Revolution #90, May 27, 2007

Reporters Notebook from Coachella

There is something very unique about being immersed in music and live performance for three days in a row. It has a different cumulative effect than just going to a concert or even several in a week. There is a different pace and tempo in this kind of setting and a different appreciation for live performances and the community forged between the crowd and the bands.

Coachella was a three-day music festival with 60,000 people a day and over 120 bands out in the desert, two hours east of Los Angeles. Tens of thousands of concertgoers camped out in official campsites, making this a three-day non-stop, filthy, dusty, loud ruckus and rocking affair.

Bands spanned the gauntlet of styles--from pop alternative, to headliners like Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Roots, a LOT of rock, to world music like Manu Chao (Spain and France) and Konono No. 1 (from Kinshasa, Congo-Zaire in Africa), to alt-country/folk and hip hop--the highlight, of course, being the reunion of RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE!

I noticed several people with anti-religious messages on them. One punk kid I stopped to talk to had a t-shirt that read, "Lord, Protect me from your Followers." A lot of RATM shirts. Mostly the crowd was white and young with a very small spattering of Black people, more Asians, and Chicanos. Many more Chicanos and Mexicanos showed up on the last day for Rage, quite a few folks traveling up from Mexico City to catch this reunion.

There was a spirit of revulsion at the way things are, a spirit of not wanting to be associated with the dominant culture--the war, the president, the torture, the whole of it –that pulsed through the bulk of the sets and the festival as a whole.

The main thing by far at Coachella was this great spirit of rebellion. But with too few exceptions this did not extend to challenging the suffocating attitudes towards and oppression of women. It's not so much that there was gross objectification but that, if we really are going to forge a new and liberating culture, shattering the notion that women are defined through their sexuality and instead unleashing their fury is going to have to be a key part of it.

Going to sleep after the first day of music, I felt compelled to comment to a friend about how lacking the culture is today--there is a strain of music that is very popular now, some of it musically interesting and fun, that is just very self-absorbed, oblivious to the larger world, and really terrible towards women. So that really highlighted how important this festival was--with the amount of rebelliousness and vocal opposition and straining against this in the music and from the stage, especially among many of the major and established artists.

The Music

There were many highlights, and I couldn’t catch all of them. The Roots did a powerful rendition of "Masters of War"! Manu Chao spoke near the end of his set and said something to the effect of: "I am very saddened to have to dedicate this song tonight, the way I do every night, to the biggest terrorist on the planet. The president of the United States, George Bush.... You can’t fight terrorism with terrorism! You can’t fight terrorism with Guantánamos…" I don’t remember the exact words and ending--but the crowd was jumping and cheering and then dancing wildly for the rest of the set.

Tom Morello, as the Nightwatchman, brought Boots, of The Coup, up on stage to rhyme during this finale--as well as Perry Ferrell (formerly of Jane’s Addiction, now of Satellite Party). Perry said he was proud to be on stage with other revolutionaries and then the three of them elated the crowd with a beautiful and charged rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" that included its often-censored verses. For the Coup’s set, Boots was backed by a deeply funky band, and got a remarkable response from the crowd--dozens in the front sang along with every rebellious word.

Musically another band that stood out to me was Arcade Fire. A musician I spoke to observed that they have a couple of songs ("Wake Up" is one of them) that reach as high a crescendo and experience as rock can get. Their latest album makes use of whole orchestras and they utilize the wall of sound effect. Their new album, Neon Bible, has much in it about the current situation--in particular the marriage of church and state as well as the heightened surveillance and repression. Lines like, "I don’t want to fight in your holy war."

Rage Against the Machine!

I thought I was ready for this, and I had been looking forward to it in a BIG way, but there is nothing like the actual experience--and my god, I forgot how fucking radical this band is! They don’t give this system and this country and its history and its present day an inch--but not only are they fiercely indicting, they give a sense of identity to their fans that no one else does in this way. After seven years without them, my memory of them must’ve softened--plus the times have changed intensely for the worse--but they seemed to rip open the sky for people. Hearing them it became all the more clear how suffocating the culture has been without them and how many people--including the coming of age of a whole new generation--have been shaped by their absence.

To hear today 50,000 "mainstream" kids moshing and screaming the lyrics out from "Sleep Now in the Fire": "the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria, the noose and the rapist, the fields’ overseer, the agents of orange, the priests of Hiroshima…." gave me a sense of potential big trouble for those who want a cowed population and great hope for a new generation being forged as fighters. They are so uncompromising--and they are more loved because of it. Plus, they really can rock. Morello was more alive than I have ever seen him, tearing up the stage. Zack swung from intense calm to detonating his lyrics like the salvos of an army racing into battle. At times he just went silent (not even holding the mic out) with utter confidence in his fans that they would keep the song alive and not miss a single line.

During the set a bunch of kids climbed up on the huge sound system in the middle of the field--several stories up--and started moshing on the roof of it. They must’ve felt like they were on top of the rebel universe.

About halfway through Rage’s set, me and 10 others were standing on a picnic table (I was afraid this thing would break with 10 people jumping and dancing and rocking back and forth for so long, but I couldn’t bring myself to get down--the view was fantastic of the band, the big screens and the huge crowd, the whole thing was breathtaking). A young Chicano guy on the table turns to me and says, "I feel like I could die now and I would be satisfied." The whole thing was like that--an experience that probably most people knew would never be matched again in their lifetimes. At such a dangerous and dark time for humanity, to have these guys retake the stage and anchor a sentiment that has been ingrown beneath the surface in so many, even unrecognized by most--the whole thing was electric with a sense of the historic.

Listening, I couldn’t help but take a long-view, thinking about how perfectly this captures a moment in human history--a new globalized high-tech Rome, lashing out and striking out, escalating its threat to the whole of humanity, while rotting from the inside and being pummeled by the loudest, rockingest, planetary-force of a band as a soundtrack. What side will win? Not yet determined, but the impact of Rage’s reemergence will certainly play in favor of humanity.

At one point in the show, Zack began chanting "rise up" to the crowd. While everyone looks forward to the moment in a Rage show when the crowd starts chanting, "Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me,"--and this was a highlight--the "rise up" chant surpassed it. Over and over again: "Rise Up!" I am getting jittery just writing about it. Again, I forgot how radical this band is. Rage gives the crowd a sense of identity, challenges them to act, provides uncompromising indictment and great rock and roll and rap. What’s still missing though, to me, is a vision of another world, of how humanity can relate to each other differently.

At the end all the members stepped away from their instruments and stood shoulder to shoulder on the stage. Zach had his hands clasped together, saying thank you, bowing to the audience. They all seemed to be smiling and they stood there--visibly united--for a minute to two, a long time for a concert, taking in the energy and presenting themselves to the audience.

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