Eric G. Müller, Rites of Rock
One Man’s Journey Through 50 Years of Rock n’ Roll
Rites of Rock
Publisher: Adonis Press, 2005
Price: $14.95 U.S.
Trust our luck to be stuck behind a rolled over truck with thousands of paper towels, napkins, tissues, and toilet rolls spewed across the highway. Late again. In twenty odd minutes we were supposed to appear at the Metal Madness Festival in Sheffield for our dinky little half hour slot. All we could hope for was that Alf and the other roadies had made it in time to take care of things. Typical. Another glitch on the way — annoyingly symptomatic of our tour of Britain, so far. We’d hoped to get somewhat more exposure. But we’d been sandwiched in between better-known acts, and that too was now threatened.
“Screw this!” Nick suddenly shouted, revved the diesel engine of his white Mercedes and veered off the road onto the grass embankment, passing the long line of idling cars and the totaled truck, smashing into errant packs of toilet paper on the way — exploding them like well clobbered piñatas as we zoomed past the two bewildered bobbies, momentarily paralyzed by our audacity. Mobile once more, with fifteen fleeting minutes to spare, and police sirens wailing in our wake (soon turning into pathetic whimpers), we sped recklessly along the labyrinth of back roads, streets, alleys, one-ways...
We arrived at the large, old, defunct steel-factory-turned-concert-hall only ten-some minutes late. We’d made it. Just. Alf and the others were still setting up. We joined right in. No time for a sound check or a chance to put on our paraphernalia. We tried buying time, but it was utterly useless arguing with the acerbic promoter who saw us as nothing but a foreign nuisance. We were no-namers and had to comply. Hastily, I scanned the audience: an unruly beast decked out in the accoutrements of metal — testosterone, adrenalin, booze and drug driven, — nothing new or unexpected. Biggest crowd yet, however, but of course, they hadn’t come to hear us.
Unannounced, we were pushed onto the naked stage. Bluntly firing off into our set, we unexpectedly unleashed a furiously wild feedback. No sooner was that fixed than we noticed that half the monitors weren’t plugged in properly; Ragnar’s Gibson sounded like an asthmatic harpsichord, and Bodo’s bass, like an unstoppable tidal wave, flooded over everything else. The guy behind the mixing desk just ignored us, and we had Alf and Nick running around like mad trying to take care of the kinks in the sound. This was going to be one hell of a rollercoaster ride.
Cumulative rage in the face of futility saw us through. We just pumped out decibels, whatever the sound, grimacing, scowling, and contorting like a bunch of rabid Beelzebubs. But for all that, the languid audience didn’t waste its energies on us, treating our act like some bothersome TV commercial in the midst of a feature film, save for some diehard head-banging metallers and a spaced-out blonde who gyrated, swirled and shrieked like a hoarse banshee throughout our set, with a parrot on her shoulder — the poor bird continually fluttering around in its attempt to find a secure perch. I turned all the knobs on my keyboard battery to ten, and screamed my lungs out — one big fusillade of up-yours and in-your-face sonic assault.
After our dismal stint we quickly dismantled our gear, determined to get the hell out of there. But we were stopped by the promoter who motioned for us to step into a makeshift office. After the barrage of bright stage lighting, we could barely make out the person behind the desk in the dimly lit room.
“You blokes have bloody fucking attitude,” he said wryly by way of introduction, tittering cynically under his breath from out of the shadows. “My compliments to you.” And without another second’s wait he continued, “So, here’s the deal: I’ve got a gig for you tomorrow night, if you want it. I had a word with your road manager, Nick, and he thought you’d be game.”
“Where, when, and what’s in it for us?” Bodo asked, quickly adding, “Tomorrow’s Sunday, you know. We hoped to have the day off.”
