Play it again jack and then rewind the tape
And then play it again and again and again
Until ya mind is locked in
“Bullet in the Head”
It’s 1993, and a ten- (or maybe eleven-) year-old boy is milling around in the upstairs living room of his house. His mom is busy nearby in the kitchen, and he’s bored, always bored, like any boy. His older brother, sixteen, walks up the stairs, head bobbing to the funk out the speaker in his mind, singing to himself, but loud enough for all to hear: “Just victims of the in-house drive-by, they say jump–”
“You say how high!” the younger boy exclaims, excited to finish the lyric.
“Holy cow, how do you know those words?” the older boy chuckles.
As if it isn’t obvious. Both of the kid’s brothers play Rage Against the Machine constantly in their bedrooms one floor beneath his own. His own radio plays it every time the local rock station does, which is frequently.
Does the young boy have any idea what the song is about? Of course not, but he is in love nevertheless. He loves it for the noise, for the rhythm, for the rhymes, even for the anger which he can’t fully grasp. Yet.
And now dope hooks make punks take another look
It’s some day in 1997.
A junior in high school has a couple of friends over to his house after school, and he’s playing Rage Against the Machine on his CD stereo, excitedly skipping to Tom Morello’s most eye-bugging and head-scratching guitar solos.
“No,” he says. “Look, it says right here in the liner notes, ALL SOUNDS MADE BY GUITAR, BASS, DRUMS AND VOCALS.”
“I know, right?”
Eventually it just turns to laughter, listening to those sounds and imagining a man and his guitar producing them. Every boy in that room wants to be Tom Morello at this moment.
“I heard he practiced like eight hours a day for years.”
“Crazy. Didn’t he go to Harvard or something?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Check out this poster. See how he doesn’t cut the ends of his guitar strings?”
“Oh man, that’s so awesome.”
“I know, right?”
“Hey, what does that say on his guitar?”
“ARM THE HOMELESS.”
“Haha, what the heck.”
“I know, right?”
The microphone explodes, shattering the molds
“Bulls on Parade”
The last years of the 90s.
A skinny teenager wears his favorite t-shirt: On the front is a smiling 1950s-advertisement-era American family with WWII warplanes flying overhead and the words “RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE” in balloon letters at the bottom. On the back is a simple illustration of a microphone with a grenade for a head. That’s the kicker. That microphone-grenade will serve as a frequent reminder to the growing boy that words — spoken, sung, screamed, written — can have as much force as a physical weapon, and even more power.
He’ll carry that reminder, literally, on his back, for years as he writes poetry and essays that attempt to channel Zack de la Rocha’s explosive style. (Eventually, time catches up, and the holey relic is somberly placed in the trash.)
Empty ya pockets son; they got you thinkin that
What ya need is what they sellin
Make you think that buyin is rebellin
There will be other shirts, too; and posters. Rare CDs, vinyls. Google searches, and before that, Alta Vista searches and Excite searches, for hidden lyrics, for background and context, for help with metaphors and with history and with references too obscure. There are doodles in, on, and around notebooks and textbooks. Lyrics on a written exam, an English paper on “No Shelter,” a brief obsession with Ginsberg. There is saturation.
Raise up your ear, I’ll drop the style and clear
It’s the beats and the lyrics they fear
“Take the Power Back”
He’s memorized the lyrics to “People of the Sun,” because why not.
Also, the lyrics to “Take the Power Back.”
And “Bullet in the Head.”
And “Bulls on Parade,” only to forget most of it. But he never forgets reading Tom Morello say that Zach yells, “Come wit’ it now!” And “not, ‘Quit it now,’ for Heaven’s sake.”
He memorizes the lyrics to “Maria” to recite for an English class, then chickens out and writes his own poem under a cheesy pseudonym instead.
I can see you in front of me, front of me
Ya tryin’ ta tire me, tire me
Why don’t you get from in front of me?
The summer of 2000 now. This is finally the time. He’s eighteen years old and headed off to college. Rage Against the Machine is nine and headed off on the “Rhyme and Reason” tour with the Beastie Boys.
This is it. The chance to be face to face with his beloved, to channel their energy, to feel the raw power of their music and message firsthand and live. And, yes, a touch of fear of the crowd, of a gawky teenager showing up in the mosh pit with thousands of tough guys. But a small price to pay to see the only band that mattered.
Mike D has dislocated his shoulder.
The tour is postponed indefinitely. Rage moves on, but not to Minnesota.
Now I got no patience
So sick of complacence
“Know Your Enemy”
Before leaving high school, the boy discovers that punk rock is a thing, and he starts an affair, hiding it from his true love for awhile.
Before realizing eventually that Rage Against the Machine is punk rock. Of course they are: No mohawks, no leather, no spikes: Just playing the music they want to play, defying genres, defying conventions, asking questions, challenging authorities, challenging listeners.
With poetry I paint the pictures that hit
More like the murals that fit
Don’t turn away
Get in front of it
That boy is a man now, and he is obviously me. I still enjoy listening to punk and hard rock, but also to folk, indie rock, bluegrass, even some pop music. This isn’t a story about taste, though, that ever-flapping wind-sock; this is a story about love, and its steady magnetic pull.
Rage Against the Machine will always be my favorite music group. Not because they recorded some of the best, most original music ever; which they did. Not because I am still awash in their bold political philosophy; which I am not. And not because their beats and their lyrics influenced my writing for many years; which they did.
It’s because every time I turn on one of their albums, even now as a thirty-something, it’s near impossible to turn it off. Because I can still recite every lyric, anticipate every percussive moment, hum along to every guitar solo, and grunt every time Zach grunts. It’s because when you love something, you don’t turn away, you get in front of it.