It's not the worst legacy you could ask for. Three years after Rage Against the Machine's last show, people have finally quit asking who's gonna be the new Clash, and started asking who's gonna be the new Rage Against the Machine. But, three years into Bush II, two years past Sept. 11, nine months into Iraq, 33 days past the repulsive police behavior at Miami's free-trade protests and one month after Schwarzenegger's inauguration, the real question is a little harsher. This is 2003, so why does anyone still care about Rage Against the Machine?
Don't take that the wrong way. I don't mean you shouldn't have ever cared about Rage. But ask yourself what you get when you put on this last-live-show CD, Rage Against the Machine Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium.You get cozy affirmation, the same thing KFI listeners get when Rush explains just what's wrong with "these people." Even nostalgia. And what are you listening to now? Because while old music is usually great—it's why Rage covered the MC5, why the MC5 covered Little Richard, why Little Richard ripped off Esquerita, and roll on back—politics doesn't preserve so well. And if Rage left a formidable musical legacy—15 million units got into a lot of shopping malls—they also left their fans a responsibility. "The key to bringing about change isn't music," guitarist Tom Morello once said. "It's being politically active."
Embarrassing that he'd have to spell it out like that? Maybe, but it's easy to get confused, especially when you're having fun, and it's lazy to think that forking over $15.99 (or whatever CDs cost in the 1990s) to a major record label scores points toward your revolution. Seriously, if you wanna change a life, volunteer at the suicide hotline for a weekend. Preferably this weekend. Listen to this CD as you bike over. Or maybe you just want to be in a band. That's great, too. Not as untouchably noble as saving lives, sure, but at least as commendable as becoming a landscape architect or a good chef. At least you're trying to make the world a little prettier, and there's nothing wrong with that. But you gotta be realistic.
A band's best hope is to reproduce itself. It must model, not lead, as Lester Bangs put it, to take advantage of the inevitable rip-off that'll follow if it's any good and can communicate something, not just in what the musicians say and play but in what they do and how they act, as artists and as people. And as a band that, if anything, put more into politicking than musicianship, Rage demanded—well, naively hoped is probably closer—that their fans develop an appreciation for the way the guitars could sound like turntables scratching, as well as for the ideas that the lyrics were about, and for the sort of people who would care about those ideas in the first place. A little nation of Zack De La Rochas, brushing those dreads aside as they stepped up to the ballot box (or was that into the streets?): what the world would suffer in hair care, it would make up in sensible humanism.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Idealistic? Sort of. Rage had to have known that all they could be sure of changing was the balance of a few bank accounts. But they understood that political mass-media exercises are uncomfortable by nature, as per Billy Bragg when he said, "Mixing pop and politics/He asks me what the use is/I offer him embarrassment/And my usual excuses." They also understood that they were basically the left echo of talk radio, a megaphone for politics amplified into catchy simplicity. And they understood that their band, if it was going to be anything, wasn't going to be a world-changer—no Elvis, no Beatles, no James Brown. But it could pick up where every self-styled political band needs to start: as a vehicle for education and an avenue for revenue, as a classroom and a cash register. De La Rocha (and hey, did we mention he grew up in Irvine?) had it pegged: "The only way Rage Against the Machine could see a substantial change over our lifetime," he said, "is to ensure that our resources and ideas are integrated into the community."
And he did. He started a community center in East LA, headed south to interview and work with the Zapatistas, donated tens of thousands of dollars (and more in sheer publicity) to any organization he felt like donating to. Politics is a game of resources as much as it is of propaganda; a political band (as well as a political campaign) has to know that. And that's where at least some of those T-shirts and CDs and everything went, at least while the band was still around to keep an eye on things. But now they're gone, except for this CD, and life is still nasty, solitary, brutal and short.
So this is where Rage Against the Machine finally ends: not on minute 71 of this CD but right in your hands—the hands holding this paper, the hands sliding the debit card across the counter at Noise Noise Noise, the hands slipping the CD into the dashboard of your car. In a lot of ways, this is a band that, underneath all the specifics, stood for honesty over hypocrisy, as much as that's possible. So be honest. If the reasons you cared about Rage Against the Machine begin and end inside a CD case, fine. But if the reasons are big enough that they feel like they're going to spill out of your stereo and into your life, you'd better have the guts to follow them up. You sounded like you had a lot of energy singing along at the Grand Olympic back in September 2000, and you still sound like you've got a lot of energy singing along in your car. Do you want to do anything else with it?
Rage Against the Machine Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium, Epic Records, 2003.