In 1972, when I was 5 years old, my parents drove my brother and me to Disney World. It had opened only the year before, but even then it was fast becoming a standard American sojourn. Sure enough, my brother and I found the Magic Kingdom remarkable as we spent several days taking in the park’s mechanical wonders: the Jungle Cruise, the Country Bear Jamboree and the Hall of Presidents, where an audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln — essentially a moving, talking mannequin — told a charmed, plaid-attired crowd, “Man was made for immortality.”
One of the trip’s highlights was the Haunted Mansion. After stepping into the gloom of the byzantine manor and being welcomed by the narrator’s fiendish baritone, we were ushered into little cars that shuffled us through a series of spooky tableaus. Soon, below us — so that we had to peer down — a lively ballroom scene appeared. There was a long banquet table with spectral diners, and dancers waltzing in ghoulish glory. You could see them, but you could also see through them. The last image you encountered in the room was an organist. He was caped and similarly transparent — bluish — and pumping upward from the organ pipes were tiny skulls. The organist was in studious concentration. He was there to play.
Before the trip was over, in a gift shop I gravitated toward a postcard rack, and there among the offerings I picked out one of the organist. On the long drive back — and for many months afterward — I kept studying it. I was too young to wonder how the technicians at Disney had pulled off this effect but old enough not to believe what I saw. I just happened to be fascinated with the very notion of death not keeping a musician from performing.
Forty-seven years later, I began to hear about concerts that made me think of that organist again: tours featuring Roy Orbison, Frank Zappa, Amy Winehouse, classical pianist Glenn Gould, Maria Callas, Buddy Holly, Whitney Houston and heavy metal belter Ronnie James Dio. All of the performers had one defining commonality: They were dead. And yet they were all back on the tour circuit, or would be soon, in hologram form, thanks to a new crop of companies that were putting Hollywood-style digital re-creations of famous musicians onstage.
At some point, I told my youngest son, Anderson, that I was going to be writing about the surge of music holograms — and, as would be the case for so many people I mentioned this story to over the months I spent reporting it, I had to explain what this was and that, yes, it was actually happening. Anderson, who had recently become obsessed with ’60s psychedelia artists like Jefferson Airplane and the 13th Floor Elevators, was aghast.
“That’s bulls---!” he said. He insisted that the whole enterprise was disgusting and amoral, and in a hot flash he was stomping his way up to his bedroom. As it was for me — at 18 but also now — music was the most important thing going for him, and he was simply underscoring the stormy rhetoric that I’d heard from other people or read online. The truth was, I wasn’t far from Anderson in my own skepticism. Was it really okay, I wondered, to let holograms stand in for once-vital, important artists and carry out new performances? Was this an inevitable development in the interweaving of high tech and art — or did it possibly speak to something darker about our 21st-century morals and our endless quest to be entertained? What did this phenomenon say about, well, us?
All I knew for sure when I headed out to Los Angeles to begin reporting was that I was about to see dead people. A lot of them. And so were you.
In 1862, John Pepper — who had been teaching classes on physics, science and mathematics, among other subjects, at London’s Royal Polytechnic Institution — perfected an intriguing idea by Henry Dircks, an engineer, who had worked out his scheme but not fully implemented it. Pepper made significant changes to Dircks’s plan, and the result was used in a stage production of “The Haunted Man” by Charles Dickens: The effect in question made a ghost appear onstage.
This is how it worked: Underneath the proper stage, a smaller stage was set up on which a large sheet of glass was positioned. The actor playing the spirit would be illuminated from behind, and the reflection from that lower-stage glass would then bounce upward to the glass on the main stage, positioned at 45 degrees, and produce the phantasm effect for the audience. The illusion was soon known as Pepper’s Ghost — and it was the same effect that would later be reintroduced to a mass audience at Disney’s Haunted Mansion.
“Hologram” is pretty much what everyone in the music-hologram industry uses to describe their shows, though they almost all acknowledge that it’s not really the proper term. An actual hologram is an intersection of light and matter that produces a three-dimensional object, intended to be viewed from all angles. Today’s music holograms are digital creations projected onto a screen or scrim and are more analogous to videos. And they all took their cues from a curious intersection between ’90s gangsta rap and F. Scott Fitzgerald, in 2012, that brought the medium into the public consciousness on a much wider scale.
