There are LA bands and then there are LA bands. The Doors. War. Black Flag. Motley Crue. NWA. Guns N Roses. Red Hot Chili Peppers. Ozomatli. Sublime.
And then, there is Rage Against the Machine.
You can make a lot of different arguments for why one band or the other more profoundly articulates the rhythms of the City of Angels. Or which is the better collection of musicians. Or which has been more successful. Or...whatever.
But the only thing you need to do in your life in order to know that you have lived is to elbow your way into a mosh pit at a Rage Against the Machine show.
I did that for the very first time last month. In, of all places, Las Vegas.
I missed Rage during their original run. Wasn't really into any form of rock at that time. I dug their politics, though. And nearly saw them live in 2000. That was the same night I got lost in 1968. Maybe I'll tell you about that sometime.
Anyway...I picked up a Rage record on a trip to Amoeba circa 2002. Mostly 'cause I thought I was supposed to. I'm sure it stayed cased in plastic for a year or so. Then I went through a rough break-up. And every piece of music I knew well sounded like teardrops. So, I dug through my CDs looking for something that sounded like something else. Like the unfamiliar.
Back then, Rage was unfamiliar.
Within a day of listening to the self-titled debut, I purchased Evil Empire. The Battle of Los Angeles, too. And proceeded to D'Oh myself through each album. 'specially since it appeared that I would probably never see them live.
Imagine, if you will, how I felt this past Labor Day when I discovered that Rage would be performing near the same place I'd be at close to the same time I'd be there.
Me in San Francisco and LA from Oct. 14 through Oct. 28.
Rage in Las Vegas on Oct. 28.
Say it with me: "No-brainer."
I bought my Rage concert ticket before I ever bought a plane ticket. Or rented a car. I did eventually book reservations for both, though.
So, on the morning of the 28th, I picked up a different cherry red 2008 Grand Prix (What'rtheodds?) at LAX and zoomed up the 15 toward the Vegoose Music Fest. I made good time to Sin City and had enough time to inhale one last double-double from In'N'Out before I needed to find my way to the concert. What I didn't have was a room for the night or any idea where Sam Boyd Stadium was.
Vegas is the opposite of cheap. The wrong place for a broke artist to be trying to find a place to rest his head. I asked the folks at an Embassy Suite located way off the Strip what it'd cost for a night. It cost more than FREE, so I opted against booking a room thinking maybe I'd locate an available couch from an about-to-be-new-concert-friend. I did ask to use the hotel's free internet and figured out how to catch the Vegoose shuttle.
The hungover buffet of humanity assembled outside of the make-shift bus stop at the Tropicana looked just like you'd think it would. A couple painted to look like Papa Smurf and Smurfette. Four widow-peaked 35-ish guys wearing Battle of Mexico City shirts. A gaggle of backpack-wearing kids dressed in black. Three stringy-haired girls wearing mini-skirts and Uggs. In short, a little bit of everything.
On board the bus, you could hear conversations about the first day of Vegoose. Daft Punk. Iggy Pop. Public Enemy. M.I.A. Queens of the Stone Age. Enough to make me really regret not buying the full concert package and cutting my LA stay short.
You could also hear people trading war stories from Rage shows past. Somehow, I was not the only virgin on the bus. And, somehow, the other virgin was seated right next to me.
This dude from Canada. Don't recall his name. But I remember him saying that he tagged along to Vegas with his girlfriend and brother who were attending a conference. That Rage was his favorite band of ever. And that he was 10 kinds of ready to pop his concert cherry.
After he told me he was a serious whisky drinker, I figured I'd found a good ally. The bus rumbled to a stop, opened its doors in front of the stadium and we all poured out into the still falling darkness. Half of that day's show was already over, but we could still see Moe, Muse and this little band from Los Angeles.
The Canadian and I went straight to the bar. I hadn't had a good night's sleep in at least 3 weeks, so I ordered double shots of Patron and some vodkaredbulls. The Canadian joined me for a couple rounds. We wandered the festival grounds a bit. I bookmarked both Moe and Muse as bands I should get better acquainted with. And, about half an hour before Rage was scheduled to go on, we posted up near the edge of the pit.
You realize, nearly as soon as you arrive, that a Rage show will be the definition of a tribal experience. It unfolds in three phases:
During the first phase, everyone trades stories about the experiences they've had at other Rage shows. Some are educational. Some are funny. All are violent. The veterans eye the first-timers like a mother lioness not sure whether she should suckle or suck the meat from the bones of her young cubs. By the advice they share, most clearly choose the former. When the second phase kicks in, it seems as if all of them want to act on the latter.
"Good evening, we are Rage Against the Machine from Los Angeles, California."
With those words, the crowd compresses itself and surges toward the stage as if being commanded by some high holy man. And, really, we were. I started the show 120ish feet from the stage. 90 seconds after that opening statement, after I had been slammed into the mass of bodies, I landed about 20 feet from the stage. I could hear the opening chords of Testify and, like the somethingthousand people squished against me, I began to jump, flail, yell and sweat.
I don't remember what song Rage played next. Or next next. Or next next next. I do remember thinking that I probably shouldn't be jumping around for two hours 'cause the odds of my twisting an ankle or blowing a knee out would increase exponentially by the minute. So, I planted my feet, bent my knees into a sturdy crouch, extended my elbows and tried to box out 492 people at once. The Canadian was no where to be found.
Maybe it was during Bulls on Parade. Or Freedom. Possibly during Sleep Now in the Fire. At some point, I stepped on a cell phone, swiped a paw at the ground to scoop it up and slid it into my pocket. While making that motion, I also noticed these three girls behind me struggling to stay on their feet and off of a stretcher. During a break between songs, I asked if they wanted to stay or exit.
