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Saturday, July 1, 2000

Inciting the huddled masses to Rage Against the Machine

Bruce Springsteen's controversial new song, "American Skin (41 Shots)," about the shooting death of Amadou Diallo by New York City policemen, has split his fan base of blue-collar male boomers down political lines. Bob Lucente, the president of the New York State chapter of the Benevolent Order of Police, publicly denounced the song and called the rock star a "floating fag" and a "f**king dirtbag."

That comment may do more to endear Springsteen to a more radical rock constituency than anything he's ever done, including his ode to the disenfranchised, "The Ghost of Tom Joad." I doubt if Lucente has anything to say about Zak de la Rocha, the incendiary leader of Rage Against the Machine, who rags against the police as a career. Lucente and most of New York's finest would probably never be caught dead listening to Rage, and therein lies at least part of the paradox of de la Rocha's dogma. He preaches to the converted, while Springsteen risks alienating a good part of his parish in the hope that they will see the light.

For those who aren't familiar with the L.A. band, Rage plays a crunching, pounding mixture of rap, metal and funky hard core, which wouldn't seem to make them ideal interpreters of "Tom Joad," originally a dark acoustic ballad. But the song is a centerpiece of their live shows, and the version they played at Makuhari Messe June 24 was no less crunching than their original stuff.

"Nobody's fooling nobody," de la Rocha screamed during the chorus, and while semantically the change from Springsteen's "kidding" to Rage's "fooling" isn't a big leap, it underscores de la Rocha's determination to convert the resignation of the underclass into defiance and -- someday, he hopes -- confrontation.

What unites these two artists as artists isn't so much their politics but the fact that they both record for media Goliath Sony. Of course, Springsteen's social consciousness evolved as his popularity rose, while Rage's was fully formed when they signed with Epic back in the early '90s, but in the end both have had to reconcile their liberal ideals with big bucks and, more significantly, working for the man, and they have done so in the same way, by not allowing these seemingly contradictory aspects to mesh.

Though Rage proudly declares on its records that "all music is made by guitar, bass, drums and vocals," it isn't a boast of musical capabilities but of professional purity. While watching the band perform, though, I wished they were a little more artistically demanding. The reason for choosing Makuhari Messe was obvious. With its concrete floor and adjustable size, the convention center is strictly utilitarian and can hold thousands of slam-dancing bodies in egalitarian style. But it has the acoustics of an airplane hangar.

I managed to recognize the opener, the MC5's classic head banger "Kick Out the Jams," by the chorus. Otherwise, it was an indistinguishable white din. "Bulls on Parade" and "Testify" were more identifiable, but the echoey ambience rendered the band's characteristic pounding exactitude as gray and runny as the graffiti-themed cover of their latest album, the multiplatinum "Battle of Los Angeles," which adorned the back of the stage (with the word "Tokyo" substituted for "Los Angeles").

On the other hand, sonic clarity isn't so important when you don't have melodies. De la Rocha is one of the most powerful voices in rock, but his mix of rap and rant will never be mistaken for singing. Nevertheless, the band has a militant regard for pop structure. It's the heart of their sound, since the tension-release that's inherent in the verse-chorus dynamic is just the ticket for music that represents the masses exploding into action against their oppressors.

In concert, this kind of thing can't help but take on political overtones. Guitarist Tom Morello, alternating turntable-like scratching with Black Sabbathy power riffs, created an almost visual counterpoint of violence to de la Rocha's tale of backlash in "Bullet in the Head." Morello leaped high into the air with bent knees when he hit the chorus, as if he were stomping the crap out of someone. The entire crowd joined in, physically and vocally, their strained cries echoing in the dark cavern above the roaring music.

Onstage, de la Rocha seems torn between taking advantage of his charisma -- stalking the stage like a gat-slinging M.C., whipping his dreads like a bolo -- and diving for cover under his polemics. During instrumental breaks, he was often prostrate in front of the bass drum, his back to the audience, either conserving energy for the next assault or invoking the spirit of Che Guevera, whose stenciled image was draped over the guitar speaker.

The band made no entreaties to the audience. Considering it was the eve of the Lower House elections, I found it disappointing but hardly surprising. Japan's ongoing political loss-of-nerve is probably not high on the band's list of concerns, if it's there at all. But the people who paid money to hear Rage in this huge tin can certainly understand what they're about. The fliers that Amnesty International distributed in the hall about the plights of the Zapatistas and death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal weren't littering the floor, so I'll assume they had made it into people's backpacks. "Anger is a gift," de la Rocha intoned during the last song, "Freedom." Let's hope we're worthy of it.

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