That year, a hologram of deceased rapper Tupac Shakur premiered at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, performing alongside the actual Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. As John Textor — CEO of Facebank Group, a company that creates and stores the digital likenesses of celebrities and consumers — told me, “There would be no Tupac [hologram] unless Dr. Dre ... hadn’t seen ‘Benjamin Button’ and decided he wanted to rap with his friend.” In 2012, Textor was co-chairman of Digital Domain, which was responsible for the special effects of such movies as “Thor,” Transformers,” “Titanic” and, most important for the future of the hologram industry, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The 2008 movie, starring Brad Pitt and based on a Fitzgerald short story, chronicles the saga of a man born old who ages in reverse. It includes an all-digital re-creation of Pitt’s face, aged decades, through a process that captured the full range of the actor’s expressions.
Textor, whom I met at his office in Jupiter, Fla., said that after Dr. Dre reached out, a group of about 20 artists, led by Janelle Croshaw and Steve Preeg, worked to re-create Tupac — who was killed in 1996 — in digital form. The project involved filming a body double who mimicked the rapper’s stage moves, then putting that footage through digital animation. The artists created a digital head for the rapper and merged that with the real body, producing an all-new performance. The company AV Concepts handled the projection technology. The project took six weeks to complete and, according to Textor, cost $600,000.
The Tupac hologram was a revelation and a sensation — today, it has well over 60 million views on YouTube — but, after Coachella, it never went on tour. In fact, Textor told me that touring hologram productions could, without the right creative concept, be a limited use of this technology. “Because it’s boring after the third song,” he said. How are you developing a connection with the character? he asked. The risk is that “you’re just looking at a projection, and you’re sitting there thinking, ‘How much did I just pay for this seat?’ ”
After Tupac, Textor kept busy with his next project: a Michael Jackson hologram that performed a previously unreleased track at the Billboard Music Awards in 2014. He’s also been involved with holograms of Elvis and Abba — in 2020, there will be an Abba hologram tour, though all the members of Abba are very much alive. Still, Textor was looking well beyond the musical performance aspect of holograms, or digital humans, which was his preferred term. He was about to introduce a venture that would pit boxing’s greatest from any era — Muhammad Ali vs. Mike Tyson, for example — and believes the possibilities of a star’s digital likeness could mean that “Kim Kardashian never has to go on a photo shoot again because we can deliver her image of the particular pose ordered up by that particular photo shoot — you know, Kim with a smile, Kim with a frown.” In his business, he said, the point was to give celebrities a freedom they didn’t have.
A few hours away, the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., had just tapped into the same kind of digital process for an artist whose every inkling tapped into surrealism. At the museum three kiosks show a digital re-creation of Salvador Dalí, stunning in his likeness and in the familiar eccentric demeanor. The digital Dalí delivers 125 musings, voiced convincingly by an actor: Dalí on the weather, Dalí on his art, Dalí on immortality. (“I do not believe in my death. Do you?”) Unlike the Tupac hologram, the digital Dalí doesn’t get projected, but his presence on these screens elicits the same kind of wonders — and raises the same kinds of complexities.
Museum director Hank Hine told me what everyone who was dealing with holograms of the dead said, that they tried to tread respectfully: “There’s very strongly in our minds an ethical question, and that was, ‘How do we truly represent Dalí?’ ” Everything their Dalí says about art, and himself, is verbatim from interviews or writings, outside of salting the dialogue with standard pleasantries. But one critical difference is that the museum didn’t try to show its Dalí painting an entire piece. Most of the hologram tours, by contrast, simulate a full concert experience with the artist, and that’s what makes the mission so ambitious — and, as I saw it, particularly fraught.
On Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, Billie Holiday’s star is at 1540 Vine St. Her legacy would always be that she was one of the most important jazz singers ever. But a monumental legacy doesn’t guarantee contemporary relevance — or visibility. If she had a hologram, would that automatically attract new attention? What would it sing? It turned out that just a few minutes away, at the Hologram USA Theater, I could see for myself. Out front one poster announced a chance to see Holiday onstage, and another promoted the original Tupac hologram.
The theater was closed to the public when I visited, but David Nussbaum, Hologram USA’s executive vice president, ushered me into a room with red curtains and vinyl sofas and a stage. Though Digital Domain had created the Tupac hologram, Alki David — whose family’s fortune came, in part, from Coca-Cola bottling, and who is now CEO of Hologram USA — had bought the patents to the technology used to project the hologram.
