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On Second Street
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Justice is Blind and Gagged
The Road From Seattle
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The Indigo Girls & Rage Against the Machine
When the Atlanta, Georgia-based duo the Indigo Girls signed on with Epic Records in 1988, the mainstream music market was getting on the bandwagon of a new "folk revival" trend triggered by the surprising breakthroughs of Tracy Chapman, Michelle Shocked, and Suzanne Vega. With the 1989 release of their major label debut, Indigo Girls, singer-songwriters Amy Ray and Emily Saliers caught the moment with a collection that sold double platinum (over two million copies), while also earning the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Group.
Despite their sudden and wide success, Ray and Sailers had never made music with any grand commercial ambitions. Friends since childhood, they began singing together in high school and while students at Emory University in Atlanta, they self-produced their first single in 1985. Two years later, they self-released their first album Strange Fire (later reissued by Epic in 1989). Soon, on the strength of these studio recordings and a growing reputation as charismatic live performers, the majors were calling.
Blending Rays rough-edged alto voice with Sailers folk-like soprano, the Indigo Girls created a vocal contrast that was both soothing and tough. But the heart of the Indigo Girls appeal lay in their passionate delivery of poetic tunes expressing unabashed feminism, spiritual searching, and environmental protest. On the release of Indigo Girls, Ray explained: "We never expected to be on a major label and were a little nervous about it. Well more or less function the way we always have. No matter how many people we play for, its always been important to reach each one of them. That isnt going to change."
Ten years later Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are still keeping the faith. Through seven albums, their acoustic-based sound has gradually incorporated rock, blues, reggae, and Native American sounds. But as Saliers recently commented to an interviewer, the subject matter remains "typical Indigo Girls fare. The words are always earnest and heartfelt. We still make social commentary, and we still sing about love. Were just occasionally framing our words in different styles of music, and that keeps us fresh as an act."
That commitment has also earned the Indigo Girls a large and extremely devoted audience crossing lines of age, race, class, gender, and sexual preference. With little airplay on commercial radio or MTV, the Indigo Girls have now sold more than seven million albums worldwide. Impressive proof that even in the apathetic, materialistic 1990s, popular music can still inspire progressive personal and social change.
Aside from committing their music to awaking hope and resistance, Ray and Saliers have also been off-stage activists giving time, money, and voice to issues of women rights, gay and lesbian rights, indigenous struggles, gun control, the Zapatista movement, environmental protection, and the death penalty. Explaining these commitments in press notes accompanying the recently released Come On Now Social (Epic), Saliers said: "The most natural thing in the world for us is to marry social activism with our music because our music is so deeply rooted in life issues."
As with all Indigo Girls albums, Come On Now Social is a reflection of personal and political concerns facing ordinary women. Salierss tender ballad "Andy" tells a sad tale of love gone bad, and her catchy heartland rocker "Cold Beer And Remote Control" provides release from deadening economic struggle and the chase after "the impossible American Dream." In a more topical vein, Rays "Faye Tucker" meditates on the death penalty and the first execution of a woman in the state of Texas since the Civil War, while Saliers, on a hidden track, takes a swipe at organized religions anti-gay bigotry.
The big difference this time out is in the sound. Employing a versatile back-up band composed of Irish and English players and a host of guest all-stars (MeShell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Sher- yl Crow, Kate Schellenbach of Lucious Jackson, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson of The Band), the Indigo Girls and co-producer John Reynolds have come up with a daring, electric sound that captures a heightened sense of urgency and power.
On the punked-out opening track "Go," Amy Rays stirring challenge to activis:,
Raise your hands high
Dont take a seat
Dont stand aside
This time dont assume anything
Just Go go go
The song rides on drum and guitar noise perfectly suited to the lyrics. The fiery protests of "Trouble" and "Compromise" are empowered by hard rock backdrops matching the anger and conviction of the words. Elsewhere tuneful, lovely vocals and quiet introspection get their due. But the overriding spirit of Come On Now Social resonates a call to action.
In mid November, in the middle of the Indigo Girls current tour, Amy Ray and I talked by phone about politics, activism, and the groups bold new sound.
CARTER: Lets begin by talking some about the new album, Come On Now Social. The record seems to be getting a lot of praise. How are audiences reacting to the new material in concerts?
RAY: Great. The audience is very responsive. In fact, its probably the most immediate response weve ever had to new material.
Theres really a broad cast of musicians on this album, a diversity of musical styles, and a hard electric sound. Did you set out to make a more adventurous record or did this come into being more spontaneously?
It was pretty spontaneous. At the 1998 Lilith Fair we jammed with Sinead OConnor and her band on that tour, Ghostland. We were wanting some guidance for our next record and John Reynolds, the Ghostland drummer, seemed to be able to find the thread through all the different music we love. His Celtic background offered a natural link to Appalachian music as well as world music and folk stuff. And then by bringing in other players with other sensibilities, we could mess around without any pre-conceptions of what the Indigo Girls are or should be. Weve always been into a lot of different musicfolk, country, bluegrass, punkbut what we came out with is better expressing everything inside us.
