Live in Santiago

By Nathan Payne | pablosmoglives | 6 Oct 2023


Five years ago tonight was the night I arrived in Santiago, Chile.  A long flight down from Mexico City, with a transfer in Bogotá.  It was a long day.  The flight left Mexico City at dawn, and the arrival in Santiago wasn't until 9 or 10pm.  I forgot my sunglasses at Customs.  Presumably for reasons of having gone blind with happiness at being able to walk again.  10+ hours of sitting in the next-to-last row with all kinds of other huge men that didn't fit into the seats either had robbed me of my ability to use my legs.  Fortunately, the guy in front of me on the flight out of Colombia was friendly, and didn't squash me with his seat.  He could have used my leg as an armrest, but fortunately did not.  We became friends, and had a good conversation later in the airport, limping towards Customs.  It wasn't a miserable flight, just an extremely uncomfortable one.

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I didn't sleep at all the night before.  The subways were closed by the time the show in Mexico City had ended, so I had to take a cab back to my hotel.  I would have taken a cab anyway.  The subway ride up to the show was intense.  Every square centimeter of oxygen in the subway cars had been compressed to make room for more people.  Breathing the exhaust fumes of the city was the easy part.  Getting in and out of the cars was not.  People went into linebacker mode, and literally forced their way out of the train as though they were trying to tackle an opponent in a high-stakes American football game.  I mean, you had to push.  Aggressively.  When the train was in motion, there was no need to hold onto anything to maintain an upright position.  It was physically impossible to fall down.  By the time I got to the Camarones subway station in Azcapotzalco, I had become fluent in the language of incredulity.  Overdressed beyond belief in my black show clothes and leather coat, I was soaking wet on my hike up Avenida Azcapotzalco toward the show.  I ducked under the awnings of the vendors that stuck out over the street at eye-level, people on the sidewalk selling everything it is imaginable to sell, from jumper cables to music/movies, clothes and food, lights, smoke, steam, tacos, traffic, boots, ice cream, watches, stereo equipment, dirtbikes, murder weapons, Barbie dolls, and everything else the world has ever manufactured, a hundred millionfold, combined. 

I like it, to tell you the truth.  Though I'm not at the point where I'm going to buy shampoo by the ladle from a line of 5-gallon buckets on a street paved with chickens.

Or am I?

Mexico City is huge, and when the Aztecs were in charge, it was a lake.  What is central Mexico City today was an island, whether manmade or natural I'm not sure.  The Zócalo, the giant paved area with the flag sticking out of it in the middle of town (where the helicopter fight at the beginning of Spectre was filmed), was the center of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city.  Tenochtitlan was like Venice, full of waterways and canals.  Azcapotzalco, the neighborhood where I had the gig, was a small town on the shore of the lake.  To this day, I sincerely wonder if the voyage from the Zócalo to Azcapotzalco wasn't easier back in the day.  A pleasant canoe trip in the sunshine, piloted by birds, as opposed to a subterranean hellride.  The ride to the show ripped a buckle off my guitar case.  I spent basically the entire ride making sure my money and legal documents were intact.  It wasn't mellow.

So I would have taken a cab anyway, back to the hotel after the show.  My Spanish is intermediate, but at the time it was downright remedial, and I didn't understand the cabdriver when he asked me if I wanted any "niñas," to help me pass the time.  I thought he was asking me if I had any kids.  I told him no, then we entered a street that was lined with prostitutes.  The sidewalk was full of ladies of the night, who were protected by cops with assault rifles.  It was a veritable smorgasbord of miniskirts and AKs.  I laughed to myself, but told the driver, "Thanks, but no thanks."  He shrugged his shoulders and took me back to my hotel.

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So I made it to Santiago, and some Chilean punk-rock guy checked me in to my hotel.  It was an unusual place (in a good way), hostel-like, but with private rooms instead of dorms.  It had a communal garden and kitchen, and was only 5 or 6 blocks from the venue of the show, which is why I booked it.  The curtains of the rooms were transparent, but the coffee was free, and it was in the middle of town.  I crashed hard, and woke up in a great mood the next day.  The show was that night.

Since I wasn't on vacation, and was only going to be in town for a few days, I walked out to see what I could see.

I wandered past the National Museum of Beautiful Arts, and up to the Cerro Santa Lucía to get a better view.  I was not disappointed.  The city went on forever in every direction, and the Andes rose up from behind the buildings like a dirty painting.  It was a spectacular Spring day, for early October.

