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On the day I met Zack de la Rocha, I made a conscious choice not to be tear-gassed. Some people were tear-gassed that day, the anarchists and hard cases who showed up in DC with actual battle plans and gasmasks slung over their shoulders. They were down the block on F Street taunting the police at the barricades. I was on E Street, on a more domesticated path, walking in a slow, orderly parade of 30,000 demonstrators who were trying without much success to muck up a big meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
That day – April 16, 2000 – would be remembered as “A16” in the annals of the anti-globalization movement. I had driven to DC from New Jersey the night before with Jake, a journalist friend. We stayed in a Holiday Inn downtown, and in the morning, we walked over to the Mall, jumping into the demonstration at 10th Street. The march was already underway, a big slow-moving parade headed down E Street.
Already this protest didn’t feel like others I had attended. There was an edge to it, a whiff of violence and unhinged possibility. In those days, the style of Leftist street protest was carnivalesque – a potent form of edgy performance art that was part block party, part Mardi Gras, part Red Brigade street action. At the center, you would find a peaceful street festival with giant puppets, drum circles, and floats, but around the fringes, the anarchists and hardcore revolutionaries were prowling, searching for weaknesses in the State’s armor. Often the boundaries between these two demonstrations were fluid, but on this day, the organizers had managed to literally channel them down different, parallel streets. The street party followed the police-approved parade route on E Street, pulling most of the demonstrators behind it in tow, but one block away on F Street, where the barricades were actually set up, the anarchists were fighting a running battle with the police.
If you had asked me that day in Washington why I was there, I would have shared a few David-and-Goliath stories about Indonesian labor organizers and Central American campesinos standing up to global corporations. Like many American liberals after the Berlin Wall fell, I was finally waking up to the great circuit board of connections linking me to people throughout the world. Globalization was forcing liberals like me for the first time to stare down the long supply chains that stretch from our supermarkets and big box stores back into steamy tin-roofed places where children work fourteen hours a day in a textile mill and labor organizers end up in a ditch with their throats cut.
I glanced over to the left, and there was the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine, the poet revolutionary of ’90s rock music, walking abreast of us in the crowd. In my wildest fantasy of meeting Zack de la Rocha, I could not have pictured this more perfectly.
I am of that generation that cares about authenticity in popular music. As a proud son of New Jersey, I had grown up on apocryphal stories about Bruce Springsteen materializing in the crowd at some honkytonk bar in Arizona and then jumping up on the stage to play with the house band. At a U2 concert in the mid-’80s, I had cheered as the band brought a teenage boy out of the audience, strapped a guitar around his neck, and let him play along to their cover of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” To see Zack de la Rocha on the street in a hoodie marching against global capitalism – just one of the proletariat – confirmed everything I believed about the power and potential of rock music.
He was so close I could reach out an touch him.
At that stage of my life, I could count the celebrities I had met on one hand, so in my naïveté, I formulated a plan that in retrospect was quite silly: We would pretend not to know who he was, start up a conversation, and then hang out with him all day. But before I could say a word, Jake was pushing up to Zack to ask for his autograph.
The moment was spoiled, of course. In the end, despite the hoodie and the prince-and-the-pauper routine, Zack de la Rocha was a rockstar and we were fans, and no amount of political solidarity could erase the uncomfortable wall separating us. He quickly scribbled his autograph and then disappeared into the crowd without uttering a single politically significant word.
Seventeen years later, I am watching a YouTube clip of Rage Against the Machine’s first public performance, in an outdoor pavilion on the campus of California State University on October 23, 1991. There they are, fresh from the womb and already a perfectly formed rock band. Zack is bolting around the stage like a pinball in play, wearing a long-sleeved sweatshirt. Tom Morello leans into his blistering guitar riffs. Students and teachers are walking past the stationary camera, mostly ignoring the band, but a few students are facing the stage, obviously aware that something epic is popping off in front of them. For everyone else, it’s just another day on the quad.
In the mid-’90s, I thought that rock music was wildly incongruent with the zeitgeist, so I was – and continue to be – mystified by the mass appeal of Rage Against the Machine. There we were, in the midst of unprecedented prosperity and a genuine technological revolution, but our popular music was awash in angst and suffering and impotence. Whatever the mass psychology underlying the “nu metal” movement, Rage was trying to both harness its political potential and monetize it for consumer consumption. Their very existence in popular music seemed unsustainable to me.
Rage was always overestimating the political commitment of its audience. You can hear it in Zack’s rhetoric in the 1990s, in his tendency to regard his fans as an untapped ocean of radical political energy. “We’re not going to play to the [mainstream]; we’re going to hijack it,” said De la Rocha, in a 1997 Rolling Stone article. “The tour is going to incorporate everything which the rich, wealthy classes in America fear and despise. Each of the 20,000 people in the audience will be reminded of their independent political power.”
