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Something's Got To Give

crowd
George Sakkestad

Butthole Surfer? The crowd got off its feet at last weekend's Tibetan Freedom Concert.

Rocking for Tibetan Freedom

By Todd S. Inoue

At Lollapalooza '94, early arrivals got a surprise when a group of Tibetan monks hunkered down on stage, draped in crimson and saffron robes, chanting and blaaating on long trumpets. To the young ones expecting Green Day, it was a strange diversion. In fact, it was a downright annoyance to many, who made their displeasure known with upraised fingers and hands clasped tightly over ears.

Rock fans knew little about Tibet's struggle for independence--until the June 15-16 Tibetan Freedom Concert at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The event focused much-needed attention on the 39 years of oppression and cultural annihilation at the hands of the Chinese government that Tibet and its people have suffered.

Unlike other profiteering causes-of-the-moment, there was no weepy "We Are the World" song to rally the troops. There were no 20/20 documentaries about Tibetan women having cattle prods stuck in their vaginas. It was largely the persistence of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch that made this concert happen.

And the lineup couldn't be better: the Beastie Boys, Smashing Pumpkins, Björk, Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, Biz Markie, De La Soul, Pavement, Sonic Youth, Cibo Matto, Yoko Ono/IMA, Beck, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine, Ritchie Havens, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and the Skatalites.

More on the Tibetan Freedom Concert:
Concert pictures
Set lists

Web links:
Milarepa
(the nonprofit organization behind the concert)
Dalai Lama Home Page
A Journey into Tibet

The double stage setup--one on each side separated by a banner--was a miracle of good timing. The bands volleyed from one stage to another, with occasional speeches about the topic at hand between key acts. Another brilliant idea whose time has come: no alcohol was sold. It put an entirely different spin on the event, that is, fewer people acted like stark raving idiots.

Saturday Sounds

Day One opened with a stage blessing and a flourish of color and dance from Chaksam-Pa, a local Tibetan music and arts troupe. Brooklyn folkie Ritchie Havens bestowed an inspired version of "Freedom" on the crowd. Bluesman John Lee Hooker grumbled through his short stage time, while Cibo Matto sped through an enthusiastic set, the final three songs augmented by Sean Lennon and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Russell Simins.

Biz Markie clogged up the works with a stale set you'd see back in the day at Paradise Beach, lumping around, ad-libbing snippets of his songs and committing a cardinal sin for rappers: performing over a vocal track. The old-schooler should know better.

A Tribe Called Quest, now a four-man unit with Mr. Muhammed back in tow, fared better. The quartet set it off with "Clap Your Hands" and steamrolled through the final four with "Can I Kick It," "Scenario," "Award Tour" and "Check the Rhime."

The guitar bands stood ready to move mountains. Pavement, known for its lackluster live performances, delivered two surprises: its version of a Schoolhouse Rock track, "No More Kings," and a cover of Echo and the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon." Foo "Freedom" Fighters hit sparks during their performance, doing all the hits from their one album in splendid, if predictable, fashion.

Smashing's Pumpkin-Sized Egos

As for the Smashing Pumpkins, I played along when they mocked the rock-star facade by ironically basking in it, a lá U2, but after Saturday, I'm convinced they love every minute in the spotlight. The conclusionary jam went beyond experimental fun directly to pretentious doodling, then hooking sharply southward to masturbatory showboating. Even James Iha walked off, as if to say, enough of this. (The following day, Sonic Youth did it proper, turning the "The Diamond Sea" into a discordant, sonic sculpture.)

When the foul stench emanating from the Pumpkins set cleared, the Beastie Boys' DJ Hurricane hit it right on the head: "Enough of that shit, y'all ready for some music or what?"

The Beasties focused squarely on their post-Licensed to Ill repertoire, even inviting Q-Tip and Biz Markie on stage to revive their roles on "Get it Together," "The Biz vs. Nuge" and "Do It." Yauch brought on a throat singer to recreate the hum on "Bodhisattva Vow," and the Beasties debuted a new track, "Believe Me," and rolled through the Circle Jerks' "Red Tape."