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I wandered toward the Plaza de Armas, and found myself in yet another Latin American open-air market.  The streets were imbued with a strong, dark Indian presence.  Pre-colonial ghosts chanted at bus stops, on street corners, and in the open doors of overpriced Eurotrash cafes.  I wandered past the clothing and other goods laid out for sale on the sidewalk, toward what I hoped would be the river.  I passed an arch, or a cavernous opening in a wall of some kind, and observed a scene of extraordinary salaciousness.  Even though it was the middle of the day, night had fallen in the world beyond the arch.  It was dark, and poorly lit, and several prostitutes stood outside of darkened neon caves, smoldering like cigarettes in this strange, forgotten ashtray of the city.  The sight was so unexpected, I had to turn back to take another look.  The girls saw that I'd returned, and smiled and gestured at me to approach, so that they might consume my soul.  But I'd only wanted a second look, to confirm what I thought I'd seen before.  A window into night, and sinful, deadly pleasures.  Hellfire drawn in neon, glowing like the ovens of the damned.

Just making sure.

I walked down to the river, where these people were having a fire on the sidewalk.

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It seemed fairly obvious that I wasn't invited to partake with them in smoking whatever it was they were rolling, so I wandered back to the Plaza de Armas, unless it was there from which I'd come in the first place.  I don't remember man.  The entire tour was a spaghetti bowl of both geography and time.  Since I'd like to end this article with the story of the Santiago show itself, I'm going to fast-forward to the day or 2 after the show, when I wandered around town looking for album cover photo ops.

I wandered past a street church, which seemed to wonder what I was doing there.

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Before or after or perhaps concurrent with taking this photo at the Plaza de Armas itself, of an exotic expired political figure, or possibly conqueror, or pre-Columbian jungle god,

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And getting lost in the Brazil neighborhood, which I'd heard somewhere was one of the cool parts of town.  I've always liked incidental graffiti.  Santiago didn't disappoint.

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Looking for an album cover:

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Before walking past "La Moneda," literally "The Coin" (the mint), where Pinochet bombed Salvador Allende in 1973.

Past the guy who crossed the street while they were building a wall in it:

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And on to the venue, to meet the soundman for the soundcheck, several hours before the show.

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I was early, and hung out like a sore thumb on the streets of postmodern, pre-Columbian spiritual darkness for an acceptable amount of time before deciding to bail, and just show up later and wing it.  Just as I was about to leave, the soundman arrived, and we walked into the venue.

It was a great place.  One of those labyrinthine party establishments with an artful, lunatic bent.  Some of the rooms felt like alleyways, bicycles, stained-glass bomb shelters.  "Did I just step outside," you wonder, as you walk into the bar.  It was a cool place.  If you're ever in the neighborhood, definitely check it out.

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Before we walked into the stage room, the soundman asked me if I wanted to smoke any weed.  Of course, I did.  I don't smoke weed anymore, but not because it's bad.  God called me away from it a few years ago, so I quit.

But at the time, I felt no such tug in my soul.  So we sparked it up.

The weed was an exceedingly high-grade strain of some kind of alien pesticide, the kind of thing you'd spray on your nuclear warheads to keep the insects away.  Some kind of Chilean-Martian hybrid of crystallized rocket fuel with psychedelic musical properties.  It was great.  It was clear that Chileans know their weed.  Immediately upon smoking it, however, I was useless.  It wasn't "bad," or weird, or anything like that.  There was no "fear," or psychedelic demon terror going on.  Nobody freaked out.  I just couldn't keep time.  I strapped my guitar on, and had no idea what I was doing.  I couldn't sing, had no time, and was basically walking on the moon for the duration of the soundcheck.

The soundman was deeply, fundamentally concerned.

I told him not to worry about it.  As long as the levels were good, all I had to do was go back to my hotel and lay down for a couple hours, and I'd be fine.  He assured me the levels were fine, and I assured him I'd be okay.

I walked back out into the incidental graffiti and Martian bus fumes, and made my way back to the hotel.  I set an alarm in case I passed out, cleaned up, and laid there, waiting for show time.

Finally, it came.

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I walked back to the venue, greeted the soundman, and tried not to talk to anybody.  I'm not big on wasting my voice on incidental niceries before I have to get up and convince the room I don't suck, which is basically the job.  Most of the venues on The Poor Man's Nick Cave Tour were afraid when I showed up, since I'd booked a band, but couldn't afford to bring a band along with me (though my drummer in San Diego woulda done it, if I could have paid him).  So when some overbaked Americano road refugee shows up with his acoustic guitar and his hair, and nothing else, people get concerned.  I don't grudge them that.  It's not my job to be congratulated.  I'm not hired to stand there and deign to allow people to bask in the glow of my great important art, fawning over the vocal prowess of my haircut, while smoking all their weed. 

My job is to entertain them.  To take a room full of people requesting Eagles songs who have no interest in me whatsoever, people who are only trying to get drunk and laid, and entertain them with my own original material.  To the point that the room wants me back.  

That's it.

