Culture

[From the Vault] I Go on a Pilgrimage of RAGE

I wrote this 15 years ago after seeing my first Rage Against the Machine concert.

I will see them again for a second time in Wisconsin on Saturday and thought it appropriate to pull up this old piece. Enjoy.

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I GO ON A PILGRIMAGE

It is not often that one gets the chance to go on a real pilgrimage, a journey that has a lasting effect on your soul and fulfills its deep yearning for a spiritual experience. 

At 10 years of age I made the trek to Badrinath and Kedarnath at the freezing heights of the Himalayas with my mother, cousin, and a few other relatives.  The last leg of the journey involved a long, treacherous ride by mule on a narrow path hugging the cliffs, with a sheer drop of many thousands of feet just inches from the mules’ legs, a plunge that has led many pilgrims straight to their God.  For centuries, waves of devout Hindus have made this trip, freezing their asses off and sleeping in dirty barns to partake of the sacred nectar at the holiest of holy ancient temples.  My poor cousin, who had never left the heat of South India before, puked his guts out at the temple, frostbitten and flu-ridden.  It was unforgettable for myself, my mom, and certainly my cuzz.  I’m sure it is just so for anyone who has made it up there, like circling the Kasbah at Mecca for Muslims just once in their life.

Last month, I went on a very different sort of pilgrimage, but one that to me was just as much soul-shaking, emotional, and spiritual.. 

Occasionally during the 1990’s, a little old white-haired lady named Mary Morello would take the microphone on a stage in front of thousands of sweaty adolescents, denounce government censorship of the airwaves, and end by saying, “Please welcome the best f***ing band in the universe!”  That’s when the crowd would  go completely berserk in anticipation.

And then it would happen- the ultimate expression of God personified in four human beings coming together to make music- the band Rage Against the Machine would come onstage and blow the minds of anyone within earshot for an hour or two.   And they would justify the statement of Mrs. Morello, the proud mother of Rage guitarist Tom Morello.

Rage has been my favorite band since a day in 1996 when I heard a Rage song for the first time on the radio, sitting in my room and doing high school homework. Just like that, in one instant of world-rocking, they were my favorite band, unseating the mighty Beatles and Nirvana who had been my early-90’s crushes.  That’s how powerful an effect the just-released song “Bulls on Parade” had on me.  Here was a band that would absolutely rock you, with a Mexican frontman who rapped his mouth off while his dreadlocks flew in every direction to his head-banging; a half-black guitarist without a peer; and a white rhythm section that never missed a beat.  It was unintentionally a United Colors of Benetton band.  My love affair has lasted till this day- way into 2007- even though the band has been BROKEN UP since 2000.

Rage, as my adolescent heroes inspired me to study international affairs, to enter government in order to achieve positive change, to question everything that authority figures and the media have told me.  Although as I’ve gotten older my politics have swung away from the radical, Marxist base that Rage springs from, I largely agreed with their exposures of injustices against minorities, Indian tribes in Mexico, and the lack of ethics in the halls of power in corporate and political America.  In particular, I disagree strongly with their contention, along with Ralph Nader and the far-left wing fringe in 2000, that Al Gore and George W. Bush were really the same person.  But Rage Against the Machine has got to be the coolest name for a band anyone has dreamt of.

The breakup at the millenium of four extremely intense musicians who doubled as political activists was bad enough for me.  It was Rage who opened my young eyes to many of the social injustices in the world.  The poetic passion they ooze is considered by many musical critics to be unparalleled.  Nowhere was this more apparent than at their live shows- if I had a penny for every time someone told me a Rage show was “the best concert I have ever seen” I’d be rich.  Of course, I was never able to see them live before they broke up.  For one reason or the other, I missed them throughout high school and college when they came by- due to out of town trips, shows selling out, tour cancellations, and flaky friends with cars.  I thought I would never have the opportunity to see them.

