MORRISON • In the days before this weekend’s start to another summer of music at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, crowds gathered at a sun-splashed pavilion, admiring the hills turning green again.
They toured the museum, scanning placards chronicling the decades of legends here. They watched a video, history flashing before them:
The Denver parks manager of the 1920s who had a vision for the place, inspired by an open-air arena of ancient Greece. The raggedy young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who built the venue between geologic wonders from 1936 to 1941. The early opera star Mary Garden, who foretold the amphitheater’s gilded future, writing of “perfect acoustic properties. … I predict that someday twenty thousand people will assemble there to listen to the world’s greatest masterpieces.”
The video rolls on, with words from a later star who graced the stage in the ’60s. “What you aspire to do is play at Red Rocks,” Judy Collins says.
“There’s nothing else like it,” says a member of Widespread Panic.
Says another from the Moody Blues: “Whether you come to Red Rocks as an audience member or performer, you feel like you’re part of something. Like a thread through history. You feel like you’re part of something that’s gone on for centuries and will go on long after you’re gone.”
And somewhere below, somewhere in the amphitheater’s dark underbelly, history is also on display — though unbeknownst to the masses.
Our escorts showed us to a seemingly out-of-place door of peeling wood and rusted iron, tall but out of sight for concertgoers on the ramp above. “Like something from the Hobbit,” observed Ben Heinemann, a Red Rocks marketing guy.
It was padlocked. “What’s your name again?” a young, bearded crewman asked our other escort, Josh Lenz. The crewman nodded and radioed his supervisor. And while we waited, he filled us in on the secret he knew quite well.
This is the entrance to Red Rocks’ underground backstage. And here lies a staircase tunnel, where bands have inscribed their names on the concrete floor and walls for unknown years.
The crewman thinks he saw Led Zeppelin somewhere in the gaggle of signatures. “Gorrilaz have signed it three times. … Steve Miller’s got a big one up there … Pretty Lights signed the light fixture … Every time I go up there, I try to find somebody new.”
We go up one ramp and peep into a green room set like a living room — coffee table, sofa, TV — but with a red rock bulging through the wall, spilling onto the carpet. One more ramp, another odd door. “You can see the signatures start here,” Lenz said.
So began our scavenger hunt.
“Elephant Revival,” Lenz said. “Tenacious D right above.”
“Zac Brown,” Gazette photographer Christian Murdock said, looking down at his feet.
“Nine Inch Nails right here,” Lenz said.
“There’s Morrissey’s crew,” Heinemann said, pointing to the ceiling.
We spotted hints of Santana here, “Boston ‘97” there. Stevie Nicks is elsewhere, written above “Mumford + Sons.” Bold, blocky letters announce Wilco and Portugal the Man. The haunting presence of Mac Miller lingers from rowdy nights before the young musician’s death last year.
Small, fading letters are tucked between a jumbled array: “Grateful De… ”
For as celebrated as the history is at Red Rocks, this part is a mystery.
“Just an organic sort of thing that’s occurred,” said Tad Bowman, the venue director. He’s been involved with Red Rocks for 32 years and is unaware of anyone who’s been around long enough to speak on the first signatures.
Construction plans from 1959 mention a tunnel, so the assumption is this was built sometime around then — a pathway for crews leading to the sound stage. But it’s unclear when this scribbling tradition began. The oldest date we spotted was an obscure reference to “7/6/88.” (“1964” is clearly a nod to the Beatles tribute band that takes the stage every Aug. 24 to the year the group first came.)
Who knows? “It’s just faded over time, so who knows if signatures like from the ‘60s and ‘70s are still there anymore?” Lenz said. “Or if they’ve been covered up by other stuff?”
The tradition has been proudly unregulated, unchecked, as some raunchy messages left behind go to show (about who had sex with whom, for example). Others are spiritual (“I Love Jesus”), conflicted (“GOD HATES ME?” followed by the response, “YOU KNOW IT!”), sentimental (“It’s never too late to have a childhood!”) and plain weird (“I Love you Green Rocks! – Cher ’99”).
Bowman travels the tunnel countless times every summer, sometimes passing performers with marker in hand. It’s mostly been emerging talents, opening acts who consider Red Rocks hallowed, a milestone for them as it was for those before them.
“That tunnel has come to represent this special uniqueness of what Red Rocks is,” Bowman said. “People go through there, in a literal sense leaving their mark, adding to this sort of mystique. … The tunnel comes to kind of represent that whole Red Rocks mystique.”
It’s felt by the small groups who call to schedule irregular tours. Fans come and go down here, as they do above, coming and going like the stars of today and the legends of yesterday, all walking that thread through history.