“It’s all in here,” and he tapped his fist on a large envelope. “All the information you’ll need and a thousand pounds in cash. And after the concert you’ll get another grand — if you adhere to all the instructions.” Bodo, about to respond, was curtly silenced when the amorphous looking man lifted his hand in a commanding “if you please” gesture, simultaneously leaning forward so we could see his sweat-filmed face more clearly (remarkably effeminate, I thought, in contrast to his scabrous, authoritative voice), his eyes scintillating like tiny blades of steel: “You will drive out to St. Timothy’s Cathedral, near Manchester. Your crew will set up between three and five in the afternoon. You, the group, will arrive punctually at nine and start playing at exactly 9:15. Not a second sooner, no later. You will play until 12:06, to the minute — without a break. You will pick up the rest of the money in the font between the two pillars near the western door. Then you will leave — immediately. Absolutely no tarrying,” he restated, with marked emphasis. “Have your roadies pick up the equipment between ten and eleven, Monday morning. Not before. The exact directions and some additional details you’ll find clearly delineated in this here envelope,” tapping it once again with his knuckles. “All I want from you now is a simple answer: yes or no. Two thousand pounds in cash — take it or leave it. What do you say?”
It didn’t take us long to decide. Though it meant another performance in our already full itinerary, we savored the idea of some more boodle filling our perennially empty pockets. The stipulations did seem a bit strange, but we laughed it off as some dumb crack pseudo-gothic game. After a short huddle we agreed to the terms and signed a contract.
“Mind that you execute the conditions to the dot, otherwise you will forfeit the outstanding money.” He smiled wryly, handing me the large brown envelope, stamped with a raven headed angel in the corner. And I couldn’t help but notice a beautiful jade-studded ring on his little finger. Now where had I seen one like that before?
“Oh, and stick around for a while. There are some good bands still to hit the stage. Take the stairs immediately to your left; they lead up to the balcony where you’ll have the best view with nobody to disturb you. It’s off-limits to the public.” With that he dismissed us with a quick wave of his hand, leaning back into the shadows.
Having just scored a lucrative gig, we felt significantly redeemed, and our self-confidence was partially restored. We did opt to stay for at least a while longer, glad to check out what some of these supposedly cutting edge metal heads really had to offer. As Swiggy went to let the others know of our change in plans, we made ourselves comfortable in the balcony. Nick arrived soon after, with two six-packs of beer, one in each hand, grinning. “This turned out better than expected — time to celebrate, man — here catch,” and he began chucking cool cans our way.
The group, Lick Me Bad, a local band with a cult following, immediately got the audience yowling and bellowing, stomping and thrashing in front of the stage. This death metal band riled the crowd into a writhing mass of disaffected humanity, cultivating a well-choreographed devil mania, their carny antics saluted with testimonial salvos of horned fists and snaky tongues. They played at a febrile pace, their sound a jumble of simultaneous solos — bass, drum, and lead — all solidly pillared by colossal power chords, interspersed with unintelligible words roared into the mike by the band’s massive front man, his face sporting a gruesome “fright mask” à la Kiss. With all of their raw and menacing big-shotism, it was a facade; there was something zany about them — almost a spoof of the scene. Halfway through their set, the pale and muscular blonde girl with the plucky parrot appeared again. She was fascinating to watch, with her black net stockings on arms and legs; boots strapped with chain, a studded belt around a black satin mini skirt, and spiked hand guards. She stood out, not only by her striking looks and the scarcity of girls in the male-dominated audience, but by the lascivious way she could move her taut body. It was the parrot I felt sorry for, the harried creature having to put up with the threshold of pain decibels and her erratic dancing. As we watched, a brawl broke out in the mosh pit and a circle cleared immediately around those fighting. It was a mismatched affair: three guys bashing relentlessly into a fallen youngster on the ground. Someone from the crowd pushed one of the assailants back, and, as it happened, right into the obliviously cavorting blonde, who — coming to her senses — instantly smacked him across his cheek, eliciting a round of galvanized laughter. To save face he tried to punch her, but she ducked with surprising speed, elbowing him solidly in the jaw. Enraged, he lunged at her, pulling her to the ground, but only for a second, before she’d wriggled free and was up again, with another fist landing on his nose. His friend, seeing his dilemma, took a break from kicking his fallen foe, and ruthlessly grabbed hold of her long hair from behind. How astonished he was to find himself with nothing but a blonde wig in his hand. The thrilled mob bawled with laughter, goading them on with vindictive glee. No less startled, I jabbed the others next to me, shouting, “Check this out, man. That chick’s no chick at all! It’s the guy who got us the gig.” And sure enough, there he was, now easily recognizable, sans the flowing locks. The parrot all the while was squawking and flapping over his head. By now our drag queen had yanked out a knife, coolly facing his enemy — the band still playing with obliterating energy. The three were slowly closing in on him, one of them threateningly swinging a heavy chain; but he stood his ground, quietly watching their every move with unnerving lassitude. Even from my vantage point I could see those steel eyes burning. Then, all at once, he lashed out, kicking the chain-wielding man flat in the groin, punching the second in the throat, while slashing the third across the back of the hand, drawing blood, and simultaneously retrieving his wig with the tip of his knife — all in one swift, fluid movement. Then he gestured to the side and two security guys appeared, roughly escorting the three fops from the premises. Replacing his wig, our mysterious employer helped the unfortunate, vomiting victim off the ground and disappeared with him in the opposite direction, the parrot safely perched back on his shoulder. The clearing closed and the mad night raged on as if nothing had happened.
