and wanted to share the joke with someone else, but of course, there was no one to tell it to.
I couldn’t have been more out of synch if I’d tried. Eventually I started wandering around by the concessions area, figuring that anyone else who hated the show would probably be trying to get away from the speakers too. But I never found my kin.
It was a long lonely night.
Earlier I said the Dead’s music didn’t made me cry, but it did – just this once.
Seventeen decades later, when the show was finally over, and we were trying to part the mists of time and remember where the hell we’d parked, we ran into a young hippy kid with dreadlocks and a bloody head. He was tripping his balls off and had also evidently been selling doses at the show (note to budding drug dealers: this is generally ill-advised) with the result that he’d been jumped and been divested of both stash and cash. Somebody pointed him in the general direction of something and we eventually found our car and split. This encounter seemed like the perfect exclamation point to cap the evening.
So just think: if people can work themselves into a near frenzy about what is, objectively speaking (and to those not under the spell), a few other people thrashing away boringly on electronically amplified instruments, how high is the limit for those who believe they’re about to be touched, or HUGGED even, by the divine incarnate?
I understand that Amma keeps people waiting for their hug for ten hours or even more, while the public sessions of singing bhajans, devotional music, often last all-night.
She’d have to really suck ass at hugging not to leave most people satisfied after all that build-up.
By a sweet coincidence, I noticed while researching this piece that the last time Amma came to the UK, she did her thing at the Alexandra Palace.
That’s the very same venue where my apple pie got nicked by Deadheads back in 1974.
Peace and love, man.
Sorry, grasshopper, I think I forgot the question.
But hopefully that answered it.