Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Rock the Bells Gives Me Something I Thought I'd Never See Again

I suppose it’s been over ten years now since my friend Jason & I walked through the gray stone basement hallways of Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul perusing merch & “information” tables with tee shirts with Che Guevara’s face looking solemnly into the distance—another revolution to be a part of out there somewhere—& “Free Mumia” flyers strewn among other activist material on our way to our first-row balcony seats hanging over a mass of young people ready to mash closer together. Weezer came over the speakers in the place & the mass below was huddled into smaller groups, many in circles either sitting cross-legged or standing kicking a hacky sack. This mass was serene in those moments.

Then Rage Against the Machine came out & there was no longer individual pockets to this group; they were one, an undulating conglomerate of youth & a desire to rebel against something—none of their visions were as clear as that of the members of Rage, & that is why they needed a leader for the cause—whatever it may be. More than anything from that show I remember how that crowd below never seemed to settle—not for one moment—but kept leaping. It looked like a wave rolling from one side of the auditorium to the other.

A few years later Jason & I, along with some other friends, again found ourselves on our way to see Rage. This time the venue was larger—the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis. I can’t remember when we got the news that this mighty show had been cut in half by the cancellation of Wu-Tang Clan from the bill. The Wu had decided unsympathetically to present at the MTV Music Awards* instead. In recalling this event now it seems that this information did not reach us until we arrived at the show, leaving us no time to brace ourselves for this absence, but instead wallow in our disappointment all the way through Teenage Fanclub Riot**—to this day one of the worst sets of music I have ever seen.

But then Rage came out & made us all forget that Rza, Gza, Ghostface, & all the rest had decided MTV was more important to them than our little Midwestern town. They didn’t matter anymore, because Rage came & this time we were among the masses on the floor leaping into one another.

The thing about Rage Against the Machine is that nothing else matters when they are on stage. I have never seen a band perform, then or now, with the palpable energy that Rage gives off.

When Rage broke up not long after the second time I saw them, I thought that was it, the end of something great. The revolution was over & younger generations would never know what I was talking about when I tried to describe what I had seen. I’d be in my seventies, my grandchildren hovering around my feet, little Timmy pleading, “Come on, Gramps, tell us again about that band whose lead singer looked like he was getting electrocuted when the song starts going crazy,” & little Bonny, almost in tears, scared by the description, “Grandpa, how did he make is guitar sound like…that?”

And then when Audioslave came into existence, well let’s just say I was devastated.

That all changed with the announcement of a reunion show at Coachella this year. They were back together again, & oh my what a feeling. Even if it were only one show, they were back. I was jealous of those people I knew going to the festival, but my jealousy was overpowered by the genuine pleasure I took in the idea of these people getting to see what I thought would never again take place. Very few times in life do we feel a pure joy for an activity completely separate from us, one that will only bring delight to others. This was one of those times.

Last Sunday I didn’t have to feel this way anymore, because I was heading to the show. I was experiencing the delight. On Sunday, July 29th, Rock the Bells came bumping its way to Randall’s Island, New York. Along with it came Rage Against the Machine & a truly all-star cast of hip-hop legends, indie sensations, & underground mic masters.

The main stage of this show was a tip of the cap to the first house I lived in in college, a house of questionable behavior where Wu Tang Clan’s 36 Chambers could be heard on one of the floors most hours of the day & where strangers would come nervously into the living room with the question, “Is Matt or Lucas here?” rolling unsurely off their lips in search of things that brought such strangers to this house. The sound track of the house, along with the Wu, was Rage & Cypress Hill. & Rock the Bells had them all & then some—Public Enemy & Rakim rounding out the legends.

Among these greats there were newer, but well-established hip hoppers, such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, & Supernatural. And among all of them were those on the Paid Dues Stage, which included Minneapolis hip-hop deities Brother Ali & Slug (performing with Felt).

The day started for us in rain, which quickly turned the grounds into a swamp of mud surrounded by Porta-potties, which led to a stench lifting from the ground. A setting repeated year after year at music festivals. When we arrived Supernatural was acting as the MC for the event, along with Rahzel, an impressive human beat box. Supernat was keeping the crowd attentive between acts with his insane freestyle capabilities. The next act to come on was Talib Kweli, a socially-conscious rapper, whose lyrics, unlike many who claim to have a positive message (see Common & even De La Soul’s recent endeavors), remain pretty steadfastly in a positive, intelligent vein. He stopped at one point to scold the crowd near the front for throwing a bottle—capped—filled with urine. “That’s fucking disgusting, y’all.”

Next up was Mos Def, a crowd favorite. The gap between Talib & Mos was making the crowd a bit nervous as to whether Mos was going to show at all. The people I was with had been stood up by Mos Def at shows before, & were anxious at the thought of this happening again.Eventually he came on stage. He appeared to be wetter than the other performers, as though he, like all of us, had gotten caught in the rain. I like to think that, running late to the show & his driver stuck in traffic on the Triborough Bridge, Mos Def exited the car & sprinted through the downpour to the stage, not wanting to disappoint the throng of people waiting there to hear his distinct voice deliver his creative rhymes. That’s how I like to imagine it.

Soon after Mos Def & Talib left the stage the rain stopped. The rest of the day would have been pretty miserable if it had continued. Nine hours is a long time to stand in a steady rain. So lucky for us it stopped in time for the heavy hitters, the greats, the road-pavers.

Cypress Hill came out with a huge gold Buddha sitting directly in the middle of the stage with a pot leaf adorning his giant gold belly. There is a strange juxtaposition that occurs when a rather large Buddha is staring down at you peacefully while two or three men meander around him spouting the lyric, “Here is something you can’t understand, how I could just kill a man.” I don’t know what it is.