There were more quirky instructions in the document: our roadies weren’t allowed to communicate with any of us musicians immediately before or after the concert. Once inside the church, we had to cease talking with one another and walk straight through the center aisle to the raised platform directly by the altar. We had to remain in our playing area throughout the concert, after which we were to egress the same way we entered. The pause between songs was to be no longer than thirty seconds. Walking around the premises was strictly forbidden.
We decided to treat it as a game, and play it out to the letter. After all, the money was right, and we didn’t want to jeopardize any of it. We arrived just before nine. The ride out through the country from Manchester took longer than expected. The impressive cathedral, with a crumbling wall around its cemetery, was solidly saddled between two spinneys. Many cars were already parked outside, mostly in the surrounding fields or along the narrow road. We wondered and speculated upon what kind of audience awaited us, and what the whole spectacle was about. Obviously some private affair — but why? — by whom? Lingering anxiously in the car, we alighted exactly on the hour and walked toward the unusual venue. It was uncannily silent. All dressed up in our metal regalia, our made-up faces glistening in the light of a murky moon, we must have made an unlikely posse as we marched slowly toward the heavy main door. Gusts of wind blew through our long hair, the boughs of an old yew tree groaning, as we crunched the pebbles beneath our black army boots. No sound whatsoever emanated from within the church. The tall and narrow stained glass windows cast opalescent blades of light out into the night. I felt a slight unease as we halted momentarily on the granite steps outside the church. What had we let ourselves in for? Was there more behind the bizarre conditions than some eccentric fool’s idea of a practical joke? I guessed the others must have had similar thoughts, but after exchanging a few quizzical looks, Bodo mumbled,“Was soll’s. Auf los geht’s los,” brashly pushing open the massive door of the ‘portal royal.’ We weren’t prepared for what met our eyes and we stood as though transfixed — dumbfounded. We’d imagined all sorts of scenarios, but we hadn’t bargained on this: The spacious cathedral was entirely empty. Not a soul in sight — but for a frightened lone pigeon fluttering up in the rafters, disturbed by our sudden entrance. Spotlights shone onto the raised main altar (covered in black cloth), surrounded by our gleaming equipment, meticulously set up, plugged in, and ready to go. Not letting on how flummoxed we were, and adhering to the written agreement sentencing us to silence now that we’d stepped inside the hallowed space, we walked reticently to the front, climbed the five steps to our designated site, and mechanically donned our guitars, taking our places behind our respective microphone stands, drums, and keyboards. Two crates of beer and a bottle of Jameson were left for us on the altar. Nice touch. Thus arming ourselves with beers, and gratefully passing around the whisky, we pacified our nerves, hoping to shorten the weird wait until 9:15. There was definitely something absurd about biding out the six remaining minutes in this eerily empty “house of God,” especially against the backdrop of what we were about to do: commence a two-hour-and-fifty-one-minute concert, featuring the most violent, depraved, loud, and extreme form of musical manifestation. In those interim minutes, I wondered about all the sermons that had been delivered within these walls over the centuries, the ongoing communion of people with the higher worlds, through contemplation and prayer, from one generation to the next — a place of confluence for humanity’s joys, sorrows, hopes, and regrets — a source of strength with which to tackle daily challenges. What all had transpired in this place of devotion and worship? I distinctly felt I was transgressing; this was an anarchic confrontation between the sacred and the profane... Another swig of whisky and my thoughts shifted: Would people suddenly appear? Was it a surprise party for some wacko celebrity or rich goofball? I looked around for some clues, but everything seemed normal — apart from the anomaly of a heavy metal band about to give a performance to rows of empty pews, though the soft hiss and hum of the amplifiers seemed like a sacrilegious intrusion, as did the odd yelps and grunts escaping from the reined-in guitars — just raring to bolt out of their cages. These noise-snippets only heightened the feeling of vacuumed silence. Was there really no one at all around? What about all the cars outside? We’d do our thing. Whatever...
