I must have owned every possible version of Rage Against the Machine‘s self-titled 1992 album, an early work in a fantastic line up of several more to come. I had it on tape, cassette dubs, mixed tapes, CDs, mp3, even on bootlegs of their live shows. And finally, as a new year present to myself, I got it on vinyl. I gave myself a break from all futile outings, concerts, hangover-the-next-day dinners and spent my money on books and music instead, as usual.. Hard cover for the former and vinyl for the later. Tastes refined as we get older? I don’t know. But what I know for sure is I am getting more anti-social as I get older, and the current socio-political environment is not helping things either.
The brewing war in Syria has spilled over as much as it possibly can to Ankara, to Paris, to San Bernardino, to God knows where else. And as with any war I cover, when guns are drawn I tend to stick to myself. I put on my earphones, turn on the volume. Books start piling up all around me, by my bedside, in my luggage, and in various rooms of the house, often at odd places too. Syria is complicated as is, and the proxy war going on is not helping things get any less complicated. So just with Syria alone, I have my hands full. And then there is Turkey. The Southeast is brewing, not a direct spill over of the war in Syria, but rather like an incandescent burner, burning slowly and insidiously from within. Years of mistrust, politics gone sour, misunderstandings and prejudice is adding fuel to the fire.
But I am not going to talk about either of those geographies today, another day maybe, and possibly. Instead I want to talk about Rage Against the Machine: the band and the album, and Boston music scene in the ’90s.
In 1992, me a junior at Boston University the Rathskeller still seemed like an off bounds magical place. As I stayed on campus during the first couple of years of college life, living in a brownstone right on Kenmore Square, next to a funeral parlor and a Chabad House, through my room window I could see the legendary dive. It was a scary and intriguing place for an 18 year old. Big burly men with tattoos, bikers, skaters, punks, leather jackets and hoods frequented the watering hole. As a freshmen I loved listening to Ron and Shane, my first floor neighbours, both seniors, talk about the rock bands that played live there. Shane had started working as a bouncer on Landsdowne Street and promised to take us in to any all ages shows at Axis for free. Despite the juicy offer, I never quiet had the courage to go to any of them. Not that I was not curious, but none of my friends at the time would even hear of it. None, until I met Annabel.
It was Spring of 1992. We were taking a course on the European Union together. It was three years after the fall of the Berlin wall and a year after the start of the first Gulf War. CNN, by then had become a common brand in our lives. And as things often go, by 1992 we had all gotten used to the war in the Middle East, the countless air strikes carried out each day, the dead being brought back in black body bags, the destruction in a far away country, as well as the dream of capitalism already starting to turn sour in Eastern Europe. In a few months, we were headed for Belgium, and later for England. There was a field trip planned into our course. Annabel and I were among the select group of students that would join in on the research trip. I was excited. Going to Europe would mean getting closer to my family, who then lived in Istanbul. I missed them. And being in Europe would mean being in familiar territory. The infrequent phone calls would not sound so distant. Annabel was also psyched. She kept on talking about bootlegs, going to live shows in London.
Both Belgium and the UK were a happy blur. And once back in Boston, my new friend took me to the Rat. And that is where I met the rest of the gang who would soon become my family. I remember picking my first song on the jukebox. I loved rock music, but up until then I had not been a true follower of any hardcore or punk band. I had a small selection of albums from the Clash, Sex Pistols, the Misfits. I enjoyed the music but what I knew of punk was limited. I loved Kate Bush, Siouxie and the Banshees and listened to Iron Maiden and Sepultura as well. In short, I was all over the board when it came to any one gendre. So, on that day on the jukebox, much to Annabel’s dismay, I picked Neil Young. “So you like country, huh,” she said before ordering us a pitcher. And then introduced me to the rest of her friends. After that first day at the Rat, the place that would become a school for me, a swift musical introduction to the Boston underground. It would be the place where I would throw myself into my first mosh pit, find my way in the dark, damp and loud alleys of hardcore and punk, try to become a self-taught connoisseur of local bands, make friends, fall in love. I finally had found a place to get some murk on my 21 hole Dr. Marten’s. And pain? It was only circumstantial.
It was also at the Rat that I would see the flyer of an upcoming RATM show on Landsdowne Street. I had heard of them. We knew they would be at the Lollapalooza that summer. And now, before the mud fest, I had the chance to see them close up. The year was 1993. It was the best year of my life, and needless to say one of the loudest.
RATM had made a fast and permanent entry into our lives. Zach’s lyrics were flaming with anger, frustration, well, rage… His words coupled with the band’s music, the guitar drones, the drums and bass, they would build up all those emotions smothered within our psyche, push them steadily to the surface. The fight that would break up at the pit would be violent as it was affectionate. If one fell, they would not be trampled on.
