GORGE, Wash. — Standing on the stage at the Gorge Amphitheater, Rage Against The Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha finally got his digs in against the man who didn’t want him there, Sheriff William Wiester.
He did it first through music and then in his own words.
“There ain’t nothing more frightening than a pig with political aspirations,” he told the capacity crowd who witnessed one of the popular thrash rap band’s most controversial and inspired performances to date.
The show, which went off without incident despite increased police manpower and numerous arrests, came a week after the local sheriff filed an injunction with the courts to stop the show, citing “safety concerns,” and the band’s “violent and anti-law-enforcement philosophies.”
Through words and songs that seemed to both challenge and condemn the Grant County sheriff’s attempts to shut down Rage’s show in this town outside Seattle, de la Rocha offered his response to the sheriff. Meanwhile, police were busy making nearly 100 arrests.
“All in all, we thought it went very well,” Wiester said, following the show. “We did have quite a presence of law enforcement, that’s one of the reasons we thought it went so good.”
The concert went on despite the Grant County Sheriff’s attempt to get a court injunction. Last week, Grant County Judge Ken Jorgensen gave the go ahead for the event stating that the sheriff had not presented enough evidence to prove dangers of a riot existed.
The judgment proved to be a good one.
There were no riots, no rowdy fans going berserk, though police did make about 90 arrests, ranging from possession and sale of illegal drugs to assault on two security personnel. In response to the arrests, one Spokane Rage fan said, “With that many cops around, they are going to find something. You bring in that many police for a Julio Iglesias show and they will find the same amount of problems.”
But fans weren’t the only ones with something to say.
Early in the show, after ripping through crystalline versions of “VietNow” and “Bullet In Your Head,” de la Rocha stopped the music and spoke, perhaps as much addressing the sheriff as he was the crowd. “The next time I see some girl being passed around on top of the crowd, and some asshole reaches his hand up to rip her top off — I swear we’re gonna stop the show. We live in fear everyday. We work in fear, go to school in fear… you shouldn’t have to go to a Rage show in fear!!!”
Despite the sheriff’s initial threats to lock up as many people as he could, there seemed to be more news cameras and reporters than police at the show. Law enforcement was stepped up from the usual 12 to 50 officers, including support from neighboring counties and municipalities. “The bottom line is that the concert performers have criticized me a number of times in the past three or four days that I do not believe in the First Amendment, freedom of speech and those types of things — and that (my actions are) politically oriented. That’s hard for me to understand,” Wiester said.
Wiester, who is eligible for retirement when he turns 50 in a few weeks, is running for another term as sheriff this year.
Saving any sort of direct commentary on the controversy until the band’s encore (save for the band’s opening number, N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police!”), de la Rocha spoke to the sheriff who was no doubt standing nearby, “So sheriff, you think you can intimidate us? There are so few of you and so many of us.”
For a second, it seemed that de la Rocha might be trying to incite the crowd
before turning the tables in summing it up like this, “…We take it as an insult that he calls us violent because everybody knows the police are out of control.”
Though the mostly teenage crowd cheered wildly at de la Rocha’s words, much of the crowd seemed peaceful and primarily interested in the music.
Sheriff Wiester admitted surprise by the relative calmness, but attributed the cool weather and the large police presence to the crowd’s docility. Wiester said that in the past nine years, the Gorge has seen numerous deaths, numerous people severely injured. “And a number of those concerts have been what I term alternative-type concerts.”
Wiester could not offer figures on the number of people killed, but added that many stemmed from driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and not all were linked to alternative music.
He said that there are three concerts scheduled for the rest of the season,
but that none were “alternative.” Thus, the department is not anticipating any problems, Wiester said.
Friday’s concert was the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle between
Grant County officials and Universal Concerts, which owns the Gorge,
located 130 miles east of Seattle. Last month, during a weekend of
concerts by BLACKstreet with Salt-N-Pepa and Phish, authorities
arrested more than 1,000 people on charges ranging from trespassing
to sale and possession of narcotics.
For Rage Against the Machine, the successful concert may be the
turning point that will allow the band to ride out its final week of touring
sans difficulties. In the weeks before the trouble began over the Gorge
appearance, tour partners the Wu-Tang Clan missed several dates
before dropping out of the venture altogether. Members of that band
are now under investigation for allegedly beating a record label
representative backstage on their last night with the tour.
Wiester said he cited in his petition for an injunction to block the
Gorge concert that the Wu-Tang Clan had beaten a patrol car with sledge hammers during past shows. However, Wu-Tang had been taken off the bill for Friday’s concert. “Just because they said they weren’t going to show up, I can’t say positively to my constituents — to security personnel, and Universal and sheriff’s officer personnel — that they aren’t going to show up.”
To back up that claim, Wiester said that in Boston, Rage had canceled, but then showed up to play at midnight. A representative at Rage’s label Epic Records said at the time that the show had only been postponed while de la Rocha visited a doctor in New York about a sprained ankle.
“I’m concerned about the safety of the people that live in the Gorge, the residents in the immediate area, the farmers; the law enforcement officers; and the employees of Universal Concerts,” Wiester said.
He coupled that with other information in making the petition, including
reports from 10 different law enforcement agencies on Rage shows
nationwide. “They give me information concerning violent actions that had
occurred at those particular concerts.”
Still, despite it all, the best news from the Gorge was that Rage put on the performance of their life. “It was the best I’ve ever seen them play,” said 27-year-old Andy Lewis, who came from Pocatello, Idaho, and who has seen the band perform more than 20 times. “This was the most explosive, most energetic I’ve ever seen the band.”
Rage ended the night on a powerful note with a driving version of their hit, “Killing In The Name.”
As they left the stage de la Rocha added a final word, perhaps to remind fans what they were up against. Then again, maybe he was talking to police. “We’ll keep our cool,” he said, “if they keep their cool.” [Mon., Sept. 15, 1997, 5 p.m. PST]
(ATN staff writer Chris Nelson contributed to this report.)