Did he actually believe that effective political action could cohere in a mosh pit? He seems unaware (though how could he be?) that many of the kids who bought tickets to see Rage and other nu metal bands in the ’90s were on a more visceral trip. This was made obvious to the world in July of 1999 when the Woodstock ’99 concert ended in a flaming riot. Earlier that day, Rage played a “blistering” set and lit an American flag ablaze. At the end of the concert, the mostly male concert-goers torched big piles of garbage and trashed the place. Some women were raped in the ensuing melee. People were beaten up. The police were called in to restore order.
Rage could never escape the marrow-deep contradictions of its devil’s bargain with Big Music. It didn’t matter how stridently they campaigned for justice for Leonard Peltier or Mumia Abu-Jamal in between songs, they would always be the band for upper middle class white kids who fretted over their sweatshop t-shirts and Nikes. The money from millions of record sales would always flow out of that sea of disposable income from the most privileged and affluent society in human history. There would always be Rage fans who grabbed ass and kicked ass at their concerts, whose politics were smashy smashy.
After I finish watching the video, my wife reminds me that it’s Monday – Trash and Recycling Day. I sort of drift out of the house on autopilot, and before I realize it, I am standing on the curb in brown crocs and blue-and-white-checkered pajama bottoms holding the blue recycling bin in both hands. In the moonless dark, the cul-de-sac looks like an ancient Stonehenge circled by giant stone monoliths, a place of solemn ritual. I am deep in the priesthood now, with my Ph.D. in English and my academic career and my slouchy dad bod, and my eight-year-old daughter asleep in the house behind me – a life like the one my parents had, but with a lot more plastic crap and stress.
I am thinking, what was it about that period from 1999 to 2001 that so captivated my sense of idealism? Why was I, at 34 years old, marching with anarchists and Guatemalan campesinos and the Socialists Workers Party?
It is difficult for me to resurrect the feeling I had on that day. The early 2000s have already sunk into a hazy miasma, in part because 9/11 so decisively divided my sense of personal history into before and after. Ideology decompiles our experience of time and then reassembles it according to new hierarchies of importance. From somewhere, I learned that whatever we were anxious about before – Y2K, the Dot.com bubble bursting, Saddam Hussein, the thoroughly fucked-up 2000 election, the Battle in Seattle – all of this was trivial when measured against the shadow of those falling towers and what happened after. I do remember believing that we could make a crack in the endless dream of consumer capitalism. I remember being gripped by a persistent uneasiness. I knew something was wrong with the world, but I couldn’t quite name it yet.
And here I am, nearly twenty years later, standing at the curb, still wracked by the same anxieties.
In quiet moments like these, the angels of my repressed desires step forward out of the darkness. Sometimes it is Tyler Durden, who wants to whisper prophecies in my ear:
“In the world I see – you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center,” he says. “You’’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”
This is what happened to some of us, the last-wave Boomers and first-wave Gen Xers who only halfheartedly embraced the lifestyle our parents bequeathed to us; who moved to the suburbs with our irony still intact; who somewhat reluctantly took jobs inside the vast interlinked bureaucracies of corporate-academic-government power; who feel aggrieved by our rampant consumerism and tormented by our long commutes; whose true politics are still formless, still without a name or a party; who now find ourselves struggling to recall lines from late-’90s cinema in the dark to find metaphors for our lives. We fell asleep, but only halfway, and we keep trying to wake up.
Sometimes it is Morpheus, in his beautiful black trench coat and those cool stemless sunglasses:
“You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Do I really want to know how deep the rabbit hole goes? Somewhat. Yes. I want to know.
Our fathers dreamed about being John Wayne and Neil Armstrong, but we fantasize about tearing down the system, or what it will be like after it falls on its own. For us, patriotism is dead, eviscerated by the zombie apocalypse. It’s all dystopian downhill from here. Post Skynet. It’s as if we are stuck inside of a never-ending fracture, like a windshield struck by a big rock – after Watts, after ’68, after Watergate, after the fall of Saigon, after the Great Recession, after the never-ending culture wars and the never-ending War on Terror, after the city-busting hurricanes and each heart-wrenching school shooting. The web of tiny fractures grows and grows.
Sometimes it is Zack de la Rocha, performing in front of a choir of angels, if angels singing sounded like a chainsaw cutting through sheet metal.
Tonight it is Neo, who flies stealthily out of the darkness like Superman and is suddenly standing there in the cul-de-sac, dropped from the sky. He has a message for me:
“I didn’t come here to tell you how it will end,” he says. “I came here to tell you how it will begin.” Despite everything I know – despite all of the compromises I’ve made along the way – I still so badly want to know how it will begin.