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In a sold-out Continental Airlines Arena last week in support of either a merciless cop killer or a criminally enslaved African American dissident (depends on who you ask), Rage Against the Machine's Jimmy Page powerchords and hectoring editorial raps played less as political rage than as pure fist-pounding testosterone for guys pissed off at parents or teachers or girlfriends.
But it was still Rage's need to be seen as a moral force that explained why 16,000 people found themselves in the swamps of Jersey in the first place, at a benefit for a Pennsyvania death-row resident a lot of them knew nothing about.
Ascendant pop star Mumia Abu-Jamal currently on the CMJ charts with his Alternative Tentacles release All Things Censored . . . , a recorded-in-prison collection of commentaries in which he polemicizes on economic injustice, mass media nefariousness, and why Tupac is better than R. Kelly wasn't around to provide any answers himself.
Plenty of his advocates were handing out flyers, though: "He's such a symbol for our generation," said James Alexander, 20. But most of the overwhelmingly white-boy crowd just wanted to rock, and fly their flyers as paper airplanes. "I'm really into Rage, I don't care about the cause," snickered Damian Jay, 19. "I couldn't care if he was a serial killer or if he killed a thousand people. I'd still go see the band."
The band's set was plenty cathartic at first. Mouthpiece Zack de la Rocha demonstrated the highest vertical leap in rock 'n' roll, and Tom Morello wielded his guitar like a ray gun. But before long the grooves grew overbearing, and the crowd fell back, beaten down.
Days before, when word of the Rage-BeastiesBad Religion bill had gotten to the Fraternal Order of Police, they'd joined with New Jersey governor Christie Whitman in calling for the show to be boycotted. Instead, Ticketmaster offered a refund, which 2000 fans took advantage of.
The shitstorm of criticism didn't result in Rage backing off their support for Jamal. But even though they played in front of an upside-down American flag, their rhetoric was more conciliatory than incendiary. Their frequent cover of N.W.A.'s "Fuck Tha Police" was left off the set list, and de la Rocha said the benefit "is not to support cop killers or any other kind of killers."
At one point, the band brought out Chuck D, with noted human-rights activist Professor Griff in tow, to start up a Free Mumia chant. Chuck stuck around for an antiauthoritarian finale that went "Fuck you I won't do what you tell me," but the key Rage song came earlier, when they muscled up Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad." "Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free, look in their eyes, Mom, you'll see me," de la Rocha declared, repeating the last words over and over in a high-pitched whine.
Forty-four-year-old Jamal is currently doing time at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute at Greene for the murder of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner, who in 1981 was found shot in the back and in the face. Jamal was wounded by a bullet from the policeman's gun, and Jamal's .38-caliber pistol and five spent shells were discovered nearby.
The trial that resulted in his death sentence has been attacked as grossly unfair and racist by a network of supporters, from Ed Asner to Desmond Tutu. Last October, his conviction was upheld for the second time by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the appeal process is now aimed at the federal courts.
Despite all the controversy, there was no visibly greater police or security presence than normal at the arena. "It's part of the job," shrugged one state police officer. "I gotta come to work. I don't think about it," said Iris Reeves, 70, sweeping up a discarded Stop the Execution flyer. When I asked one security employee about teenage Refuse & Resist volunteers' claim that their pro-Mumia handout had been confiscated, though, he refused to comment and told me to move along.
Between band sets, a pair of show-hosting British anarchists from Chumbawamba spoke against "in-juice-stice." Critically annointed underground hip-hop duo Black Star had opened with 20 minutes largely unnoticed by the crowd, but Bad Religion fared better, stirring up the pit with their forthright SoCal thesaurus-punk. Then the Beasties did an hour-long version of their blue-garbage-man-jumpsuited Hello Nasty set. Gray-haired Adam Yauch had been the only one who talked at a preshow press conference, but on stage an enlightened Mike D. quoted Mahatma Gandhi: "An eye for an eye, and we'll all go blind." If paper airplanes don't poke everyone's pupils out first.