Sunday Stories: “We Could Have Been Cavemen”

We Could Have Been Cavemen
by Justin Feinstein  

“You guys want to go to a Rainbow Gathering this weekend?” Kenson asked.

Brian and I exchanged perplexed glances.

“What’s a Rainbow Gathering?” Brian replied.

“A bunch of hippies get together in the woods, bang on drums, eat mushrooms, you know, shit like that,” Kenson explained, then exhaled a long funnel cloud of pot smoke.

My first semester as an unremarkable drummer at the Berklee College of Music had come to a merciful end. I watched in envy as clusters of students shared curbside bear hugs and tears, many off for summer tours; others to lounge in vacation homes and estates around the world; and some as Berklee graduates, joining the legions of fellow alum in New York, LA and Nashville. But I had made no lasting musical connections in the preceding months and faced a summer void of opportunity or obligation. I took long strolls along the Charles River to break up the monotony of endless days spent lingering in our un-air-conditioned apartment.

Brian had been passing the time reading obscure religious texts, his newest passion, and books on Islam, Catholicism, Judaism and Santeria had begun to pile up in his room. He was an easygoing, unassuming guy, but not much of a musician. Brian suffered from a lack of focus common to Berklee students. One week he wanted to be a blues guitarist, the next week he was a jazzer, then a rocker, then it was jazz again. Pat Metheny, the fusion guitar god, seemed to be the only mainstay of his musical schizophrenia. Like an unattended hose, Brian’s energy sprayed wildly in one direction and then another.

On one of my aimless neighborhood strolls, I bought an origami book from a craft store on Newbury Street, spontaneously revisiting an old childhood interest. I began passing the time transforming large, multicolored squares into miniscule giraffes and crabs, smudged with fingerprints and wrinkled by sweat. Every few hours one of us wandered into the other’s room.

“Did you know that Santeria is practiced in Haiti and Cuba?” Brian asked.

“Look, a lobster,” I responded.

We clung to each other in similarly hopeless states, rarely discussing our musical stagnancy, instead listening to whatever long-forgotten record Brian had bought in the dollar bins that day, while choking down a bottle of cheap red wine. We were kindred spirits. Lost musical souls.

So, despite its obvious trappings, and what was sure to be our blatant outsider status, Brian and I could definitely make time for Kenson’s Rainbow Gathering.

Kenson had drifted into our lives a few weeks earlier, starting out as a new weed connection, but becoming a mainstay at our apartment once Brian discovered Kenson’s obsession with Indian music. The rhythms of Kenson’s listless summer seamlessly entrained themselves with ours and, predictably, Brian threw himself headfirst into Kenson’s world, first dubbing and then endlessly playing Kenson’s raga recordings. I didn’t mind the music – the percussion was mesmerizing, and the long, meandering, meditative pieces provided exotically zoned-out listening – but Kenson made me nervous. He was a notorious Berklee drug dealer, and brought with him the requisite skittishness of someone with one eye constantly peeking over his shoulder. Kenson feared robbery and arrest, both distinct possibilities, but he was constantly high, and therefore significantly more paranoid.

The morning of the Rainbow Gathering, Kenson stopped by with a pre-ride joint, I lugged my old conga down the stairs and we left our building with more of a sense of purpose than any of us had enjoyed in weeks. We had a destination. A gathering to attend.

A few hours later, we were cruising through Western Massachusetts, windows down, blasting John McLaughlin’s Shakti. It felt liberating to escape Boston, to breathe air free of exhaust or smoke, to see forests and fields extend toward the horizon. Eventually we crossed into Vermont and began the trek northward while clusters of pine trees and foothills shot up all around us.

“Nature is so fucking awesome,” said Kenson, holding the roach of a joint with tweezers.

“Yeah, man,” said Brian.

We slowed down in Brattleboro, looking for a turnoff, eventually spotting a few balloons tied to a tree, the way one might mark a house for a birthday party.

“That’s it!” said Kenson.

“You sure?” I asked. It didn’t seem very official.

