The Mystic in the Arena: The Concert as a Spiritual Journey

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Photo courtesy the Museum of Pop Culture.

Author’s note: I originally wrote this article in the early 2000s for a pagan magazine called Crescent. At the time, I used the term “shaman” throughout the piece, a term which is appropriative. I know better know, and apologize for my ignorance. In this version, I have changed the language to refer to “mystics” instead, with one exception.

This piece also appears in my essay collection, Read the Music: Essays on Sound. You can buy a copy here or ebook here.

eattle’s Experience Music Project* opened in the year 2000, a majestic building that is part music museum and part teleportation device. At its heart is something creator Paul Allen calls The Sky Church: like the EMP itself, this central arena takes its inspiration from legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who envisioned that one day there would be a place where people from all different backgrounds could gather and talk about, listen to, and celebrate music.

It doesn’t take a creation like the EMP to remind music fans that attending a concert is very much a spiritual experience. Every year, we pay hundreds of dollars to join fellow fans in crowded concert halls and huge arenas to hear and experience music in a close, intimate, and often spiritual way.

In the arena, we are taken on a journey. Sometimes it is a simple journey to the places evoked by the music: summer beaches, fond memories, lost love, or new love. Other times, when the timing is right or when the musicians know what they’re doing (and sometimes when they don’t), the journey can be far more profound.

I attended a concert in 1999 put on by the rock band Live, which was playing at the Fillmore in San Francisco for the first time. Lead singer Ed Kowalczyk ― a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism ― was ebullient about the prospect of playing in such an historic venue, and the performance he gave evoked that powerful energy known to so many who’ve played at the Fillmore over the years.

As Kowalczyk and his bandmates played through the group’s songs, many of which relate Kowalczyk’s own theological and spiritual thoughts and experiences, a kind of group energy was being raised. It was the pagan cone of power, and each song was a chant, weaving an ever-tighter web around the audience, many of whom were not even aware of what was happening.

He related stories about a recent trip to the spiritual mecca of Sedona, Arizona and how he spoke to God directly in the desert as an introduction to Live’s song “The Distance.” Later, Live performed an evocative version of John Lennon’s “Imagine;” it was as though Kowalczyk was evoking the spirit of Lennon himself.

But as the concert drew to a close, it became apparent that Kowalczyk had no plans to bring his web of energy back down to Earth: he was going to leave those fans flying, ungrounded, into the night. Even though I was enjoying the energy, I was disturbed that he was using it in such a careless manner.

However, the event revealed one way in which the audience can be taken on a journey, and Kowalczyk has admitted he draws inspiration from those musicians who moved him when he was young: “It’s something I’ve always been passionate about,” he told MTVi, “which is the power of rock and roll itself. I’m a walking example of its power, ’cause I was totally altered … by bands, U2 in particular.”

Other musicians wield this energy with more respect. Tori Amos is one of them. Raised partly by her Cherokee grandfather, Amos was taught from an early age how to work with and shape energy, how to sense the energy of a place, and how to put this knowledge to use for personal growth and understanding.

In an interview with online personality Ana Voog, Amos talked about some of the methods she uses before she goes onstage to determine the vibe of a particular audience. “It’s about being a container,” she said. “It can be the whole stadium. But you have to be able to contain the energy in a room. And if you’re not willing, sometimes you get torn and ripped asunder. You have to really walk out there knowing that … a crowd can go into a riot real quick and you have to be able to harness the essences in the room.”

Amos warned that being able to tap into the energy of an arena crowd can have its consequences. “You have to know that you’re plugging yourself into this, obviously it’s not a physical plug, but it’s a 220 voltage. There is a risk you may get fried that night,” she said.

The other option is that the musician and the audience can have a joyful experience together, be it spiritual or otherwise. “You can turn it into, ‘I’ll make love with 50,000 people.’ I’ll change songs in the middle of a show because you have to surrender to things are changing every nanosecond and the muse is working through everybody there and through me. We’re having a relationship. This is a place where people can have free will and have their own journey, whatever they want it to be. And sometimes it has them running out of the theater,” Amos said.

One of Amos’ regular practices before a concert is to spend some time at the venue and in the city, listening to the land and connecting with its history, its energy. That energy changes every day, so she tries to do this before each performance, whether or not she’s been to that venue before.

