When You Were Young: 'Evil Empire' And Being So Mad

On July 29, 2016

by Andrew Martin


When You Were Young aims to reclaim the music of our misremembered youths from the scratched mix-CDs underneath our car seats. Each edition will cover music the writer loved as a teenager before moving on to “cooler” music, whatever that means. This edition covers Rage Against the Machine, and their 1996 album, Evil Empire.

No one was angrier than I was as a teen. At least, that’s what I convinced myself when I was a teenager whose favorite band was Rage Against The Machine, one of the most aggressive, political, and perpetually pissed off acts to break through to the mainstream. But do I still feel even an inkling of those same emotions today? Eh, yes and no.

I’ll always be pretty pissed off about the fuckery running rampant in our country, from oppression, to police brutality, to equal pay and every other shitty, wrong thing. There’s just no way I could possibly be so angry on a daily basis that I feel like blasting “People of the Sun” and pretending I can relate to that track’s (and the rest of Evil Empire’s) anger. I have heartburn and take a pill for it every day, but it’s from drinking too much coffee and loving acidic food, not being mad.

When I was an angsty, middle-class kid growing up in Rhode Island suburbia, though, I ate up everything Rage had to offer. My walls were lined with posters of the band and their propaganda (upside-down American flags, armed Zapatistas, etc) that I had purchased from the local Newbury Comics after saving up enough money from mowing lawns. I bought every single disc of their music I could afford, including all their singles, bootlegs, concert films, and of course studio albums. I owned and proudly wore several Rage shirts, even if they ended up getting me into trouble:

  • “What does ‘fear is your only god’ mean?” my sixth-grade teacher asked before the only punk at my school chimed in, “It’s from a song, relax.”

  • “You’re gonna have to wear that shirt inside out,” a vice principal told me upon seeing the skeleton and “Who Laughs Last” imagery on another tee.

What I’m saying is that I was obsessed, which is normal adolescent behavior. When we’re that age, we’re all looking for something to hold on to, to make our own, to help shape our identities. And given that I was, again, an angsty white suburban teenager, there was nothing better than Rage’s music. It was more than the anger, though, because they just so perfectly fit into my youthful snobbery.

First, there was Zack De La Rocha’s rapping, which was perfection to my ears that grew up listening to radio-rap staples by MC Hammer, Digital Underground (“The Humpty Dance” was the first rap song I ever heard), Run-DMC, and others. It wasn’t just that he could rap—his bars on “Vietnow” are still pretty sharp—because dude could fucking SCREAM. And I loved it. When he let out his roar, particularly on EE closer “Year of the Boomerang,” I was 100 percent there for it. If you’re reading this and you’re white, you’re playing yourself if you didn’t either a) try to rap or b) try to scream. And hey, if you have done either successfully and gotten paid for it, my hats off to you.

Tom Morello’s guitar work was what really anchored my obsession, though. I wanted to figure out how the hell he made those sounds, to the point I studied the live Rage VHS and their music videos. The only problem was that my shitty $100 guitar couldn’t make those same sounds, no matter how hard I tried. Still, I felt like I knew what the hell I was talking about whenever I’d gush about the wah-wah of “Down Rodeo,” the punk-ish rush of “Tire Me,” and the echoing weirdness of “Roll Right.” “Listen to the crazy shit he does on here,” I’d say, trying to convince my friends, who actually played music, that they were missing something.

They were missing something, of course, but there was a problem brewing: Morello’s solos, however great they were, became gimmicky after a while. And after Rage released enough material, his once-experimental approach became the norm (especially as part of the lamentable Audioslave). No one else was doing what he was doing, but when you’re a pretty huge band and you’re doing the same thing over and over, it’s tiring.

You know what else is tiring? Being mad all the time. I can’t remember the exact age it was when I stopped being so pissed off all the time, but I think it was probably 21 or 22. Not only was I confident in what I enjoyed doing (writing), but I was becoming more pragmatic. I realized that, yes, there are terrible things in the world worth being mad about, but feeling that way all the time just didn’t make sense anymore. I had student loans to pay off and wasn’t about to do that by raising my fist and singing along to “Bulls On Parade.”

You know how I knew that? Because I saw Rage during their mini-reunion tour in 2007 during the New York stop of Rock The Bells. I watched as terrifying skinheads mingled with hip-hop fans during the band’s headlining set. And after I air-guitared and rapped along to every song like a kid in an angst-filled candy store, I was over it. I was glad to see the band that I grew up with and admired like the second coming, but the anger (or rage, if you will) wasn’t there anymore.


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