“It’s gotta be,” he said.

Brian navigated the car up a long, winding dirt road, through pine forest, eventually parking at the top near a few other cars. A short path lead us to a huge open lawn, where a few older hippies had congregated. I had been dragged to a few Phish shows in the past, and these guys looked the part of the devoted, the lifers.

“Is this everyone?” I whispered to Brian, who shrugged while Kenson made small talk with the hippies.

We decided to wander in the woods for a while, hoping that things would pick up by the time we returned. If a crowd did arrive, the location was ideal: an enormous, sprawling field with a circumference of thick pine forest. I left my conga next to a tree stump, then we found and followed a creek halfway down the mountain, scampering up and down its banks and skipping stones into crystal clear water, which we lapped up like wild animals.

Kenson was right – nature was fucking awesome.

About an hour later we returned to the mountaintop and were delighted to find a substantial increase in attendees and activity. At least a hundred people had arrived and many of them were pitching tents on the far side of the lawn. A steady stream of cars – old VW vans and bumper sticker-coated station wagons – lumbered towards an overflow parking lot on the edge of the forest.

We wandered back across the lawn as Rainbow Gatherers embraced, threw Frisbees, kicked hacky sacks, spread out blankets and let dogs run loose.

“I’m going to get us some mushrooms,” announced Kenson. On the ride there, he’d mentioned his plan to barter weed for the hallucinogen.

Brian and I had approved of the idea, having shared a fantastic mushroom experience a month prior on Patriot’s Day, the holiday exclusive to Boston, when the whole city shuts down, thousands of people run the Boston Marathon and everyone else drinks all day. We wove our way through the city’s crowds, at one point dancing for what felt like hours at a Reebok promo tent, next to an enormous inflated shoe. It was as if the entire day had been scripted for a trip: warm weather, a huge congregation of festive people, and endless eye-candy – the post marathoners wrapped in their little silver capes shimmered like a school of fish. But this Rainbow Gathering held even more promise.

While Kenson shared joints and made friends, I looked back across the lawn. My conga was now surrounded by at least fifty other drums – crudely carved djembes, huge Brazilian surdos, ashikos etched with swirls, stars and moons. High, enjoying the scenery and lacking Kenson’s social ambition, I desperately wanted to play my conga.

“When does the drumming start?” I asked Brian.

“I don’t know, but something’s happening,” he said, pointing over my shoulder.

The crowd, now easily two-hundred strong, had begun assembling itself into two large, seated circles, one within the other. Sensing our confusion, Kenson draped an arm around each of our shoulders.

“They’re going to feed us!” he said.

“Wow!” said Brian.

“Feed us what?” I asked, skeptical, forgetting that we had brought no food or water.

A few minutes later, two bearded guys with tanned, taut arms handed us our portions – small ceramic bowls filled with a steaming vegetable and rice mush, which we shoveled into our mouths with our fingers. It was flavorless, but warm, and the closest thing to home cooking any of us had enjoyed in months. We devoured our rations with the same fervor as the scrawny hippies by our sides.

Hushing sounds soon echoed around us, and it was apparent that someone was trying to address the group as a whole. In the center of the innermost circle a few people stood, and a grey-haired woman in a long flowing skirt spoke into hands cupped in an inadequate attempt at amplification.

We caught only a few words when she turned in our direction, but she seemed to be concerned with whether or not this was an official Rainbow Gathering, and occasionally someone from the circled audience stood and yelled something about seconding a motion or making an official decree. Where the group meal had been industriously impressive, this was kind of pathetic.

“Consult the village elders!” Brian yelled.

“Shhhh!” I said, nearly falling over laughing.

Two women wearing large, paper-mached animal heads chased each other, while a man with a waist-length braided beard read something about the Summer Solstice, as the ceremony unraveled and people began to mill about.

“Look. I got us mushrooms.” Kenson blurted out, before extending a plastic Ziploc bag.

The bag contained three large, healthy-looking mushrooms, much different from the small, shriveled nubs we had eaten on Patriot’s Day. We munched them down right there, and the sharply bitter taste foretold their potency.