The albums title and the opening track "Go" seem to rally a spirit of activism and idealism. Your liner notes list various organizations as resources for progressive social change. Do you sense your audience is looking for a place to plug in their energies? Are they looking for values and vision beyond the dominant culture of the U.S.?
Yes, our audience is very responsive to what we sing about and to what we say and do. But given the state of the world and the control of the media, its often not so easy to find your way. As mentors and activists, we list information and organizations we trust and hopefully that helps people find where to begin. Were very lucky in that our audience gets what were about. As much as I love Rage Against The Machine, when you go to their show you wonder how much their audience is getting it.
Speaking of your activism and upfront socialist and lesbian identity, the Indigo Girls, particularly in the pop press, seem to take a lot of flak for being "earnest" and "preachy." Do these kind of tags or characterizations bother you?
Well, so is Eddie Vedder. And so was Nick Drake. Really this tendency to label women in this way is very sexist. I mean is Zack de la Rocha "earnest and "preachy?" Of course he is. And the Indigo Girls are very earnest. But women are not looked at in the same way. They are not taken as seriously. So that attitude or criticism will never stop me or make me change.
Can you talk some about experiences and influences that gave birth to your views and social vision?
From an early age, I had a sense of community involvement. But my family background was very conservative. My father was a product of the 1950s, very conservative, very smart, and hard to argue with, but also very charitable and giving. By college, I was gay and had broken away from a lot of that background, become an environmentalist, and was into social welfare and down on the military. But some of my biggest changes came when I met Winona LaDuke in 1990. Through her I was able to bring environmental and indigenous activism together and that opened doors to other connections. Reading Noam Chomsky helped me see the interconnections between a broad range of issues and how the whole paradigm of society needs to change. Later, meeting the Zapatistas in Mexico and seeing change happen at the grassroots level, bottom-up, that was certainly an inspiration.
The Indigo Girls have a track on the Pete Seeger tribute album that Red House/Appleseed put out last year. Did that left folk heritage of Guthrie, Seeger, Leadbelly influence you? Where do influences of the 1960s come in?
I always listened to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. I learned their songs at the YMCA and church. But I really didnt understand it all. I didnt have a context for this music and knew very little about labor politics. So Ive had to go back to the history and read. As far as the music, Steve Earle has been very helpful, showing me songs and helping me discover the struggles running through the songs.
The 1960s I read about in college, but I didnt get a very good understanding of those years until I met Joan Baez. When I met her in 1992, I drilled her about the movements, the music, the demonstrations. Now Im much more in touch, but Im constantly seeking out information to fill in gaps in awareness.
How did you come to support the Zapatistas?
Around 1995, after the 1994 uprising, I was reading about it, but couldnt put it all together. Then in 1996, I got a chance to go down to Mexico with Winona LaDuke for a visit hosted by the Zapatistas who were holding a teach-in on neoliberalism. The trip included a 20-hour bus ride, soldiers all along the road, but I felt the Zapatistas had a lot of integrity. I trusted them and knew they wouldnt have invited us if they couldnt insure our safety. Still its very intimidating, the tanks and army bought with U.S. dollars. In the face of that, it was very inspiring talking to the people in the villages. Here they are with no land, no resources, no medical care, just struggling for existence, yet people have a voice and are becoming organized. Its very impressive. As for U.S. involvement in Mexico, its completely corrupt.
I know youve been active in the movement against the death penalty, but what was it about Faye Tuckers life and case that sparked a song?
Well, it wasnt she was such a beautiful woman, why did we kill her? Im against the death penalty for many reasons: its not a deterrent to violent crime, it costs a lot of money, its class and race bias, and it offers no resolution to victims of violence. But my interest in this particular case came from watching the tug of war over Faye Tucker between the Christian Coalition and the more left-oriented anti-death penalty activists.
I think both sides wanted to make her a kind of poster child and in the process lost the humanness of somebody like that. I started to wonder what she was thinking as she watched all this and saw her life manipulated and taken away. I wanted to show the ironies and how everything going down was not black and white.
Can you talk some about your grandmother and the song ("Ozilline") related to her?
The song is in her honor. Shes at a point in life where shes fading with age and it has me reflecting on the lessons she taught. In many ways shes a very typical Southern woman. She grew up in Atlanta and shes had to adjust to my sexuality and left ways. Shes embraced new ideas. Now shes got a lot of physical problems. I feel for her.
Over the last 10 years, the Indigo Girls have had wide commercial success. What do you do to keep yourself grounded in everyday concerns. that face most people in our society?
We do have a privileged life compared to many people. But we have a strong work ethic and we work very hard at what we do. We also are not really an elite group and we dont live a glamorous lifestyle. Our friends are people weve known for awhile and theyre working, paying bills, raising kids and that helps keep us centered. We listen, we try to be honest. In the early days of our success, there was a time when I wanted to meet all the stars, all the musicians you looked up to and admired, but I went through that in a couple of months. And being on the road and on the move so much did strain relationships. But we still have the same friends and live in the same town.