During her shows, Amos said she tries to imagine that the venue is like a miniature version of the Earth, and that she herself is also an embodiment of the planet. “On another part of the planet, they’re having a volcano, down in the Caribbean, and people are losing everything they have. Somewhere else there’s a party going on, and a boy is discovering his sexuality and realizes he likes other boys. And to try and be all of these things, have all these things live in a show, Little Earth doesn’t blow up. But some of them are quite ferocious and some of them can be deliciously beautiful. But they all must exist for there to be Earth. That’s what fascinates me, is to try and contain all of those elements in one show,” Amos said.

A community relies upon its mystic to bring it new information and enlightenment; although the mystic most often exists on the perimeter of the community, he or she is seen as its spiritual leader.

One of rock’s most famous singers, Jim Morrison, fashioned himself as a modern-day shaman (a problematic and appropriative term, to say the least) and musical Dionysus. He often told the story that when he was a young boy, traveling along a desert highway in the American southwest with his family, they came upon a bad car accident in which a number of Native Americans had been seriously injured. Morrison claimed he saw one of them, a male elder, die, and felt the man’s soul enter his own. He considered the moment a pivotal one in his life, a memory that would guide him into a career as a rock and roll singer.

In his early years, first as a film student and later as a singer, Morrison experimented frequently with mind-altering substances; LSD, mescaline, and peyote were favorites. He even traveled to the desert to take peyote with American Indians there. By many accounts, Morrison was rarely if ever sober during those years; he could always be counted upon to be opening the doors of perception, as it were. “He really wanted to get out of himself, totally go to the ends, as far as you can go, every time,” said Doors drummer John Densmore in No One Here Gets Out Alive.

“I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that seems to have no other meaning,” was one of Morrison’s most famous lines. While his cohorts were studying transcendental meditation and Eastern mysticism, smoking pot and blissing out, Morrison was chasing existentialism ― reading Nietzsche, Sartre, Greek tragedy ― and that came through in the music. The Oedipal overtones of “The End” were a deliberate attempt to fly in the face of convention and make people take a step back from cozy reality: “Sophocles … called Oedipus the most sorrowful figure of the Greek stage … the type of noble man who despite his wisdom is fatal to error and misery, but who nevertheless, through his extraordinary sufferings, ultimately exerts a magical, healing effect on all around him, which continues even after his death. Jim liked that,” Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman wrote in No One Here Gets Out Alive.

Morrison’s music took Doors fans on many a journey, many of them positive; as ringleader of one of the most popular groups of the sixties, he had plenty of opportunities to take his audiences on a mutual “trip,” both literally and figuratively. Some nights, he took them through the gloomy underworld of his songs and brought them back to the surface, safe and unharmed, but potentially changed by the experience. On at least one occasion, Morrison jumped into the audience and led its members in a snake-dance throughout the auditorium.

But other nights, he took them on a journey no one wanted to take. On March 1, 1969, the Doors took the stage in Miami for the first time. Morrison had just been to see an experimental theater group called Living Theater, in which actors stripped naked and interacted with the audience, even provoking their anger.

After just a few songs, Morrison began shouting at the audience. He told them he didn’t want a revolution, he just wanted someone to come up on stage and “love my ass.” Then he began his attack: “You’re all a bunch of idiots … Lettin’ people push you around. How long do you think it’s gonna last? You’re all a bunch of slaves,” he taunted. “I’m not talking about no demonstration … I’m talking about dancin’. I’m talking about love your neighbor … “ He took off his shirt, which the audience grabbed ravenously. He then began unbuckling his leather pants, threatening to expose himself. Whether or not he did so is still a matter of controversy; he was later convicted of misdemeanor indecent exposure despite scant evidence.

However, his continual taunting, combined with his refusal to perform any music, incited perhaps the exact reaction he wanted: the audience rioted. No one was hurt, but the wreckage was vast: “The stage was broken and leaning dangerously, but more impressive were perhaps a thousand empty wine and beer bottles and panties and brassieres in sufficient quantity to open a well-stocked lingerie store,” Hopkins and Sugerman write.

The musician becomes the mystic, leading listeners to bliss, to dark and dangerous places, to enlightenment or disaster. Some musicians know what they are doing, and use their position to create a unity, a group experience; others unknowingly wield this power, some for better, and some for worse.

Hendrix recognized, however, the importance of music to the soul and culture of our society, and perhaps to all societies since the beginning of human consciousness. Whether we gather to worship in the arena, or experience devotion in private, music can have a profound impact on our psyche. The Sky Church may only just have been built in Seattle, but we enter it any time we enter the arena to share the experience of music.

* Now the Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPop.

Journalist, editor, author, opinionator. Bylines: Guardian, New Yorker, Vice, Mother Jones, Wired. Much more at www.bethwinegarner.com.

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