It would be nice to walk onstage in front of a room full of people who are already into it, and who therefore don't have to be convinced, but I've only experienced that once or twice, at the most.  Once for sure.  Maybe twice.  Ever.

So I know how to do it.  (It can't always be done, and I've failed innumerable times, which is how I know how to do it).  Without a band, the guitar is basically a drum with chord capabilities.  It provides the wave over which the voice can go surfing. 

Make waves, go surfing, the end.

That's it. 

While I put every effort into the lyrics (and the music), and deconstruct every line to the sub-syllabic grammar particle, in hopes of one day breaking the Spirit Code, which is what all artists are unconsciously trying to do,

Nobody at a bar on a Saturday night cares about the lyrics, or the brilliant musical turnaround you just invented on the spot.  Nobody.  Just hit 'em with the vocal board, make sure you've lost all self-consciousness and are completely unself-aware, and ride the tsunami into shore.

It's easier with a band.

Then again, sometimes it's not.

Every show is different.

Onaciu in Santiago, Chile in October of 2018 was among the best I've ever played.

Keep in mind that it's a board recording, and that there were no ambient mics.  Keep in mind that recording is the art of musical taxidermy, and that the animal isn't actually frozen when it's surfing.  Keep in mind that there's no drummer, no bassist, no hot chick playing tambourine, and that any lyrical value that I may be able to cash in on a gringo audience is (almost) completely irredeemable in a Spanish-speaking country.  Even if everybody speaks a little English.

You can't really tell from the recording, but it was a great show.  The audience came and went and came back, like a tide of smoke, but tended to stick around longer than most American audiences I've played for.  They didn't want to hear any Eagles songs.  They seemed genuinely interested in what I was doing (or trying to do).  I did my best to deliver.

The staff was very happy.  The security guy tossed me a roll of paper towels when I was done, so I could dry off from the surfing escapade.  The soundman's fears had been entirely alleviated, and I spent the rest of the night turning down the offers for constant drinks from everyone who worked there.  The owner wouldn't leave it alone.  He was friendly about it, but he must have asked me if I wanted some Pisco, I mean, at least a hundred times.  At least.  One guy, the obligatory Latino philanderer in a suit, wanted to get drunk and score chicks with me, and so had a bad vibe toward me, before too long.  I did assent and have a taste of Pisco, for Anthony Bourdain reasons, enough to acknowledge that it is indeed a great drink (which indeed it seemed to be), but I didn't order one of my own.  And the "stale Puritan morality" of the guy who just killed it onstage but doesn't want to get laid and drink for free all night grated on the shining, suited Latino philanderer, and he became haughty towards me before long.

I didn't care, of course.  I quit drinking years ago, and am not going to fall off the wagon because of one good show in an exotic place full of darkened wonder.

It's funny, sitting there like a stick in the mud, completely self-possessed and not insecure about your sobriety or lack of interest in random sexual encounters in the least, but still feeling the uncomfortable weight of being the oddball.  Cuz, y'know,

Who doesn't want to get laid and drink for free all night?

Jesus, is who.  That's all I'm gonna say.

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Jesus didn't smoke weed either, but I wasn't there yet, and went upstairs to the overhead office to smoke some more of that Martian nuclear fuel with the owner and the staff.  You had to climb a narrow, hanging spiral staircase in the middle of one of the main rooms, and it was fun to walk down the trail of spinning stars, back onto the floor.  I shot the pic above, at some point during the night.  If you haven't noticed, I'm not one for taking pictures of the good stuff.  I've done it, but I tend to leave the good stuff for real life.  Not every time, but mostly.

So we smoked a kiloton of Chilean weed in the office, me and a dozen other guys, and they were showing me their huge security TVs, their guitars and cameras and spent cooling rods and smoking implements, and we laughed and smoked and talked about hitchhiking down the Pan-American Highway, and they told me I had to come back and go riding with them through the Atacama Desert, which is something I would love to do, enroute to Patagonia in a matte black '69 Dodge Challenger, or riding on a llama.

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I once told someone my dream of driving the Pan-American Highway in a matte-black '69 Dodge Challenger, and they said, "the car would never make it."  And I thought, "To the end of the world?"

Does anybody make it?

After a few hours, wandering around the labyrinthine venue with a head full of Chilean Martian smoke and talking to various people, or not, I was genuinely exhausted.  I found the soundman and told him I was leaving.  

He shook my hand like an old friend, and told me to be careful on my walk.  "This isn't the safest neighborhood in town, amigo.  Cuidado."

I figured.

I threw on my leather coat, picked up my broken guitar case, and went back to my hotel.

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How do you rate this article?

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Nathan Payne
Nathan Payne

I am a songwriter and bandleader who travels the world in search of the golden ticket. http://www.pablosmoglives.com


pablosmoglives
pablosmoglives

Replacing my blog at http://pablosmoglives.wordpress.com

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