“I’m gonna start drumming,” I said, feeling less obligated to follow Rainbow Gathering protocol after witnessing the fumbling ordeal that had followed our meal.

My drum was as I’d left it, lying on its side in a dirt patch next to a stump, only now it was surrounded by all the other drums. The conga had a cheap fiberglass shell covered in dull grey paint, and it reminded me of a warhead.

I settled down on the stump, the only available seating, and began to play, thumping out a groove with an insistent downbeat, something easy to dance to. It felt great to play music outdoors, instead of in a constricted practice room.

I only knew a little conga technique but, unencumbered by drumsticks, my liberated hands ricocheted off the drum with conviction, the vibrations resonating up my arms and down into my chest.

After a few minutes, an older man in cut-off jean-shorts wandered over, sat down on the side of a small drum and started tapping along. He closed his eyes and bobbed his head in time. Soon, a few other guys joined, one with a spiral of dreadlocks tied up in a red bandana, the other squat with a shaved head and bloodshot eyes. They both glanced upward in my direction as they began to play, and I nodded in approval, relishing the role of leader, the stooped throne solidifying my status as drum king.

The rhythm grew in intensity and volume, inviting other drummers to join, and they did so in a V-formation, with my stump at the pivot, two lines of drummers fanning out at my feet, rhythmic birds in flight. Soon dancers followed – middle-aged women gyrating, palms lifted to the sky; cute hippie chicks smiling, whooping and shaking their asses; and a big group of ponytailed guys in overalls jumping up and down and laughing.

For the first time in months, I felt proud of my playing. After all the scrutinizing, analyzing and decoding of music, dragging it down from the warm ether and onto a cold operating table, I remembered what had drawn me to music in the first place: it felt good to make people feel good.

Ten drummers doubled to twenty, then doubled again. Most of them played with little technique, but they bolstered the groove. I felt my pulse quicken, the sun hot on my shoulders, my hands beginning to numb, but I was locked into the rhythm. It compelled me.

The dancers wove through us, skipping and chasing each other barefoot. One of the paper-mached animal heads, now attached to a male body, snaked spastically through the crowd. A woman holding a nest of burning sage whispered something in my ear then twirled away, her soft breath still tingling my cheek.

With the drummers locked into the same looping groove I had started earlier, I closed my eyes, leaned my head back and pumped my arms, a volley of cutting slaps and ringing tones, awash in drumming nirvana, pure musical emotion. I didn’t think, I felt.

I opened my eyes and took in the scene. Every single person at the Rainbow Gathering was either drumming or dancing, partaking in the feast of rhythm I had served up. I felt like some sort of drumming god. My eyes swelled with tears, my muscles clenched and relaxed, clenched and relaxed, the earth vibrated beneath my sandaled feet. I scanned the crowd for Kenson and Brian, but couldn’t find them. I wanted to share the moment with them; a simple nod or smile was all it would have taken. Then I saw the sky darken, and felt the tickle of raindrops on my forearms.

Thunder shook the mountaintop. The dancers howled and cheered and the drummers answered by strengthening the rhythm, a call and response with the impending storm. As if on cue, the skies opened up and thick streams of rain hammered the drums alongside our hands.

Instantly, and in time with the drumming, all the dancers shed their clothes, waving pants in circles and twirling skirts above their heads. It was at once transcendently beautiful and wildly primal. Hundreds of naked bodies gyrating, embracing, rolling in the mud. An orgy of human flesh set to music. Music I was playing.

The dancers raised their arms to the skies, slung their heads back and spun violently, whirling dervishes paying homage to the heavens. They painted their bodies with mud and shimmied, breasts bouncing, penises flapping, all in time with my hands.

Kenson was a prophet, I thought. Nature could not possibly be more fucking awesome.

Factions of drummers within the group synched up in parallel rhythmic phrases, the rhythm evolving in complexity. The rain faded almost as quickly as it had begun, giving way to a majestic sunset as purples, reds and oranges painted a swirling horizon behind the crowd of dancers. I was unaware of my presence, of what my hands were doing, feeling nothing and everything at once.