Soon enough each member of Cypress Hill had massive joints held to their lips, with B Real’s dwarfing the others. I haven’t seen a joint that size since a party in Uptown Minneapolis where there was a traveling circus from Arizona & the band Wookie Foot played & after each taking a toke off of the monster passed it into the crowd of backyard partiers, having promised to not exhale until the thing was cashed. It took a long time for the crowd to cash that one, & B Real was toking its rival all by himself. Puff, puff, not a chance I’m gonna pass.

Each of the sets was only an hour long, so hit after hit rolled off the stage into the crowd.

Next up was Public Enemy. How old is Chuck D now? He has to be pushing fifty, right? Well, he came on stage with so much energy you would have thought it was 1987 & he was a feisty new MC on the scene. He was jumping around from one end of the stage to the other. And then there was Flavor Flav. I don’t know how it was back in the day, but when you see Public Enemy these days, it’s like Flav is a friend of Chuck D’s who’s fallen on hard times & Chuck D is the benevolent & wise one who, even though keeping this broken-down friend around is a huge chore, is simply too loyal to do anything else. The military-garbed members of Public Enemy had to follow Flav around as he ventured to the farthest edges of the stage & into the crowd as though he were a child that needed supervision.Chuck D, although seemingly loyal to Flavor Flav, nevertheless seemed to also try to, for the most part, avoid him & his antics on stage. At one point Chuck D actually told Flav to “make it quick,” the “it” being introducing the band. Flav did not make it quick. It’s hard to say what the low point was, Flav going on about his VH1 show being the #1 cable show of all time or when they cut the mics at the end of the set when he was trying to make some announcement, leaving Flav silent & alone, bowing to the crowd after all the other members had left the stage. Still, Chuck D was amazing & the brotherly loyalty bestowed upon his band mate was almost heartwarming, even if at times it was hard to watch the goofy sidekick with the oversized clock hanging from his neck.

As dusk came upon the muddy grass & beer-puddled asphalt a banner with a Shaolin Temple and names was lifted behind one DJ booth with a large rounded “W” on the front emblazoned with the message “RIP ODB.” Thousands of hands went into the air, thumbs meeting in the middle while the other eight fingers splayed out in opposite directions. The symbol of the Wu Tang Clan, all of those hands raised, began to move back & forth as the chant “Wu Tang, We Tang” went into the new-night sky.
Wu Tang has always fascinated me. There’s something about the numerous MCs, the obsession with kung fu, & the cultish nature of the hardcore fans that give Wu Tang Clan a mystical air about it. Once again, this set was packed with the hits, and the thousands in the crowd sang along to lyrics, “Wu Tang Clan ain’t nutin to fuck with,” “Cash rules everything around me,” “Yeah Baby, I like it rawwww,” while periodically & in unison throwing the hand-made “W” high into the air.

Now dark, it was time for the headliner, the reason, ultimately, I was there. A red star replaced the Shaolin banner & a drum kit the DJ booth, & while Jurassic 5 played over the speakers the crowd seethed in anticipation. When Rage came out it was like they had never skipped a beat. Zack de la Rocha still moved as though under a spell set upon him by the music that jerked him around the stage like he was on strings: a puppet to some great musical puppeteer. Tom Morello played viscously, trying to communicate things no one else had ever communicated through a guitar. At one point in the latter half of the set, Morello began spinning & even from quite a ways back one could see the sweat like blades of a helicopter coming off of him. It’s hard to take your attention off of these two members of the band when they are performing, & Brad Wilk (drummer) & Tim Commerford (bass) seem to be fine with this, as they hold the driving beats over which de la Rocha & Morello scatter themselves. The energy was still palpable, & the crowd, as hungry as ever for this music, responded by singing every word & crashing into one another. & when it was over the members met at the side of the stage & embraced one another, loving playing together again.

Just before Rage's set started a young guy, maybe eighteen, looked at me & asked, “Are you pumped, man?” Upon assuring him that I was indeed pumped, he told me that he & the other six or so young men around him had just driven nine hours from somewhere in Canada just to see Rage, missing the rest of the day’s bands. When I told him about the two previous times I had seen the group, his eyes got wide & his mouth fell open a bit. I told him, as he hung on my every word, how I never thought I’d see this day again. I told him about the show that Wu Tang bailed on, but how all was forgotten when Rage came out. He gaped at me &, almost in a whisper, mumbled, “Awesome.” And so these stories were passed on, not to my grandchildren, but to a boy from Canada who thought they were “Awesome.” But he did not have to imagine what I was describing to him, because moments later Rage took the stage.

Note: A HUGE Thank you to Kristie. You know why.

* There may have been a performance involved, but due to my disappointment at the no-show, I have cemented the memory into my brain as Wu Tang ditching us just to present (!) an award for Best Kiss in a Rap Video.

** I cannot say for sure if this is the actual name of the band, & I don’t care, they were horrible.


deez mf nuts said...

nice post, thanks for the fame

Molly said...

Dave- it was Atari Teenage Riot and they also opened for Rage at the show in Portland, OR that year, and they were absolutely THE WORST band I have EVER seen!

About Me

David Luke Doody is a freelance writer and editor. He is a founding editor of InDigest Magazine (, an online literary magazine and the blog editor for Guernica Magazine ( His writing and interviews have appeared in those magazines as well as in The Huffington Post,, The Minnesota Twins Yearbook, and Intentionally Urban Magazine, among others.

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