You and Emily are also role models for many girls and women. How do you handle that responsibility?
Mostly by just being real. That role model thing works both ways. We learn from our fans and friends. Somebody may ask us a question or want to know our opinion about something, but we ask back. What do you think? We dont pretend to know everything.
Youre now in the middle of a tour. Further down the road, whats up for the Indigo Girls musically and politically?
Well, for me, sometime in the new year, Im going to make a solo album with more of a punk sound. Ill probably put it out on an indie label. Its just something Ive got to get out of my system. Beyond that, we plan another Honor The Earth Tour to help support indigenous activism. Well be doing a benefit in Seattle for breast cancer. And well be doing an indie label benefit record to raise awareness and funds around gun control. Well be very busy. I wouldnt want to play music if I couldnt be an activist.
Rage Against The Machine
Hard to believe that a band flouting incendiary politics of socialist revolution could explode to the top of todays dismal hit parade, but in mid November Rage Against The Machines The Battle Of Los Angeles (Epic) made a miraculous debut at No. 1 on Billboard Magazines album chart.
Though it is obvious that Rages monster commercial success owes more to the bands sonic earthquake crunch than to its sympathies for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, and the Zapa- tistas, the group has blown a hole in business-as-usual in the mainstream music world. Call them a throwback or a harbinger of things to come, but Rage Against The Machine is a rock and roll band that makes no bones about its mission to change the world.
Since the dawn of the music in the 1950s, rebel stance (real or fake) has been the bread and butter of rocks commercial appeal. All the genres heroes, from Elvis and Little Richard to the Beatles and Dylan, from Springsteen and Patti Smith to the Clash and Nirvana, have reflected and inspired political and personal resistance to the status quo. But pop rebels have seldom attached themselves to a radical political agenda as unequivocally as Rage Against The Machine.
In song lyrics, interviews, videos, and album liner notes; at demonstrations, benefits, and public forums, Rage has made it abundantly clear that they exist, first and foremost, as a channel for anti-capitalist activism. A photo montage on the album jacket of 1996s Evil Empire lays out recommended books by authors such as Noam Chomsky, Ben Bagdikian, Che Guavera, Marx and Engels, Jean-Paul Sartre, Malcolm X, and Frantz Fanon. Still, in the end, Rages great power to incite critique and action rests in the appeal of their aggressive rap-metal fusion.
Bassist Tim "YTimK" Com- merford and drummer Brad Wilk make for a tight, bone-jarring rhythm section supplying a bed of heavy beats culled from Zeppelin, hip-hop, and funk. In vocalist Zack De la Rocha and guitarist Tom Morello, Rage has two of the most exciting performers alive today.
De la Rochas militant rap spew is pure passion and his lyrics are far too brainy and socially aware to be dismissed as sloganeering (although that seems to be the pop press consensus). Even without sound "Calm Like A Bomb" offers poignant realism:
I was born
Its tha native son
Born of Zapatas guns
Stroll through the shanties
And the cities remains
Same bodies buried hungry
But with different names
Leave nothing but chains
Pick a point on the globe
Yes the pictures the same
Theres a bank a church a myth and a hearse
A mall and a loan a child dead at birth
The final ingredient is Tom Morellos guitar. Mixing influences from hip-hop and assorted heavy metal guitar gods (most obviously Led Zeppelins Jimmy Page), Morello has discovered an inventive noise that runs from thunderous power riffs to a blistering bombardment of shrieks, squawks, and roars. And all his awesome power explodes after De La Rocha provocations like:
It has to
It has to start sometime
What better place than here
What better time than now
The effect is riotous. But what does all this heated rhetoric and electrifying energy mean to the young masses who count themselves Rage fans? Clearly for many, Rage is merely a soundtrack (maybe the best soundtrack) for male mosh pit mayhem. Political struggle in Chiapas? The racial and economic realities of East LA? Amnesty for Peltier and a new trial for Mumia? No clue.
Still, judging from concerts and debates on the bands web site, Rage fans are not your typical metal-rap meatheads. At any Rage show (at least out west) you will find a good percentage of people of color and a mostly friendly response to left leafleting. A sizable portion of the audience also seems to know De la Rochas lyrics well enough to mouth along with his furious verbal spray. How many other rock net spaces feature discussions on the corporate dominated media and the Chomskian take on U.S. foreign policy?
Of course, none of these indications of social awareness suggest revolution around the corner. Those who have read or seen interviews with Rage may also recognize De la Rocha and Morello are well informed, articulate defenders of radical ideas who clearly know what theyre up against. But like abolitionists, suffragists, and labor radicals of an earlier day, they know even if their time is not yet here, theres no excuse for accepting lies and injustice now. Z
Sandy Carter is a regular contributor to Z Magazine.