I stopped playing for the first time in an hour, possibly longer, and stood, steadying myself on the rim of the drum. Hundreds of spastic naked bodies, scores of drummers kneeling in the mud, an exploding sky, my drum still wet with– what was that?

I looked down and saw a streak of red across the calfskin drumhead, then raised a swollen hand to my face and watched blood trickle from three fingers. The metallic tinge vibrated through my tongue and into my cheeks as I first sucked and then licked the blood, adding another heightened sense to the explosion of sight and sound.

Standing became a game as I swayed back and forth involuntarily. The drugs had not just kicked in, they had overtaken me. In the center of the lawn, a fire began to snake skyward, and the drummers and dancers swirled towards the new epicenter of activity. Hallucinogen, drumming, dancing, rain, flesh, fire – we were enacting thousand-year-old rituals. We could have been cavemen.

I took a step, knocked over my drum, then scanned the perimeter for Brian and Kenson, now with more urgency. But they were nowhere. Still sucking my puffy fingers, I staggered towards the fire, which leapt upward with flailing flames, mirrored by naked limbs, striking drums and slicing the air.

No longer a part of the music, it took on a new, intimidating form. I noticed a few drummers I hadn’t seen before, good drummers who played with proper technique, and I worried they might have disapproved of my showy playing. Had I done something wrong? Were they laughing at me? Mocking my drumming sprint as they continued the marathon of rhythm? Waves of insecurity pummeled the delicate shores of my fleeting musical confidence, the beginnings of a drug-fueled storm of paranoia. Across the fire, a naked man danced violently, all gnashing teeth and flinging appendages, and I feared he’d fall into the flames. Night skies and bonfire made for devilish hallucinations, which came in gusts as heads shook like skulls, limbs dangled as bones, and faces contorted into hideous masks, whipping at my eyes and then the back of my skull.

This very thing I had started with my bare hands, this bacchanalian fest of rhythm so innocently organic at first, had grown beyond my comprehension and turned on me, as if intent on exposing my fragility, shaking my core, outlasting me. I had to free myself.

After twenty paces or so, a wiry, familiar figure entered my distorted field of vision. I squinted and saw Brian, shivering, wearing only underwear, draped in a blanket, his pupils wide and marble-like.

“Justin!” he screamed, leaping into my arms.

“Did you… I made… Where were you?” I said, struggling to connect thoughts with words.

“Wow! It was, wow! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I swam in the creek!” said Brian. I was comforted to have found him, but his frenetic mood did little to calm me.

“Where’s Kenson?” I asked.

He spun in a circle, scanning the horizon, before pointing to a cluster of tents and cars at the edge of the lawn.

“Come on,” I said, and begun dragging my feet through tall wet grass.

The faces of the Rainbow Gatherers took on a different form at night. Lit by flickering bonfire, they were no longer harmless love children, but hardened vigilantes, a roaming tribe bound by a deeper, darker code of conduct. We don’t belong here, I thought. We are trespassers. We have to leave.

“Hey,” said a scruffy guy with long blond hair, wearing a Patriots jersey. He was drinking a Budweiser tallboy and did not look like Rainbow Gathering material. His friend, equally ragged and hard-edged, pointed a thumb over his shoulder.

“Your boy is fucked-up,” he said, and they both spit out ugly laughter.

Behind them, Kenson was cocooned from head to toe in a sleeping bag, rolling back and forth, his eyes clenched shut.

“Oh man, oh man, oh man, oh man,” he said, from a place beyond conversation.

“We have to leave,” I announced.

“What?” laughed Brian, accurately assessing the absurdity of the statement in a brief moment of sober rationality. The idea was ludicrous even to someone tripping on mushrooms and wandering around half-naked at the fringe of civilization.

Just then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and met the insistent gaze of a muscled black man, inches from my face, wearing only a massive headdress and shorts.

