In Defense of Rage

This is a historic moment. We have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order, a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations.

--President George Bush
in his televised speech
"The Liberation of Kuwait Has Begun,"
January 16, 1991.

This time the bullet cold rocked ya/A yellow ribbon instead of a swastika/Fools follow rules when the set commands ya/They load the clip in omnicolor/They pack the 9, they fire at the prime time . . . /Just victims of the in-house drive-by/They say jump you say how high.

--Rage Against the Machine vocalist
Zack de la Rocha,
"Bullet in the Head," 1992

It's 1/16/91. Early afternoon. I'm shooting hoops in the sunshine when a guy on a mountain bike suddenly pops over a nearby berm and scrabbles down a steep dirt hill to the blacktop, riding his brakes and wheezing. He is excited. His eyes are wide. He has big news. "The bombs are falling," he says between gasps. "Spread the word. Gather in the quarry. No blood for oil!" As he speeds off, I notice he has a peace sign shaved into the back of his head. Poser.

The score's 15-13 in a game of three-on-three. The six of us had wordlessly stopped playing at the curious appearance of the messenger, and now we stand around, scuffing our shoes and wondering what to do. Abe, a six-foot-five mulatto with a thunderbolt dunk, breaks the silence. "Well, shit," he says, checking the ball. "Let's just finish the game."

A few points later, we start hearing sirens and bullhorn announcements. "Come to the quarry, people," a voice blares a few hundred yards away. "Bush has pushed the button." Come gather 'round, children, wherever you roam. I see students moving in clusters toward the quarry, a massive limestone amphitheatre carved out by miners decades ago. The rest of the game is halfhearted at best, and when it's mercifully over (21-15, we lost), I sprint for the quarry a half-mile away, arriving at the makeshift rally just in time to hear a woman with a brother on the front lines tearfully lashing the crowd over a shoddy PA.

"Now you all want to have your little march," she sobs. "Now you all want to do something. But you should have been marching two months ago, because my brother shouldn't have to die in any fucking war!" Her final words devolve into barely intelligible shrieks, and a friend gently leads her away from the mike stand. Some self-appointed protest leader starts to step up, but a small dude decked out in a ratty tie-dye with a guitar slung over his shoulder jumps up from the front of the crowd, steps in front of him and starts furiously strumming away.

Of course, no one can hear what he's playing because there's no mike for his guitar, yet he keeps on, undaunted. The organizer stands behind him, looking like his pacifist ideals are being sorely tested. Then the hippie starts to sing, but the PA starts shorting out, and his vocals come through in garbled spurts: ". . . Uncle Sam (fizz, pop) . . . little problem down in Vietnam . . . (static)"

No, I think, this can't be true. Then the scraggly bearded balladeer takes a breath and earnestly belts out the chorus, and I realized it is: "And it's one, two, three, what are we fightin' for? Don't ask me, I don't give a . . . (buzz) . . . next stop is Vietnam (hiss, crackle)."

So as I stand there, listening to this little gimp play a half-assed cover of Country Joe McDonald's "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" as F-15s are strafing Baghdad, I realize three things: 1. This dude has watched Woodstock a few times too many; 2. About the same time "Operation Desert Shield" tee shirts hit the streets, he started practicing this number in his dorm room, dreaming of this pathetic moment in the sun; and 3. My generation is in bad need of some protest rock to call its own.

Hell, we could barely come up with our own chants. Once the march got under way, "Hell no, we won't go, we won't die for Texaco" (as if anyone was in danger of being drafted to fight the mighty Iraqis) quickly yielded to "One, two, three, four, we don't want your fuckin' war."

Ah, if only we'd had some Rage Against the Machine and a decent sound system. A little "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me" cranked through some boss speakers would have gone a long way that day.

Rage Against the Machine is a lot like the Smiths--just bear with me here--in that people tend to form and hold strong opinions of both bands. Me, I think Morrissey should have just stuck his head in an oven and spared us all the misery, and I come down solidly in the pro-Rage camp (I'll bet there's a correlation there. I'm hard put to picture a Smiths fan screaming along to any of Rage singer Zack de la Rocha's vitriolic mantras, unless someone fed him some seriously bad acid--which makes for quite an enjoyable picture indeed).

But not all anti-Ragers are big whine-pop fans.
Some of them simply aren't into speed metal or rap, and certainly not Rage's combination thereof. Me, I think the two go better than ganja and espresso, but that's just a matter of sonic aesthetics.

Others don't believe political rants make for good rock lyrics, to which I say, "Bullshit." Rock and politics are Siamese twins--you can separate them, but they're more interesting together.

For the most part, however, I've found that those who dis on Rage are punkers and indie rockers who appreciate a healthy dose of anger in their music, but accuse de la Rocha and crew of merely posturing as radicals to cash in on an angry youth. Now that's cynicism for ya.

The biggest argument from that camp is that you can't "Rage Against the Machine" if you're a cog in it. Any band signed to a major label (Epic, in this case) that claims to be fighting the power is a joke by definition. On the surface, it looks like sound logic. But consider this--despite gold album sales for their 1992 debut and the long-awaited follow-up Evil Empire, which hit the streets in mid-April, the members of Rage Against the Machine have not gone the rock-star route. They still drive their own van, and have donated six-figure sums to various left-of-center activist organizations, including one supporting the Zapatista rebels in Mexico.

Think what you will of its politics, but this band walks the walk. True, the members are from Orange County, California, but de la Rocha's dad was a member of the radical Chicano art collective Los Four in the '70s, and guitarist Tom Morrello's father was part of the Mau Mau uprising that led to Kenya's independence from Great Britain. This stuff is in their blood.

The band's other two members--bassist Timmy C. and drummer Brad Wilk--are less politically minded, and in recent interviews have stressed that Rage Against the Machine is about more than telling conservatives to get fucked. Which is true--Rage's new album is primo speed-rock fare, tight as hell and tailor-made to get the blood flowing.

But if you only want to rock out, Sepultura's latest will do you just as good. It's de la Rocha's lyrics--and the bitter conviction with which he renders them--that keep Evil Empire in my CD changer.

Fife Symington. Joe Arpaio. Homeless people at the Seventh Street off-ramp wearing tee shirts that read "Your Ad Here." These things piss me off. They call for cathartic comment, and Country Joe McDonald, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan are just not the droids I'm looking for.--David Holthouse


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