Nussbaum, in jeans, sneakers and a gray sports jacket, said the company’s future was in franchising Hologram USAs all over the world — think Hard Rock Cafes, only instead of guitars and fringed vests hanging on the walls, they would be filled with dead musicians. With a tablet-like feature in his hand, Nussbaum began swiping across as he got ready to show me some holograms on the stage. Eventually he hit a button and said, “Here’s Billie Holiday,” and the jazz legend materialized at the microphone. The life-size chanteuse, looking vibrant and mortal, began to sing her haunting classic “Strange Fruit.” The hologram carried that wounded coolness that poured out of Holiday. Soon others began to join in around her — dancers who had been filmed traditionally and were added to fill out the scene. I asked why add the others onstage, since they weren’t part of the band, and he conceded that this wasn’t Lady Gaga or Jennifer Lopez, for whom there would always be dancers around, but that was how people thought of female performers in these contemporary times, and, in taking Holiday from a different era, “an audience now might not be cool with just a single person standing behind a microphone.” If you were going to bring 21st-century technology into the realm of live music, it seemed, you had to deal with 21st-century expectations about what being entertained really meant.
What Nussbaum loved most was beaming live celebrities to places. Three years in a row, the company had beamed Jimmy Kimmel to the Country Music Association Awards. “The thing that specifically put us on the map was when we beamed Julian Assange out the Ecuadoran Embassy in London” so he could speak at a conference in the United States, Nussbaum said. He’d had the idea of beaming O.J. Simpson out of prison to do an interview, and he wanted to do the same for Charles Manson. But those plans never came to pass.
As much as anyone, Nussbaum understood what the Tupac hologram had done for the industry, but he underscored that it wasn’t just musicians that some people wanted to see in hologram form. “We get everything from ‘I’m a pastor at a church, and I want Jesus to walk on water during an Easter sermon,’ all the way to ‘My dad died last year, and I want him to walk me down the aisle at my wedding.’ ”
He also told me about a hologram of a mega pop star that hadn’t worked out well. “We digitally resurrected Whitney Houston,” he said. “Pending with the estate’s approval.” I’d heard about this — you couldn’t talk to anyone in the music hologram business without hearing about it. The performance — which was to take place on the May 2016 season finale of “The Voice” — was leaked before the hologram was fully ready.
“The idea was that Whitney was going to perform, she was going to go on tour. And so we were going to announce the tour on ‘The Voice,’ ” Nussbaum said. But the Houston estate pulled the plug after seeing the hologram, sending a chill to many who were toiling away at the next big hologram production.
Soon, Nussbaum brought on Tupac. The rapper’s motion was sinuous, and his roped muscles gleamed as he strutted around. “Ah s---, you done f---ed up now,” the hologram said, “ain’t nothing but a gangsta party.” But instead of Snoop Dogg being next to him, Nussbaum had climbed onstage. “You done put two of America’s most wanted in the same motherf---ing place at the same motherf---ing time,” Tupac declared. He’d said that once — the vocals were his — but the partner he had in mind wasn’t, of course, David Nussbaum.
Then Nussbaum came down from the stage, and we watched together. “I don’t want to tell you what to write your story about,” he said, “but that is the future.”
Nussbaum’s own future was about to shift. Soon after our meeting, he left Hologram USA and founded Portl Hologram. In September, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil enforcement action against Alki David and Hologram USA Networks in New York federal court, alleging that they engaged in a “fraudulent scheme to induce the investing public” to believe they held rights to artists they didn’t hold rights to, including Tupac. (“This is an idiotic suit over paperwork that is of no real consequence,” Alki David wrote in an email. “We did everything right and never made any false claims.”)
Nussbaum is not a defendant and is not mentioned in the complaint. At his new company, “the thing that I do most is live telepresence,” he wrote me in an email, “or as I now call it, HoloPortation.” He had “the world’s first single passenger HoloPortation Machine.” He could, he said, beam anyone from anywhere to anywhere.
I don’t know why it struck me — I wasn’t even a fan of Tupac,” Jeff Pezzuti, the CEO of Eyellusion, told me about the famous hologram. We were talking about his unlikely role in this business, and the more he talked, the more it became clear that the advent of touring holograms may have begun because of a Christmas gift Pezzuti received as a kid in the early ’80s. “There was this compilation record I got for Christmas called ‘Masters of Metal,’ ” he told me. “And I was probably 9 or 10. ‘Rainbow in the Dark’ ” — by the band Dio — “was on it, and I put that song on. And I was like, ‘F---ing-A, this is amazing.’ ”
In 1985, Dio, fronted by singer Ronnie James Dio, was on tour and making a stop near the Pezzutis’ New Jersey home. Pezzuti and his younger brother, Tim, persuaded their dad to take them. Jeff and Tim loved the show, and their father didn’t say much on the drive back. He dropped the boys off at their mother’s; when he got home, his wife asked him how the show was. “He told me this many years later,” Jeff said. “So he said ... ‘Just give me two Advil or put a gun to my head.’ ” Jeff erupted in laughter at the memory.