“I am a spiritual healer,” he said.

I froze and he continued.

“And I would like to give you a prescription.”

I readied myself to receive this important information. Suddenly, it was all that mattered. Everything, I thought, had lead to this moment. It was destiny, this Rainbow Gathering. My spiritual healer would give me the direction I so desperately needed, the purpose I had wandered around Boston in search of. He would right me. He would show me the light.

The fire whipped skyward beyond his sculpted shoulders.

“There are three parts,” he began, the drumming framing his words like beat poetry.

“Number one: always keep your valve open.”

I could do that. I could keep my valve open. Whatever a valve was.

“Number two: don’t trust anyone.”

What?! Oh no. This was not good, this would not help. This was poorly timed. Don’t trust anyone? Anyone? Even him? Even Brian? Even myself?

My spiritual prescription had a third part, but I don’t remember it. I was still digesting the seed of distrust, now almost shaking with panic, inching closer to the kind of full-scale breakdown that involves an ambulance, sedation, calls to parents in the middle of the night.

I turned back to Brian, now insistent. “We have to leave now.”

“Don’t let that dude freak you out, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he said.

Even while tripping, Brian hadn’t forgotten what it was like to cling to a shaky foundation; he saw where I was at. But I could not be deterred.

“No, we have to go now. Right now.”

Paranoia aside, there were basic logistical challenges: we had no food, no water, no tent, and the ground was soaked.

“Who’s gonna drive?” laughed Brian.

I looked at him, still in his underwear, still shivering. I looked at Kenson, still mumbling and twitching.

“I’ll drive,” I said, surprising myself. I squatted and hoisted Kenson, sleeping bag and all, over my shoulder.

“Let’s go,” I said, taking careful, heavy steps back through the wet grass, towards the car.

We stumbled our way across the lawn, the music nipping at our heels, lunging for us as if trying to prevent our escape. Brian grabbed my conga and after a few minutes we found his car. I turned the ignition and the engine let out a long, stubborn cough before relenting.

Brian and Kenson fell asleep instantly.

The mountainside was pitch black and the car’s week headlights yielded only a few feet of vision, much of which was colored with mushroom-induced hallucination. Tree branches snapped like whips from trunks that had morphed into dark figures; the forest spirits condemning our departure. Somehow I navigated the car back down the same dangerously spiraling roads Brian had ascended earlier, with several violent jerks and break-slamming moments along the way.

At the bottom of the mountain, I paused at the main road, my head bobbing in and out of slumber. I took a left, drove about a quarter mile, then pulled into a gas station parking lot, turned the keys and yanked the parking break.

In silence, I slept away the dream.

Justin Feinstein is an NYC-based writer and the Assistant Director of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. The above is an excerpt from his recently completed memoir, Music School: A year of drumming, drugs and devotion at the world’s most famous music college. His writing has also been published by Freerange Nonfiction. Justin lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. Follow him on Twitter: @justinfeinstein.

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1 comment

  1. Thanks, Justin.

    Attended (is that the right word?) my first Rainbow Gathering, in the setting of a high mountain lake within a rock bowl in the Oregon Cascades. It was 1970. In those days, the “family” had several observed leaders, including Julian Beck’s (Living Theatre founder) son Gareth. I brought a cheap guitar, but wished I had a conga! After I hitchhiked to NYC in 1972 or 3, I found a very similar exuberant energy at the Sunday drum circles in Central Park. Still no conga, though.

    We ran an American Indian Arts gallery in Cold Spring Harbor from 1989 until 2007. One slow day, playing guitar behind the register, who should come in? Gareth Beck. This time, he was selling raw turquoise from Eilat! We didn’t front raw materials, so I passed. About the time my grandkids were born, we heard some ugly things about a Rainbow Gathering upstate that had resulted in some arrests, etc. Times change.
    Now, all these many years later, still writing from Long Island, I finally have a drum. Open framed, made in Taos Pueblo. Problem is, now I’m too old to sit on the ground for hours! I’ll keep reading if you keep writing!