The day had been muggy, and the entrances to Madison Square Garden were hot and grubby. Inside, concertgoers packed the concourse walkways dragging pizza boxes and beer cups back to their seats. Sweat was everywhere: on shoulders, steam pipes, the cheeks of vendors, and napkin debris dropped in the trash. Even sitting next to someone there was hardly relief. The air to breathe was heavy with heat. And when the crowd bulged toward 20,000 strong, the lights cut out and a type of morse code/radio broadcast tapped out from the darkened stage. It beamed around the Garden and atop the choppy waves came Zach de la Rocha’s voice in some craggy iambic pentameter.
He was nearly inaudible — a duh-duh-duh-DUH-duh, duh-duh-duh-DUH-duh of mounting anger — until the lights went up and he was sitting center stage on the lip of a monitor. He said then, clearly,
“Good evening! This is a public service announcement! And we are Rage Against the Machine from Los Angeles, California!
It’s just another one… two… three…”
and the band was suddenly doing “Bombtrack,” the first song off their first album.
But the tour almost didn’t happen. Between the curve balls of Covid delaying its start by over two years and de la Rocha tearing his Achilles tendon on stage four weeks ago, the road to the Garden was treacherous. So much so, the sorcery that found de la Rocha beginning the show settled on an amp was delivered by two roadies carrying him there. Eleven years had passed since Rage last performed in the United States, and over twenty years had gone by since the group did a proper tour. In the interim, many of the issues they warned about during the 1990s came hurtling across the national stage during the Trump presidency. In fact, calling their return to the road a “Public Service Announcement Tour” felt both designed to confront what’s been happening today and resume doing what they used to do.
And what did the band do back when? Well, after forming in 1991, they pioneered a rock/rap hybrid that took Public Enemy’s socially conscious verse to the rock microphone and transferred Grandmaster Flash’s turntable antics to the electric guitar. The alchemy distinguished them from peers like Papa Roach or P.O.D. and made them dangerous — dangerous for being both popular and decidedly political.
During the ’90s, for example, Rage played shows in support of a woman’s right to abortion, Tibet’s drive for independence from China, and the re-launch of the Anti-Nazi League in the United Kingdom. They purposely donated earnings to a variety of activist organizations, including those working to free both Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal from jail. They even got arrested. In 1997, guitarist Tom Morello was taken into custody after attending a garment workers’ protest against Guess, the retailer, for using sweatshop labor to produce its clothing.
More importantly, though, the band rebuked politicians. In 1996, while appearing on Saturday Night Live with guest host Steve Forbes, the billionaire publishing magnate then running for president, they tried hanging upside-down American flags from their amps after he introduced their first set. And in 2000, while then-President Bill Clinton was speaking live at the Democratic National Convention, Rage played a quick set outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles excoriating the two-party system. As Zach de la Roche cautioned the audience from the stage that night, “Brothers and sisters, our democracy has been hijacked.”
And they were just as scorching tonight. The band remained silent between songs, but some background projections beamed what they felt. One said “Abolish ICE” [the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency] because “both major parties are responsible for the militarized border policies that target and criminalize migrants and refugees.” Another read “Abort the Supreme Court” in the wake of its decision to rescind Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood. But when de la Rocha actually spoke, he charred up Congress. He demanded they stop funding the war machine in Ukraine, Yemen, and Israel with taxpayer money. Instead, he ordered them to return the spoils to the starving, sick, and homeless right here in America. Afterwards, to prove the group meant precisely what they said, Rage donated $1 million in salary from their 5 shows at Madison Square Garden to Why Hunger and the Immigrant Defense Project.
But on such a dank night, the most combustible moments hit when the old song lyrics were unleashed on a writhing crowd. Whether everyone understood the meanings or not, the rows of head-banging people shouting lines back to the band was powerful. For example, from “Bullet in the Head”: “Just victims of the in-house drive-by/They say ‘Jump!’ you say ‘How high?'” Did anyone get the warning to question the messages embedded in the media we consume? Or from “Bulls on Parade”: “Rally ’round the family/With a pocket full of shells.” Did anyone notice that those who preach family values often authorize drone strikes on families in foreign countries? Or from “Killing in the Name,” the now infamous: “Some of those that work forces/Are the same that burn crosses.” Did anyone realize that the most powerful public people sometimes practice their racial bigotry in private?
So it’s time, the band said, to “Take the power back,” “Know your enemy,” and “Dispute the suits/Ignite and watch ’em burn.” But their words are just as challenging today as they were in the 1990s. It’s certainly easier to have a fun night out boozing and belching lines than to commit to the kind of change the band suggests. But they’re still willing to be serious, still willing to call out the injustices of modern life and hope we’ll testify too when “[they’re] right outside [our] door.” Perhaps most beautiful thing about Rage Against the Machine is that they’re not just entertainers — they’re public servants too.
Tim Commerford (bass), Brad Wilk (drums), Zack de la Rocha (vocals), and Tom Morello (guitars) of Rage Against the Machine at Madison Square Garden. On their Public Service Announcement Tour.
Photos by Rick Stachura. August 11, 2022.
(1) “Guerilla Radio.”
(2) “Take the Power Back.”
(3) They get an ovation.