In those years we knew the system was a machine grinding all of us up, we knew we would never be a part of the lucky 1%, we knew our friends would soon have their backs broken with debt and fall out of the golden path the university promised to put them on. I knew my too expensive undergraduate education (the majority of which I had managed to subsidy with scholarships and several part-time jobs) would not go beyond helping me balance my check book. I knew I would never be a CEO of any kind. Not because I couldn’t if I tried, but I knew my passion laid elsewhere. So when Zack fell into our lives like a bombshell, as a personal take, I finally would find the courage to follow that passion.
“Born with insight and a raised fist / A witness to the slit wrist / as we move into ’92 / Still in a room without a view / Ya got to know / Ya got to know / That when I say go, go, go / Amp up and amplify / Defy / I’m a brother with a furious mind / Action must be taken / We don’t need the key / We’ll break in / Something must be done / About vengeance, a badge and a gun / ‘Cause I’ll rip the mike, rip the stage, rip the system / I was born to rage against ’em / Fist in ya face, in the place / And I’ll drop the style clearly / Know your enemy / Know your enemy!”
Something had to be done, yes. We were hearing of police violence, of gangs of racist security forces breaking in on poor neighbourhoods. There were many breaches of human rights happening right then and there under our very noses in the U.S. So, break in RATM did, splitting our psyches open with drum and bass.
Zack was a bard. He was the hardcore version of Bob Dylan. And at that show at Axis, they proved their might. I had convinced the whole gang to go. We all met up at the venue. Boston is incorrigibly puritan. However the city has always inhabited a solid undercurrent of marginality. Yet that marginality is hardly political. So we were not exactly prepared when the stage opened with Timmy C, his back turned to the audience. First there was no light. As he started hitting the strings of his bass, the spotlight shone on his back. We found ourselves staring at an angry face, or half of it, starting back at us. The tattoo on his back stretching from his neck to his hips stood still until he picked up the rhytm. As the face moved, Zack came out from the shadows…
“This time the bullet cold rocked ya / A yellow ribbon instead of a swastika / Nothin’ proper about ya propaganda / Fools follow rules when the set commands ya / They said it was blue / When the blood was red / That’s how you got a bullet blasted through ya head / I give a shout out to the living dead / Who stood and watched as the feds cold centralized / So serene on the screen / You was mesmerised / Cellular phones soundin’ a death tone / Corporations cold / Turn ya to stone before ya realize / They load the clip in omnicolor / They pack the 9, they fire it at prime time / Sleeping gas, every home was like Alcatraz / And mutha fuckass lost their minds / Just victims of the in-house drive-by / They say jump, you say how high”
As the song would subdue to a single rhtym on bass, all other instruments fell silent. Now the spotlight was on Zack. Timmy C, keeping the rhtym at a passive aggressive level, allowed the pit to cool a bit, as Zack pulled a book from his pant’s back pocket. He started reading from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…”
As Zack read, the bass hummed in the background. Vietnam, L.A., Iraq, the ghettos, Afghanistan, they all merged into one. All the injustices of this world, all the wars and pillage, they became one. And when he finished, the music broke the crowd into a fierce pogo. We were all spinning, but if one fell, the other was picking him up. We were spinning, kicking, turning, jumping with our senses open.
Movements come and movements go / Leaders speak, movements cease / When their heads are flown / ‘Cause all these punks / Got bullets in their heads / Departments of police, the judges, the feds / Networks at work, keepin’ people calm / You know they went after King / When he spoke out on Vietnam / He turned the power to the have-nots / And then came the shot”
“Wake up!” screamed Zack, and I woke up. It was not coincidental that I finally gathered up my courage and tucking my portfolio under my arm knocked on the doors of the Boston Phoenix.
‘He may be a real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed obedience to white liberal doctrine of non-violence… and embrace black nationalism’ / ‘Through counter-intelligence it should be possible to pinpoint potential trouble-makers… And neutralize them, neutralize them, neutralize them’
That was back in 1993. And now many years, several wars and revolutions, an exposed NSA scandal, police violence, disproportionate security interventions – crack downs – on non-violent protests, and one Ferguson later I find myself sitting in my living room with Rage Against the Machine’s album in my hands. It almost feels like that day at Axis. Almost.. I take care not to hurt the LP, pull it out of its sleeve and set it on the turntable. As the first hum of Timmy C’s bass starts humming in the speakers, the smell of the pit comes back. I crank up the volume.