High school came, then college at the University of Central Florida. Pezzuti passed his CPA exam in 1999, and as a way to summarize his career he said, “Did my V.P. of finance, did some CFO work for 18 years in New York.”
But in his adult life his love of heavy metal, and Dio, never dimmed. “I saw him every tour,” Pezzuti said dreamily. And so when a friend called him in 2010 to say that Dio had died of cancer, “I was shocked because — there were rumors that he was sick, but it was so different. It wasn’t like now,” with social media, the immediacy of everything.
Then in 2012, Pezzuti, like millions of others, watched the Tupac hologram on YouTube. Immediately his mind began churning. “I started going down the list of rock artists” who could have a similar return, he said. A couple of years later, despite having little in the way of industry contacts but having done intense research and exploration on his own, he quit his job in finance to pursue his dream of creating musical holograms. He reached out to managers of artists who were dead or alive. “It wasn’t like I was going in with the solution, but I wanted to just talk about it and see if there was interest,” he said.
The first manager he met with was Dio’s widow, Wendy. “One of the first things she told me was that she has spent the last 10 years thinking of a promise she made to her dying husband,” Pezzuti said. When I met Wendy Dio in Los Angeles, she told me, “I did say to him when he was very sick that my lot in life was to keep his music and legacy alive. Which I’ve done.”
In their initial meeting, Pezzuti told her he could test the idea with $350,000 as an investment, thinking he could secure another $50,000 himself. Wendy was intrigued, but she needed six months or so to sort through her feelings. Eventually she agreed. “Ronnie would always like to go to Disneyland and watch all the holograms there,” she said. “I think he would really be 100 percent behind this. ... Ronnie was always an innovator in music, so I thought, why not an innovator in technology?”
To create the hologram, Pezzuti hired an actor to play the role of the sprightly Dio — using the process employed for the Tupac hologram — and partnered with Chad Finnerty, who had forged a notable career in digital animation and had his own company, Digital Frontier FX. Once Finnerty’s team was completing the singer in digital form, the talk turned to where to debut the hologram. It was Wendy who suggested Wacken Open Air, a heavy metal festival in Germany. It was also Wendy who reached out to Dio’s former band members to gauge their interest.
After the band was on board and everything was booked, Pezzuti prepared for the big premiere in August 2016. “I’m flying to Germany,” he said, “and I’m like, I’m putting Ronnie James Dio back on the stage in front of 75,000 people.” At Wacken the hologram was top secret, and it also closed the festival, following a set by the surviving touring band of Dio’s called Dio Disciples, which had been carrying on with a rotating cast of vocalists since 2011. “It was 3 o’clock in the morning or something,” Wendy said. Dio’s record label executives were there. Until that moment, the process hadn’t been particularly emotional for her, she told me. “It wasn’t Ronnie,” she said. “It was parts, and it was this, and it was created and so on. ... But then when it was actually onstage with the band, that’s a whole different story. I cried. Everybody cried. We all cried. Because it was Ronnie onstage again with his band.”
The fervent response from the crowd led Pezzuti and Wendy to plunge forward with a 19-concert tour of Europe — the first tour of a music hologram with a live band. The hologram’s vocals were taken from Dio’s career of live performances.
Wendy’s motivation to partner with Pezzuti went beyond paying tribute to her husband. She saw the future of live music as revisiting the great artists and bands who started so long ago, since they were rapidly retiring or dying off. Sitting on a sofa at the Beverly Hilton, she argued that there had been so many important bands in rock, and that we didn’t have to let them go because they were no longer with us. “You don’t have another Led Zeppelin,” Wendy said. “You don’t have another Beatles. ... You’re not going to have another Zappa, with his avant-gardeness and his craziness. All these people are icons.” Then she imagined what it would be to see the Beatles together again. “That’s not going to happen,” she said. “But in a hologram, it could happen.”