At exactly 9:15 atomic time, we rammed into the opening riff of our signature piece — What Do You Expect? — brutally shattering the silence, assailing the cathedral’s past, at a horrendously frenetic pace.
We were watched. I felt it distinctly. Every second. At times I thought I saw fleeting movements out of the corner of my eyes. Nothing definitive. The spotlights were blindingly bright, making it impossible to see into all the dark crevices, the shadows cast by the massive pillars. In-between, I thought I heard voices, but it was hard to distinguish anything above our own wall of sound. Pausing momentarily between pieces, I was struck by the singular silence that followed the natural echo produced by the large vaulted ceiling, the thick solid walls, and the galleries and niches around us. Persuading myself that it was just my mind playing tricks, I refocused on the music, only to hear distinct laughter, shouting, chanting, and insufferable wailing, once again. Was it coming from the subterranean crypt usually situated below a cathedral — the often large chamber made to house graves and relics; or alternatively, from one of the smaller chapels to the left or right of us, shrouded in darkness? Might I be hearing things from across the beautifully carved screen behind the altar? Paranoid, I found myself fighting a fear that jostled my bowels, steadily spreading up my spine, tying my solar plexus into a Gordian knot, freezing up my chest. I fought it. Rejected it. Dismissed it. My valiant attempts, though, were short lived, and the fear, like an ugly fiend, spread itself throughout my innards. How were the others faring? Were they experiencing the same traumatic dread? The emptiness, coupled with the certainty of an invisible presence, was suffocating. Why weren’t there any people? I ached for a crowd — a normal, regular crowd. At least there’d be tangible interaction. A clear them-and-us feeding off one another. My limbs were under attack; fear was making them leaden. What had we let ourselves into? It’s just another gig, I tried to tell myself, to no avail. With another gulp of whisky, washed down with beer, I sought to erase my guilt and extinguish my conscience — return to whatever.
Then came the turnabout. Swiggy, our precise, reliable, but somewhat unimaginative drummer, suddenly began to sizzle. Where was that coming from? New beats emerged from nowhere. His foray into rhythmic acrobatics was stunning. I quite forgot my own dementia. Every roll, syncopated beat, polyrhythmic interjection, was perfect — and like some super glue, it bound the rest of us together. Bodo, on his bass, pulled off some gymnastic feats of his own, and soon the two of them were clutched in a communal wrestling match of staggering calisthenics. It was intoxicatingly exhilarating, and, finally forgetting my own tentacles of fear, I followed suit, building harmonies around their rhythms, climbing on the footholds they’d sculpted, joined almost at once by Ragnar, whose singular guitar solo jumped head-on into the vibrational winds of sound and soared into the heights, beckoning, imploring, daring me to follow. I dared, and, like two swooping eagles, we circled the alpine peaks fashioned by the condensed sound of the thickly stratified beat of Swiggy and Bodo’s rhythm section, which reached right down into the nether worlds, as we, in turn, rocketed into the stratosphere with our piercing blasts of melody. My fingers had taken on a life of their own. My fear had given way to another entity that now caroused through my body, surfing on the surfeit fluids secreted by my ecstasy. I was no longer in charge but felt charged, tripping on the sensation. I’d given way, as I knew the others had. To what? Something had taken over, and I instinctively knew what note to play next. Tokolosh had become a single body, a force greater than the sum of its parts. I’d felt it before, but never like now. We were surpassing ourselves.