Day one ended on a hopeful note with Yauch reiterating the importance of solidarity with Tebet, and the Beasties sending out the message of hope in "Something's Got to Give." When the last hum of Adrock's vocoder cleared, a group of monks from the Sera Monastery walked to center stage and issued a closing chant. This time around, the monks received respect. Single digits stuck in ears or held aloft before were held up in peace signs or power fists this time--a connection had been made.

No Day of Rest

On Sunday, Buddy Guy turned AM to PM with a stellar performance of roadhouse rock and blues. Yoko Ono was resilient, freaking out the kids and adults with the rhapsodic "I'm Dying" and empowered "Rising." Loser Beck was a sinister prankster, leading the crowd in a chant of designer jean labels and fiddling with his Casio beat machine.

I was waiting all day for De La Soul, but equipment problems left De La at the gate. Said problems also affected the Fugees, who floundered big time. Dissing the West Coast during a freestyle and performing mere excerpts of their three hits? That's not good enough.

Björk was an ivory wisp in the chilly air. Powered by two synthesists, "Army of Me," "Venus as a Boy" and "Violently Happy" could have been airlifted direct from heaven. The legion of Björk wannabes happily frugged away.

A Raging Tide Lifts All Dancers

I have a lot of problems with Rage Against the Machine, from the group's repetitive songs with pat sloganeering ("Anger is a gift") to its need to inform everyone about the evil "system." The band's stance doesn't wash when you know that it regularly cashes royalty checks from Sony Music, one of the largest media conglomerates worldwide.

Misgivings aside, Rage Against the Machine was off the hook. You know those shots of European festivals where an entire stadium of humanity jumps in unison? That's how it was; people lost their minds. Tom Morello may do to alternarock guitar playing what Eddie Van Halen did for hard rock. His inventive and distinctive solos that mimic turntables and riffs that rev like sprint cars in turn four.

After sets by Skatalites, Björk and Fugees, it was time to let out the hard-rock lions, and Rage knew it. The audience responded with furious passion unseen since the nerdy antirockers took over in 1990. It was eerie to hear a crowd of 50,000 raise its voices to "Now you do what they told ya" during "Killing in the Name."

The Red Hot Chili Peppers looked and sounded passé by comparison. The climax came and went, and many folks slowly shook off its dusty blankets and slumped off into the cold San Francisco air--the Chili Peppers ringing out as a distant reminder.

Raising Consciousness, Not Cash

I remember when Willie Brown exhorted a crowd gathered to see Nelson Mandela at the Oakland Coliseum in 1990 to "pull out a dead president," wave it in the air, then pass it to volunteers holding buckets at the end of each row; it was a gross display of hucksterism in a good cause.

The Tibetan Freedom Concert took a different approach. No 1-800-FREE-TIBET numbers on the Jumbotron. No digital displays of dollars raised. Awareness was the only thing being pimped.

Volunteers passed out information sheets and petitions instead of aping for money. A stupa, a Tibetan temple, stood prominently at midfield. Concert goers watched monks and nuns chant, pray and make sand paintings in a monastery tent set up in the back.

On stage, the stories of torture leveled on Tibet and on its people were vividly told by Tibetan and Chinese activists, including Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned for 33 years, Some of the indignities he suffered include having boiling water thrown on him, being strung up to the ceiling, surviving on bugs, shoe leather and excrement.

Dove from De La Soul openly explained his ignorance on the subject: "I admit when I came here, I didn't know a lot about the Tibet situation, but what I can do is absorb the information and bring it back to the brothers and sisters back home and educate them." Long-time human rights activist Havens, sitting next to Dove, beamed, proud that another soul, a De La Soul in this case, had been touched.

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From the June 20-26, 1996 issue of Metro

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