At the famous auction house Sotheby’s in New York, the holograms were on display but not for sale. Instead, on an afternoon in April, a company called Base Hologram was holding a media event for their creations. Inside a darkened room, a projector hummed ominously. I talked to one of the men slinking around in all black, who explained that he and others had been hired as extras. When the Roy Orbison and Maria Callas holograms performed later, they were there to sit behind them — since the orchestras that accompanied the holograms on tour could hardly fit in the room — and represent a sense of stage composition, the hologram’s scale next to people.
Eventually, Brian Becker, CEO of Base Hologram, and Marty Tudor, CEO of Base Hologram Productions, came to the lectern. Becker made reference to the earlier tours of Orbison and Callas, and then mentioned that this technology could deliver not just dead musicians performing to audiences, but historic pairings. “So, for example, can you imagine Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin?” he asked. “Or can you imagine, you know, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln?” (Who was the Art Garfunkel in that duo, I wondered.)
Becker said that they could do product placement and left us to imagine how that might work. (Would Houston be making a pitch for Verizon between songs?) He also mentioned a desire for artists to interact with the audience, but not in the manner of Siri and artificial intelligence. “We could have plants in the audiences saying, ‘I love you, Roy!’ And Roy could say, ‘I love you, too, baby.’ ” He talked for a little while longer, then showed Orbison, who appeared from a mist and ran through a mash-up of classics for about 10 minutes. There was a kind of bluish haze, I thought, a little Princess Leia “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi” feel to him, and in moments I could see through him. He sang hits such as “Pretty Woman” and “Only the Lonely” as the black-clad extras behind arranged themselves attentively.
Next up was Maria Callas. The tempestuous opera star was known for performing with a torrent of expression and drama, and the hologram radiated that human intensity. At one point, she had a deck of cards and hoisted them into the air, where they floated down like snowflakes. Apparently even Callas’s hologram was a diva.
Afterward, in conversation with Becker and Tudor, I asked about an earlier decision to produce a hologram tour — later postponed indefinitely — for Amy Winehouse, who died such a public death in 2011. When I heard about the tour, I wondered: Was there something unseemly about a digital Winehouse — who had a series of drug arrests and gave increasingly erratic performances or canceled shows altogether toward the end — singing “They tried to make me go to rehab / I said, ‘no, no, no.’ ” Somehow that felt more uncomfortable to me than just hearing the song on the radio.
“The reason we are holding back on moving forward with Amy is because she died [eight] years ago,” Becker said, “and she died in a tragic way.”
But, I thought, that was true when they first announced the tour.
“I think there is a sensitivity there,” Tudor said. “With Amy particularly, there were a lot of people who said to us, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait. I never got to see her in concert. She never really toured, and seeing her perform would be wonderful.’ And then we had other people that said, you know, ‘Wow, it’s only been a few years and she died tragically, and she had a lot of people pulling on her, that took advantage of her. And doesn’t this, you know, fit into that?’ ”
“It just wasn’t the right time,” Becker said. “We learned a lesson with Amy. We actually had done a lot of work and a lot of homework, but we didn’t do enough.”
The very reason they had focused on an artist like Amy Winehouse, Becker explained, was the desire to bring back to audiences people “that really made an impact on the world.”
“There’s an enormous demand for nostalgia,” Tudor said. But that demand can make you do a lot of things. That was one of the dangers I saw in all this. Becker acknowledged that, but he said, “We wouldn’t put, you know, we wouldn’t have Winston Churchill talk about Donald Trump.”
“There is a line,” Tudor said. “I believe there is a line, you know, and if you cross that line, then you’re really taking advantage of that person.” But who was the arbiter? The estates had the final say when it came to creative decisions. But that didn’t mean an estate couldn’t cross a line. Who could really say, when so much money was potentially at stake, what that line should be?
It was a little disorienting attending a rock concert by an artist known for albums such as “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” and “Uncle Meat” in a pavilion associated with Freemasonry — but then nothing was straightforward about a show featuring Frank Zappa 26 years after his death. At the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, N.J., in a room off to the side of the grand ballroom, I caught up with Eyellusion’s Jeff Pezzuti as he was into the second week of the Bizarre World of Frank Zappa tour, and he was still in the glow of an enthusiastic review from Rolling Stone.
Already he felt like the music industry was paying attention, since his phone was “blowing up” after the early reviews. “Interesting requests, new requests,” he said. He couldn’t tell me what those were — outside of pianist Glenn Gould, which was already in the works — but he was clearly relieved that his gamble was paying off.
Soon Ahmet Zappa — who, as one of Zappa’s four children, is a co-trustee of the Zappa estate and also executive vice president of global business development for Eyellusion — strolled into the room, and he was clearly in the same haze as Pezzuti. “It’s been this self-discovery process because I feel more connected to Frank,” he said of the early hologram shows.