Although the pews were still empty of people in front of us, something else was going on, and at last we felt as if we had an audience — of an unwonted, entirely unexpected, unfathomable sort. An imponderable substance of life with a rank, degenerative odor filled the space — inexplicably illusive to sense perception, as real as the blood thumping through my temples. A shuffling, squeezing, wheezing, clamoring crowd that pervaded our psychic space — far, far greater than could ever have fit physically into this cathedral. Had we raised them from the dead? Were they the lost and lovelorn souls of the disembodied? The fallen spirits in Lucifer’s service? Satanic manifestations from the dungeons of our own subconscious? Or simply figments of my own tormented imagination, the result of a wild phantasmagoria induced by too much whiskey? No, I did not believe so! The experience was too substantive. I was too conscious of their ravenous presence. We were actors in a psychodrama. More disconcerting, however, was the knowledge that someone or something was playing us. I’d let myself go, and was partly inhabited. Looking at my band-mates, I recognized the same was true for them. Their expressions had changed — vacant, yet oddly impelled. But where was all this leading? I resented not being fully in control. I rebelled against this invasion of my consciousness — no matter what apparent raptures I was enjoying. Admittedly, my emotions were foaming over with dissolute delight, but they’d been seduced. My fingers, my limbs as such were doing their own thing — hence, the technical brilliance of my playing — but it wasn’t inspiration — rather possession. My head was the last bastion of myself I refused to surrender. I’d lost two out of three members of my human make up; I refused to relinquish the third — so I persisted, holding on furiously to my thoughts. The third monster was fighting for supremacy. I was no match for it. I’d give in. I was losing ground. Fighting it only increased the renewed fear I was beset with. It would be so much easier to just give in — so much more comfortable — and I could still be privy to the shared sensation, let myself be driven by a sub-human consciousness, the very one enabling me to play like never before. But to let go was to forego my freedom — for I hadn’t chosen it, but was occupied, unsolicited. At last my resistance faltered — I lacked the strength. At length, I just let go — the ultimate in self-indulgence! Vaporously, I witnessed my own downward spiral. There was a thrill to it. I’d become a blazing automaton. Climactic demise. My last thought — whatever.
That scream! The epitome of human terror, heart wrenching and piercing, ended it all! It seared through to the furthermost corner of the cathedral, shattering the ecstatic spell we were under on the spot. Still, the scream, uttered in pure dread, seemed to echo endlessly throughout the place, and our minds. We were jolted back to sanity. Silenced. It was exactly 12:06. Had it not been for the scream, we might have missed the moment. Now, once again, the same hollow emptiness surrounded us as it had when we’d first entered the church. Shocked and shaken, we switched off all the amps, left everything as it was, and like fugitives, made our way down the aisle. Passing the baptismal font near the western door, Ragnar found the rest of the promised money. None of us had seen anybody place it there.
We were no sooner out in the open, with the main door shut fast behind us, than the lights in the cathedral were abruptly snuffed. Complete darkness. The moon had set, clouds had gathered, and the distant rumbles of thunder hinted at an impending storm. Lighting cigarettes, we walked back to the car, guided by the faint glow they exuded. All the other swanky cars were still there. Nothing at all had changed. Growing accustomed to the darkness, I looked back once more at the formidable edifice, just as a figure — the face momentarily illuminated by a dull shaft of light — turned aside, hurrying down some stone steps into a side entrance of the cathedral. I didn’t tell the others what I’d seen — barely convinced of the apparition myself.
Later that night I lay alone in my motel room, unable to sleep, listening to the approaching thunder. I felt out of tune with my true self. Images of the weird concert revolved ceaselessly around my mind — another episode exemplifying my defiant effort to live out an iconographic life of pop culture. I could barely knit my thoughts together, so I just lay there, thankful for the peace and quiet, undisturbed, except for the melodic rain that now began to accompany the encroaching rolls of rumbling thunder. Called up by this primal music, childhood memories gradually surfaced, erasing the modern iron man I fancied myself to be. I’d certainly come from a different age, a different time, a different continent, a different culture, and a different heritage — a different everything. “A stranger in a strange land.” The thunder clapped louder as I sank deeper into the past, welcoming the pictures growing ever more lucid with the storm’s gradual, but benevolent advance. Involuntarily, I listened to nature’s secret rhythms, its drumming and percussive pulses massaging and kneading my tired body, my weary soul, my besieged spirit, singing me to sleep with its accompanying torrential chants — until, at last, I found my needed rest in the tranquil eye of the storm.
Copyright © 2010 by Eric G. Müller