I widened my stance, extended my elbows and built a one-man wall for them. Periodically, I'd feel a familiar hand, cheek, breast, knee or elbow being pressed into me. Mostly, they hung onto my shoulders and arms and avoided harm--as much as it could be avoided under those circumstances--for an hour or so while drunken bodies surfed above us, possessed bodies crashed into us and Zach De La Rocha's musical manifesto exploded through the wall of speakers six arms' lengths from our outmatched little ears.
All the music, of course, was familiar. Most of the standout songs from the first three albums. One, maybe two, from Renegades. When they played War Within a Breath, I tried to keep an eye focused on the stage. Zach and Tom Morello both seemed to be consumed by the energy pouring out of the controlled riot over which they proudly presided. I'd noticed that same thing at other points during the show. During that song, though, I had to wonder how much the band chemistry had deteriorated at the turn of the century for them to "No mas" their otherwise ideal sonic union and give up that high.
Maybe I didn't understand the bigger picture. I mean, what else can you say after you've synthesized 400 years of world history into a 3-minute mission statement for a new people's movement? I always thought that song was the perfect way for a band to conclude its original catalogue. At that moment, I thought perhaps I was wrong. After the show, I understood why I had been right all along.
Rage exited the stage for the first time. Without performing Killing in the Name. Most in the crowd recognized this cue to demand an encore. Hoarse voices suddenly hit the red again, barking "Rage! Rage! Rage! Rage! Rage!" After minutes, the band obliged.
The encore gave all of us who had chosen to remain in the pit another 15 minutes to beat the crap out of each other. And, then, came the signature call of a generation:
"FUCK YOU! I WON'T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!"
Without a hint of irony, the sentence that closed the show sounded just as sacred as the one that opened it. That, dear reader, is a revelation.
The four members of the band clasped hands and took a bow before exiting stage left. The somethingthousand people around me pounded palms, whistled and screeched their gratitude for another Rage experience.
As the applause died down, other voices piped up. "Did anyone find a red Moto-RAZR?" "Hey, I found a shoe." "Brian Dupre, meet me at the beer tent." Other hands shot up with wallets, phones, car keys and other things that are supposed to live in a person's pocket. I whipped out the phone I had found and handed it to its surprised, and thankful, owner.
Even the girls I guarded for most of the show re-appeared to give me a sweaty hug. The happy ending to this story should have featured me sandwiched between the two cute ones in a room at the Luxor. Alas, they were roadtripping back to LA (Naturally) as soon as they retrieved their car from the parking lot.
An appropriately disappointed me then joined the rest of the tribe that had warred against itself for an hour and a half as it slowly began to re-commune. We asked if the passed out girl we raised over our heads and floated to security was okay. We apologized for the accidental elbow that caused a stranger's nose to bleed a bit. We shared what little water we had left in our bottles. We bought t-shirts to declare that we had survived each other.
Then we all shot out into the night in our own different directions.
I found my way to the Strip and located some free internet so I could write the weekly e-newsletter my dayjob expects me to produce each Monday morning. After I hit the send button a few hours later, I was still pretty wired so I bought myself a drink and took a walk up Las Vegas Blvd.
Adrenaline pulsed through me like I remained trapped in the pit at Sam Boyd Stadium. Song lyrics continued to pound against my ear drums. Rage had left the stage a quarter of a day earlier, but I was, somehow, still at the show.
I stopped for another glass of Brazilian rum. The kind infused with a neutral clarity. And I started thinking.
The actual act of raging against a machine is a passionate one. Passion, by its nature, is fleeting. While Zach De La Rocha may have a brilliant command of how to state a problem and convey his own proposal for a solution, the passion his band's music inspires needs only a slogan to feed it.
As that passion wanes, desire invariably takes over. And the generation(s) to whom Rage speaks is/are no different than their mothers and fathers. Each cohort can be seduced by the idea of changing the world, but ultimately is satisfied with simply getting themselves off and going to sleep. We rage together, swell with energy and release it, screaming, "FUCK YOU! I WON'T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!" as if that's the goal. That rebellious ejaculation from the comfortable and the bored who are easily possessed by a sexy righteousness, yet never separated from the urge to sate their own palettes.
I suppose that's part of why Rage broke up years ago. And I s'pose the intoxicating energy their music produces is part of why they've booked a few new gigs this year. Why they'll book another handful here. Or there. In the years to come.
But really, what else is there for them to say?
Zach gave all of us the outline for updating the Port Huron Statement and tried to inspire us to channel the wisdom of history's greatest recalcitrants to take the world and order it as it could be. Yet, we never got past our favorite line from our first favorite Rage song:
"FUCK YOU! I WON'T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!"
That anarchic "you" simply doesn't lend itself to any further guidance from anyone. It just frees us to pursue our own whims. And our whims are simple. They trace the same paths as those who came before us. And those who will follow us. They take on different forms as the seasons evolve and our resources change. But they're generally timeless.
We hunt. We gather. We provide. We protect. And, then, when all of those things are settled, we pursue pleasure. With as much vigor as our circumstances will afford us.
Which explains why this middle class son of America's Golden age crawled along the Las Vegas Strip hours after Rage destroyed Sam Boyd Stadium that night. Drinking Brazilian rum. Until the sun reappeared. Signaling the opening of Del Taco. Where the breakfast burritos taste a special kind of delicious. And the only thing to rage about is the occasional absence of bar-b-que sauce.
Or, maybe, why the next Rage show isn't scheduled for tomorrow night.