Then there were the heart-wrenching near-misses.  In 1999, the band came through DC and were at Tower Records for an autograph-signing session.  I was in college at the time, and rushed out from class to stand in line for the signing.  Oh man- I was going to get to meet them and say hello!  I felt like a schoolgirl at a Justin Timberlake concert.  Of course, after four hours of waiting in a line that snaked around two city blocks, after getting right to the entrance of Tower Records about to be ushered in, the band was rushed out the backdoor to go play a show.  Ouch.

Even worse, the next day I randomly saw guitarsit Tom Morello on the M Street sidewalk right near the Georgetown campus.  To me, Tom Morello is a guitar god: easily the best player alive.  And there he was, half a block away from me.  My Pakistani roommate, who had no concept of who Rage was except watching me jump around when I talked about them, pushed me to go shake his hand.  I couldn’t.  I froze.  I let him go, unharassed.  How do you handle the sudden appearance of one of your gods?  I had cold feet, and to this day I kick myself over it. 

To make matters worse, after the breakup lead singer/rapper Zach de la Rocha went off to record a few pathetic solo songs, while the rest of the band joined with singer Chris Cornell from Soundgarden to form supergroup Audioslave, which was downright depressing.  Audioslave, for those of you who don’t have ears, is not one tenth as good as either Rage or Soundgarden, and they have been going for several years now.  

Enter the year 2007.   Rage announces a  reunion tour!  And one of the venues would be at Rock the Bells- to be held right on Randalls Island in New York- a Parks Department property and to boot, just a few hundred feet from my office.  It was crazy- the pilgrimage was coming to me.  It was fated to be this way.

My friend, a concert aficionado, saw them the day before and gave me the strategy.  Front, near stage right was the place to be.  Another friend told me about how he could hear the band from across the river while speeding down the FDR drive in his car- and that was some serious amplification.

Of course, I had to go on this pilgrimage alone.  Other acquaintances would be distractions.  It was a solo flight and I wanted to do everything my way.   Rage was to go on at 10, and I arrived around 6 to watch some of the other acts.  Mos Def, Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, and Wu Tang Klan, all great groups in their own right, barely helped me kill the time which felt like an eternity.  The entire time I stood in a corner of the massive field and collected my thoughts.  I was like an Olympic track star preparing for the big heat: stretching my arm and leg muscles, mentally preparing  for what I knew would be one of the biggest moments of my life, when that first note was played and the crowd exploded into a massive gyration of flesh.  It rained consistently, causing me to worry till the end that Rage would get cancelled and I would come close-but-no-cigar yet again.  The field was so muddy that my shoes and jeans were covered with a thick film of mud all the way to the knees, along with nearly everyone else there.

During those four hours I half-seriously wondered if I would cry or even pee myself uncontrollably.  It had been a while since I had done either.  Luckily these activities, which I would have excused, did not occur.

When Rage Against the Machine happened, it was like an orgasm.  The band was late in getting on.  The anticipation in the tens of thousands of tattooed and pierced meatheads, metalheads, aging hippies, hip-hop junkies, rock chicks, and assorted groups of suburban kids was palpable in the air.  All around me at the front was a crush of people, with barely any room to move.  And then it happened- Rage comes on with “People of the Sun.”  And my area turns into a gigantic mosh pit of sweaty, muddy kids jumping up and down, pushing each other, and screaming their lungs out.  I entered the fray early on and never left, never stopped pushing and jumping up and down, screaming along to every word of every song, feeling right at home with kids literally half my age and twice my size. 

The aftermath was like crashing after a massive adrenaline rush, but unbelievably happy I had finally witnessed Rage in person.  Finally, after 11 years, I had heard my favorite band live- and all of the wait had been worth it.  I have been extremely fortunate in my life, from traveling the globe, making great friends, partying all night in various countries, being part of a massive and loving family network, and graduating from a fine college; but there was always a yearning.  Now I can finally say that my life is full, that “been there, done that” applies to me, and I can now inch toward that thing called “settling down,” whatever that means.

All pilgrimages must come to an end, and they lose value each time you go.  I know that if I see Rage Against the Machine again, it will rock my world but it will not be as climactic.

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