Part of that had been spending time with the band members. “These are musicians that were around the house when you were young,” Pezzuti pointed out.
“Yeah, I met them when I was, like, 6,” Ahmet said. “Yet I don’t really know them so well. And what we all share is a common love for Frank.”
In Los Angeles, Ahmet had mentioned how in “The Real Frank Zappa Book,” published in 1989, Frank details his attempts to explore the technology. “He wanted to have this hologram business so that he could send that out on tour and stay home and work on more music, you know?” Ahmet said. “He wanted to start his own hologram company. So that’s why I feel like I’m finishing something that he started.”
Now that the tour was underway, he was experiencing new types of connections to his dad. “You get exposed every night to a whole community of people — who spent their whole lives listening to your dad — in ways that wouldn’t have been possible all these years,” Ahmet told me. Despite all the incredible technical aspects of the show, its fundamental purpose was clear to him. “The goal for me of this show is music first, right? Like, this is the only way someone’s going to hear Frank’s vocals, his guitar, with his band. That’s what’s really unique.”
Mike Keneally, on lead guitar, played with Zappa on what would prove to be Zappa’s final tour, in 1988; it was also Keneally’s first tour of any kind. With his square glasses, gray beard and sparse gray hair, he looked more like the coolest computer-programming teacher you ever had than a musician who’d toured with guitar-shredding heroes Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. Keneally said the first time he heard about the possibility of playing with a hologram, “I remember thinking, this might be spooky. And then I saw the footage of it, and I, you know, found it strangely moving.”
When I asked him if he felt like he was, in some way, playing with his old mentor again, he said, “Yeah, during the guitar solos there are definitely moments where — because we’re responding. The guitar solos are the moment where we can respond improvisationally to what we’re hearing, as opposed to playing an arrangement that’s been worked out.” As with the vocals, Zappa’s guitar had been isolated from recordings of live performances, most of which hadn’t been heard by the broader public.
The whole experience was a lot to go through, Keneally said — the past mingled with the present. “There’s definitely a through line, and so there’s a part of me that feels very young,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m feeling: Here I am. I’m 57. I’ve gained whatever skills I’ve gained in the intervening years. There’s a part of me that is like, man, if I could just take what I know now, my awareness of the world, plus my facility, my technique, bring that back 31 years and be able to serve this up to Frank, because I feel like I can serve his music better now than I was able to back then. So that’s for me, personally, a very important part of the tour.” For Keneally, a digital creation had given him an opportunity to take a decidedly personal inventory.
When I got to my seat in the auditorium, I took in the whole setup onstage: All the musical equipment — the drums, the guitars and keyboards, the electronic mallet instrument — were to the left or right of center stage, and in the middle was the screen where the hologram would be. Around that space, framing it, were big LED screens that also ran below the stage. The hologram space was like a stage within a stage.
The majority of the audience appeared 60 and older, but quite a few parents had brought their adult children with them. The near-capacity crowd — the pavilion holds 1,050 — was still milling around when the lights went out and musicians found their spots to start the opening number, “Cosmik Debris.” On the screens flashed a constellation of lights that began to gather as the song went on, and then, finally, they merged into the human form of Zappa, in a striped short-sleeve shirt and jeans, his hair cascading over his shoulders. He was positioned behind the other musicians slightly, cranking out his first guitar solo to rapturous applause.
The Zappa hologram, in this form, appeared a little less natural to me than what the Eyellusion folks had shown me of Dio in L.A. Zappa, I thought, looked like a character from an R-rated cartoon of the 1970s — but then, that was how Zappa, with his trademark mustache and soul patch, had always looked to me. What was extremely lifelike were the human details Chad Finnerty and his group had worked in and made so subtle: the occasional head nod to something he’d played on guitar that pleased him, the casual pacing as he jammed, coupled with an intense sense of listening. I could see that the musicians were energized to be spurred on by their leader again. In Zappa’s guitar playing, the fingering was convincing and exact.
But the second number made clear that “regular” Zappa would appear only every once in a while, and that’s because the show was about the bizarre world of Frank Zappa — all the strange imagery he’d created, through his lyrics and album and song titles, as reimagined by Ahmet. Now Zappa took the form of dental floss for “Montana,” a song about, um, the dream of owning a dental floss farm. Where the human Zappa had been, now there was a strip of floss bouncing around, sometimes forming a map of Zappa’s face, sometimes responding to the music and snapping to an outline of him playing the guitar solo, complete with working the wah-wah pedal with his foot. It was funny and dazzling, hitting that generally untapped spot where a jazz-rock acid trip and Hollywood computer animation meet.
For the next song, “Trouble Every Day,” we were plunged into the world of newspapers’ coverage of late ’60s race riots, and here Zappa showed up as the narrator in a newspaper picture, hovering above images of police brutality. Next, for that family favorite “Penguin in Bondage,” Zappa appeared alongside a naughty penguin gleefully ready for punishment. Throughout the concert, Zappa would also show up as a claymation figure, a superhero, a poodle, a dirty plate in his kitchen, a disco doll, a giant robot, a hot dog. He’d also appear on the toilet.
At the end of the show, Zappa, back in his human form, told the crowd in that game-show announcer voice of his, “You’ve been a great audience,” unplugged his guitar and walked off before vanishing.
I felt bowled over and had a sudden conviction that I understood the ’70s better. Somehow the show made me wrestle with the idea of dead musicians and their holograms much less than I’d imagined. Instead, I was awed by the sheer possibilities of a hologram show, its range of storytelling options. I was beginning to suspect that maybe, in my initial skepticism about what these holograms represented — to me, to music in general — I had been overthinking everything.
Before the start of the Dio Returns show in Glenside, Pa., in June, Pezzuti mentioned that his brother was coming up from Washington for the concert and that his father would be catching a show later in the tour, too. That was its own closing of a circle: the teenage Jeff and his brother seeing a healthy, vibrant Dio with their father; years later, their father seeing the hologram of Dio that his son had made a reality. Now that was heavy metal.
After a while, Pezzuti, who was looking every bit the rock impresario with his shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest, took me to the tour bus, putting on his sunglasses for the 30-second walk. Inside he rustled up Scott Warren, who emerged quietly from the back in black pants and a T-shirt, with a tangle of blond hair. Warren, who played keyboards, was in Dio’s band for 17 years. After Dio’s death, was it hard, I asked him, to move on to the next musical situation? “Well, I said to myself, ‘I’m never going to play another Dio song again. This is it.’ ’Cause, I thought, you know, this is his name, his band, his music.”
It didn’t quite turn out that way, though, once the Dio Disciples formed. But they often played to smaller audiences — imagine the E Street Band playing Bruce Springsteen’s music without him. (Then imagine them all dressed in black. And scowling.) Warren didn’t go through much soul-searching when he eventually heard about the hologram. “I thought it would be cool,” he said, “if it was possible, you know?”
It was more than possible, but there were still mental adjustments he had to make. When I asked him how much the hologram captured the singer he knew so well, he said, “It’s not going to be him. I have to — it’s hard to accept, you know. I know all his mannerisms and everything like that. And how he was, and sometimes the glares.” He laughed thinking about those glares. “ ‘You didn’t do it right,’ or whatever. I know all about that, but you do have to sort of step back from that, and sort of accept what it is because it’s not, it’s not a human being, you know?” He laughed with a sense of resignation. “So there is that.”
When I was in Los Angeles, I also met Dio’s longtime drummer, Simon Wright, who estimated that all told he’d played with the singer for 13 years — with some interruptions in between — and his initial reaction to the idea was different from Warren’s. “I was a little skeptical at first,” he said in his balmy British accent. “I didn’t really know what a hologram was.” But Pezzuti had been a particularly convincing salesman, which helped, since, once Wright was on board, he encountered a hostile, cynical response from online fans. “People were really upset,” he said. “They would say, ‘Oh, you know, you’re raising the dead.’ ‘It’s sacrilege’ and all this kind of thing, when really all it is is, really, an image. ... We’re not here trying to rebirth Ronnie. He passed, he’s not here. It’s entertainment; it’s not voodoo.”
Wright saw playing with the hologram as the ultimate way to pay tribute to his friend. Still, that didn’t prepare him for what happened next. “What I need to say is that when we started to play with the hologram and Ronnie’s voice and stuff like that, it’s like the songs just came alive.”
Back on the tour bus, Warren remembered a moment between him and Dio before a new tour started up. “I said to him, ‘You know, I just want you to know, as long as you’re rocking, I’ll be there.’ You know, ‘I’m into doing this.’ And that really meant something to him.” Warren had kept his promise in a way both men could have never imagined.
The Keswick Theatre was about two-thirds full, and when the lights eventually went down, on the LED screens a forest came into focus, then bats. And then a dragon. There was an explosion of digital flames, and now here was Dio belting out “King of Rock and Roll” in his signature operatic frequency.
There was no hushed puzzlement from the crowd, no collective riposte that said, “Wait, that’s supposed to be Dio?” The audience ate it up instantly, thrusting the “devil horns” gesture in the air. Even from this distance there was still a faint CGI glow to the hologram. That might have been compounded by the fact that Dio, with his white blouse, long hair and leather pants, already looked like a bit character in “The Lord of the Rings.” But the audience was clearly relishing hearing the songs they loved, and there was a convincing fluidity coming through the hologram’s movements.
Presumably Dio did a lot of gesturing with his left hand, a lot of leaning to that side of his body, since the hologram kept doing that. A lot of devil horns flashing. The hologram covered a small area when he moved, which I understood for technical reasons, but it was also akin to watching a big cat at a zoo relentlessly pacing back and forth.
With that first number complete, the rotation of singers for the evening began. Tim “Ripper” Owens took the stage, then Oni Logan took over, and then it was back to Dio, carrying on in that sequence. Pezzuti had told me earlier that he didn’t think a crowd was ready to sit through a whole show centered on a traditional hologram — and which the Zappa show avoided, thanks to Ahmet’s dizzying kaleidoscope of ideas. Now that point seemed prescient to me. Every time Dio reappeared, I felt a little jolt of alertness.
The hologram often disappeared during guitar solos; sometimes it turned into flames or mist or ice particles. At one point, the dexterous bassist, Bjorn Englen, walked over and appeared to be inches away from Dio. Until then, the hologram mostly seemed to exist outside of the band, since the musicians rarely looked its way, so this gesture by Englen felt inspired. The problem was that Englen stayed in that position for several minutes, and after a while I became aware that the hologram never looked his way, so I was knocked out of that authentic-feeling moment all over again.
For the finale, “We Rock,” both Owens and Logan came out to sing with the hologram, at one point flanking him. This was when the effect of the hologram seemed the most genuine to me, since each of the three singers would take a chorus, and when one of the living singers took over, Dio just rocked on. And maybe it had done this before, but at one point the hologram, encouraging the audience to sing along, cupped his ear, turning the mic — which was part of the hologram — outward to the crowd, and said, “I can’t hear you.” For an illusion, that went a long way toward conjuring authenticity.
And then, in the seconds after, the song winding to a close, the Dio hologram disappeared for the last time. The band gathered at the front of the stage, their arms around one another, and acknowledged the cheers. I thought it would have been cool to somehow have the hologram in the middle of that group, arm in arm, waving to the crowd. The fact that I even thought that — Why isn’t the hologram bowing with the others? — was, I supposed, my ultimate verdict on the show: It was real enough.
With all this talk of dead musicians and going back into the past, it was inevitable, I suppose, that I wanted to seek out my own lost musical connection. And that’s how I ended up back at Disney World’s Haunted Mansion to see the organist. My guide was Aaron Joyner, from Disney’s Youth Education Series, whose programs use the park’s attractions to help schoolchildren learn. After we went through the mansion, he took me behind the scenes to see what I’d had to imagine for so long.
Joyner led me outside the mansion, through an alleyway and then a back door into a dimly lit area, where we could see the riders in their cars above us. When riders see the organist as a hologram, they are seeing a reflection of an audio-animatronic. I studied the mechanical organist’s pallid pallor up close. The only thing that had changed about him in the decades since my childhood visit was that at some point he’d acquired a top hat.
For a couple of minutes I kept watching the organist, mesmerized. I was sure Joyner thought I was a little unhinged, but I was lost in a meditation about music and how much reality matters when you’re being entertained. Wasn’t so much popular music infused with some touch of illusion? The Beach Boys weren’t surfers, despite all those early publicity pictures of them holding surfboards. In Genesis’s early days, Peter Gabriel performed in a fox mask — while wearing a red dress. Alice Cooper was frequently “beheaded” onstage by a guillotine. David Bowie played a character called Ziggy Stardust. Sun Ra claimed he was from Saturn. If the music was great, the illusion didn’t change that, but sometimes great music existed because of the illusion.
When I go to a concert, I want the music to be visceral and alive. Maybe it was time to accept that it was becoming quaint to expect the musicians to be alive, too.
David Rowell is deputy editor of the magazine. His book “Wherever the Sound Takes You: Heroics and Heartbreak in Music Making” was published in the spring. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.